A Matter of Perspective

by Lee Dresselhaus


“I don’t want to be a clown.”

“Not clown. Mime.”

“Clown. Mime. What’s the difference?”

The two friends walked up Bourbon Street in the early morning. The heat hadn’t begun to squeeze the city in its suffocating grip as yet but the stickiness of summer in New Orleans was already beginning, even at nine AM. Outside the bars swampers hosed the sidewalks and deposited the refuse from the past night’s revelry in boxes and cans for the morning pickup. Tom and Jason walked past one of the high volume gay bars on Bourbon and noted that it still had patrons and even at this hour the techno dance music blasted from the open doors.

“It’s a simple equation. You’re broke. Your rent is due tomorrow and that old bastard you rent from isn’t likely to cut you slack again. What was it he called you, a—"

“…..deadbeat with no future,” Tom finished glumly, “and he said that….”

“That he wouldn’t give you another break and that he regretted ever having rented that roach motel you call an apartment to you in the first place. Is that what he said?”

The pair stepped around a drunk passed out on the sidewalk in a puddle of his own urine, his Dockers and Tommy Hilfiger shirt soiled by the grime of the sidewalk. His pockets had been turned inside out sometime during the night. Evidently he had staggered away from the tourist end of Bourbon and had landed here, probably having gone looking for his hotel room and not having a clue where he was. Tom shook his head as they passed. Whoever had emptied the drunken tourist’s pockets had most likely taken his hotel room key and the room was long ransacked, emptied of any valuables. That was going to be one sad, sad insurance salesman from Podunk or whatever he was or wherever he came from. It ain’t Kansas, Dorothy, he thought, with a last glance back at the sleeping form.

Well, he had his own problems. It’s every man for himself right now “Yeah, yeah, that’s what he said.”

“And didn’t that delicious – if somewhat strange – girlfriend of yours leave you because of your rather awkward situation?”

Tom sighed. This is what he hated most about Jason. He was just so damn……irritatingly analytical. “Yes, Jason. Debra felt that I was not ‘utilizing my potential.’ She wanted me to go back to school. I told her that I wasn’t ready for….”

“Yeah, yeah…..” Jason cut him off, then did the Charlie Brown schoolteacher thing, “wa wahh waaa wawawa wahhhhhh. Same old shit, man. I don’t even hear it anymore. But anyway, back to the equation. Do the math, Slick. No job. No girl. No money. No shit. And you can’t get a job in any of these fine restaurants or bars because it’s off-season for tourists right now because of this fucking heat. And your last employer threatened to have you arrested if you ever darken his door again after you told him you would kick his rich ass for talking to you like you were an indentured servant. And you don’t want to try the mime thing…..why?”

“I hate mimes, that’s why. Everybody hates mimes. They stand in one place, don’t do shit, and expect people to give them money for it. It’s stupid. And undignified. I won’t do it.”

“Undignified? Well, so is that,” he pointed to a bum standing on the corner as they reached Bourbon and Esplanade, looking around hopelessly, “and if you don’t come up with at least some cash for your slumlord you’ll be sharing that dude’s cardboard box tomorrow night. If he has one. Let me tell you this about dignity: It’s all a matter of perspective, buddy.”

Tom considered what Jason said and replied in the most logical manner possible.

“I hate you,” he said.

“I know,” replied Jason unperturbed, “listen, I did the mime thing for three years before I started here.” They stopped outside the Esplanade bar where Jason was the day bartender, “I never got rich off of it. It’s like anything else, you have your good days, you have your bad. But once in a while I’d have a really good day and make a hundred, hundred fifty. I was good at it.”

“Great. I can see my epitaph. ‘He was good at standing still’. Mom would be so proud.”

“Listen, pinhead. I’m just telling you about a way to make cash. Remember cash? You need cash. Cash is good. Cash is survival. Cash is your friend.”

“What about Les?”

“What about him?”

“He tried it and nearly starved to death. Nobody gave him money.”

“That’s because he’s a physical wreck and an embarrassment to all males of the species. He looks pregnant with that gut. Nobody gives money to someone they don’t like looking at, and the idea behind the whole thing is to be looked at, not ignored. You’re young and in great shape. They’ll look at you.”

“Yeah, you mean those guys in that gay bar back there will look at me.”

“Maybe. But if that means you can pay your rent and eat what do you care who looks?”

Tom sighed again, something he noted he had begun to do with alarming frequency. Jason was right. It was simple math. Get some money – without breaking the law or becoming a male stripper in one of those really sleazy places on upper Bourbon – or sleep on the streets real, real soon. Nobody was hiring in the bars, and he suspected that his former boss, a wealthy cocaine snuffling arrogant prick of a restaurant owner, was calling the locals that he knew and conveying the fact that he had fired Tom after Tom promised to pound him into a gelatinous mass if he ever called him “boy” and snapped his fingers at him in summons again. The black ball system was alive and well in the French Quarter. Any of the smaller businesses that also detested his boss and would normally have hired him under these circumstances couldn’t right now because of it being the slump time of year. Summer in New Orleans is a bitch.

He did the math and reached a decision.

“Alright. I’ll do it. I won’t like it, but I’ll do it.”

“What’s to like? Nobody likes to work. All right, if you’ll do it, I’ll see my boss about taking the day off and give you a crash course in Basic Mime 101. We have a part time standby who likes to fill in. She needs money, too, and doesn’t want to resort to something demeaning like being a mime.” He ignored Tom’s threatening look, “If he can get hold of her he might let me off. Wait here.” Just before he stepped into the bar he turned and said, “It’s good to have a regular job.”

“Shut up, you jerk.” Tom waited, pacing, for about ten minutes before Jason came back out. He couldn’t believe what he was about to do. The amount of dignity he would spill on the streets of the Quarter this evening would make the Exxon Valdez thing look like spilled milk. He had always detested mimes with an uncompromising degree of contempt. And now he was about to become one out of sheer desperation. Tom had never been one to feel sorry for himself but this seemed like as good a time as any to start, so he sat down on the step, put his face in his hands and started. A mime. Oh, man. A freaking mime. And if he didn’t do it well, he’d be a homeless mime. Can you get any more pathetic than that? he asked himself. Life as he knew it was beginning to suck out loud. He was just about to begin moaning softly out of sheer misery when Jason reappeared.

“Okay, Marcel. We’re all squared away. Let’s go start your lessons. Time, she is a wastin’. We need to have you on a corner by this afternoon if you want to make any money. Hey!” he said cheerfully, “I sound like a pimp!”

“I still hate you. In fact, I hate you more than ever now that you just compared me to a streetcorner hooker.”

“Relax my boy, relax. We’re all whores when it comes to money.”

“Thanks. That makes me feel so much better about the whole thing. And don’t call me Marcel.” They trudged off in the direction of Jason’s apartment.

“I hate mimes,” Tom said.

***

Exactly eight hours later Tom approached Jackson Square carrying a milk carton and a box. He was dressed in one of Jason’s old mime costumes, which consisted of a set of one-piece body covering black tights, and he felt absolutely ridiculous. He felt nearly naked in the body stocking type outfit, and the absurd black derby perched on his head greatly increased his sense of humiliated unreality. The white greasepaint was thickly applied to his face, his cheeks a bright red and his eyes professionally lined in black by the ever more irritating Jason. To top everything, even his black hair was thick with oil and swept back on his head. After Jason had finished with the makeup he guided Tom to a mirror.

Tom was so shocked by what he saw he nearly broke down and cried. He didn’t even remotely resemble himself, which, as Jason observed, was a good thing if he didn’t want to be seen and recognized by his friends or any other people. “Like future employers, for instance,” Jason pointed out with his usual unassailable logic. “And any females of the species that you might want to impress at a later date. Women, for the most part,” Jason continued, “find very little fascinating about a man who stands still for a living.”

“Are you trying to make me feel better?”

“Nope.”

“Good. Because you suck at it if you were.”

The makeup had been a final topper to the afternoon of mime lessons. Jason taught him how to assume the rigid posture of the street mime, how to move when he had to without coming out of character. “Remember – when you move you’ll lose fifteen to twenty minutes of money time. Everyone around you will see you move and you’ll have to get back into position and wait for the crowd to change before you start making money again.”

This was the type of thing that now ran through Tom’s mind as he set the milk carton upside down near the base of the old cathedral in Jackson Square. It was hot, so a lot of his competition – he was horrified that mimes were now his competition – hadn’t yet set up, preferring to wait for the slightly cooler temperatures of evening before becoming annoying pests. Like the mosquitoes that would come out about the same time. Oh, God, he thought for at least the hundredth time that day, I hate mimes.

He resisted the urge to throw the box, the milk carton, and the hat into the nearby Mississippi. At least he looked like a professional mime. Jason’s costume and makeup work were superb. He would be a standout, in appearance anyway. Which was good, since he couldn’t do magic tricks or tie balloons into unidentifiable animal figures the way some could. He and Jason had tried the balloon thing for a few minutes but all he ended up with was something that looked a lot like a balloon tied into a knot and very little like any known animal in this solar system. They gave up after the tenth attempt due to time constraints.

Taking a deep breath, Tom climbed onto his milk carton and into the most humiliating experience of his life.

The crowd, still thin in the afternoon heat, ignored him. They swirled around him, only rarely stopping to look, even more rarely dropping the occasional coin or dollar into his box, which rested open at his feet. As the afternoon wore on, the insults began. People, mostly alcohol fueled men, expressed their dislike for mimes well within earshot, sometimes hoping to get a reaction from Tom. One man, a big redneck looking guy with long hair, an open shirt, and a skimpily clad girlfriend offered several suggestions to Tom on just what he could do with his box and his hat, most of which are physical impossibilities. He then dropped his empty can of Budweiser in Tom’s box before walking away laughing, his drunken, giggling girlfriend draped on his arm.

That was the catalyst that started the change.

Tom felt his anger welling up inside of him, crowding the disgust he felt for himself for room. It was then that a young teenage girl, who had seen the redneck and heard his abuse, walked up to Tom, dropped a dollar in his box and reached out. She touched Tom’s hand in a gentle gesture of support, then walked away.

The whole thing came crashing down on Tom then. The loss of the job, the loss of his girlfriend, this humiliating mime thing, the redneck fool. There was all of twelve dollars in the box and he had been there for hours. Screw this. He was just about to step from the milk carton when heard a little girl say, “Look, Mommy, the clown’s crying!”

He didn’t know when the tears had started to come, but they ran down his face through the greasepaint, leaving the evidence of their passing in tiny trails.

“Ahhh. He sure is. Here, put this in his box. Maybe that will make him feel better.” The little girl dropped a five-dollar bill into the box. A second person, a young man who looked like a student of some sort, came from the periphery of his vision and did the same. Slowly the crown began to gather. The comments began to change from insulting to musing, to wondering about the sadness of clowns and how this young man had managed to portray it in living art.

And the money began to pile up in the box.

He had, through his rage and frustration, become accidental art, shifting from being an object of derision and insults to being an object of wonder and amusement.

The absolutely irrational bullshit of it all amazed him. More tears came, this time tears of relief that this stuff might make his rent after all, and the more tears that came, the more the people paid. He began to have visions of food. Two hours later he was exhausted and cried out. Stiffly, he climbed off of his milk carton and gathered the wadded bills collected in the box. Two hundred and nine dollars. Stunned, he counted again. Yep. Two hundred and nine dollars. Cash. And a Budweiser can. He could pay his rent and have enough left over for food tonight. This one day’s humiliation gave him another month’s grace to find a real job. Well I’ll be damned, he thought as he stuffed the money inside his tights. No sense in getting mugged on the way home. Not that mimes, a notoriously poor source of liquid assets, were big targets for muggers but there was no point in taking chances. Suddenly, a woman’s voice sounded behind him.

“That was amazing”.

He turned. Standing there in the lights that illuminate Jackson Square was a lovely young woman of twenty five or so. She looked at him, head cocked as if expecting a reply. He had to clear his throat because he hadn’t spoken for so long, but he found his voice, “Excuse me?”

“Oh, good. You can speak. I said that was amazing. That was one of the best examples of performance art I have ever seen. I was fascinated. I’ve been watching you for hours. How do you do that?”

Tom was flabbergasted, “Well, I, er, it’s…well you see, it’s…”

“It’s okay. You don’t have to tell me. It’s brilliant, though. The sadness of clowns as performance art. I’m an actress. I know good stuff when I see it. Believe me. You had to have worked hard to get it down so well.”

“Well, it’s…..it’s all a matter of perspective.” He knew that was lame but he couldn’t for the life of him think of anything else to say. She was gorgeous.

“Perspective. That’s amazing. I’ve never heard it analyzed like that before.”

You probably never will again, he thought.

“Are you going to be out here again tomorrow?”

I’d rather be poked in the eye with a rusty nail, he thought but he looked at the clear green eyes of the girl and he said, “Sure.”

“I have something to do tonight, but if you want, would you have dinner with me tomorrow night after you get through here? I’m buying. Please say yes.”

“Well, yeah, sure.”

She turned to walk away, “Great. See you tomorrow then, same time, same place. I really have to go now. Goodnight!”

“Wait! What’s your name?”

“I’ll tell you tomorrow when you tell me yours. I can’t wait. You were great!” And with that she disappeared into the crowd.

He really hated it when Jason was right. And Jason was right about this. It really is a matter of perspective. And his perspective had just changed a great big bunch. This mime thing was beginning to show promise. It wouldn’t hurt to try it for just a bit longer.

It just might work if he could figure out a way to make himself cry everyday.

How could he do that? A tack in his shoe? Think of starving children in, well, wherever? Whatever it had to be, he’d better come up with it before tomorrow because, if it turned out that he sucked as a mime of all things, that would be the very bottom of the heap.

And, besides, if he wasn’t really good at it he would never, ever get laid again because no woman worth having would jump the bones of a second rate mime. Or a homeless, well, anything.

He thought, That’ll do it. If I don’t cry, I don’t get laid! Ha!

Thinking of the actress who had just made his life more interesting he headed home to pay his rent.