by Zero The Wunderweight
Years of country living as a voluntary simpleton came to an end last September when I returned to the city in an attempt to forward both of my careers -- author and sidewalk clown. Clowning is perhaps the only socially acceptable career for a shaman-magician within our society. It goes back to very early times when some smart primitive discovered he could slap clay on his face, run through the village and scare the living daylights out of everyone. Of course once someone recognized him under the make-up, the situation became humorous. This tension release lies at the base of our response to clowns. White face has become a signal that says, "I'm going to look and act like a crazy person, but I'm harmless." Just that paradox in itself is laugh-provoking, especially these days when there is so much violence on the streets. Beyond that, the grotesque clown mask is, in effect, the face of death and it allows the onlooker to discharge his or her own innate fear through laughter.
There are a number of these grimace archetypes, but first of all let's look at the one I know best -- Zero himself. His mouth is drawn in such a way that from a distance, his tongue seems to be protruding. Zero sticks his tongue out at the world, which is also the face of the sun god in Aztec myth. The sun god face in turn was derived, in my opinion, from the faces of captives staked out in the blazing sun to die of thirst and exposure. Often some little child will look at Zero and stick his tongue out in response. That child, I believe, has recognized his own Zero archetype mirrored in me. You see, each of us embraces a face of death, an attitude towards life, if you prefer. And along with that face goes a clown name, gesture and an act.
The clown face reminds us of the mask we all present to the world, the 'persona,' as Carl Jung calls it. We take our persona so seriously and endow our Consensus Reality with so much power. Children, once they are old enough to play the Consensus Reality game somewhere around three, adore the clown because they recognize him as a magic figure, the Trickster whom Jung defines as a more primitive aspect of the personality. He stands at the gateway to the unconscious, according to Jung, and is the first of the archetypes to appear in dream analysis. To the trickster-shadow part of ourselves, everything appears as its opposite or inversion. So-called civilized man forgets him until -- there he is em-bare-assing us in one way or another.
At Carnivals, Mardi Gras celebrations, we see the remnants of the Fool's Festivals of the Middle Ages when, for a whole day, everything went topsy-turvy. Masters would wait on their servants, a foolish bishop would recite a silly mass in the church and the congregation responded with bawdy songs. The church authorities, perhaps sensing the licentious, pagan rituals kept alive in these festivities, finally managed to ban them by the early 16th Century.
There are also those children whom Zero terrifies. Usually they are two or three years old and have just become sensitized to the 'way things are supposed to be.' Suddenly here's this grotesque clown that shatters their understanding of reality. But it is interesting to see how often, after the tears and initial terror subside, these are the very ones who will fall madly in love with Zero the next time around. Perhaps the fragility of their emotions only points to how in need they are for an emotional discharge experience of this sort. I cannot but help take Zero's terrifying of a child to heart, and constantly refine his appearance and act to make him as immediately laugh-provoking as possible. Right now I am experimenting with a bustle, a pillow stuffed inside my suit to make my bottom stick out. During my first appearance with it at Clown Day in the small town of Occidental, many children teased me about 'wearing diapers,' and being 'a big baby,' which made me realize that I may once more have hit upon a subject containing much anxiety and tension, and thus full of laughs.
From four to ten years of age, most children are Zero's friends, although boys begin to drop away earlier than girls. By the time adolescence arrives, I lose them because at that age conformity becomes so important. The young person becomes so preoccupied in objectifying himself in relation to society -- personality, clothes, make-up -- that Zero's zany put-down of Consensus Reality seems meaningless. Among the sixty or so children who showed up to have their faces painted this year on Clown Day, there was only one teenager -- a girl.
Adults, for the most part, give Zero a smile and nod. However most of the quarters and dollar bills in Zero's kitty come from Third World people and minorities. It's the black woman who reaches into her purse, or the Chinese couple with a baby. Perhaps they are more quick to recognize the good luck magic of Zero's performance and are closer to the rich chaotic meaning of things than are the middle class, well-dressed whites who have so much more invested in Things As They Seem.
Another clown archetype I have recognized is The Hanged Man, exemplified by Wavy Gravy of Hog Farm fame. Somewhere there's a picture of Wavy standing tall, his eyes squeezed shut, a tear apiece trickling out, and that's his archetypal grimace insofar as I can see. I should add that if Zero has a guru, it's Wavy Gravy for sure. A more on-the-cosmic-track clown doesn't exist!
For a writer, the double career of clown-author works very well. Feedback is notoriously slow for the novelist or poet. "I get fat and lonely behind the typewriter," I explain to folks. "Then I put on my clown suit, go out on the street and dance around. I lose a few pounds and get all this wonderful love and appreciation from everyone. It's really great!"
It also gives me a camouflaged platform from which to view people. While they're busy reacting to Zero, I'm there behind the mask enjoying them. Imagine, in a few hours on the street I'm in eye-to-eye contact with hundreds of people! I have put my arms around old ladies from Wisconsin while their husbands take photos, I have played duets on the accordion with dozens of children. I've shaken hands with dozens more, scooped up smiles from one place and thrown them at someone across the street. I lose my cynicism on the sidewalk, because people are really very loving. In all my appearances, I have never been the recipient of any negative reactions. The worst that ever happened was a carful of teenagers who cruised by me on the main street of San Mateo and threw an empty milkshake carton at me. I stooped over, picked it up and put it on my head as if it was a present. The next day after school they drove by again, smiling and waving.
I keep thinking that the Police Department is missing a good thing. Instead of wading in with shields and clubs and tear gas at a riot or a protest, they should send in the Clown Squad with canisters of laughing gas. I've mentioned it once or twice to cops and they always say, "Oh no, we're the symbol of authority. We need to be serious, to be respected." But I think it would be worth trying once just to see what happens. All that tension in a crowd could be released into laughter rather than into violence. Instead of breaking heads they could boff people with socks full of white flour. It could transform violent confrontation into silliness and fun.
In ZERO SUMMER, the second in a series of Zero novels, I describe my sidewalk clown experiences within the framework of a novel. I look forward to the day it is published because that day I will be able to merge the two aspects of myself, the author and the clown. At that point, no doubt Zero himself will begin writing the books and what will happen to me? I may just abandon the field to him and return to the countryside, where this all started in the first place!
NOTE: A few home-printed and bound copies of ZERO SUMMER, the sequel to ZERO WEATHER are still available from the author, done 1982-style on a dot-matrix printer with a cover drawing by the author. Each book is $15 postpaid.