There is a small graveyard behind a non-denomination church in Amsterdam I like to stop by sometimes. If you walk all the way south on Kalisvaart Street and turn left at the end of the road, you will find a small, broken tombstone that lies towards the east end. It should look just like the others. In a weird way, it does not.
The loud discussions at the tiny neighborhood bar I’m in drown the suffocating combination of fear and anguish that was making my stomach turn. I asked for a pint of the local beer, but was brought the equivalent of warm piss instead. It is fucking white beer… Won’t send it back, however. I just asked for the menu, hoping for the biggest chunk of grease available; found only apple pie. I escaped America only to be hit by a poor Dutch version of apple pie. Won’t send it back either. Over the years, I’ve learned that things never go my way. I’m used to making lemonade off the sour answers life always gave me.
I’ve been a circus clown since the mid-fifties. Before I was born, my father took a sabbatical as sergeant from the military to join the circus for a few years. He was a violent, bohemian man who barely fit within army ranks. With no work records or permanent residence, he was able to avoid the draft and impregnate a few of the company’s staff girls. The juggler, the knife-throwing model, the trapecist… Even the tiny Jewish girl that washed clothes, picked elephant manure and helped with collecting the tickets fell victim of the sergeant’s silver tongue.
What if he had been with half the circus girls already? She felt special; cared for when he was with her. Often humiliated by friends and strangers, the sergeant was the only man that saw her for who she truly was. Hell, he was the only one that saw her as a woman despite her hunchback, crooked teeth, midget figure. He made her feel like a person, rather than the piece of odd furniture nobody knows what to do with.
News of her pregnancy spread like warm butter on the company’s rye bread. Who had been able to look past little Masha’s ugly face and body? She kept the name a secret, though all suspicion befell the sergeant.
The first birth
My mother died shortly after she managed to push me out of her entrails from delivery complications and wound infections. It is a miracle I survived. Come to think of it, it was actually a curse to remain so long in this world. My birth left no doubts regarding the sergeant’s rendezvous. Still, he denied any responsibility or connection with my existence. I was raised by the ladies of the circus. The juggler, the knife throwing model, the trapecist; they were my family. More accurately, they were the closest I had to one, as they’d never let me forget I was an outsider; nothing more than a charity case to be cast away as early as I turn 16. I had to win them over at all times, never taking anything they gave me – food, attention, advice - for granted. This is how I discovered my innate talent for making people laugh. I thought so little of myself, self-deprecation came up naturally. Mix my own feelings of inferiority with a smile, add a comedic twist and… done! The formula worked every time. It never changed. It never had to.
Desperate for company at all times, I became obsessed with comedic routines. Armed with a witty mind and keen observational skills , I was the life of the company’s gatherings since I was twelve. To me, the stupidity of daily life rarely went unnoticed. Nothing and nobody escaped my sharp eyes and vigilant ears. Anything you said or did, I could turn into a funny joke. The secret is that you could not ever get offended. It is me that is making fun of you; I’m clowny Joe. Nobody takes me seriously. Nobody should. If anything, I inspire compassion. I’m a massively skinny kid, with arms too long for my body and crooked teeth. Only one functioning eye, the other one a useless, wandering pupil included. I’m the epitome of the circus orphan as there’s ever been one; the dark child who would pray for a road accident if there was a god out there listening.
The Porky foursome
The children of the animal tamers were the meanest. They’d sometimes beat me up for no reason other than being at the wrong place at the wrong time. My looks had much to do with their attitude towards me. We often get violent towards the things – and people - we find repulsive. The last time they did it, I was in a very weird mood. I made all kinds of silly noises and sardonic remarks while their fists met my body.
- “That all you got, Jack Dem-pussy?” (referencing legendary boxer Jack Dempsey)
- “Ouch! That one made me see stars! Do it again, but this time like you mean it”
- “Your sister hits softer. Yes, I said softer. She is sweet to me”
- “Get the teeth, boys. For is so scarce lately, I no longer need them anymore”
- “Hit me in the eye! You may even fix it”
That prompted them to stop in the middle of the beating, unable to contain their laughter. Over time, the beatings stopped. We became good friends. Later, I turned into “idea man”; them into my henchmen in a new era of circus havoc. Conning unsuspected patrons, robbing wallets, touching women inappropriately while in the crowd; all this came naturally to the Porky Foursome, as this group of kids used to being rejected by society became known in the company. We were the unwanted children of the circus, despised within our own circle.
Three of the Porky Foursome had their manifest destiny as animal people. Best case scenario would be to become the lion tamer. The others were doomed to backstage training, feeding and manure shoveling; just like my mother. That is not me, however. I had no mentor. I had no parents. My future was in my prematurely wrinkled hands, and no one else’s. And nothing felt as fitting as a career in comedy. The circus clown was born this way.
Born to shovel crap
I begged the Master of Ceremony to let me add 1-2 minute comedic fillers between circus acts. After I agreed to a few unspeakable favors, he decided to let me try my luck with a rather hostile public. I had to be strategic - gather attention, keep the audience interested, then deliver an effective punchline quickly. Over the years, jokes evolved from the original self-deprecatory to the observational, to the clever, to the ironic, to the morbid, to the ultimately morose. Physical comedy gave way to intelligent, eloquent delivery touching upon subjects relevant to the adult, educated population that started to come to the show after word of mouth did its thing. Social issues, political environment, anal warts, plastic surgery, gender roles, religion… With me nothing was sacred; nobody was safe. Word of mouth did its thing. Eventually, the MC asked if I wanted to have my own act. I recruited the two shit-shovelers for a few months, but they couldn’t take it much longer than that. A lifetime of squeezing laughter off your personal misery gives you very thick skin. Some people are just born to shovel shit.
The best jokes had titles, so I could quickly sort through them in my mind. Then, I categorized them. Initially, this process took place inside my brain. There was no record available of my routines. Then, I started to worry. A penchant for heavy drinking started to make my memories blurry. I got scared. What if I started to lose my material? This is all I have. This is what I am. But I also can’t just put them in writing and leave them to be stolen. What to do?
I saw the knife-thrower heating his instrument on a candle and got an idea. I asked to borrow one of the thinnest, sharpest knifes she had and used it on my skin. A bit of heat, some ink from the ticket-printing machine, and I got myself a rudimentary tattoo artist’s tool. My body was always with me; nobody could steal it. It was the perfect oleo for my records. And so it began. Over the course of three years, I covered every inch of my skin with words and symbols; they were all idea kickers for a joke. Towards the end, my skin had become a carefully designed summary of everything I was; of all I was. Clown makeup was not enough to cover all my tattoos, so I became known as “the tattooed clown”. The company started to get known as “the circus of the tattooed clown”; my little, temporary piece of stardom in an otherwise hellish life.
It turns out heating a knife helps prevent infection, but not intoxication by lead-based ink. I fainted at the end of an act once, and a doctor in the audience came to see what was happening. Back then, nobody knew lead could be so dangerous. Memories kept getting blurrier. I lived off the writings on my skin; a practice that came with a high price tag. Routines became predictable, mostly scrapped from what I had written on my limbs. The MC noticed. Then the public noticed…
After a while, the MC threatened to cancel my act. We argued. Bad timing on his part, for I was drinking all afternoon. As he turned away screaming I was out, I took the tattooing knife and stabbed him in the back for what felt like a million times. He tried to face me, which resulted in the knife meeting his cheek, then his eye, then his throat, then his other eye… There was so much blood covering us both, it was hard to know who was stabbed and who wasn’t. I ran to my tent, washed the blood off, picked up my few possessions, and left to never come back.
There were several boats departing from the New Orleans port that evening. It is unusual for boats to leave the port after sunset, but the city had seen a few storms lately and departures were frequent. A scrawny man covered in tattoos with a bad eye is not uncommon in the area. Also, several sailors had gotten lost in the arms of the damsels of the local brothels during the storms. Supply and demand law did its part, and a few minutes later I found myself aboard a slow vessel carrying American products to the old world. I disembarked weeks later in Rotterdam, but found the city too clean. The country’s dirt concentrates in Amsterdam. Naturally, I made my way to the European city of sin.
How was I even able to remember all this? I don’t know. Maybe I remember it all wrong. Much of it could be a figment of my imagination, except the tattoos. They are here with me as I write this, held together by the sweet embrace of Dionysius. I look at the ink and it stares back at me; my slow, beloved assassin.
I had with me some cash and a few photos of my mother when I died. My clothes had no tags. I threw all forms of identification into a bonfire the night after I made it into Holland, but I forgot to check the internal compartment of the jacket I was wearing. In it, a ticket with the title “The Circus of clowny Joe” was found by the police.
There is a graveyard behind the non-denomination church that sometimes buries the body of unknown people as a form of charity in their land. If you walk all the way south on Kalisvaart St., then turn left at the end of the street, you will find a small, broken tombstone that lies a bit to the left. It reads:
“The circus of clowny Joe”
? – 1987
It is easy to die for no reason; easier when you have no purpose in life.