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Dunk Tank Clowns

Dunk Tank Clowns

 

State Fair Meadowlands, NJ, June 2019. Photo: Mary Beth Koeth

 

By Laura Lee Huttenbach

 

DAVID SIMMONS, who goes by the name PATCHES, works as an insult clown in the dunk tank at carnivals. He wears a wetsuit and waterproof face paint and tries to entice fairgoers to buy a bucket of balls to throw at him. Well, not directly at him. He sits on a collapsible ledge in a cage-like contraption. A metal arm extends out from each side of the cage, holding a small red target. If a ball connects with the target, Patches’s perch drops, and he goes into the water.

Patches is on the road eight months of the year traveling the East Coast with Strates Shows, Inc., America’s last railroad carnival. When asked where home is, he replies, “Good question.” Since his mother passed away two years ago, he’s not sure, but maybe it’s his sister’s house in Upstate New York.

Being a dunk tank clown is a hard job physically and mentally. On a good day, Patches gets dunked hundreds of times. Each time, he has to pull himself out of the water, reset the ledge, sit back down, and get right back to heckling. One afternoon last summer, at the New Jersey State Fair, Patches got dunked by a bulky man with no hair. “Hey baldy,” Patches had yelled at him. “You look really excited to get a man wet. Does Daddy know?”

 

Dunking Booth.  Photo: Mary Beth Koeth

 

This is probably a good time to bring up the fact that Patches is not politically correct, and he feels that society’s expectation of political correctness constrains his act. At every location, a fair board gives him a copy of the rules for what he can and can’t say or do. He’s not allowed to use words that are blatantly racist, misogynistic, or homophobic, but to Patches, there’s an art to implication. His job is to get under people’s skin so they’ll want to “drown the clown,” as his booth advertises. Sometimes, Patches gets carried away with tirades and slips up. Other times, people hear things that he didn’t say and file official complaints with the fair.

Patches recently had to attend sensitivity training. “It was basically an hour and a half of me being called mean,” he says. “But that’s okay, because I think sensitivity training will look good on my resume.” The specific incident that landed him in sensitivity training, he claims, was a misunderstanding. He was going after a man wearing a black shirt, and there was another man walking by with a limp, and the man with a limp thought that Patches was attacking him. He complained to the fair board, and Patches had to apologize and attend the training. “They said I was abusive toward special needs people,” said Patches. “Oh, that’s something I learned. You can call them special people as a group, but you can’t call an individual a special person. I have approximately one-and-a-half seconds to insult someone walking by, and I just don’t have time to think about all that.” He says he would never intentionally pick on someone with a disability, physical or mental. (His actual words are, “I would never pick on someone with a deformed leg.”) “I have morals,” Patches says, though he admits he’s made mistakes.

 

Patches. Photo: Mary Beth Koeth

 

In front of the counter where fairgoers buy balls, there’s a sandwich board with a disclaimer. The sign, which is red and yellow and about three feet tall, says, “WARNING! You are now entering a CLOWN INSULTING AREA. To avoid insults, KEEP WALKING (FAST). Comments may be funny, rude, obnoxious, hilarious, or dumb.”

 

Warning. Photo: Mary Beth Koeth

 

“That sign has helped us a lot,” he says. “We still get a lot of complaints, but legally, it’s difficult for people to sue us.” On that front, he recalled one close call. To a Japanese man, Patches made an atom bomb joke. “I didn’t know he was Japanese,” Patches said. The man tried to sue Patches and the carnival company. Patches’ boss had to hire a lawyer. That disclaimer, Patches reckons, really helped them win the case. He did, however, have to apologize to the man, which he claims he would have done even without the lawsuit.

“I’m not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings,” Patches says. “I’m just doing my job.” Patches and the dunk tank enterprise were recently banned from a local fair in Long Island due to an anti-bullying campaign. “Can you imagine how that made me feel?” says Patches. “To have protesters calling me a bully? I’m not a bully.” But he gets that kids have it hard these days. Suicides and school shootings are the new reality. “And cyber bullying,” he continues. “I don’t know what that’s like.” As a teenager, Patches was 400 pounds and an easy target. At school in Syracuse, he says he was too white for the black kids and too black for the white kids. (Patches calls himself mulatto.) He found that humor could sometimes defuse the bullies. “I was a fat outcast,” he says. “But at least when I went home, I was safe. Nowadays, with Facebook, friends keep talking shit. Kids can’t escape.”

From the dunk tank, he avoids insulting children who look to be under four. For older children, he sticks to material that you might hear on PBS Kids. (For research and for pleasure, Patches watches a lot of cartoons.) To explain his boundaries, he refers to one of his role models, the comedian George Carlin. “I think it was him who said, ‘It’s okay to be a dummy, but it’s not okay to be stupid.’ So I would never call a kid stupid,” Patches says. “Because that really does degrade them.” At the New Jersey Fair, a kid who looked to be around ten stepped up to the counter. “Hi little dude,” said Patches. “Come on, you can do it. Pretend that ball’s a booger, and that red dot’s your mouth. You know how to eat them, right? Come on, you little booger eater.”

Before Patches could deliver his next line, the kid hit the target, and Patches splashed in the water. The crowd went crazy. The woman working the counter rang a cowbell and blew her whistle. The kid raised his arms and taunted Patches, who was climbing back to his ledge. “Oh my God,” said Patches. “I just got dunked by a toddler.”

 

*****

 

I first met Patches six years ago, in 2014, at the Orange County Fair in Upstate New York. I was there with my family, sitting within ear shot of the insult zone, eating hot dogs with my brother-in-law, Chas. “Hey, hey, hey, Dumbo,” I heard Patches say to one fellow with large ears who was walking by with three girls. “Can I ask you a question?” The guy stopped. “Which one of those girls is your girlfriend?” The guy said none of them were. “My point exactly!” said Patches. The girls giggled. The guy bought some balls and dunked him.

Another man passed. “Hey baldy,” said Patches. “Come over here, I got a Chia Pet maybe you could swallow.” He called an 11-year-old kid with a shaved head a mini-skinhead. “Tell your mom to get you a new haircut.” That kid dunked him. To one woman, he said, “You know that hair is real because extensions could never be so ugly.” To another, “Now that’s some nice weave there. Not synthetic. Looks like you hijacked My Little Pony.” He called one guy a four-eyed Jay-Z. “Is your hindsight in perfect vision, too?” To a man wearing a tank top, Patches said, “Hey you, in the muscle shirt, ever think about getting some muscles to go with that?”

I have to admit that Chas and I were chucking like middle schoolers who had just heard a classmate fart. I’m usually quite a sensitive person with relatively thin skin who is opposed to any display of meanness, but the dunk tank was a weird little world. A funny clown could be a jerk to strangers, but if that stranger had a good arm with precise aim, justice could be served. Well, kind of. That stranger would still have to pay for the balls, which basically means the insulted person was paying Patches’ salary. I had so many questions.

“I have to talk to the clown,” I told Chas, walking toward the counter with my head down.

“Hey, hey, hey, whatchu want here, Blondie?” Patches shouted at me. “We don’t have any peroxide.” To the tune of “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” Patches started singing, “Her hair came out of a bottle, her hair came out of a bottle.” I felt my face get hot.

The guy working the counter was six feet tall and over 300 pounds. I told him I was a writer and wanted to interview the clown. “Which one?” he said.

“Are you a clown, too?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I work the late shift.” He told me they got off around midnight, so if I wanted to hang around until then, we could all meet up and have a beer. After weighing the prospect of hanging around an abandoned fairground late at night with two carnival clowns I didn’t know, I suggested that we meet instead the following afternoon, before the fair opened. He agreed and told me to text him to confirm. His number started with 305—Miami’s area code—and that’s where I was living at the time. I was like, Of course the clown lives in Miami. “Do you want my clown name, or real name?” he asked, looking up from the paper where he’d written his number. Maybe both, I said. “I’m Manny,” he said. “Or Baby Bozo.”

 

Dunking Booth Clowns: David Simmons, aka Patches (left) and Manny, aka Baby Bozo. Photo: Mary Beth Koeth

 

The next day, I returned to the fairground along with my cousin Laura. When she heard about my plans, she said, “You can’t go alone. I used to sell frozen lemonade at the Orange County Fair. I know how carnies are.” Patches and Baby Bozo instructed us to meet outside one of the fair gates, next to the motocross race track, where motorcyclists were doing warm-up laps. Engines revved. The smell of popcorn and funnel cakes wafted through the air. It was really hot. Soon the clowns pulled up in a PT Cruiser. From the trunk, they took out four blue folding chairs. We sat in some shade next to a metal fence.

I asked how they met, and Patches answered, “I was in the dunk tank, and he fell in love.”

“There’s something about a man who’s wet and wearing makeup,” said Baby Bozo, growling and lifting his eyebrows.

Turned out they met at the New York State Fair in Syracuse. Baby Bozo was working as a ride jock in a nearby booth, and he would take his cigarette breaks next to the dunk tank. “One day I hear him going off on someone, and I was like, What did he just say?” Baby Bozo said. “I thought that job would be perfect for me, because I’ve always been an asshole. I just never thought about getting paid for it.”

Like Patches, Baby Bozo used to get bullied. Half-black and half-Puerto Rican, he grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. “I was too Puerto Rican to hang with the blacks, and too black to hang with the Puerto Ricans. And I don’t speak Spanish,” he said.

From the dunk tank, Baby Bozo said he tried to emulate his comedic role models, including Richard Pryor, Bernie Mac, and D.L. Hughley. He had a deep baritone voice, and when he laughed, which was all the time, it sounded like it was coming from a canyon in his gut. He frequently rubbed his head, which was shiny and bald.

Outside of the fairgrounds, the men lived together in a trailer. Sometimes they fought, and home conflicts could spill into the work environment. Patches told me that if he was pissed off at Baby Bozo, he would leave the counter and find the best ball player at the fair. He would give that ball player a handful of cash to come and dunk his friend. Baby Bozo said he did that, too. “Moses said an eye for an eye,” Baby Bozo observed.

“That was Hammurabi,” Patches said. “An eye for an eye is Hammurabi’s code.” (I had to look it up. Patches was right.) They told me they do respect professional courtesy, however, when it comes to peeing in the dunk tank. They don’t do that, they said, but if a customer jumps the counter and charges the tank, they will splash the person with water and tell them there’s urine mixed in.

 

In the four months of the year he isn’t on the carnival circuit, Baby Bozo lives in Miami.

He cut his teeth working the dunking booth at Santa’s Enchanted Forest, Miami’s winter carnival. It was a tricky fair, he said, because he had to keep the nationalities straight. A Dominican would require a very different insult from a Puerto Rican or Colombian, for instance. Additional challenges included the Latin American crowd not being as familiar with the American dunk tank culture and the fact that Latin Americans were often very good ball players. I asked Baby Bozo about his worst experience on the job, and he shook his head as he recalled the day he picked on the wrong Cuban man. He sang, “Row, row, row the boat, Cuban refugee. If you paddle hard enough, you might make the Florida Keys.” He sighed. “I swear to God, he dunked me fifty-something times,” he said. “Your legs get so tired from climbing. Your arms feel like rubber. You can’t talk because your voice box is hurting.” Eventually he couldn’t physically lift himself back on the seat, and he had to end his shift early.

Working at the Miami Dade Youth Fair, Baby Bozo said people sometimes would be waiting to get even with him in the parking lot. When one man threatened to shoot him, a police escort had to walk him to his car. When Patches was working the counter at a carnival in Gaithersburg, Maryland, his coworker at the time—a man named John who went by the name Happy—made a Dragon Ball Z joke to a group of Asian people. Patches laughed at the joke, and one man came up to the counter, pulled up his shirt, and revealed a handgun. “Once they show it off, we just apologize,” explained Patches. “Like, it’s not that serious, dude.”

“You break character?” I said.

“Of course,” he said. “I don’t want to get shot. This is a job to me.”

“We’re wearing a wetsuit, not a bulletproof vest,” added Baby Bozo.

The night before, a young woman had thrown rocks at Baby Bozo. “Those sons of bitches hurt,” he said. He repeated the insult that elicited the rocks: “Lady, pick your weave up. It might bite somebody. I know it don’t have its rabies shot.

Patches was laughing. “That’s hilarious,” he said.

“She was mad,” said Baby Bozo.

“We really aren’t trying to hurt somebody’s feelings up there,” said Patches. “We really are just trying to get a laugh.”

Baby Bozo was nodding. “Some people are just so sensitive,” he said. Another time, he made a food stamps joke, and a woman called him a redneck and complained to the fair board. He tried to defend the comment to his boss. He told her, “If I wanna talk about EBT, I’m gonna talk about it.” But his boss told him no; food stamp jokes were not allowed. “The sad thing is,” said Baby Bozo, “I wasn’t even talking about that woman. I was talking about a couple walking by.”

Patches shook his head. “That’s the annoying thing,” he said. “If you’re cracking a joke about somebody, and somebody that you’re not even talking about gets offended, just because. It’s like, dude, the person I was talking about just pissed himself laughing. Why are you upset?”

I asked the clowns about the worst jokes they’d ever made. Patches said his was to a bunch of cops at the New York State Fair. A colleague who worked at the rock wall had come over to the tank and said, “Dude, ask the police where Bucky is.” “Bucky” was an escaped convict wanted for shooting three New York State troopers in 2006. Patches had actually never heard of Bucky but followed his friend’s suggestion and made the joke. The police “dragged me out of the dunk tank, and they were like, ‘Yo, do you realize what you’re talking about?’ I was like, ‘No, you guys actually have to fill me in.’ ” When he heard what Bucky had done, he immediately apologized and was allowed to continue. The next year at the same fair, one of the officers made a deal with him. “He was like, ‘We would really like you to pick on us at the end of the fair, but don’t do it throughout.’” So Patches and the other clowns left the cops alone until the last day. “On teardown night, they literally pay me extra money to talk shit to the state troopers,” he said.

In order to properly insult people, the clowns need to know their audience. In Middletown, New York, where we were, many of the fairgoers were into motocross. “I wouldn’t be able to make motocross people laugh if I didn’t know something about a gearbox,” said Patches. In more rural areas, he needs to know the local crops. “You make a joke about wheat, and they’re like, ‘That’s corn, stupid,’ ” he said. “You’re not gonna get no kicks if you don’t know what you’re talking about.” The clowns say they can tell a lot about people from what they’re wearing. Once a person comes to the counter, the clowns are analyzing shoes and hands, down to calluses, if they can see them. Patches calls this “diagnosing people.” But sometimes makeup and water get in their eyes, combined with the two bright spotlights shining on them, and it can be hard to see.

The clowns stated that their jobs paid well—they make several hundred dollars a night. The stereotype of the poor carnie, they said, isn’t true. Patches said that their work clothes are rough-looking, but that’s because they get dirty. “There’s dust. There’s dirt, oil, gasoline, diesel fuel—a lot of shit out there,” he said. “We’re not messing up our clothes. But when I go out to eat, I’m not wearing no carnie clothes. I have Gucci. I walk out of the house looking nice.”

Baby Bozo becomes frustrated when people accuse carnival workers of being sketchy or lazy. “We work sixteen-hour days,” he said. “We break our bones, and I mean literally. We lost carnies setting up a Ferris wheel, just to have people entertain themselves. People look at us like we’re criminals—no!”

Patches said, “Most people do have a sketchy background that are out here, but that’s why they’re out here. To get away from the sketchiness of their background. Nobody really brings all the craziness from their old hoods here. It’s like, yo, I got away from the drama ‘cause I don’t want to be a part of it.

“Now we get to live and be happy and make money every week,” Baby Bozo continued. “We get to meet different people and have fun. I mean, you might have a couple dummies who go out and break the law, but that’s just like the whole world. You never know who’s a criminal. People pass as people pass.”

 

*****

 

In December, 2014, in Miami, I connected with Baby Bozo at Santa’s Enchanted Forest. He bought me an elephant ear, which is like funnel cake. I asked him what was new, and he was like, “The usual.” I hung around until his shift and watched him work. It was a lot of calling people names in Spanish, particularly the Spanish word for pubic hair. At one point, he had a lanky blonde man at the counter, throwing balls at him. “Hey, hey, hey,” Baby Bozo said to the man. “See that girl over there in the yellow?” I was wearing a yellow shirt. The man turned to look at me. “You know what her name is?” Dramatic pause. “OUT OF YOUR LEAGUE !!”

The man bought more balls. Baby Bozo was dunked. I started feeling like a prop. I left before it got too late. At some point, Baby Bozo and I lost touch. I think he stopped returning my texts, or maybe he changed numbers. The next summer, I ran into Patches at the Orange County State Fair. I asked about Manny, and Patches shook his head. He’d had a falling out with their supervisor, and Baby Bozo was working a dunk tank with another outfit. “You know he has anger issues,” Patches said. “But I miss him. We worked really well together.”

In September 2016, I sent Patches an email asking to do another interview. Two-and-a-half years later—in December 2018—he replied. “Sorry it took a while to get back to you,” he wrote. “Sure, we can talk.” We agreed to meet at the New Jersey State Fair one weekend in June 2019. My friend, photographer Mary Beth Koeth, came along.

Patches was working with a new clown named Chris, or Jackals. Jackals had originally been hired to replace Patches when Patches took a sabbatical. “But we heard from our fans that he wasn’t cutting it,” Patches said. When Patches returned to work, Jackals went to another booth, where he improved his craft. Then Patches had to fire a clown for using drugs on the job, and he rehired Jackals for the season. I asked what had changed in his performance. “He stopped being scared,” Patches said. “I like working with him. You know, it’s really hard to keep clowns.”

“Why did you take a sabbatical?” I asked.

“I was going to get married,” he said. “She was like, ‘You can’t be a carnie your whole life.’” He got his GED and a Class A Commercial Driver’s License to become a truck driver, but the marriage never happened. “Turned out, it was the absence that was really keeping us together,” he said, shrugging but smiling. I asked about online dating. “No, I meet people at the fair,” he said. “If it happens, it happens. If it don’t, there’s always next week. You see three thousand people a day in here, you’re bound to either strike out or get lucky. Plus, I ain’t lying, I’d rather see people and talk to them versus read a profile.”

As we were chatting behind the dunk tank, Manny—Baby Bozo—walked up wearing a bright blue shirt and forest green cargo pants, eating chicken tenders. Next to him was a slender woman. Manny had retired from clowning and now worked the stand with the claw machines. I asked him what sparked the career change. “I got married,” he said, introducing the woman as Tammy, his wife. “So I’m settling down.” He turned to Patches. “Some people grow up,” Manny said.

“And some people grow out,” Patches replied, pointing to the fried chicken and Manny’s belly.

At seven, Patches’ shift in the dunk tank began. He would work until one in the morning. To switch shifts, Patches went up to the counter, threw a ball, hit the target, and dunked Jackals. Then he walked through a narrow alleyway around to the back of the dunk tank, where he entered the tank through a small square opening in the cage. Jackals crawled out of the tank wearing a red hoodie and soaking wet sweatpants over a black wetsuit. He grabbed his vape pen off the ledge above the cage and began puffing.

I chatted with Jackals. He told me he had grown up close to Gibsonton, Florida, a town just south of Tampa populated by circus performers, sideshow actors, and carnival workers. The carnival life, he said, was in his blood. When he first started working in the dunk tank, other clowns gave him a book containing basic punchlines and insults—material he could rely on if he ever drew a blank. But, he said, he made the mistake of trying to memorize that content and never really found his voice. Patches told him to develop original jokes. “Say whatever pops into your head the first couple seconds,” Jackals recalled Patches telling him. “If you think it’s funny, someone else probably will, too. If not, who cares—at least it made you laugh.” He also learned a breathing technique from Patches he calls “barrel breathing,” where he stretches out his arms as if he’s hugging a big barrel. He presses his palms hard against each other and breathes up from the diaphragm. Jackals says the technique relaxes him and clears his mind. He does it before entering the tank.

Jackals found his clown name while reading the Bible—he is Christian and attends church—and liked the sound of it. (The Bible makes many references to the jackal spirit—half-dog, half-wolf, a mixture of good and evil.) I asked if he’d told his minister what he did for a living, and he said yes. “They think it’s weird,” he said. “I don’t think they like it very much.” He looked at the ground sadly. “But you know, I’m just trying to make people laugh,” he said, brightening. “I love this job. I get to travel all over and see different parts of the country.” In the South, he said, they didn’t need to be as careful with offending someone. “Once you hit the Carolinas, Winston-Salem, people are a lot less sensitive,” he said. “You can get away with a lot more. Especially Augusta. They love us.”

As Jackals and I talked, Patches got dunked at least five times. Water splashed out the back of the cage and dripped on Jackals. Still wearing wet clothes, he didn’t seem to care. The cowbell rang. The whistle blew. The crowd cheered. I walked around to the front of the booth to listen to the act.

The first thing I heard Patches say was, “Your sideburns look like old porkchops, and your hair’s got more grease than two Chevys. Now I know why your sister left you, you dumb redneck.” In the five years since we’d last met, Patches’ routine had grown more aggressive. A crowd of more than fifty people gathered around the tank. An Indian man was throwing balls at him while his wife and young daughter waited behind him, still within the insult zone. “Hey man,” Patches told him. “Can I get a discount? I need a room at the Ramada—you’re the Ramada guy, right?” The man threw more balls, missing the target. When he ran out, he flipped Patches off and walked away with his family. “Thank you, come again,” said Patches, imitating The Simpsons’ Apu. The whole exchange made me deeply uncomfortable.

Patches noticed a woman with her two teenage daughters standing next to the insult zone sandwich board. “Excuse me, lady in the black top,” he said.

She put her index finger in the air and wagged it. “Don’t go there,” she said.

He turned his attention to her daughter. “Can I ask you a question—you, in the white?” She pointed at herself. “Is that your mama in the black?” he asked. The girl nodded. “I was gonna say grandmama. I can just tell she’s old.” The woman’s jaw dropped. “I’m gonna say,” Patches continued to the girl, “It’s a good thing you look like your daddy.”

The woman took out her wallet. “That’s it,” she said. She stormed to the counter with her daughters in tow and handed cash to the counter woman, who gave her ten balls. Her daughters helped her throw but none of them came near the target. “I’ll tell you what, lady, listen, listen, pay attention, lady,” Patches said. “I’m gonna tell you how to do it. Make dinner, and I’ll fall for you. Come on! If you can make a steak like Ruth Chris, girl, I will be your man.”

The woman was laughing. She bought another nine balls, but she had terrible aim. “High and dry!” Patches screeched. “Can I ask you a question?” he asked to the other daughter. “Do you ever get cold and use your mom’s shirt like a sleeping bag?” She threw another ball and missed. Eventually, they all walked away, laughing. They stood outside the insult zone to listen to more of his act. I went up and talked to them.

“It’s all in fun,” the woman said. “The whole point is for him to be rude, so we can dunk his ass. That’s it. No one should take that personally.” I asked what he said that convinced her to buy balls. “Oh, he said I looked like a grandmother,” she said.

“That didn’t make you mad?” I asked.

“No,” she said, like it was the stupidest question she’d ever heard. “It’s a fair. You gotta lighten up at the fair. He’s so good at what he does.”

 

“Curly Sue” and Her Mother.  Photo: Mary Beth Koeth

 

I walked back to the left of the tank, outside the insult zone, and stood next to Mary Beth. A girl with curly red hair and bright pink sunglasses approached the counter. “Curly Sue, you don’t want do this,” Patches said. She nodded her head vigorously. “Excuse me, girl with the nappy hair, pay attention. Do you understand what I do here?” She nodded again. “Alright, I don’t want you to go home or have a complex or nothing. It ain’t my fault you ugly, it’s whatever parent you look like.” She started throwing balls. None came close to the target. “Can I ask you a question? Is that your grandma with the mad tattoos?” The woman standing behind her, with ink up and down her arms, was in fact her mother. Before Patches could get out the next joke, a man at the other end of the counter—the one he’d called Crazy Eyes from Mr. Deeds—had dunked him. Whistle. Cowbell. Cheers. The curly-haired girl kept missing but was smiling the whole time she threw her balls. Eventually, she went back to stand with her mom.

A young man with a teardrop tattoo on his face walked by. He was wearing a yellow shirt, matching sneakers, cornrows, and a backward cap. He had bling on his wrist and fingers. “Oh my God, it’s Post Malone!” said Patches. “Oh, you’re not Post Malone. You look Post-Apocalypse.” Post-Apocalypse happened to be a good ball player and dunked Patches three times.

Meanwhile, a bulky man in a white shirt was not as successful (though it didn’t matter; the clown was still getting dunked). “Hey big guy,” said Patches. “Your friends didn’t want me to hurt your feelings, but I feel that it’s necessary to tell you that this was not a real game. This is called exercise. All right?” The man and his friends were laughing. “Come on buddy, I’m about to have you sweating like Richard Simmons. Big guy, if you knock me down, I will help you find your feet. You will no longer wonder what’s beneath your second chin. You will KNOW. WATER!” Post-Apocalypse dunked him again.

A father walked up with his daughter. “Girls can’t play baseball!” Patches said. The girl dunked him. Everyone went crazy. “You didn’t knock me down,” said Patches, getting back on the ledge. “I farted.”

 

*****

 

We stayed for about an hour, until it was getting dark. Every laugh felt conflicted. As we made our way to the fair exit, a young couple, a white girl and an Asian guy, stopped us. “Hey, we saw you were taking pictures and stuff,” said the girl. “What are you two doing?”

We explained we were doing a story on the clown. I asked what they thought of him. “Oh, I love it,” said the guy.

His girlfriend said, “We had to walk back and forth three times before he insulted us.”

“You wanted to get insulted?” I asked. They nodded.

“That’s my dream job,” the guy said. “To insult people all day? Oh my God.” I asked what Patches said to them.

“He told me I was a wannabe runway model who wears too much makeup,” said the girl. She pointed at her boyfriend. “And he said he was only with me for the green card.”

“Did you think that was funny?” I asked him.

“Oh, I love it,” he said. “He’s hilarious.”

Later we ran into the mother with the tattoos and her red-headed daughter, whom Patches had called Curly Sue. She was a freshman in high school. They all loved Patches. “He’s so good at what he does,” said the daughter. She was bubbly and all smiles. “That’s actually my dream job. I have a mouth that would make a sailor blush.”

I asked the mother, “How did you raise such a confident young woman who doesn’t let a clown hurt her feelings?”

“I just want her to be comfortable in her own skin and feel like she is enough,” she said.

 

*****

 

Earlier that day, I’d asked Patches, “What advice do you have for someone you’re insulting?”

He looked up at the sky, then back at me. The swing ride was just lifting off in the lot next door. Excited screams filled the air. “I would say,” he began, “if there’s a 320-pound man calling you stupid, and he’s wearing makeup, locked in a cage—ignore him. He’s locked in a cage! His life choices obviously didn’t get him very far, you know?” I was laughing. He was laughing. “More or less, you can’t change who you are, but if you can change your view on yourself, change it, and don’t take everything as an insult. If you’ve got big feet, own ‘em. Shit, you can run faster than most. You have better balance.” He went on, “People go through a lot of dark stuff. If you are who you are, accept it. Don’t be mad—get glad.”

 

Patches.  Photo: Mary Beth Koeth