Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Terror rides the bus, and I use Neutrogena

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.

Oh God.

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?"

(Passengers laugh.)

"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.

(Passengers laugh.)


Margaret said...

Great post! I've never really thought about what it is that is so creepy about certain clowns--not all of them--some are great, but there are those, as you say, whose entire purpose is to make some people laugh by making others feel bad about themselves. Where's the humor in that?

noel said...

Where were the three clowns with the giant scissors when you really needed them?? Perhaps they could have given the unfunny bus clown a quick mohawk and a wee poke in the side.
(BTW, shouldn't he be driving around Santiago in a tiny little car??)

lydia said...

i think chileans like clowns wayyyy more than gringas like clowns. or so its seemed with all the people i've met at least, and trust me the conversation has come up.

i doubt all chileans like clowns of course, but there really seems to be a difference... maybe they aren't as big on movies like IT or something.

David said...

Oh my God, that literally sounds like a nightmare.

I probably would have responded that soap was against my religion.

Matt said...

Clowns are heinous cretins who think they can get away with doing whatever the hell they want just because they're dressed as clowns.

Publicly humiliate a stranger? That's ok, I'm a clown.

Grope a girl? That's ok, I'm a clown.

Look like a wanker? That's ok, I'm a clown.

I'm not really a fan of clowns.