I went to a four-year-old's birthday party yesterday afternoon, and Kat informed me that Flower the Balloon Clown would be arriving in about half an hour. I groaned. 'Cause, you know, clowns. There's a reason that Krusty the Clown is such a beloved archetype, and that's because most clowns you'll see at a kids' birthday party don't have a whole lot of talent. Watching some guy twist up little schauzer-hounds wasn't going to be all that great.
"No," said Kat. "You don't understand. This is Flower the Clown."
And I didn't understand, right up until the point when I glanced over to see that Carolyn the birthday girl was carrying around a tropical palm tree with a monkey clinging to it and a dangling bunch of bright yellow bananas.
The kids knew, 'cause they'd seen him before; they were jumping up and down like teenaged girls seeing the Beatles for the first time. He was an oddly neat clown, with a scrupulously-maintained shadow painted in crisp lines on his face, and artificially-tousled hair contained beneath a neat bowler hat. He wore the clown outfit, but not the clown attitude - sure, he had the funny voice, but he didn't flop around on the ground in a pathetic attempt to get your attention.
No, Flower was an oddly dignified clown. He was fun, smiling at the kids, but he had the faintly restrained atmosphere of a professional. You had to come to him.
"What do you want?" he asked the crowd. "While I'm doing this boy's balloon, let me tell you the kinds of balloons I can make: cats, dogs, hearts, monkeys, caterpillars, basketballs, guitars, airplanes, rainbows, rockets, butterflies, space aliens in a UFO, gumball racers...."
And by God, apparently the advances in balloon technology have come fast and furious since I was a kid, because he made them all and more. He had balloon guitars that were more like ukeleles with one string, but you could plonk notes on them and fashion a tune. He had a balloon bow and arrow that you could shoot across the room. He had a gumball racer, where he'd twist three gumballs into three clear plastic balloons that wove around themselves, and you'd choose your colored gumball and see which one tumbled to the bottom first. He made balloon princess crowns. He was asked to do a house, and he free-formed a house with doors and a set of windows.
Someone asked him to do a dreidel, and by God he made a balloon dreidel that spun.
I was agog. I hadn't thought of balloon sculpture as an art - but like Air Nation, it took a master to show me what could be done with the format. And he was only scraping the very top of his talent - he assembles balloon cakes and other wonders. He was the Willy Wonka of balloons, the Paulius of drinks.
Of course I wanted my own balloon. So I stood in line after all the kids had gotten theirs - for grown-ups, too, wanted their balloons - and asked, and he pointed at my shirt.
"That pepper on your shirt," he asked. "What is that?"
"Iron Chef," I explained. "It's a cooking show on TV..."
"I'm familiar with it, but never watched it. I thought it might be a white pepper. There's a band called Ween that has an album called 'White Pepper'...."
"I'm familiar with them, but never heard them."
"They're good," he said, twisting his balloons together, the funny voice gone. "I saw them down in Tennessee when I was doing a show there. I see lots of bands at shows like that."
"You get around."
"Yeah," he said happily. "I go all over. I even went to Dubai."
I gasped. "You went to Dubai? The richest city in the Saudi Emirate?"
"They found me on the Internet and sent me an email. I wasn't going to say no, and next thing you know I was on a plane with my wife, two pre-paid tickets there for a week's stay."
He told me about the city and its wonders; during his non-clownish hours, he'd spent his time exploring and fact-checking. He told me of the Indian workers who were ported in wholesale to do the work, the huge numbers of cranes, the rush of construction. He'd explored a lot, apparently.
"The good thing is that I speak Hindu, Farsi, and a smattering of Arabic... So I got to give my balloon presentation in all four languages in the course of a week!" he said happily.
I realized this was no ordinary clown. This was a clown hipster. Here was Flower, pushing the boundaries of clownness, making the most delightful balloon animals and seeing fine music and travelling on someone else's dime to the best cities in the world (his blog informs me that he's been to Asia and Israel as well). And dammit, it was such a glorious life he led that I wanted to be him.
He was handing out buttons that said, Flower the Clown for President. And dammit, you know, I would vote for him. Just to see who he'd choose as his vice president.