By: Richard Goldstein
So Jimmy’s clown act usually started by Jimmy coming out on stage with an armload of his gear, as if he was just a stage-hand setting up for the next act. Suddenly he’d notice the audience. He’d put the gear down, look all around carefully, then take the bright red Clown Nose out of his pocket and show it to everybody. Wink, put it on, and assume his wise-ass stage persona, as if the Nose contained it and conferred it. Then he’d go on with his act — the clowning, and the juggling, and the sucker magic. Sometimes he made it look as if the Nose was leading him around. Or he liked to pick a woman in the front row to josh with — without saying a word. He’d grab her purse, and goof and juggle with whatever he found in it, make things disappear and reappear. At the end of the act he’d try to get the Nose off, but it wouldn’t come loose. He’d struggle and tug, then finally pull it away, go back to being the bumbling stage-hand, and shamble off.
Of course that was when the clown act was the main thing, and Jimmy was young and handsome and his body moved like oiled machinery. Obviously the Nose was with him in those days, but he didn’t remember where he’d gotten it, or when, or how.
* * * *
Interestingly, the great Swiss clown Grock had a Clown Nose similar to Jimmy’s. A grainy photograph of Grock taken in 1910, before he became famous, shows him wearing it, although later photographs do not. The 1910 photograph is black and white, of course, but in some tinted copies the Nose is rendered bright red.
Grock was not the first clown to wear a Nose like Jimmy’s. That honor — or burden — belongs to Grimaldi, the English clown famous during the late 18th century for playing Arlechino in the Italian Comedia dell’Arte — which he actually did in Italy. Historians tell us that Arlechino — as so many archetypes do — eventually moved west, where he became known as Harlequin. On his deathbed, at the Marquis of Cornwallis Tavern near London, Grimaldi was noted to be clutching a bright red Clown Nose.
“I am crippled and soon to die,” Grimaldi is said to have said, “yet my Nose will run on.”
Grimaldi was buried behind the St. James Chapel in Pentonville, a suburb of London, but his Nose was not buried with him.
* * *
So Jimmy’s a kid growing up in San Diego, in the attractive Ocean Beach neighborhood.
His parents, doting appropriately but prematurely on him, want him to go into banking, or something similar, because finance is lucrative and secure and distinguished. Those were the sorts of choices his parents made for themselves.
But one hot summer day, the salty sea air spiced with cut grass, Jimmy is walking through the alley behind his house in his well-to-do neighborhood. It’s trash day, the day when everyone puts their trash — trash, not garbage — out in the alley for the trash-truck guys to pick up. Jimmy calls what he’s doing trash-picking, which means checking out all the middle-class trash cans for interesting usable stuff.
Halfway down the alley, behind a house whose owners he does not know, in a large and shiny and practically new steel trash can, Jimmy finds an almost completely intact beginner’s magic set. In the box — along with the Vanishing and Reappearing Ball in a Vase, and the miniature Linking Rings, and the Chinese Sticks with gold tassels — is a red rubber Clown Nose.
But a strange thing happens. It seems to Jimmy that when he discovers the magic set in the trash can he is already wearing the Nose, meaning he somehow finds the Nose while wearing it — which Jimmy is pretty sure violates some Law of Physics or other. Later, however, he does not recall any of these doubts. Magic is magic, he figures. In fact, for decades he will tell people that the Nose found him.
Jimmy soon masters all the tricks in his new magic set, then accumulates dozens more. He becomes a regular at the little store in downtown San Diego, near the Bay, where magic tricks are sold. The place is called The Joke Shop. In order to get to the tiny back room, where the magic gear hides, Jimmy has to run the gauntlet of the front room, which is filled with lewd post-cards and fart cushions, plastic dog poop and dribble glasses. Jimmy likes to put on his Nose when he comes in. The plump woman who runs the place calls him Little Bozo, perhaps being aware that Bozo the Clown himself wore a red rubber Nose, though probably not the same one.
Bozo was originally played, as you and the joke-shop lady no doubt know, by Pinto Colvig, and later by the famous Willard Scott. The latter of course also invented Ronald McDonald. Ronald McDonald, I should point out, is not a real clown and merely paints his regular nose red.
By the time he’s in high school Jimmy is making spending money doing magic and clown shows at kid’s birthday parties. He always wears the Nose when he performs, but he’s pretty funny and likably goofy, so the kids are hardly ever frightened.
Jimmy graduates high school, and immediately runs off to the San Francisco Bay Area to be a street performer. This breaks his parents’ hearts, even though he is always careful to call what he does busking, which sounds much more classy. In fact, he rarely sees his parents again — even when he later moves on to performing in big stage shows at big venues with big stage illusions. Even when a review of his clown show by the late great Herb Caen extols him for performing in the venerable tradition of European mime and clowning. Even when he begins to make pretty damn good money. Even when he eventually marries and has kids of his own — but his parents have passed on by then.
* * *
But before he gets married, Jimmy has a girlfriend for a while, whose name is Brenda. Brenda does double duty as Jimmy’s on-stage magic assistant, the attractive young woman who appears in the locked trunk in place of the magician, who floats in the air while in an hypnotic trance, and whose neckThe Guillotine fails to sever.
So one day Jimmy and Brenda are sitting on a high cliff on a bench, overlooking a beach, and they can see what looks like almost the entire Pacific Ocean. The sun slides down toward the sea in a blaze of lurid clouds. They are hoping to get a glimpse of the green flash.
“I’ve been wanting to ask,” says Brenda. “Why do you always wear that red Clown Nose?”
Jimmy puts his hand into his jacket pocket and touches the Nose which nestles there. “It makes me be who I am when I’m on stage,” he says.
“But then why do you always carry it with you?” she persists.
Jimmy pulls his hand out of his pocket. “Do I?” he asks.
“You’ve got it with you right now.”
Jimmy looks away, frowns. “The Nose frees me,” he finally says. “When it’s on I become a thief and a liar, a rake and a rambler. A gigolo, a Casanova. The evil clown. Life is a joke when you wear the Nose. Anything goes.”
Brenda punches his shoulder. “Give me a break,” she says.
“Oh yeah?” He pulls out the Nose, puts it on. “Beware,” he hisses and curls his fingers into claws.
She laughs and they hug. The green flash flashes unnoticed.
A few months later, at a big benefit show for a children’s hospital in Denver — during an illusion called The Egyptian Mummy Mystery — Brenda vanishes, as planned, from a cabinet which resembles Dr. Who’s phone booth, but which is painted to look like an ancient Egyptian mummy — except that Jimmy has added a red clown nose to the mummy’s face. Brenda is supposed to reappear, as if by magic, in the middle of the audience, but somehow does not, and in fact Jimmy never sees her again. He is forced to work for a time without an assistant.
“Seriously, I have no idea where she went,” Jimmy jokes. “Sometimes magic is like that. Or maybe I shouldn’t have cheated on her that time.”
* * *
So Jimmy is driving through Manhattan in a rented car, on his way to a gig. He’s in a hurry and makes an illegal right turn on a red light. A traffic cop in a patrol car sees him, pulls him over.
Jimmy isn’t wearing the Nose, but as usual it’s asleep in his pocket. By the time the cop walks up to Jimmy’s window, however, the Nose is stuck insolently on Jimmy’s face.
Jimmy rolls down the window.
The cop is a pretty blond woman. She stares at him, and at the Nose. “You some kind of wise-guy?” she says.
“Not at all,” he says. “By the way, I’m so sorry about Irma Lozada. Did you know her?”
“You threatening me?” says the cop, and she motions him to get out of the car, her hand on her gun. “You think I don’t know who Irma Lozada is?” she says.
Irma Lozada was, as everyone — probably including the joke shop lady — knows, the first female police officer in New York to be slain in the line of duty — ironically, but not magically — in 1984, with her own gun by a robbery suspect.
The cop clicks cuffs on Jimmy, takes him to the precinct station. They run a make on him, and — as it happens — he has an outstanding warrant from California for speeding. There’s really nothing to hold him for, but he ends up spending the night in jail before he can arrange to pay off the ticket. He misses his gig, but he entertains the other residents of the big holding cell — a mixed bag of vagrants, drunks, petty thieves, and drug dealers — with vulgar pantomimes, all while wearing the Nose, which he has smuggled in. The other residents cheer and clap and stamp their feet, until the guards come and shout at them to shut the hell up.
* * *
That is not the first time Jimmy is arrested and spends a night in jail. The first time is during a sit-in protesting some war or other. He is wearing the Nose. A policeman with a helmet and a nightstick prods him and tells him to remove it.
“It doesn’t come off,” Jimmy says. “It’s my actual Nose. It’s a rare medical condition.”
The policeman shoves him, kicks him, jabs him with the nightstick, but sure enough, the Nose does not come off.
* * *
Jimmy tries to describe what it is like to perform while wearing the Nose.
I’m standing onstage. The lights are bright and hot, like multiple suns on a planet whose orbit requires differential calculus to describe. I press the Nose onto my face. It tightens to grip me. It is as if tendrils of the Nose seek through my nose like comic spelunkers, find my mind and root there. Silliness courses through my nervous system, leaps onto moving cellular trains, invades my bone marrow. Propriety and inhibition fall away like larval skin, like a cocoon, an outgrown husk. Silently I howl at the many suns as if they are so many moons and I am an inflamed coyote. My juggling fingers grow fingers, and those fingers grow eyes. My magic hands become invisible. Someone immense strides up unseen in giant flapping shoes, whispers a shout in my ears. “I am the clown of clowns,” says the mystic someone in a voice like an imaginary bicycle horn. “You are the heir of the clown of clowns — now caper, caper, caper.” So I caper until my heart thumps like a bass drum, and my breath blares like a corkscrew-shaped trumpet. When I think I might die, I pry the Nose from my face, and the stage-whispering painted lips at my ear ebb away, and I gyrate into my simple self — just as a grotesque circus brass band of ghostly clowns disappears around a corner, the music of their shimmering parade fading.
* * *
So one night Jimmy finishes a late gig in East Oakland, in the Bay Area. He decides to unwind with a cup of coffee before heading back across the Bay on BART, to San Francisco and home. He sees an open cafe and wanders in. He gets his coffee, makes himself comfortable in a booth, his gear bags strewn on the seats beside him, legs stretched out into the aisle.
After a few minutes the cafe door bangs open and four tough-looking gang-bangers stomp in. They wear identical red tee shirts with B-Real printed on the front, and red bandannas around their heads. They spot Jimmy lounging in his booth, and detour to stand around his legs.
“What the fuck you think you’re doing?” says one.
Jimmy looks up and smiles at them. “Having some coffee,” he says.
“This’s our turf, smart-ass,” says another.
“Especially after midnight,” says the third. “Which it is.”
“Who the fuck you think you are?” says the last gang-banger, not realizing his peril.
Jimmy reaches into his shirt pocket, extracts the Nose, and puts it on. He makes a goofy face and pulls a red silk handkerchief from his ear. He flaps the handkerchief and it changes to blue, then vanishes. He smiles again, from under the Nose.
The gang-bangers quickly shuffle away to get their pies and coffees. They can tell this is one crazy mother, and it’s a good policy to cut really fucked-up crazy dudes some slack.
* * *
So then there comes a quiet and happy and solemn time in Jimmy’s life. He meets a woman named Darlene whom he decides — or perhaps realizes — he loves, even though he has no idea of what stuff love is composed. He takes a job teaching magic and clowning and mime and juggling to kids at a city recreational center, because Darlene does not want him on the road all the time. The kids in his classes love him and his silliness, and he loves them back, but even then he doesn’t know of what love is made. Also it makes him sad because he knows that most — if not all — of the kids will soon enough forget the clowning and the silliness.
From the room at the rec center where he teaches Jimmy can hear people shouting and laughing at the swimming pool, as if they are in a cave full of echoes.
The Nose meanwhile lives in Jimmy’s sock drawer so that he sees it — and sighs — whenever he needs clean socks.
Later, when nostalgia and regret are too much to bear, Jimmy takes the Nose out of the drawer and begins to do eccentric but tidy little magic and clown shows for the Elks Club, and the Rotary, and the Boy Scouts, and the Chamber of Commerce.
Things like that.
* * *
So then Jimmy is old and dying — on his deathbed, in fact, which when he was young he always wondered if he’d have one of. His grieving family is gathered around. Jimmy reaches out with a trembling hand, points weakly at the red Clown Nose lying on the bedside table. One of the grandchildren gently places the Nose into Jimmy’s hand. Jimmy presses the bright red Clown Nose slowly, painfully, over his own small pale nose.
He looks at the sad faces surrounding him, much as Grimaldi must have done when he was dying.
“Rosebud,” Jimmy whispers. His eyes close. His head drops to one side and his hand falls open, releasing a tiny snow globe. A sigh circles the room.
An instant later his eyes pop open. He mimes silent laughter. “Citizen Kane,” he hoots hoarsely. His grieving family gawks in horror.
But this is when he is aged and ruined and his body hardly moves at all, like rusted machinery. He does still have the Nose, but he hasn’t yet remembered where it came from, or where it is going.