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LJ Idol - Week [12] - A Monkey's Odyssey

Ringling Logo
I had been through an endless parade of schools: a pre-k, a different kindergarten, three different first grades (as my parents arranged their divorce), the same school from second to fourth, a year of terror, verbal and physical abuse in fifth, a settled three years for junior high, an all boys school in ninth grade before moving to the high school I would graduate from in tenth, and then on to college, the first time I ever spent four years at the same institution.

Always being the “New Kid” taught me an important lesson: using humor can get people to like you quickly, assuming you were actually funny and assuming they didn’t hate you on sight. By the time I was eleven, my role was defined: comedian. Unfortunately, humor didn’t make for lasting relationships of any kind, either friendships or romances. Or, perhaps it might have, had I stayed in any one place long enough.


Though most of the schools I attended were small and private, I suspect the impression I left with most of my classmates was the same as writing on water. Would any even know who I was today? And it wasn’t as though there was any rhyme or reason about the volume of schools I attended, save the year my parents split. I was always a model student, getting good grades for the most part. My mom just thought it would be a good idea. Attend THIS school. Attend THAT school.

More importantly, because of my mom’s very strict rules (designed to protect me from the Big Bad World) I did not attend any social functions. No dances. No dating (not that anyone wanted to date me). Not even phone calls. The only time any of my peers got to interact with me was in class, at lunch, or the occasional extra-curriculars from 3 to 4:30pm. For all intents and purposes, I had led my entire teenage life, grounded.

So, when I arrived at college, I had the social skills of a twelve year old. That, quite clearly, was not good. I had literally been on one date: my Senior Prom, or as I refer to it, The One Night I Wish Never Happened. And though there might have been a few girls who were interested in me on campus, I was either completely oblivious or I totally ruined it by not knowing how to act. I breezed through college, still a virgin.

On the up side, my career wasn’t bad. I became a Sales Manager at Macy’s Herald Square. I was in the Toy Department which was kind of a dream come true for me: “Miracle on 34th Street.” I got to be in the Thanksgiving Day Parade and rode on a float! Another dream come true! But then, the store scaled back the toy department and I was reassigned… to the Women’s shoe department.

Every morning, we would set up the floor for customers. Then, at lunchtime, every woman in midtown would come in, and at 2pm the place looked like a F1 tornado had touched down. My life had become endless tedium and misery.

Then, as spring arrived, so did the Circus. And my day off that one fateful week coincided with the first performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey at Madison Square Garden. I decided to go, all on my own. And since I was alone, I wound up getting a ticket right down in front. I had never sat so close to the action, and it was breathtaking (tiger pee and elephant dung not withstanding)! I had an even better time than I did as a kid!

There was an invitation to apply to Clown College in the program. I sent in a request and got an application. It was an in-depth personality profile, a kind of psychological examination about what sort of person you were currently and why you wanted to be a part of this unique profession.

Looking back on it now, I completely understand my thinking process. I was seeking a place, trying to find where I belonged, looking to be loved. But not really loved in the romantic way (although I had hopes for that, someday), but just admired, a job that made people smile. After all, it seemed that everything I had done in my life, to that point, had led me there. I had to get in to Clown College. I meticulously filled out the application and waited.

The happiest day of my life was the day I walked in to work, sat down with my boss and gave her my two week’s notice, explaining that I was leaving the World's Largest Store for The Greatest Show on Earth. I can still see the smile leave her face and hear her sputter an attempt at a response as I stood up and left her office.

I headed to Gulf Coast Florida for 10 weeks. It was yet another chance to be the “New Kid.” But this time, I wasn’t a kid. I was 25 years old, still hadn’t been on more than a handful of dates, and many of my classmates were five to seven years younger than me, the fresh out of high school group. Out of the 50 students, there were a dozen women. Nope, no clowning around there! Obviously, this kind of work was a mostly male interest. But women weren’t my focus anyhow. I worked really hard at learning everything: applying make-up, designing a costume, walking on a rolling globe, throwing pies, riding elephants. I wanted to be on the show!

It was very demanding, extremely physical work. I walked six foot stilts. And I fell off six foot stilts. And a couple of my classmates, and a South African trampoline instructor took me back to my fifth grade days with the racial epithets and a serious undercurrent of hate. It was then that I fully realized that Clown College was not the place I envisioned from the outside looking in, where there was nothing but happiness and kindness. It was just another school, only this time I was just one of fifty comedians, and not a particularly liked one, by some.

I did have my advocates: a couple of the teachers saw my efforts and though I didn’t get to tour with the circus, I was hired by Ringling to be a Publicity Clown: traveling to cities to do “Meet & Greet,” interviews, pose for photos and promote the show. And I did make several lifelong friends. So there were positives, for certain.

As there have been less than 1500 graduates from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, I’m in a very exclusive club. But ultimately, the fun, the camaraderie, the sharing, just wasn’t what I had hoped, and the reasons I wanted to attend that school went largely unfulfilled. But it did provide me with some surprising opportunities, eventually. I got to travel to several parts of the US I hadn’t been before. I got to return to Macy’s, eventually to be in charge of the Clowns for the Thanksgiving Day Parade. I became the store clown for FAO Schwarz Fifth Avenue and I have some skills that can still come in handy if somebody needs a quick laugh.

For all of that, I’m very grateful.

*This piece was written for LJ Idol using the prompt: "Barrel of Monkeys"

Comments

( 30 comments — Leave a comment )
kagomeshuko
Jun. 18th, 2014 04:47 pm (UTC)
I was fortunate that the only time I ever "switched" schools was when it was supposed to happen from Elementary to Middle to High to College . . .

I didn't have to actually "change" schools.
penpusher
Jun. 19th, 2014 11:58 am (UTC)
Yes, it's very different when you change in an "off year," and even more when you change during a year! I have very odd memories of first grade and the three very, very different schools I attended that year.
kagomeshuko
Jun. 20th, 2014 02:45 am (UTC)
I can only imagine that being odd.

Normal for us is K-5, then 6-8, then 9-12. We moved when I was in Kindergarten, but I didn't have to switch schools. Then we moved the summer between my 11th and 12th grade years. They had a thing where I could finish at the same school even though I was out of zone for it because it was my senior year. I was glad as I didn't want to go to a different school.
penpusher
Jun. 20th, 2014 06:38 am (UTC)
Yes... well, we're both in the USA (I think?) so that would be standard as far as natural breaks in the scholastic divisions.

Actually, halfway through 5th grade we moved so it was another case of changing. That would have been a good time for me to change schools!

And yes, changing schools in High School is the absolute worst. I can't imagine landing at a new school for senior year! Really, the point is that you are kind of ruling the school senior year, and that wouldn't work if you have to ask the freshmen where your next period class was!

Thanks for reading and your comments back, too!
kagomeshuko
Jun. 21st, 2014 12:49 am (UTC)
Yes, I'm in Louisiana.

My cousins, in California, though, had the division a bit differently.

Theirs went from K-6, 7-8, then 9-12. I can remember writing to them when I was in 6th grade telling them that I was now in middle school because our started in 6th and not 7th.
bleodswean
Jun. 18th, 2014 05:04 pm (UTC)
Wow! This is an amazing story. Some of us love clowns beyond reason. I am one of those persons.
penpusher
Jun. 19th, 2014 12:01 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much! I think the elements of clowning are long-standing and universal, which is what is so attractive. As a clown, I can go to countries where I don't speak the language and communicate with people (I did this on a trip to Paris). And there is something really wonderful about transcending the communication to tell a story people understand no matter their native tongue.

Thanks for reading!
halfshellvenus
Jun. 18th, 2014 07:05 pm (UTC)
The switching-schools part of your childhood was worse than mine, and neither of has parents in the military as an excuse!

You really did effectively spend your high school years grounded. I wonder what your mother was thinking, there. Mistrust of your peers? Of how society would treat you? Or just really controlling?

I'm sorry the clown school experience was not what it should have been, especially with racist classmates and instructors. You're young enough that I would have really hoped it would have been better. But "should be" is not always the reality. :(

Still working for FAO Schwartz or otherwise clowning? Or more dabbling while doing something else?
penpusher
Jun. 19th, 2014 12:24 pm (UTC)
It's true. I have asked my mom about her thinking process in having me change schools so frequently. Was it economic? Was it convenient? I know in the case of my fifth grade experience, my one year in a public school, in Yonkers, it was because my mom was a teacher in the Westchester County school system, so at least that made sense. But I never got a comprehensible answer from her.

As far as the grounding, I know it was for her convenience and piece of mind. And I'm sure it was my own doing. I made a fateful decision in third grade: I ran away from home, which really is another story for another time. But the sequence of events that occurred because of that really had me on the tightest of leashes from then on.

As far as racism is concerned, I really don't see it going away completely. In fact one of those classmates had a lot of comments about Barack Obama in 2012, which was one of a laundry list of reasons why I quit Facebook in July of that year. Hate knows no era, and age doesn't always guarantee wisdom.

As far as the toy store, In the interim from when I left till now, FAO started losing money, was forced to shutter its stores in various cities (I really miss the San Francisco store off of Market Street) then went bankrupt and closed completely. A few years later, a new management company came in and reopened the Fifth Avenue location. I actually did apply to be a clown there, but they decided to go in a more scaled down direction and so there aren't strolling entertainers of any sort on the payroll. They retained the Toy Soldier at the main entrance, however.

My only *near* clown experiences these days are my sessions with the Bryant Park Jugglers - a group that teaches people the ins and outs of juggling. I'm an instructor, and it's a nice stress relief from my job of fundraising for various organizations. My office is just several blocks from the park, so it's quite handy!

Thanks so much for reading along, and for your thoughts and questions! It's nice to commiserate with someone who had some similar experiences.
dmousey
Jun. 19th, 2014 04:50 pm (UTC)
The self conciousness and frustration of a child who can not find their place in the world, is palpable here.I had the opposite situation. Shuttled from foster home to foster home but in the same school for my early years. 1-6. Then came another flurry of homes and situations. A pastor who was opening a home for children once asked me as a former foster, what I felt children needed most. He thought it was love. I thought about that, and then told him I truly think its security. Every time you place a child into an unknown they know fear and doubt, better the devil you know and all that. One thing all that bouncing does teach you however is resilience. That and a sense of humor can usually keep the worst of things at bay.

Thank you for sharing your story. :)
penpusher
Jun. 20th, 2014 06:46 am (UTC)
From my POV, I had sort of found my place, but my place just kept changing! It really was a primer for touring with a circus or being a stand up comic, because the audience and the venue kept changing, but I remained the same.

I never felt insecure throughout any of it, but then again, I never had any issue with my homelife, which is, as you correctly pointed out, so crucial for a child's safety and attitude. When the foundation is strong and stable, you can build most any thing from it!

Thanks for your thoughts and sharing a bit of your life!
roina_arwen
Jun. 19th, 2014 05:52 pm (UTC)
This was a fascinating story - do you feel your social skills improved through clowning or do you still often feel like an outsider?
penpusher
Jun. 20th, 2014 06:50 am (UTC)
Clowning skills are always good skills to have, or at least remember, because they are rooted in the most basic elements of humanity: the emotions and the expressing of. And when you start to think in those terms, it opens up your mind and heart in a different way.

There are some valuable lessons that people can learn from dissolving life back down to those elements. Simplifying makes things a lot clearer!

Thanks for a wonderful compliment!
xaotica
Jun. 20th, 2014 04:39 am (UTC)

so after reading this, i think you should totally go to LA. if it was too challenging to get a good full time job from the other side of the country, you could totally get a contract job through a recruiter doing similar work that would give you something stable to pay rent / bills for awhile.

i don't really believe in luck... but i definitely believe that there are some opportunities that are way more likely to happen in some places than others, so if you can put yourself near them, you increase the chances that a happy coincidence will happen.
penpusher
Jun. 20th, 2014 06:55 am (UTC)
LA hasn't completely gone off the table. I was waiting to see if the game show I auditioned for was going to invite me out to be a contestant. Since I haven't heard a word, and it's been... nearly two months since the audition, it seems like that's not going to happen.

You're right though. Most of the time people get opportunities simply because of their close proximity to what's needed. Thanks for thinking about it!
i_17bingo
Jun. 20th, 2014 05:05 am (UTC)
I suspect the impression I left with most of my classmates was the same as writing on water.

There was a lot of cleverness in the words in this piece, but this was my favorite.

I have a question about clowning--is it true that you have to register your clown face on an egg with some sort of clown database?
penpusher
Jun. 20th, 2014 07:03 am (UTC)
Thanks so very much.

Aha! The old registering your clown face wheeze! It's been a while since I've gotten that one. And you scrambled it up by adding an egg to the mix! That went over easy.

There is a place where you can voluntarily register your clown makeup. But there is no "official" resource/database/ye-old-clown identification site. Although maybe that's changing, as an acquaintance has just formed a website called "Circus Talk" which will serve as a place for clowns and other performers to promote and to interact.

The truth about clown make up is a pretty simple one. You could wear the very same clown face as someone else, but it would look different on you because your facial structure is different.
i_17bingo
Jun. 20th, 2014 07:14 am (UTC)
It came up recently when that clown in England was creeping people out as a publicity stunt for some horror movie, and someone was quoted by the paper as saying he wasn't an "official" clown, because his face didn't show up in the registry. I thought that seemed a little odd, but what do I know?

And the egg thing is kind of cool, even if it is fake.
penpusher
Jun. 20th, 2014 06:34 pm (UTC)
I wish there were such things as "official" clowns. It would make life a whole lot easier. I mean the most famous clown in the world is a hamburger salesman. Personally, I would not list him as an "official" clown, but it's not up to me.

I think the egg thing might be fine if you are a whiteface clown. but for all others, that's a more than an Easter Egg job to do!
whipchick
Jun. 23rd, 2014 05:44 pm (UTC)
I think the egg thing comes from a Terry Pratchett book - he has one where there is a room full of eggs with the designs, and it's the hall of faces and no-one can copy an existing face.
penpusher
Jun. 24th, 2014 01:18 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen that Pratchett book but in thinking about it for a bit, I do recall something similar to that. Like it might actually be a real thing that someone did, though I'm loathe to actually look online to find it!

They always say you can't copy someone's clown face, but it happens pretty frequently. Frosty Little, who was with Ringling for a long while and who was one of my clown instructors, took the exact makeup of Harry Dann, who also performed with Ringling until he retired in 1970.

I would still argue that the same makeup on different faces will look different because of everyone's individual facial structure and unique qualities. Unless we're talking about identical twins!
eternal_ot
Jun. 21st, 2014 02:51 pm (UTC)
Wow..this was an amazing entry...thanks for sharing this part of your life...I always wondered about the people of circus and their life..so this was a good read for me..:)
penpusher
Jun. 22nd, 2014 02:20 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for reading and your compliment! I have a few stories of that sort, so maybe if I have the chance, I'll get to share some more...
jem0000000
Jun. 21st, 2014 09:37 pm (UTC)
It sounds like an interesting experience -- not, perhaps, for what you were looking for, but for giving you the chance to see new places.
penpusher
Jun. 22nd, 2014 02:27 pm (UTC)
It was certainly interesting if nothing else! It definitely helped my world view as well, and that's a positive too. Thanks so much for reading!
jem0000000
Jun. 25th, 2014 12:54 am (UTC)
You're welcome.
rayaso
Jun. 23rd, 2014 02:24 am (UTC)
What a great entry! My school experience was the opposite of yours -- one elementary school, one junior high, and one high school. You have led an interesting life, especially the Clown College.
penpusher
Jun. 23rd, 2014 06:20 am (UTC)
Thanks... There's no telling how it might have gone if I had the standard three school configuration like you had. Of course, we always imagine things going so much better based on what we would have wanted, but there's no truth to that, either. It has been an interesting life, so far! And thanks as always for reading along!
whipchick
Jun. 23rd, 2014 05:42 pm (UTC)
Did you train with Steve Smith or was that before his time?

This is such an interesting look at a world most of us don't get to go in - and you definitely remind me of something one of my teachers used to say - the clowns were the most vicious of performers!
penpusher
Jun. 24th, 2014 02:07 am (UTC)
I was extremely fortunate to have Steve Smith as my Dean, and we also got a dose of Ron Severini who came down to shoot the "Be a Clown" video, of with which you can see me on YouTube.

Just to make it simple, here's my post about it, with everything notated and the videos embedded for convenience sake:

The "Be a Clown Video... SEEN!"
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