Chilean writer José Donoso was once given morphine after undergoing a medical procedure. He had an adverse reaction that brought on a series of paranoid hallucinations, or so the story goes. They say this drug-induced delirium inspired the nightmarish narration of El Mudito, protagonist of my beloved El obsceno pájaro de la noche.
When I was in seventh grade, I was given morphine after having ankle surgery. Instead of writing a master work of literature, however, I consumed an entire box of orange Popsicles and had a pizza delivered to my hospital room at midnight. The following morning, I was unable to produce a coherent protest when a troika of clowns appeared in the doorway brandishing a giant pair of plastic scissors and announcing it was time of cut off my cast.
As you might imagine, this experience only exacerbated my preexisiting fear of clowns. It´s not that I´m convinced they´re going to murder me in my sleep...although I wouldn´t put it past them. What distresses me about clowns is exactly what gives them such great potential as social critics: Safe behind layers of facepaint, they shine the spotlight on others, exposing and manipulating them as they see fit. To put it dramatically, they draw you against your will into a game they control.
This is precisely what clowns do when they perform on busses in Santiago. They incorporate the captive passengers into their routines, even those passengers who, like me, stare fixedly out the window and try to will the plastic seats into absorbing them. Of the people who laugh, I wonder how many actually find the routines funny and how many are simply relieved not to have been singled out...yet. I think it's safe to say that these situations are even more distressing for those of us who, due to certain linguistic factors, may find ourselves at a disadvantage when it comes to witty banter.
So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I got on the bus a few days ago to find a clown standing in the aisle, patiently awaiting his audience/victims/next meal. "There's a seat here!" he called out to me as I passed, patting his lap.
I hunched down in my seat, arms firmly crossed and gaze firmly diverted. The clown's routine began with mother-in-law jokes, then progressed into an analysis of the relationship between cleanliness and gender. When he started asking female passengers what brand of soap they used, I knew I was screwed.
"Neutrogena," I replied when, inevitably, he got around to me. I pronounced it "Neu-TRO-he-na," the way they say it in Ecuador, silently praying that it was the way they said it here, too. I learned that not all dialects hispanisize foreign brand names the same way when I asked for a tube of Col-GAH-te in a Chilean pharmacy and the attendant arched her eyebrows in disdain and asked if I meant COL-gait.
"What?" the clown demanded.
"Is that a Peruvian soap?"
"No." Just say as little as possible, Leigh, and he won't notice your accent and be suddenly inspired to perform a routine about gringas who use Peruvian soap and can't stand their mothers-in-law.
"Where is that soap from?"
"I don't know."
I held my breath until the clown turned to someone else and the crisis could officially be declared averted.
When the clown walked up the aisle asking for coins at the end of his routine, I didn't give him one, convinced that looking his way would be tantamount to offering myself up as a target for whatever else he may have had planned.
"Quit causing problems," he muttered.