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For a good time, call …

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, January 20, 2005

One can judge a city by its phonebook. Directories offer telling insights into the vibrancy and diversity of an urban landscape. In my adopted home of Portland, Ore. the phone book stretches to two volumes, surely a sign of the richness of the City of Roses. When days grow long and rain drives me indoors I pore through the phonebook in search of the essence of a city. I recently happened upon the listing for “Clowns.” There I found Buttons the Clown, Giggles, Jolly Molly and Peppermint and Friends (these might include the rather hip Cool Mint). I also came across Bubbles, who advertises himself as “Portland’s Happiest Clown.” Bubbles’ rather large advertisement dwarfs the smaller listing just inches below for “the Original Bubbles the Clown.” I sensed some bitterness in this name, as if it represented a vain attempt to lash out at the apparently far more successful Bubbles who, in addition to being happier, has also usurped a cherished title.

This apparent squabble gave me cause to consider the reverence surrounding clown names. There can be only one Bubbles, Binky or Bingo. To assume the name of another clown is to initiate a turf war of sorts. You can only step on so many giant red boots before you’re ripe for a pie in the face. Such names make it hard to take clowns seriously. In our day clowns have been relegated to starring roles in children’s birthday parties and the circus. Centuries ago their forebears entertained royalty, often using humor to cloak stark criticism of a ruler’s policies. Apparently in those days the rulers themselves were not so glaringly clownish. Nearly every culture going back over 4,000 years to the Egyptians and Chinese has had some form of jester. Throughout this history clown humor has combined smiles with an often poignant hint of sadness.

I’m not sure whether “Gentle Biff the Clown” does the same. He offers his services for “Birthdays, Picnics and Promotions.” After reading this advertisement I imagined a forward-thinking young executive who “thinks outside the box” walking into his boss’s office.

“David, we are very impressed with your work performance. You’ve been a real team player. We’d like to make you a Junior Assistant Associate Regional Vice President. To help celebrate your promotion we’ve brought in Gentle Biff the Clown. Perhaps you remember Biff from the company’s family picnic.” At this point Gentle Biff emerges from a file closet, firing confetti into the air while juggling a collection of ivory-handled letter openers.

“Of course I remember Gentle Biff, he appeared at my daughter’s birthday party. I didn’t know he did promotions.”

Well he does. And he also boasts a “Magical Umbrella Fun Cart.” What this is eludes me, but it sounds like something one might find referenced in an LSD-inspired 1960s rock song: “I want to take you on a ride through the rain / On my Magical Umbrella Fun Cart.”

If Biff doesn’t do the trick one might call “Eartha the Ecological Clown.” Portland is perhaps the only American city that could sustain an ecological clown. I consider myself an ardent environmentalist but wonder how much fun an ecological clown could offer, “I’m sorry I can’t do any balloon sculptures, kids. Couldn’t find any balloons made from recycled tires. But I can make some funky designs with granola in this giant bowl of yogurt. Check it out.” Long after children bore of tie-dying their old clothing and acquiring parasites from Eartha’s “Magical Mound of Compost” the lessons of recycling and proper disposal of face painting products will long endure. It’s simply too bad they weren’t fun.

But at least Eartha, like great jesters of the past, is willing to offer social critique. Days after letting my fingers do the walking I met a band of clowns in the image and likeness of Eartha. It was past midnight, and I was sitting on a friend’s front porch with a dozen other people. As we carefully selected less-than-necessary brain cells to dispense with, three people appeared out of the darkness, hopped off their bicycles, and walked up the steps. They were dressed like clowns. Some might have argued I was also dressed like a clown, but that was not intentional. It never is.

The clowns sought to entertain in exchange for beer and cigarettes. One asked to use the bathroom and in our impaired judgment we led him inside. He returned in a gorilla costume and began grooming the audience as his companions entertained with song and dance.

They sang a variety of songs, some lewd but funny, other simply lewd, and still others striking out at social inequities. I heard that oldest of diatribes: “The rich stay rich while the poor get poorer” intoned by a man in face paint with a giant red nose. The clowns had recently moved from California (no real shock) and lived communally, paying their rent by repairing bikes and working as amateur clowns. I hoped for their sake the bike business was doing well.

They also sold videos decrying the abuse of workers and the environment and left us with a self-made documentary highlighting their own experiences at various protests. As anarchists they believed in a society approximating nothingness, which is to say they protested anything that dared exist. There is something undeniably holistic about that position.

A similarly holistic approach to life marks classic clowning. It remains all too absent in our contemporary world. We seem to have lost the ability to find both humor and pathos in nearly any situation, and to see the often vital link between them even in the face of injustice. Perhaps the time has come to send in the clowns.

John Infranca is a theology graduate student. His column appears every other Friday. He can be reached at jinfran1@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.