About every third icebreaker someone asks for a self-fact that the others in the group don’t know. Thankfully, that is not a Rotary tradition. But it happens enough that I have a few default answers: I shave with a mug and brush and an old school safety razor; I am an ice hockey referee; I used to be a professional square dance caller. But the one that seems to intrigue the greatest number of new acquaintances is that I used to be a clown.
I was not a children’s birthday party sort of clown nor a creep-you-out-on-Halloween sort of clown. I worked at the Circus Circus hotel and casino in Reno, Nevada, up on the midway amidst the circus acts and carnival games where I did a little juggling and a little face painting, generally amused guests and occasionally terrified small children. My name was Zipper because my colleagues in Las Vegas had already used Buttons and Patches. We had a theme going.
The midway is not always busy in the winter, but the acts appear every 30 minutes regardless of audience size. That provides a chance to get to know the real performers, the ones who can do a triple somersault on the trapeze or climb a 20-foot tall swaying ladder with a full wine glass balanced on a tray balanced on a sword balanced on a dagger held between the teeth. I could not do those things, but I could juggle three balls and paint a face to look like a tiger, or Spiderman, or any member of Kiss.
I got to know Deanna, an aerialist who also wore skimpy blue sequins in the middle of a steel globe while her father and brother did loops around her on their motorcycles. She stopped to talk to me often when I was in makeup, but never said a word when I wasn’t. I assumed it mean that if you were in the circus, talking to a clown was a lot less awkward than talking to a stranger, but it turned out that she didn’t recognize me in street clothes; she only knew me as Zipper.
I also got to know Carol. The husband-and-wife team who performed the Wheel of Destiny also did an animal act: Boomer, the Boxing Kangaroo. Boomer had no connection to OU as far as I know. No one yelled “Sooner!” when he was introduced.
Carol, a little person of about four feet, was Boomer’s opponent. She lost every round. But on payday, Carol and I would cash our checks at the cage, grab a stool at the Clown Around Bar and make use of the free drink tokes that came with the paycheck.
The best moment, though, came from someone I didn’t know at all. A little girl about four-years-old came along, trailing her parents at the top of the ramp that curved down to the casino floor. She stopped to look me over as her parents continued obliviously down the ramp, and when she was satisfied that I was a good clown, she extended her arm for a handshake. Once we had, she leapt forward and threw her arms around me for a hug. She never spoke, but she smiled like, well, a kid at the circus as she ran to catch up with her parents.
When you wear a disguise to work you see the world as you’ve always seen it, but the world sees a much different version of you. That leads to the one great lesson from being a clown: People respond to whatever version of you they see.