Street Theater

Judy Garland as Pierrot

I have this friend who’s really into clowns. She has lots of clown figures and pictures in her room and a couple clown tattoos, and she finds a reason to dress as a clown at least once a year. I admit that I made fun of her the first time she told me about it, while she was cutting my hair in her living room. (That’s how I know her; she cuts my hair.) 

“But no one likes clowns!” I said. I guess what I was thinking was, I don’t like clowns. She put me in my place.

“No, plenty of people like clowns, and I’m one of them,” she said. Then she went on to talk about how the idea of clowns, and the image of them, just resonates with her, and it made sense to me in that context. She’s a sensitive person and a punk; plenty of things make her sad. But she appears to enjoy the hell out of her life, like day to day, with all her conversations and interactions, and she’s a fucking riot. I get it: She’s a clown!

Still, let’s get real. A lot of people are afraid of clowns, probably for the same reason that any costume or mask that obscures a person’s face is scary—you don’t really know what you’re dealing with. There’s something horrifying, too, about a painted-on smile. We’ve all known people who wear a fake smile more often than they don’t, and they’re spooky to be around. Do they even know what they’re feeling underneath that death’s head grin?

This clown conversation took place in the spring, and it’s October now, the spooky season, my favorite time of year. I’ve got three dress-up events to go to this month and I plan to wear a different costume for each of them. Making costumes out of thrift store stuff and wigs is one of my greatest joys in life. For one of the events I plan to dress as a character from Stardew Valley, a video game I love, and for another I will probably not be able to resist reprising my Lydia Deetz costume, which I made entirely from clothing in my own wardrobe and is FLAWLESS. I just needed one more idea, so on Sunday morning while I drank coffee on the couch I poked around on Pinterest and opened up my mind. I don’t know if it was the sort of activated, full-moon/menstrual mood I was in, or what, but a picture caught my eye as if I’d never seen one before: the sad, pale face, huge eyes, and painted-on teardrop of a pierrot, the original sad clown. It just looked so perfect to me. Good god, how had I never realized that I love pierrots?! I love that they’re medieval, seemingly ancient, but I also love the deep-70s versions I’ve seen in those dreamy pastel paintings, the pink circles on each cheek and soft neck ruffs in shades of grey or white. It speaks to me, this delicate, feminine, genderless creature. Pierrot is a male character, but many modern interpretations of it are done by women, or are androgynous and childlike. Sometimes goofy, always sad. Pretty and poetic, with a broken-doll, antique-circus aesthetic that makes complete sense to my soul. 

Right away I went upstairs to try on clothing, and while I was dragging stuff out of my closet I found the weird French dress I had to buy when I found it at a thrift store a year or so ago because it was clearly special but still haven’t worn because it just looks so odd. It’s got black and white stripes, a boatneck with a few buttons at the throat, and three-quarter-length, sort of floppy—dare I say clownish—sleeves. It also has a dropped waist and is rather short, which gives the skirt at the bottom a flouncy shape even though the dress is made of a heavy cotton. Yes, it’s too strange to wear on the street—it’s more like something Helena Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett would wear to the beach—and I’m not a big one for dresses in general. But it is JUST the sort of thing a pierrot would wear.

I put the dress on, then started playing with make-up. A few lines of black eyeliner pencil exaggerated the largeness of my eyes and the naturally fretful shape of my brows. I painted on a creepy little heart-shaped red mouth and there it was: My own small face, only sadder and spookier. The dress hung just right too, the way it encouraged me to stand askance with my skinny wrists dangling from the cuffs, a middle-aged ragamuffin. Perfection. It had been awhile since I’d felt as pleased and satisfied as I did looking at this image in the mirror. I don’t want to overstate it, but it was a bit like seeing myself for the first time. This is the thing about costumes. Famously, they let you become someone else—but they’re also very good for showing you how to be yourself. 

Once I was all jazzed up about the idea of this costume I got ready to go to one of my favorite thrift stores for a few other elements, like maybe a white turtleneck to wear under the dress that would suggest an Elizabethan neck ruff. It happened to be perfect autumn weather that day, sunny and cool, and I loved the way I felt in my clothing—a Cure t-shirt tied at the waist, oversized black jeans, and black sling-backs. I caught the bus downtown and hopped off at Chestnut Street, feeling fine, music in my ear buds. I hadn’t walked a block when my left shoe started to feel funny and heavy. A few more steps and it fell apart completely, dropping the sole on the sidewalk like a long turd. Terrible, but I kept my chin up. I stuffed the bottom half of the shoe in my tote bag and hobbled over to a different bus stop, knowing that if I could just get to the bountiful thrift store I’d find an inexpensive pair of shoes that I liked well enough. And I did, ballet flats with an ankle strap that will suit the pierrot costume and looked good with my jeans. (Five bucks!) I found the turtleneck I wanted, too.

Everything about this story is very me. The comedy, the tragedy, the strained dignity, the thrift store victories. And if walking out the door with a sense of purpose and a broken shoe isn’t a sad clown, I don’t know what is.

Long story short, I must count myself among the weirdos who actually like clowns, since I now see that I am one. A clown, that is. It’s a bit of an awkward development but I’m embracing it completely. I might even look for ways to thread some of my new identity into my everyday look: some theatrical eyeliner, maybe, or a more curvaceous lip line, something to accentuate the sadness that never really goes away, that can feel like my lot in life, that I often wonder if anyone else can see. I’ve found different ways of coping with it over the years, but maybe I’ve been missing something. Maybe playing it to the hilt is the best way through it. 

What are you gonna be for Halloween?

Spooky Action From a Distance

You could take a bath, smoke a cigarette, put the radio on.

I could take a bath, smoke a cigarette, put the radio on. 

You could try on all your best outfits till they start to look good again. Put the kettle on for tea.

Go for a walk and kick your shoes off as you come in the door. Knuckle the cat’s head. Pick up your book and get stuck in a sentence. Put it down again. Text your mom. 

Walk into the other room, where it’s gotten dark. Put the light on. Stand there a minute, feeling something that wasn’t there before. 

I could pick my clothes up off the floor, make a pot of coffee, get changed for a walk. Wish I’d worn more comfortable shoes. 

Let the cat sit on my lap after I get back home. Finish reading that weird poem in the New Yorker, the one that says, Maybe we do ask to be born

Text my mom. 

Turn on the salt lamp, making the room glow a little. Think about the poem, about impossible things that probably aren’t impossible, so why did I think they were? 

The coffee makes my headache slip away. The bath makes your back feel better. There are so many things that help if you know where to find them, if you have the strength to keep looking. 

In the ceramic vase on the table, the tulips bow down. 

In the house next door, someone yells Christ!

In another part of the city, a person makes a wish that they’re afraid to call a prayer.