By Dennis Lopez
Conflict is normal. So, too, is conflict between parents and children. And employees and their bosses. But when your boss also is your mother, conflict is seen as rebellion, a revolution – the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie.
For most kids, a summer job means flipping burgers, working at the local market or washing cars. I, on the other hand, spent summers traveling. You see, my mother owned a carnival.
To be on the road required the ability to adapt to new places, people and situations. It was part of the game. But the summer when I was 16, one of those “situations” resulted in my first open revolt against my “tyrannical” boss and biological mother, Blondie.
“Try this on,” she said, tossing a large, weathered brown paper bag to me, “let’s see if it fits.”
I remember smelling the contents of the bag even before I opened it…a combination of cigarette smoke and body odor.
I dumped the contents onto the floor of our office trailer…blue striped pants, polka dot shirt, bow tie, wig. WIG? It took a few seconds to jell…it was a clown suit!
“You’re gonna be great,” she said.
“I’m gonna run away,” I said, and the red banner of revolution was raised.
At 16, I was so full of teen angst that I was afraid to even wear my hair different than anyone else. How was I supposed to be a clown?
Round one went to teen angst, round two, to authoritarianism. Finally, like two boxers at the end of a 10-round fight, we called it a draw and placed an ad in “Billboard” magazine, then a magazine that focused on carnivals and circuses.
Two weeks later, Bubbles the Clown joined the show.
We were playing some small county fair in eastern Montana. Fairs open early and close late, which meant we had our first call at 9:30 a.m. and sprung at 10. Bubbles made it to the lot around noon. Blondie was not happy.
“Maybe he was tired from his drive here,” I suggested. I had to make sure Bubbles stayed off Blondie’s radar because if he left, I knew who would be next in that stinky clown suit.
“Yeah, that’s probably it,” Blondie said somewhat doubtfully. “He did drive from Kansas to get here.”
The next day, Bubbles hit the lot at 1:30. The fat hit the fan at 1:31.
“The nerve of that guy,” Blondie ranted. “I told him first call for him was 9:30, Cotton told him 9:30 and Skeeter told him 9:30. What the heck is wrong with him? Doesn’t he know how to tell time?”
“Well, he’s a performer,” I offered. “Remember when we hired that escape artist guy? He had his own way of doing things. Maybe Bubbles just needs some time to get used to us. After all, this is a carnie, not a circus.”
“Yeah and it’s MY show and if he won’t listen to me, he’s going down the road.”
Bubbles did manage to make it to the lot on time the next day, but disappeared from time to time throughout the morning.
“He’s usin’ the restroom, I’ll bet,” I assured Blondie.
We started getting complaints from our customers shortly after noon.
“That clown of yours frightened my little boy,” said the lady. “He’s…he’s very peculiar.”
Blondie patched it up with the woman by giving her a handful of ride passes and a piece of plush. Eight cranky mothers later she was beside herself.
“What is going on? What’s Bubbles doing that makes people think he’s…what did that one lady say?”
“Get your fanny down the midway and find out what’s making him seem so ‘peculiar” to people.”
Everything seemed okay when I got to the kids’ ride area. Bubbles was there with his balloons, walking slowly around the midway. Every once in a while he would pause and give out a balloon to some random kid.
And then I noticed something.
The kids would look sort of shocked when they got their balloons and occasionally would cower behind their mothers. “Bubbles” was saying something to them when he bent down and handed them their balloons. But what was it?
It was Cotton, our ride foreman, who found out. He paid a local woman a sawbuck to hang around and listen and then take her kid up to Bubbles and get a balloon. She then reported back to him about the experience.
“She thinks he’s staggering drunk, Denny. And every time he gives a kid a balloon he says something like ‘Here…you little creep’,” he said. “The lady also said he pinched her, to boot.”
In less than ten minutes Blondie had Bubbles under the hot lights, grilling him about what was going on.
“Simple,” he said wiping the grease paint from his long face with some paper towels. “I hate kids.”
Even Blondie was stunned. What kind of clown hated kids?
“I just can’t stand ‘em anymore,” he continued. “When I was on the circus, it wasn’t so bad. We weren’t up close, but this kind of gig brings ‘em right next to you. I need a drink.”
Blondie paid him off and the last time I saw Bubbles he was passed out in his car, half clown, half without makeup and full-time drunk. He was gone the next morning and, with him, the idea of a clown on the midway.
And to be sure, I tossed the weathered paper bag and its clown-suit contents into a garbage can.