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Jokers Take Manhattan

Playing second banana at an annual New York clown parade

Author Hillary Brenhouse Illustration Luci Gutiérrez

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NEW YORK CITY – It’s a Friday afternoon in Union Square, and things seem par for the course. A woman in an orange prison jumpsuit gnaws on a cucumber, while another tramps around in a pink princess dress and heavy black boots. A shirtless Viking bangs the spokes of a bicycle wheel hanging from his neck. These are not your average Manhattan oddballs, however—they’re professionals.

Every September, before the performances and seminars get underway, the New York Clown Theatre Festival kicks off with a parade, allowing clowns from around the world to showcase their talents before a citizenry who like to think they’ve seen it all. The plan this year is for the clowns to take the subway to the trendy Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, where they’ll march through the streets and, later, take part in a pie fight. Joining them is Annie noBaloons, who seems genuinely alarmed by the clamor around her.

Middle-aged and with a pink streak in her hair, Annie has come up from Luray, Virginia, where she earns her keep as “a kinder, gentler clown.” Her name, she says, came about due to the fact that “I don’t do balloons.” She will, though, make a few concessions to tradition. “This is a pie outfit,” she says of her denim pinafore and fluorescent high-tops. “I have a lot of clown couture, but I wasn’t about to wear it to a pie fight.”

In the subway station, Annie picks up a crumpled soda can and wanders the platform with it. “Did anybody lose a dirty can?” she yells in operatic despair. “Is this your dirty can?” A man wearing headphones shakes his head no. A few dozen clowns pack themselves into a single rattling subway car. At the other end, a few dozen clowns pile out. The aptness is lost on no one.

Across the East River, within seconds of the fight commencing, Annie is violently pied in the face by a small child, and for a moment she appears to be having trouble breathing. “Never work with children, animals or food,” she says afterward, scooping shaving cream from her nostrils, “because you’ll always be second banana.”

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