I was in my friend Sally’s car, speeding towards our designated meeting place, a house in North Hollywood, when she turned to me: “You should have a clown name ready, just in case they ask you. They’ll probably ask you.” I exchanged a look with Drew, Sally’s boyfriend, who was sitting in the backseat. It was bad enough I was dressed in a hastily assembled approximation of clown garb, but now I had to have a clown name, too? An identity to accompany my foray into the evening’s intended revels? I felt vaguely uneasy.
It was the final night of my week-long visit to Los Angeles and I was to spend it dressed in thrown-together motley, cavorting onstage at a rave being held at the Henry Fonda Theater. It was not how I had envisioned my Saturday evening in the city, but when you arrive in town without an agenda, at the mercy of your friends and their cars, things can often take an unexpected turn.
Sally had received the invitation on Friday, from someone I’ll call Karnage, a fetish model and entertainer she’d met at Burning Man the year prior. He’d been hired for the event and was rustling up talent to go-go dance on stage from midnight until four A.M. There would be payment involved for her services. Reading the message aloud, she asked if I’d be interested in attending. “It could be fun,” I said noncommittally. She e-mailed Karnage back, explaining that I was visiting and to see if I could somehow get on the list. His response: I could get in free but only if came in costume. Otherwise, admission to the party was forty-five dollars. I weighed my options. I could either not go, and thereby not spend the last night with my host and best friend, who’d kindly let me crash on her couch the entire week; I could pay the forty-five dollars, which I didn’t really have to spend at this point in the trip; or I could play dress up. (A point I should clarify: these were not to be your standard-issue circus clowns, but sexy clowns, alternative clowns, Klowns with a “K” — more nipple rings than Ringling Bros.)
Drew, a lanky musician with a handlebar mustache, was more than game. When I got back to the apartment from dinner Friday evening, he and Sally were discussing characters. He was thinking of doing a version of an old-fashioned circus strongman, but with disco balls for barbells. It was either that or a creepy, bespectacled creation he had dubbed Insane Clown Fosse.
Though not without reservations, I decided that I’d tag along. Sally, Drew and I spent Saturday afternoon shopping for costume pieces in the discount bazaars of downtown Los Angeles, traversing fabric stores and the catacombs of cheap goods, combing through stalls that sold plastic jewelry for a dollar and panties and t-shirts for three. We spent the early part of the evening prepping, Drew finally abandoning the strongman idea and settling on a garish polka dot and striped ensemble that made him, with his facial hair and beanpole frame, resemble an even more creepy version of the Purple Pieman from Strawberry Shortcake. Sally was busy assembling her red and white ensemble: red panties, red corset, candy striped tights, and fishnet gloves. The plan was to finish dressing at her place and then meet up with the rest of the crew at Karnage’s house for face-painting, before caravanning to the club to make a grand entrance en masse. Both Drew and Sally had a “look,” but what to do with me? I was handed a pair of turquoise plaid polyester pants, an impulse thrift store purchase of Sally’s that rode high on my waste and fit a little too snug around the crotch. I took an old white button-down dress shirt that I didn’t want anymore (one less thing to pack), stained it with coffee and burned cigarette holes into the fabric. I capped off my look with a ratty wig. The elements assembled, I had created a sort of greasy substitute teacher-slash-child molester aesthetic, an image which I was assured could be emphasized to the fullest with the judicious application of some make-up.
The first person to greet us upon arrival at Karnage’s was a petite girl in a bra and harem pants. She warmly embraced each of us and introduced herself. “Hi, I’m Butterfly.” It was like being welcomed into the Hare Krishnas, but instead of a being handed a flower or a vegetarian meal you got a noisemaker and a red nose. Karnage emerged then from his bathroom, face half made up but already resembling the main character in the movie Mephisto. He was tall and lithe, with floppy blond hair. He was shirtless, his alabaster, hairless chest exposed, and he was sporting a pair of silver pants with a demented-looking rubber mask affixed to the crotch with safety pins. Drew and I were introduced to him, real names first. “And what are your clown names?” Karnage asked, quite seriously. Sally opted for her default stage persona. Drew was Insane Clown Fosse.
Karnage turned to me. “What about you?”
I fumbled. “Uh, I’m not sure.”
Drew swooped in and rescued me. “How about Jaeger,” he offered.
Despite being dressed in second-hand clothes and an old wig, for some reason I decided to be picky about my new identity. “It’s a little fancy to go with my costume,” I said, fingering a cigarette hole in my shirt. Though I thought Drew was right to go with an alcohol motif. “I’m more like Schlitz.” It was a split-second decision, but it seemed to fit; I looked like the type of clown who’d be named for a 40 oz. malt liquor. “Schlitz the Klown.” Karnage nodded in approval, and led us into the kitchen to make us cocktails, where we pressed him for details on who exactly was throwing the party. It was a rave for the upcoming holiday of Rosh Hashanah. The crowd would be mostly L.A.-based Israelis. It was an answer, but it didn’t necessarily satisfy my curiosity.
The drink of the night was watermelon vodka with cranberry juice as mixer. I was thankful for the liquor, it helped to take the edge off. I hung back while Drew and Sally readied applied their make-up in the living room, using the large funhouse mirror leaning against the wall to put on their clown white.
More people arrived, including Karnage’s roommate Randy. Randy with his ghostly pallor and blonde dreads was dressed in black leather pants, a black t-shirt and motorcycle boots. A peek into his room revealed a black and maroon color scheme, and there was a Barbie doll suspended upside down from the ceiling by a chain — it looked like the feature spread in “Goth Homes and Gardens.” Yet when he spoke, he sounded like an alt-bro from Long Island, which struck me as jarringly out-of-context. His girlfriend, while fishing a long blue wig out of her bag, introduced herself as Ghetto Rainbow Brite. I have a hard enough time remembering names upon introduction as it is, now I was going to have to remember both a combination of real names and assumed ones. Everyone gathered in the living room was talking about this year’s Burning Man, which had just ended. Who’d been and who hadn’t. How it had changed and how it had not. A guy who looked to be mid-to-late thirties, tall and a bit paunchy, sat lounging on the couch. He hadn’t been this year, but explained that he was a little out of it as he’d done five hits of ecstasy the night prior.
I returned to the kitchen seeking more booze, out of instinct, nervousness and lack of anything better to do. I re-filled my plastic cup then made a surreptitious trip out front to smoke a cigarette and kill time. It felt reminiscent of so many evenings of getting ready to go out when I was back in college, me standing around while the girls obsessed over the minutiae of their wardrobe and hair in the bathroom.
The Klowns weren’t shy, that’s for sure. At various points I saw Butterfly’s breasts and crotch as she got ready. One short fellow dropped trou and shimmied into tight bell bottoms, transforming himself into a pimp clown, complete with afro wig. The stream of arrivals continued, mostly petite, punky girls in their early twenties. The surly guy from the couch (Ultraviolet) had outfitted himself in a polka-dot jumpsuit. He sat cross-legged on the floor in front of his make up kit, where he swathed his face in pink before he studiously applying green dots all over, like he’d been infected with circus measles. He motioned to me. “What’s your name again?”
“Mike,” I said.
“Someone needs to start doing Mike’s make-up,” he announced to no one in particular before returning his attention to the mirror. For all the drinking and chatter, there was still a seriousness of purpose. People were sharing eyelash glue, or white face powder, and passing liquid liner back and forth. I was odd man out. Luckily I wasn’t the only one, a writer from Australia, with whom I shared a cigarette outside and who was also in town visiting a friend, was being made over into Emo Klown. Sally found me and began to apply my face. I didn’t go full white, just black circles around my eyes, ringed like gun sights, and a blood-red tint applied to my lips, outlined in black and then smeared. I was now, for better or worse, Schlitz. A squishy foam nose, offered by one of the girls, completed the look. Someone named Taint arrived, with name tags for anyone who wanted. I took a colored gel pen and scribbled my new moniker on a card and slung it around my neck.
I received a text from my friend Jay. He’d had to work that night and wasn’t going to meet up with us, but his message said “If you hate the party and want me to pick you up, let me know.” It was an option, but where else could I go, in my ill-fitting pants and creepy swath of make-up? Besides, I’d committed, and however dubious the enterprise, surely I could find a way to have fun.
We were given a fifteen minute warning, the clown van was moving out. Sally had hoped to ride with everyone else, but that meant leaving her car at the house, which meant coming back to get it at night’s end, prolonging my chance to get a scant few hours of sleep before the morning and the trip to the airport. I thought of the early flight I had to catch from Burbank and silently hoped we’d end up taking her car to the club, so we could at least go straight home afterwards. After a spirited back and forth about the situation with Sparkle, who was acting as Karnage’s lieutenant, it was agreed we’d be taking our own car.
We circled the block several times to find parking, then made a pit stop at the 101 Coffee Shop for a quick pee break, to the stares and confused whispers of the patrons, before trudging the few blocks to the Fonda. There was a line formed around the front, but we couldn’t find our entourage. As Sally was beginning to dial Karnage on her cell, the air was pierced with the sounds of whoops and whistles and a parade of clowns appeared around the corner. Someone jabbed a noise maker into my hand and after getting a wristband from the bouncer, I followed our posse inside. The people queued up outside were cheering us on. Our conga line of clowns circled the dance floor, noise makers bleating, stirring up the dancers, before we were led back through the curtains to the stage.
The stage was U-shaped, with the DJ stationed in the center. There were a few benches at the back wall, which we commandeered to stow our gear and regroup. It was barely midnight, but the venue was filling up quickly. Our complimentary bottle of Ketel One emerged, courtesy of a promoter sporting a large mohawk. Sally managed to surreptitiously snag the bottle before the others noticed, and she, Drew and I passed it back and forth, taking greedy sips.
Moving to the edge of the platform, I looked down at the sea of revelers tossing beach balls back and forth, their glow sticks shining. They were clearly enjoying the High Holidays, or more likely just the high. I didn’t know if this party was indicative of the recently touted “new rave” movement, but it certainly captured the trappings of the old one: the toys, the wide pupils, and the grinding of jaws. It reminded me of college in Florida in the mid-nineties, where the clubs were reigned over by superstar DJs. Though something about this party felt…off. Yet! I managed to be caught up in the fervor; I shook and swayed, even if it was merely from muscle memory. I enjoyed being above the crowd, mingling with the few “VIPs” who were on stage with us, particularly the brunette who kept tweaking my spongy clown nose. I was cast in my role and tried to play it to the hilt. There were costumed stilt walkers, also hired by the promoter, careening through the crowd.
Since I wasn’t on the payroll, I opted to take a break, following the ornate stairs of the Fonda Theater up to rooftop patio for a smoke. I lit a cigarette and moved toward one of the go-go clown girls, who had apparently snuck up here for a respite as well. When in unfamiliar surroundings, gravitate towards your own kind, even when in this case “my own kind” was girl in clown face with pasties on her nipples. She was surrounded by a few clubgoers so I lingered nearby, my clown nose in my hand. (It’s not easy or advisable to smoke a cigarette with a clown nose on.) A young, muscled guy approached.
“Are you faggot?” He asked, in a thick accent.
“What?!” My ears still ringing from being so close to the speakers downstairs, I couldn’t quite believe I’d heard him correctly and needed confirmation, which he supplied as he repeated his question with a hint of menace.
“Are you faggot?”
I looked him in the eye. “Try. Another. Word.”
“Are you gay?”
“Sure am,” I said as I exhaled a plume of cigarette smoke. At least I got him to use a more acceptable appellation. A Pyrrhic victory.
“You go over there,” he said, waving me away as if I were an annoying insect. I took a small step to the left, In case he was going to try to strike me, but otherwise I was willing to hold my ground. It didn’t matter. Having asserted his manhood, he turned his attention back to his friends. I finished my cigarette slowly, deliberately, while he and his companions tried to hit on the clown girl.
I marched back downstairs, fuming. Fuck him and fuck this fucking party, I thought. Not that I missed the cuddly, candy raver days of pacifiers and group gropes, but at least there was a sense of inclusion. This “rave,” as I had the displeasure of observing throughout the night, had a decidedly misogynistic, aggressive vibe. Though I guess anyone that pays forty-five bucks feels entitled to be a dick. I wanted to go home. It didn’t make me feel better that the next time I went upstairs to smoke, with Sally and Drew in tow, an entirely different person labelled Drew a faggot. Maybe everyone not in designer jeans and a striped button down, a hand on some vapid girl’s ass, could be construed as a faggot? (Or entertainer=faggot?) If I had wanted this kind of moneyed misogyny and entitlement, I might as well have just stayed in Manhattan and sucked down a few drinks in the Meatpacking District. By now the buzz I’d acquired from the Vodka crans and the few shots of the Ketel One had dissipated, along with my good will.
We were soon hustled from the roof deck by the promoter to liven up the crowd, as the featured DJ of the night, Kilowatt or Ener-G, or some name that was meant to be connote an electric excitement, was about to spin. I dutifully tossed a beach ball out to the crowd. I put an inflatable pool toy around my neck and acted the fool. But at this point I was merely going through the motions, killing time until we could leave, out of some bizarre sense of loyalty or duty. I noticed our ranks were thinning. Emo Klown and his friend had disappeared. I looked at the time– it was 2:45 A.M.– there was well over an hour yet to go. Sparkle, on mushrooms, was maniacally taking pictures with her digital camera. As was an older guy in suit, hired by the promoter; he kept swooping in and around the girls, who gamely dry-humped in pseudo-lesbian poses, the only acceptable display of non-heterosexual affection.
I made more and more trips out to the back alley to smoke cigarettes, away from the beats and the partygoers and the shirtless guy who was enjoying the carnal embrace of his girlfriend on a suspect-looking leather couch backstage. I was exhausted. I was thirsty. My pants were beginning to chafe. On every trip I made to the bathroom, I’d surreptitiously remove more and more of my makeup with water and brittle paper towels.
At a few minutes until four, Sally received her pay. We left through the lobby, past a smarmy scenester in a suit, his hands cupped around one of the clown girls’ breasts (which one I didn’t know, I couldn’t keep them straight at this point). Near the exit, I had to wait while numbers were exchanged with some of the other go-go dancers, networking I supposed. The floor of the lobby was littered with plastic cups and torn paper wristbands. Through the doors, I could still see Karnage onstage, dancing away, an orange glow stick twirling in each hand.