It started with skipping dinner.
I was in a hotel in San Diego, a big Hilton just off of San Diego Bay. I had skipped dinner after a long day of shooting news stories for CBN. And instead of grabbing dinner out–I stayed in. This turned out to be an error. At around 9:30 my stomach told me otherwise. Thus began a spark that would end with meeting the clown lady…
I stuck my key card in my back pocket, behind my wallet, and ventured out in search for food. The hotel restaurant: closed. The bar food: expensive. Anything in walking distance? Nope. My last hope was the gift shop.
A small, hallway-shaped room filled with tacky San Diego souvenirs, it reminded me of family vacations. There was a big coca cola sliding fridge in the back corner. I stood for a moment to compare and debate my options. Mostly Lean Cuisine TV dinners and a few other random snack type items. I settled on a turkey Lunchable and a red Gatorade. I perused the souvenirs a little, and then headed to the register by the door. A smiling woman, probably sixty-ish, started to ring up my purchase before I even set it down. She was fairly small, with gray hair and gold rimmed glasses. She had on a beige striped sweater, and a bag with knitting needles sat next to her behind the counter.
She asked me, “little late night snack huh?”
“Yeah, skipped dinner working tonight. Stomach didn’t agree with that decision.”
“Oh, what do you do?” she asked, as she swiped my Bank of America debit card.
“I’m a news photographer, and I’m here shooting a few stories,” I said.
Apparently I was not the only one to skip dinner. The other photographer I was with, Damien, had been in the gift shop buying a snack maybe fifteen minutes earlier. The lady at the register was already familiar with the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), our programming, and said she was a regular viewer. She told me that her dad and her watch the 700 Club. I told her to thank her dad for watching. The woman started to tear up.
“He died, about a week and a half ago actually.”
I really didn’t know what to say. Here I was, Lunchable and Gatorade in hand, and this sweet old woman started to break down. I set my stuff back down on the counter. The old woman swallowed hard and then she said the last thing I thought someone in this situation might ever say.
“We were amateur clowns,” she said half-smiling, using a tissue to wipe away a small tear. “Want to see?”
Before I could even figure out how this woman was going to prove on the spot that they were clowns, she reached deep into her knitting bag and pulled out two photos.
For the next thirty minutes, me leaning up against the counter, her sitting on a stool, she told me all about the clown subculture. She pulled out a big scrapbook of carefully decorated photos, explained the types of clowns, ranks, colors. She said that she was an Auguste, and her father was a traditional character Hobo clown. I ate my Lunchable, genuinely interested. She used all her photos to visually explain the colors and lines, different types of face paint. She even explained clown school, which she attended with her father.
The best photos though were the ones of her and her father, painted and suited up, entertaining at children’s parties. I must be clear here: clowns scare me. I know this may interrupt the flow of my story, but I’ve dealt with it my whole life. (This was a sort of healing process for me too. If you want more info about it ask my mom about the moving clown picture from my childhood…)
But her photos made me smile. I finished off my Gatorade as she began to talk about the funeral the past weekend. She said she had put her father’s bow tie in the casket, and that one of the pictures at the funeral was of him as his clown character. It was sweet, and she wasn’t about to cry anymore. She said her father was her best friend, and that he was always the perfect example of Christ’s love. Some people hate God because they connect Him to their own fathers, she explained.
“I never really struggled with that,” she said, looking at a picture of him at a retirement home in clown garb.
I tossed my garbage in the trashcan behind the counter. She thanked me for listening, apologized for taking up so much of my time. She told me to come see her before I left. I forgot to. So in a way writing this is my goodbye to her, the clown lady.
Honestly, sadly, most often I do take option 1: the fake smile, the quick thank you or unoriginal response. But for whatever reason I didn’t this time. My biggest regret of our meeting is not having a few pictures to put up on here to share. But hopefully you can imagine the scene well enough. Next time someone pulls on your ear for a few minutes I encourage you to listen.
It may not be about clowns, but it may be just as equally important.
For more info onspecific types of clowns see this page: Types of Clowns