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In commemoration of World AIDS Day, I present this story, which I first posted in my Clown College community board.

Love him or hate him, you had to have an opinion about Samuel Rivera. Six foot three, slim and a loud-mouthed Puerto Rican, he was born there but raised in Inwood, the northernmost neighborhood on that other Spanish-speaking island: Manhattan.

Sam was the first class member to talk to me as I arrived at Venice Villas, our bungalow homes during the 10 and a half week course.

"I see one of my people!" he shouted happily in my direction as I exited the hotel's rental office. He was referring to the fact that we were two students there that had tans, but not from the Florida sun. We became friends on the spot!

On occasion, you really had to listen carefully to Sam. Well, those "occasions" would be about eighty percent of the time. He talked quickly and had a fairly thick accent. I seem to remember an exchange he had with Master Clown and instructor Lou Jacobs one day in class. Lou was born in Germany and still had the accent to prove it, and he had suffered a stroke a couple of years before, so part of his mouth didn't quite move correctly. When they spoke to each other, I had no idea what either one of 'em said! I wondered if they knew?

Sam also had a quick and volatile temper, which he wasn't afraid to show. But, like a good clown, his emotions were always bigger than life.

Two facts:

1) Sam kept as many as 9 chihuahuas in his East Village STUDIO apartment. He loved those dogs (Lou was renown for doing a dog act on the show) and hoped one day to get his pooches a center ring act on the show, too. These dogs were impeccably trained and very well behaved. They had to be. There were nine of them in a STUDIO apartment!

2) Sam created a drag clown "Penelope." This sparked a Class of '86 saying (sung to the first nine notes of Madonna's "La Isla Bonita"): "Last night I dreamt of Penelope!" Try it! It's fun!

Though not offered a contract directly after graduation, Sam eventually got his chance to hit the road. He was part of the historic Gold Unit Japanese tour, the first time Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey performed outside of North America! As I watched him leave from LAX, I couldn't remember him happier. His dream was coming true!

Upon his return stateside, he did a domestic tour. It was during that tour that he was caught using marijuana in his room aboard the train, a strict no-no. He was called on the carpet before Producer Kenneth Feld himself. Sam explained that he was HIV positive, and he was using the marijuana medicinally. He also revealed his homosexuality.

Sam didn't make things easy on himself. His abrasive personality made it hard for him to win people to his side. If you didn't agree with him, you were the enemy. Case closed. One by one, he pushed away even his closest friends.

I remember my most recent conversation with him. He was staying in Florida, not far from Venice (the home of Clown College when we were training), and he told me he was feeling good and healthy, and he was happy. I could hear the dogs yipping in the background. He seemed quite content.

Six weeks later, Sam Rivera died of complications due to AIDS.

I was the only person associated with Ringling to attend his wake, held at a small funeral home in East Harlem.

There was Sam, lying in a coffin, like he just exhaled all the air from his lungs. He had gone partially bald, an effect of the drugs he was forced to take for the last few years of his life. At the foot of the casket was a larged framed photo of "Smiley Sam," his clown, in full costume and make up, and another, regular sized duplicate picture inside the box to be left there with him when he was creamated.

I looked around the brightly lit room, with a couple of Puerto Rican flags hung, and marveled at the extended family. Lots of little nieces and nephews running around and playing. No tears. Sam would have been pleased about that.

When I mentioned who I was, Sam's sister and brother-in-law came over and thanked me so much for coming, I was almost embarrassed.

Before I left, I signed the rememberance book: "For all of Sam's friends from Clown College."

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
indigojo
Dec. 1st, 2001 04:58 pm (UTC)
awwww dj...
what a touching and poignant story.... thank you so much for writing it here... :)
penpusher
Dec. 2nd, 2001 03:33 pm (UTC)
Re: awwww dj...
Thanks, Jo. I think everyone has been affected by AIDS in some way. I realized that Sam didn't want people to see him weakened. So his angry responses were a concious effort on his part. It was his way of saying goodbye.

But I'll always remember him for his humor, his style and his caring.

Another little story. I accidentally discovered that Sam was HIV+ (which is another long story), and he hadn't told any of his Ringling friends about it. Meanwhile, he invited a bunch of classmates to walk with him in the annual AIDSwalk NY. I hadn't shared the new information I had about Sam at the time, since I figured it wasn't my place to do that. Consequently, no one came to the event except for me. Sam marched in his complete clown gear, while I dressed in an official Ringling Jumpsuit and no make up.

Along the route, of course the media stopped us and asked for comments. They asked Sam why he was marching. He said he was marching for his friends who were no longer with us, people he cared about. They asked me why I was marching. I told them that I was marching for the people who had the disease but were still alive and could still be helped. We never said anything about it, but the message was clear.

The year after he passed away, I walked for Sam in my full clown costume.
indigojo
Dec. 2nd, 2001 03:49 pm (UTC)
Re: awwww dj...
you're just full of these wonderful stories!!! i'm so thankful i stumbled into you as a friend here on livejournal.. :)

and now we're doubly blessed with your gift of another great story! thank you... :)

dj, you have a very big heart...i believe it's one of the most prized possessions a person can have... :)and you've been gifted with such a talent for writing and telling stories... :)
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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