The freedom to billow out

MY good friend Shlomo, an actor, when he can't find a part in a play, doesn't just loll about, or escape into fantasies of fabulous success. He doesn't slouch gloomily down hallways of closed doors, leaving on the walls a dark, almost palpable stain of seething spleen. No, he creates roles for himself. He performs, if not for a paying audience, an appreciative one. Yesterday he had a wonderful time just clowning about.

As befitted his activity, he wore, of course, a clown costume, courtesy of the local theater he has graced with many fine performances. The costume's only trouble was that it was too big. Inside its colors, bright yellow with neon-pink polka dots, Shlomo, a little fellow whose only bigness is the inner one of the heart, could easily have fitted two or three more of himself. But he liked the sensation of bouncy roominess, the freedom to billow out.

The makeup he supplied himself. A white clown's face with a cherry red spot on each cheek. A wide red mouth. A jolly red pull-on nose the size of a plum. And to top matters off, the traditional red-yarn wig pulled over his own hair. One delighted look at his droll self in the mirror, and off he went.

He headed out for an amble along the sidewalk and sometimes dirt shoulder of a busy arterial. At all the cars that went by he smiled and waved vigorously. Smiling was easy, and waving even easier. His costume came equipped with enormous pancake-shaped gloves.

With only a few glum exceptions, people returned his greeting. There were long station wagons packed with families of five or six, and they all, to a finger, waved back at him. ``Hi, Mister Clown! Bye, Mister Clown!'' some little girls cried as they waved their dolls. In one car a man in the passenger seat lifted the front paw of a dog and waved that at him, dog and man smiling from ear to unanimous ear. Even people who were honking at others interrupted their impatience long enough to smile at the whimsical sight. Once, a harried trucker boomed out a friendly caution when Shlomo braved a crosswalk amid a tantrum of traffic. ``Be careful you don't get creamed out there, fella!''

And when, improvising, Shlomo retrieved perfectly useful pieces of paper from trash baskets, made fanciful airplanes out of them, and flew them up through open windows of apartments and motels he passed - fresh and innocent greetings from the outside world to the inside world - people would come to the windows and wave at him. ``Hey, look, it's a clown!''

One woman, cradling a baby in her arm, waved a whole box of Pampers at him. What a novel experience that was! Shlomo stopped, put on a flabbergasted face, and said in mock-indignant voice, ``Madame, I'm a man!''

Many times he had walked along the streets of the city, greeting people with smiles, and sometimes, in exuberance, with waves. Children had responded, of course, but most grown-ups hadn't. They'd looked suspicious, even fearful. What kind of character smiled and waved at total strangers? From what motive, what contrivance? But those times he had been wearing his regular clothes, not the official clown costume. Why, he couldn't help wondering, did most grown-ups not respond to the regular-him, but respond with such warmth to the clown-him?

Was it that, down deep, grown-ups wanted to smile and wave, to be demonstrative, but they were afraid of appearing foolish, of being presumptuous? Perhaps they needed something as hearteningly corny, as uninhibited, as a clown to help them get up the courage. Or was it simply that when grown-ups saw a clown they became for a moment more like they were as children? The child in them, tiny as Shlomo himself inside the clown costume, just leaped over the years and looked, breathless and excited, out of their eyes.

At the end of his performance, some goodly miles of free and robust theater, Shlomo lay down under a tree in a park and rested. Shlomo is not old, not young either. He is a timeless person who gets tired at the end of great accomplishments. A breeze bringing the first coolness of evening rustled leaves overhead, as if rewarding him with applause, and some children playing hopscotch on a sidewalk nearby stopped their game and looked on in a kind of respectful wonder, as if a clown was someone who deserved their goodness as much as their laughter. What was he doing here; why was he lying down; was he all right? Shlomo smiled at them, gave a reassuring wave, and dozed happily off.

When he awoke, there was a pillow under his head, a real pillow, and he was covered with a blanket. The children stood near, watching him, watching over him.

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