They say walk a mile on top of your father’s clown shoes, so you can avoid the tears of a clown, when there’s no one around.
The place was Shakey’s Pizza in Westmont, on or near Ogden Avenue, I think. The time, thirty-two years ago. When Joe was the size of a toenail. When he was still biting strangers on the ankle. We, kids and Dad, went out for pizza while Mom stayed behind to be bask in the silencio. Amy ‘claims’ she did not come on this trip.
Just minutes before leaving for Shakey’s, I was watching a television show that involved two bad comedians: one guy who told jokes while wearing a bag on his head, and one guy who stuck nickels up his nose. Because I liked the way that sounded, the 2 n’s, nickels and nose, I made sure to remember it so that I could use it at a moment’s notice around other like-minded individuals.
We walk through the door and into the smell of dough. When you first enter, you can’t miss the plastic partition that separates the pizza makers and ovens from the population at large. I blink with disappointment at the two guys snapping towels at each other, not living up to their entertainment potential. Their entertainment mandate. Only once did I ever see a guy throw a pizza up in the air and spin it with his hands, thus forever ruining me in the disappointment that
is Shakey’s. We head back to the picnic tables covered with red and white checked oil cloth, near all of the games – the race car game, the pinball machines, some kind of shooting game, and a dumb crane that allows you to pick out a plastic doll or a sub-quality stuffed giraffe or duck. Wow. Even though I know the duck and stuffed giraffe are lame, when they’re surrounded by blinking lights and the hysterical songs coming from the other games, my heart races. We order and wait for our pizza.
The wait feels like a long time, since we are four, eight and nine years old. We’ve already spun the bar seats around clockwise and counter-clockwise until boredom clobbered us. We’ve spilled enough parmesan, the cheese that stinks, on the table and made designs with it. Dad is talking to some guy who’s also waiting to eat. What they talk about is unimaginably dull. So dull that we cannot bear to sit nearby and listen. When he gets like that, deep in conversation phase, we know it’s the perfect time to empty his pockets for coins. Mike and I divide up the change evenly, giving Joe nothing. That’s when I say to Mike, using reverse psychology, as seen on television: “Whatever you do, don’t stick a nickel up your nose.”
Mike has a dumb guy laugh, even for an eight year old. It sounds deeper than his speaking voice, “huh huh huh”. He laughs just this way as he shoves one, two, maybe three or four up his nose. Ha ha ha, we’re laughing. Joe laughs too because he’s four and doesn’t want to be left out. We look around. No one notices us. Dad is relentless in conversation with the guy. He’s a goner.
Finally Mike grows weary of all that weight in his nose. He pulls nickel one out without trouble. With care he pulls out the second. But the third and fourth are jammed up there. I think we eat our pizza then, Mike included, though fully aware of the coins stuck in his nasal cavity.
We say throughout the meal, “Dad, Mike’s got a nickel stuck in his nose.” Still he’s oblivious. He and the man are talking about cars and how tricky it is to replace the gasket head sump pump valve wiper mag.
Soon there’s nothing left to eat or do. We slide off the seats and loiter in the game room since we already used up all of the money, and the rest is up Mike’s nose. Mike is sneezing at this time, hawking up everything but the nickels. He works his way past the crane to the driving game, leaving snot over every screen.
Whenever we had a sneeze that was not quite ready to come out, Mom would remind us to “look in the light”. It worked every time for me.
An older guy, a teenager with a combo of pimples and fuzz on his face, tries playing one of the games but is just too grossed out by Mike’s contributions to continue. Mike is hawking, sneezing, snorting, snorking. Joe and I are pulling at Dad’s sleeve. We’re stomping on his big black clown shoes but his toes are numb. Dad, Mike’s got snot all over the games!
Finally, the strange man leaves. Dad is out of things to do. He takes out his railroad hankie, the red one with the black patterns on it that is common to the hobo variety, and blows the trumpet a few times. He scrapes up the crusts littering the table, scoops them into the round aluminum tray and gives them to another guy behind the counter. At last he recognizes that we are his children and that he should probably gather us up and bundle us back home. Wait, what’s this? He learns that his son Mike has a, what? a nickel stuck inside of his nose? He grabs napkin after napkin and wipes Mike’s nose. He makes Mike look up to remove said coin, but realizes that all of his keys and tools that he carries in his pockets don’t fit up his nose or they are unable to do the job. I find myself constantly wiping my hands, which are dry and cleanish, against my jeans.
We head out to the car, strangely quiet. The car takes forever to warm up. We drive in the dark down Ogden Avenue, when Dad pulls into a Jewel food store. Only five cars remain in the huge lot; the lights inside of the store are dimmed. “They’re closed,” I warn him. “You won’t be able to get in.”
Dad pulls up to the front, gets out, raps his keys against the glass window until someone inside the Jewel huffily explains that They Are Closed. At this point, I’m feeling pretty smug. And then Dad talks the guy into letting him into the store to buy something. What is he getting? He walks out with a small package, opens it and yoinks Mike out of the car. They stand beneath a huge light in the lot. Mike is looking up and Dad pulls out a new pair of tweezers. I notice that there are about 6 or 7 employees inside of the Jewel who are cupping their eyes against the window to see Dad pulling a wet nickel out of Mike’s red nose. The workers inside the Jewel make clapping motions. We clap while inside the car, elated, though I am also embarrassed, qualities that have followed me to this day.
Thanks and Happy Father’s Day, Clown Shoes.