You don't expect to see a clown at an art museum, but there he was, in jumbo shoes with turned-up toes, baggy pants of red and white polka dots, starched shirt with winged collars and bow tie, tuxedo coat, and stoved-in hobo's hat. He had come, just as he was, to see a little exhibition of children's paintings on the Contemporary Art floor. Perhaps it was his way of thanking all the children who'd come to see his antics at the big circus in town.
Since the paintings were, so to speak, fresh off the brush tips of little obscurities, there weren't lots of people oh-ing and ah-ing, or stepping on one another's toes to get a closer look. Apart from the inevitable museum guards - two sleepy-eyed, yawning men in squeaky shoes and uniforms the color of armored cars - the clown and I were the only ones there.
From room to room he shuffled, often pausing before unusual paintings. He stood swallowing and wetting his cherry lips a long time before one by Sandy, aged 9, of a crinkly red potato chip, as if it made him very thirsty. Before one by Donald, aged 5, of a girl skipping a rope that looked like a wet mustache, he squirmed prodigiously.
And there was an especially unusual one by Jacob, aged 11, of the Statue of Liberty, her torch upraised like a club, chasing a hatless little immigrant through the streets of early New York. That one made him duck.
It was only after several minutes had passed that he noticed the guards were following him. Not so close, of course, as to be obvious, and yet close enough always to keep him in view.
Even when, half in earnest and half in play, he quickened his pace and zigzagged from room to room, as if to try to lose them, they maintained this nicety of distance. Had the long hours in quiet, orderly rooms, milling among visitors in conventional clothes, made them suspicious of anything eccentric?
Finally the clown sat down on a bench and gave them a huge smile of serene cordiality, rather like a king in disguise who could not altogether conceal his lordly aspect. In their eyes you might have expected to see the dread of an imminent robbery. But instead there was quite the opposite. It was a look of entreaty, almost a prayer, that this outlandish visitor they'd seen swallow and squirm and duck before children's paintings might actually enliven their normally uneventful watchfulness even more!
Well, what could he do for them? A clown, of all the foes to dreariness in the world, is the one who loves most to please. I thought perhaps he might resume his antics before the paintings, but he had a bolder idea.
Up to his floppy feet he jumped, and started dashing from room to room, with the guards in squeaky pursuit. As he ran past the children's paintings he made believe he was snatching them from the walls and stacking them up in his arms. And when the make-believe stack was so high he couldn't pile any more paintings on it, he staggered under its weight to the front door of the museum.
There, smiling at the expression on the guards' faces - a kind of grateful disbelief at having witnessed this pantomime crime - he winked one purple-looped eye expressively, as if to say, ''Didn't think I'd have the nerve in broad daylight, did you?'' and staggered outside.
Down the street he went, around the corner, and back to the circus. And although I didn't attend his regular performance that night, having been treated to the impromptu one, I don't doubt for a moment that he gave away all his loot to the children, and lived ever after a blameless life.