I PEERED INTO THE BATHROOM MIRROR and saw reflected there . . . a hideous stranger. He had a stark white completion, a red bulbous nose, and an eight-inch crescent mouth. Who was that? In less than an hour I had been transformed. No longer was I the funny, 16-year-old kid with the devil-may-care attitude. Gone was the sensitive teenager who cried like a baby when Dumbo lost his mother. At that moment, life was dead serious, and I was the incarnation of RONALD MCDONALD!
It was my fault; I could have said no. But when the manager of the new McDonald’s franchise offered me 50 bucks to play the famous clown at the grand opening, I could not refuse. How bad could it be? Who would recognize me under two pounds of grease paint; spring-loaded, polka dot trousers; and rubber shoes that measured 24 triple E? I could be jolly for 50 bucks. Heck, for 50 bucks I could be stark-raving hysterical.
Magdalena Trevino was the real reason I took the job. She was a tall, satin beauty with a smile that could start a Latin revolution. When I looked at her, my hormones fixed bayonets and charged helter-skelter like guerrilla freedom fighters. If sex appeal were people, Lena would be China.
For one year I devised a plan to date this teenage goddess; it took me that long to stop dribbling every time I saw her. (I’ve noticed girls don’t like to be dated by guys who can’t control their spit bubbles.) So, when I finally asked her out, and she said yes, I contained my composure until she was out of sight. Then I did a rain dance and foamed a lot.
My date with Lena had to be special: maybe a romantic movie and a late dinner at the swankiest place in town, Frank’s Grill Chinese restaurant. But that would cost a small fortune, which was why I agreed to be Ronald for an eight-hour shift.
Most of the day was a breeze. The traffic was light in the morning. The little kids shyly accepted lollipops and balloons while clinging to the safety of their mothers’ skirts. I was feeling okay. Then, in the late afternoon, a 12-year-old boy discovered me. He stepped on my two-foot-long rubber shoes and sent me sprawling, spread eagle to the asphalt. He ran like a sewer rat, the twerp. I pulled myself to my feet, dusted my balloon trousers, and looked straight into the brown eyes of . . . LENA TREVINO.
She said nothing. Maybe she didn’t recognize me. Sure, and maybe my mother would be the next World Wrestling Federation champion.
My mind scrabbled for something incredibly funny to say. All I could think of was “Want a lollipop little girl?” Geesh, great material.
She smiled placidly and slowly walked away. I was left wondering, “Does she think I’m a complete idiot or what?”
The next Saturday—still hoping for the best—I got ready for my big date with Lena. Everything had to be perfect. That was unusual for me; I was not known for excessive neatness (I once owned a pair of shoes that used to be socks.) But with Lena it was different. I had to be smooth, witty, urbane: I had to be the Great Gatsby.
I got in the family ’53 Chevy and drove the three blocks from my house to Lena’s house. A bead of sweat trickled down my side. At her front porch I felt more like a Great Pyrenees than the Great Gatsby.
When she came to the door, I held out a single grape sucker. “Want a lollipop little girl,” I said.
“I thought I recognized you,” she said with a broad smile. “You crack me up.”
Maybe this would be okay after all. I opened the passenger car door. As she brushed past me the scent of her hair pegged me like a bolt of lightning. By the time I had circled the Chevy, Lena had scooted over to the driver’s side. I had, maybe, nine inches of space to park a 16-inch keister. I had never gone out with a girl who sat that close on the first date. I think I started to blow spit bubbles.
As I sat there—wallowing helplessly in a fruit bowl of raspberry lipstick and lemon shampoo—I tried to think of something smooth, witty, and urbane . . . nothing.
“You’re awfully quiet,” Lena said.
“Oh, am I? I’m sorry.”
“How come you’re not joking around?” she said.
I did have a modest reputation for being a class clown. But that was just show business. One-on-one, I was typically quiet and thoughtful, even a little shy. Being a clown was just my way of getting attention—but it was never me, not the essence anyway.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I finally said. “I guess I’m just enjoying your company.”
“But I want you to make me laugh,” Lena said with a childlike pout.
“I’m sorry. What did you say?” I heard what she said; I just couldn’t believe she said it.
“Make me laugh,” she repeated. “Come on, stop fooling around. Make me laugh.”
That date didn’t go very well. Even the magic of Frank’s Grill Chinese restaurant couldn’t save it. In fact, it was the first and last date I had with the unforgettable Magdalena Trevino. Thinking back, it was not surprising. I was willing to play Ronald McDonald for 50 bucks. I was unwilling to play the clown for any price.
Shakespeare had it right: “This above all: To thine own self be true.
And it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” That is where the power is—to our allegiance to our own voice of wisdom. Consider the alternatives. Everything else is self-deceiving or deferential or patronizing, and that’s nothing to clown about.