Friday, June 8, 2007

Memories (2)

A Faded Clown

His name was Barry Bartlett. His twin claims to fame were that he had once been a clown with Barnum & Bailey, and that he had even appeared on the Johnny Carson show. To look at him, you could almost believe the story. He wore black tennis shoes with blue socks, black cutoffs, a yellow, sleeveless T-shirt, and an ancient, faded, clip-on tie. On top of his head, he wore a tea pot cozy, shaped like a chicken.
He sat there at the restaurant table, spooning down quick bites of oatmeal while tying and shaping balloons. He was the best balloon designer I have ever seen before or since. He even shaped a Ferris wheel that sat on the table—and actually turned. Seconds later, he had fashioned a man riding a Harley. He also had a quick temper. When a balloon popped he would throw it over his shoulder, not caring if it landed on the floor or on another customer's omelet.
The restaurant owner, who had been passing through, phoned me from his office. "Did you see the guy with the duck on his head?" he asked me. "Actually," I told him, "it's a chicken."
I approached the man's table, and he looked up at me. "You're just the man I was lookin' for," he said. "I happen to be a professional dishwasher by night, an' a balloon-tyin' clown by day. Would you have any work for me?"
We didn't have any openings at the time, but the man had me intrigued. I sat down to talk to him. Barry the clown told me of some of his past accomplishments, and showed me some faded newspaper clippings.
He also told me he suffered from an ailment known as Tourette syndrome. It made him hyperactive—sometimes frightening people, if he didn't take his medication on time. He said he'd ridden a Greyhound from his home in Sarasota, Florida all the way to Eugene, Oregon. Someone had told him you could earn money entertaining people on the streets in Eugene. But it hadn't worked out that way. He headed for the bus station to go home, but couldn't find his return ticket. After a loud argument in the terminal, someone called the cops. The Eugene Police took him to a local restaurant, bought him a bowl of soup, and said they would return shortly. After two hours, he tired of waiting and "borrowed" a bike to ride back to Saratsota. He rode for four days, crossing the Mackenzie Pass and dropping into Sisters. ("You know, they've got real sharp corners on that road.")
In Sisters, the police got involved again and brought him to St Vincent De Paul in Bend, where he found lodging for the night. He needed more assistance to get home, but didn't know what to do.
Since I knew the good ladies at St Vincent's, I made a call. They'd been looking for the former clown—and had purchased a return bus ticket to Sarasota. He asked me if I would drive him, and stay with him for awhile. And I did. As he began to tell his story again to the St. Vincent ladies, he become more and more agitated. "Please take your pills, Barry," I told him.
He pulled two cellophane wrapped pills from a bottle and started to rave again. "I can't get 'em opened," he wailed, waving his arms in the air. The two kind women at the shelter immediately took the pills from his hand, opened the packages, and handed them back to the agitated man. He took his medication and began to calm down.
I returned to the diner, confident my charge would be well cared for. Later that afternoon, however, Barry showed up on our doorstep again. This time, I had to send him away. "I'm sorry, Barry," I told him, "you caused too much commotion this morning." He smiled his sad, clown's smile, said he understood, and thanked me for my help. He tapped a bus ticket in his shirt pocket, and told me he was going home. With that he shook my hand, jumped back on his bike, and I never saw him again.
For three nights running, I awoke in the night, wondering if I'd done enough for the little man. Was I right in turning him away? I never heard him swear—even once. During one of our conversations, when he was having trouble getting the words out, he had stopped, folded his hands, and said, "Please, Jesus, just lemme say the words." Everyone had seemed to enjoy his balloon tying—why had I sent him away? Was I just a little bit too worried about my image as a manager? I had taken the route so many of us take with someone we don't understand. We stand at the door and say, "You can't come in. You cause a commotion, and you're not wanted here." I'm so thankful that Jesus isn't like that. He's there for people whose dreams have faded, who are far from home, and down on their luck. And He never turns anyone away. Not even a man wearing a chicken hat. Not even Lyle Hicks.
Now that is grace.

BTW, Barry came from a very large city in Florida. Weeks after he left, I called the chamber there and asked them if they knew of him. They told me yes and that he had arrived home safely.

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