"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Clarence The Clown

This is a story of how impossibly self-important people who, with the help of a little greasepaint, crimson lipstick, and a bulbous red nose, come down to earth.

Clarence Rackets was a big man, 6’2” with a lot of bulk and a small head on top. In fact he looked a lot like the Shmoo in L’il Abner.



Clarence had made a lot of money selling refrigerators.  He was not one of those hard-to-find clerks in the Appliance Sections of Wal-Mart or Home Depot.  He was a manufacturer’s representative for GE, and was so good that he outsold other Europe route men by almost two to one.  He did it thanks to two personal attributes.  The first was supreme self-confidence.  He never was plagued by the doubts of Willy Loman or the worries of the hucksters in Glengarry Glen Ross; and simply, absolutely, unequivocally knew that he could sell refrigerators.  The second was that he had a dogged, never-take-no-for-an-answer insistence. 

As soon as he burst into a customer’s office, he filled the room with his Babbitt-like hale-fellow-well-met enthusiasm, his oversized ego, and his weighty bluster; and as soon as he was in, he got ahold of the Sales Manager’s pants leg like a bulldog, sunk his teeth in, and did not let go until the badgered, beleaguered man gave up and bought a line of refrigerators.

When Clarence retired to his hometown of Vienna, Ohio, he took up volunteerism and boosterism with as much thrust and tenacity as he had done when he was flogging refrigerators.  He bulldogged his way onto the School Board, the Arts Council, the Membership Committee of the Methodist Church.  He was the chief shill for Vienna Main Street, and hit up all the deep pockets in the community for cash to support benches, potted plants, and a security detail. 

The more Clarence did for the town, the less people liked him.  They appreciated what he did, but were simply sick and tired of hearing this croaky, puffed up Shmoo showing up at every public gathering and blathering.

One day, John Vitale, a teacher at the Vienna Middle School had an insight. For years the school wanted to have a clown perform at the Fall and Spring School Pageants.  The Barnum and Bailey Circus had come to town a number of years before, and these professional circus performers delighted children and adults alike.  The best-liked was the clown, a character who simply radiated a goofy happiness and childlike delight.  For years the school’s Pageant Committee tried to find and hire a clown that could at least approximate the marvels of Bobo, but always ended up with tired old men who played birthday parties or stoned college students out to make a quick buck.  The children were scared of them and the adults thought they were bums in Halloween costumes.

Then came the ray of light into John Vitale's mind – Clarence Rackets would make the perfect clown.  Vitale was of an age to remember not only the Schmoo but Clarabelle the Clown on the Howdy Doody Show, and when he saw Rackets waddle up to the podium one gray November afternoon to fulminate yet one more time, his bulk swaying, and his little head bobbing on top of the flab, he knew he had his man.  Rackets would be the incarnation of Clarabelle:



Clarence took to the job just like he did when he was selling refrigerators.  He knew he could be the best clown since Pagliacci and could please any crowd anytime.  He had his costume specially made with broad, bold stripes, fanciful Elizabethan collar, lace ruffled cuffs, with a Venetian-Turkish puffy lower-body theme:



















He spent his own money on Broadway greasepaint, studied the images of famous clowns, and took the best from each.


When the Vienna teachers saw Clarence in a dress rehearsal, they were stunned.  He was everybody’s idea of a clown.  To John Vitale he was an ur-clown, an uber-clown, the perfect and complete embodiment of a clown.

From the first time he stepped on stage in his elaborate clown suit, white painted face, exaggerated red lips, fright wig, and floppy, oversized duck shoes, people applauded. They couldn’t believe that beneath the marvelously hilarious clown suit was that pompous, croaky, self-important bore.

A strange thing began to happen in the community.  The more Clarence played the clown, the more the clown persona took over from his real one.  Gone was the importuning, nasty, wheedling, bloated Clarence (Take-No-Prisoners) Rackets; and in his place was Clarence the Clown – happy-go-lucky, kind, generous, and wacky.  He became especially known for distributing candies to children St. Francis of Assisi-style, scattering bon-bons like the saint did to feed the birds.  “Clarence, Clarence’, the children shouted when he walked over to them, scattering jelly beans and chocolate kisses.

At the same time, when Clarence appeared in his other costume – the same dark suit that he had worn when intimidating Appliance Managers in Antwerp – people still saw him as Clarence the Clown.  When he walked up to the pulpit or dais to perorate and exhort for some community cause or other, adults would make little honking noises, imitating his Clarabelle horn.  They did this to acknowledge his greatness as a clown, not to razz or humiliate him.  As time went on the people of Vienna paid less and less attention to the somber pain-in-the-ass pushy salesman and only saw the clown.  In effect, he was neutered.  No one could take the old bulldog seriously anymore and consciously or subconsciously, everyone thought that the old windbag had it coming to him.

“I have disappeared”, Clarence said to his fidgety, spindly wife who never knew what to make of him, whether salesman or clown.  “I can’t sell anything anymore, dear”.

“It doesn’t matter”, she replied. “I still love you, and….” Here she paused. “….Being a clown is not such a bad thing, is it?”.

The most remarkable thing of all was that the neutered Clarence was a much more pleasant person to be around.  He rarely cut you off in mid-sentence, pushing to get his point across.  He rarely raised his hands in frustration, begging you to stop talking nonsense and listen to him.  He never knew that children imitated him.  “Who am I”, they would play, raising their arms and shaking their wrists, backing up with a surprised expression and saying, “Whoa”, just like he did. Now he was a model of patience and civility.  Other people mattered more than he did, it seemed. 

There were bets down at the hardware store that the other shoe would drop – that the pseudo-buffoon Clown Clarence would soon shed his circus accouterments and go back to being Mad Dog Rackets; but he never did.  After a while the clown shtick got very old, and Clarence, with the old piss-and-vinegar that propelled him to former successes sucked out of him, just took painting classes at the local community college, and fixed the bird feeders in the back yard.  Occasionally, some older resident of Vienna would wave to him, give him a Clarabelle honk and a big, oversized smile; but generally his reputation as either the bulldog of the refrigerator circuit or the clown to end all clowns faded into distant memory.

Some people in the town shed a tear when he died.  He was a real character, that Clarence, they said, smiling at his bloody chutzpah and dogged pursuit of anything he had in his sights.  Others remembered fondly his clowning around; but few remembered his transformation from asshole to St. Francis – the truly remarkable thing about Rackets; and soon enough everyone forgot him.

In any case, I still remember him.  I hated the son-of-a-bitch when he was at his most obnoxious.  I thought him ridiculous as a clown but felt that the unknowing self-parody was fitting.  Most of all I was amazed at the miraculous power of a little greasepaint and red lipstick that changed a complete jerk into an almost tolerable person.

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