Clowns in my Irish Coffee

The most wasted day is one without laughter” e e cummings

What happens when you mix a slightly jaded Proposal Consultant/weirdness magnet (overly fond of Irish Coffees) with a Shriner’s Clown AND a Body Piercing/Tattoo Convention in a town containing earthworks over 2000 years old, the alleged storage facility of Area 51 artifacts (Hanger 18), Men in Black sightings, and chocolate covered potato chips? Ohio, populated for 1000s of years by Hopewell, Fort Ancient, and Adena cultures, was invaded in the 1600-1700s by French fur traders, then claimed by Britain, and settled by greedy pioneers. A midwest state, it asserts it’s part of the South, however, winter’s been known to hang out from October to May, and no one has a drawl. It is home to the poisonous buckeye (local natives thought it resembled a deer’s eye) and hidden underground tunnels and caves. I lived in several towns in Ohio as a kid; I walked myself to school through a mile of enchanted forest, and was the only child allowed to eschew the daily nap and read a book instead. Ohio is where I volunteered to wear a live boa necklace when the snake show came to town. Ohio was also where I skipped Sunday school, and with money earned picking fruit, doing chores, and the pennies intended for the collection plate, discovered the marvel-ous world of comics and the pleasure a hot fudge sundae or ice cream float affords.

The Great Miami, part of the Ohio River (Shawnee: Msimiyamithiipi) snakes through and west of Dayton, and is joined by the Mad River and Wolf Creek. Early visitors described the area as a bountiful game preserve. Much blood has been spilled here. On April Fools day, 1796, a group of settlers (Thompson party) landed in Dayton, at the mouth of the Mad River (Thompson would drown in that river in 1817); the indigenous people peered through the foliage at the usurpers stealing their cultivated farmlands and hunting grounds. Natives donned warpaint (not unlike creepy clown makeup) and nobly defended their rights, their homeland, but ultimately were forced out. Before long, tobacco processing plants and mills that polluted the Miami appeared, as well as a cash register manufacturer. The first soap box derby was held in Dayton; Harry Houdini wowed crowds—the Rolling Stones did not. The US’s oldest private historically black university, Wilberforce, was founded by an 18thc abolitionist, and the US’s first speeding ticket was issued here. I kept that in mind as I cruised into Dayton.

In the 1980s, I read a curious book by Loren Coleman, a cryptozoologist (aka phantom clown expert). In Mysterious America, he traced creepy clown sightings in the early 80s to Massachusetts, and later to Providence, Kansas City, Denver, and Pittsburgh. Since then, there have been 1000s of real (and imagined) sightings worldwide (including Dayton). In the 70s, serial killer and former mortuary attendant J. W. Gacy terrorized Illinois; he dressed up as Pogo/Patches the Clown and attended charity events. Gacy was executed in 1994. In the late 80s, stuck in a hotel room on a rainy day, I semi-watched a horrible movie full of circus sight gags and gallows humor, Killer Clowns from Outer Space; it’s now considered a cult classic. I had read King’s It and found Pennywhistle horridly sinister, and while in France, learned of the ominous history of the Pierrot and Harlequin, precursors of today’s clowns. Comic puppet Punch and his slapstick didn’t seem that funny, perhaps because I’d been slapped by a stick myself.

When I arrived at my hotel, my first thought upon seeing half a dozen clowns racing through the lobby on baggage carts was—who sent in the clowns? My second thought was are they creepy clowns or clowns as silly and soft as a Clown velvet painting? I don’t have Coulrophobia (fear of clowns). My personal issue stems more from an aversion to face makeup, shaving cream, black face, and greasepaint than from knowledge of the scary side of clowns. I like the idea of clowns as tricksters, jesters, rescuers of unseated bronco and bull riders, and clowns that can make a sick child smile. I have fond memories of the clownish antics of Red Skelton, Lou & Costello, the Marx Brothers, and the Simpson’s impudent Krusty the Clown.

I was there for two weeks to manage a quick turn-around government proposal for a company smack next to Wright Patterson Air Force Base. There was a sign next to reception desk with highlights of both events. There would be multiple clown key note speakers; competitions in face painting, balloon making, and best gags; and some lucky clown would receive a Hobo Degree award. The piercing workshop was offering a prize for the most piercings above the waist and the best metal piercing/tattoo combination. There would also be a body jewelry booth called “B-Holed.” After dropping off my bags, I headed to the bar. A drink was in order, however, I had work awaiting in my room. An Irish Coffee was the perfect stay awake and relax drink, and I knew Dayton had a modest Irish population and a fair amount of pubs. The Irish were among the earliest groups to populate Ohio, arriving from Philadelphia, NY, and Boston ports to help build canals, roads, and railroads, but were not welcomed. They established their own neighborhoods and clubs. Since 2002 Dayton has held an annual multi-day Celtic Fest. Locals also participate in a Celtic Crush pub crawl once a month.

It’s claimed an Irish Coffee contains all the important food groups—fat, sugar, caffeine, & alcohol. My record of Irish Coffee consumption is 17 in 13 hours. We signed up for an autumn tour of Ireland, which started at Shannon airport. While waiting for our escort, we wandered over to the Great Southern Hotel where I was introduced to my first peat fire and Irish made coffee while the bartender regaled us with his Irish Coffee tale. In 1943, a Pan Am flight headed to NY ran into bad weather and landed in Foynes, Ireland (now part of Shannon airport) near Limerick. Joe Sheridan, the chef/bartender was asked to prepare food and drink for its freezing passengers. He added Irish Whisky and sugar to strong coffee and spooned thick cream on top. When asked if he used Brazilian coffee, he said, “no, Irish coffee.” In the 50’s a reporter returned to San Fran and described the Foynes drink to the owner of the Buena Vista Café. They tinkered to get it just right—the drink became a hit everywhere. Today the Buena Vista Cafe, off Ghirardelli Square, makes 1000s of Irish Coffees daily. I visited the restaurant and can confirm it’s almost perfect (except in the US, ultra-pasteurized cream makes our version not quite as good). I also learned a bar/hotel in Dublin claimed to have invented the drink (to cover up the taste of bad coffee?).

 After being introduced to this classic drink, I couldn’t get enough—or so I thought. One morning, it was chilly; I ordered an Irish Coffee for breakfast, so did a few others on our tour, though those unfamiliar with the drink thought it was too strong and passed theirs to me; I finished 5 Irish Coffees. At a late morning stop at a lovely hotel near Galway, the owner greeted us with 1,000 welcomes and a tray of Irish Coffees. Again, I drank 5. We arrived at our hotel in Dublin in the late afternoon. The evening itinerary was a traditional dinner and show. You guessed it—for dessert, they served Irish Coffees to everyone. No clowning around, I drank 7, and slept soundly that night.

In keeping with their avocation, the costumed lads at the other end of the bar in Dayton were clowning around. My drink arrived, I poked it, and choked back a shriek. A La Brea Tar Pit of coffee sludge, topped with non-dairy fluff and a squiggly circle of green crème de mint quivered in a red wine glass; it glared at me like an evil one eyed jester. The bartender grinned, his smile reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s Joker. A burp of road weary sarcasm escaped, “Did one of those clowns tell you to do this? This isn’t an Irish Coffee, it’s a-a-a clown prop!

The clown circus arrived enmasse at my side. The bartender shrugged his shoulders and went to check on other customers.

“Who are you?” they asked and pulled out a rubber mallet. “Do you want us to kill it?”

“I’m a thirsty Proposal Manager that wants just one decent Irish Coffee before I have to go back to my room and read a solicitation. And who are you?”

Instead of answering me, one of the clowns leaned over my drink and inserted his round, red nose into the glass. Then he pretended to try to lick the fluff off the nose with his tongue. He produced a plastic tongue extender, slid it over his tongue, and we watched it wobble drunkenly. Another clown added a paper umbrella to the top of my drink, looked at me sideways, and hummed Tears of a Clown. He was wearing sad makeup in the style of Emmet Kelly’s Weary Willie. His bow tie lit up and squirted water at the glass.

I sighed, “Yep, your gloomy face is how I feel. Are you good or bad, creepy clowns? Do any of you have any pull with the bartender? I need a proper Irish Coffee.”

The red nosed clown removed the plastic tongue extension and said to another clown, “Did she say she had a proposal or a proposition for us? Does she need props?” He put his polka dot clad leg over the leg of the other clown and from a deep pocket pulled out an assortment of wind-up toys that danced on the bar. “I think she was soliciting me. What do you think?” Then he looked at me and in a whisper said, “Since we can’t make you laugh maybe we can get you a decent drink.”

Over the next half hour, the clowns and I managed to convince the bartender that because of Dayton’s Irish heritage, he needed to know how to make a real Irish Coffee. He retrieved a pint of heavy cream, stainless steel bowl, and a whisk from the kitchen, and brewed a fresh pot of coffee. We found the Irish whisky hidden behind the tequila, and at the back of a cupboard next to the bar napkins and straws, discovered nearly a dozen Irish Coffee glasses. While we took turns thickening the cream, I boasted slightly about my coffee shenanigans in Ireland, and volunteered to buy a round of Irish Coffees. I demonstrated the proper method for assembling the drink, and hid the bottle of crème de mint. Some clown added a face to his drink by inserting two olives, a red cherry, and wedge of lime into the whip cream.

The clowns shared they were Shriners; they dressed up and performed skits in their spare time, did fundraising for Shriner’s Hospital, and attended many charity events. The Shriner motto is ‘no one stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child.’ They agreed with Cole Porter that ‘all the world loves a clown,’ or should. Some of them were true ‘artists’ and their unique clown face was in the Clown Egg Registry. I remembered visiting Trinity Church in London’s East End while attending a Ripper Conference. The church has a collection of 100s of ceramic clown face eggs, which serves as an informal copyright. I asked red nose if he knew about the churches’ arched shaped stained glass window featuring Joseph Grimaldi, a comic pantomime of London’s Regency Stage in the early 1800s. He said the name was vaguely familiar. Over another perfect Irish Coffee, I told them about the man many say changed the conversation from Harlequins, jesters, and Pierrots to distinct performers with their own schtick. Grimaldi wore stark white face paint and was a master of physical comedy. His son (another Joey) also performed in whiteface, though he died at 30. Charles Dickens likely modeled his Pickwick Paper clowns after the Grimaldis. I told red nose about my collection of Harlequin souvenirs and the Harlequin/demon/wild hunt connection.

The next morning, a covy of clowns joyfully greeted folks eating breakfast with water pistol squirts and marshmallow nerf gun pops. They also weren’t afraid to use glitter guns. Though they soaked the front of my shirt, I went to work in a ‘sparkly’ mood and sailed through a day of meetings and mapping of proposal strategies. In the evening, the clowns got hold of free drink coupons passed out to a few select guests and photocopied the coupons. Everyone got a free drink that night, though I imagine hotel management wore clown frowns.

On the final night of the Clown Convention, the body piercers joined us. I laughed so hard, I may have broken my funny bone. Of course the clowns got out buckets because they were sure when the body piercers drank, they would leak. When a manager came in and told us we were too loud, someone yelled we were just having good, clean ‘holesome’ fun. Another clown dangled a bright orange plastic fishing pole with a huge hook over the head of a bruiser of a guy sporting 100+ piercings. The clown said, “I know this guy, he’s Pierce Brosnan. Give him an Irish Coffee.

The bruiser waved a staple remover he’d taken from his pocket and replied, “how bout a free nose piercing?” On a roll, he added, “what’s that costume made of—poly-jester?” I sat next to a young woman adorned with I (picture of heart) you tattoos pierced with tiny silver arrows. She giggled when I shared a Rita Rudner quote ‘men who have pierced ears are better prepared for marriage—they’ve experienced pain and bought jewelry,’ and revealed a round silver ball in the center of her tongue.’  

The clowns packed up and left town. The body piercers departed. I spent the weekend at and around the Sunwatch Indian Village, reconstructed to represent Hopewell, Fort Ancient, and Adena cultures. These mound builders had knowledge of astronomy, crop cultivation, food preservation, and how to insulate their homes; they used copper and obsidian tools and developed advanced shamanic and spiritual practices. By the time Europeans (EUs) invaded the area, these cultures had disappeared and been replaced by the Shawnees. The EUs asked them who had built the mounds. According to investigators and other sources, including Peter Levenda’s Sinister Forces: Book 1, the Shawnee said the old ones or first people did. No one knows where they went or why.

When I returned to the office on Monday, I dug in my handbag for an extension cord. As I pulled it out, attached to it was a rubber chicken. I rooted around some more and found a bag of chocolate covered potato chips, a local specialty. Those beautiful clowns! I had to wonder, did the old ones laugh at their tricksters, and listen to their sacred clowns? I think they did; their wise clowns knew the Pilgrim interlopers had no sense of humor. Perhaps in the dead of night, they silently vanished into the mystic, saved by Pan, the wild, lusty, uninhibited goat man god, whose laughter is equivalent to 1000 jolly Santa’s. Perhaps that’s where the term deadpan comes from?

Are fraternities of clowns more ancient than history records? Do they trace back to the chaos of creation via a native notion of the sacred shaman—able to deflect a demon’s attention? Or is clowning part of an ancient initiation ritual—to endure the insults and slings and arrows and evolve to a higher form? The Pueblo’s and Hopi’s revered their sacred clowns; they relied on body paint (often black & white patterns like Harlequins) and headdresses to hide their identity. They especially loved children. The Lakota heyoka speaks and moves backwards, in an opposite manner to those around him. Nothing was sacred to their sacred clowns—all was allowed. Everyone laughed and was laughed at; they maintained peace in the tribe. Perhaps that’s why jesters were banished. They were the only member of the royal court that could tell the truth and make fun of the king. When did we grow so thin skinned, so easily offended, so very—creepy?

As I said so long to Dayton, I realized Ohio was now also the place where I regained my hardy chortle, restored my ability to laugh at myself and others again, and honor, rather than condemn the clever critic, the caustic comic, and the rebels that dare to break open boundaries and let in healing, belly affirming laughter. Early Egyptians believed that on their journey to the afterlife, they needed to answer yes to two questions: ‘did you find joy and have you brought joy to others?’ Did you—have you…? ###

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