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Hobo Joe

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When I was ten years old the Como Avenue Merchant’s Association held a themed carnival at Van Cleve Park in Southeast Minneapolis. They called it ‘Hobo Days’ -- and the idea was for all the kids in the area to dress up as vagabonds, complete with lampblack beards and sticks impaling bandana packages of faux bindlestiff swag. The merchants thought it would be good PR, plus, I think, they really wanted to get dressed up like Freddy the Freeloader themselves. Shopkeepers have an innate longing to dress as poor as they proclaim themselves to be, what with the %#@*%# taxes they have to pay.

On the appointed day my sisters and I, suitably accoutered in our patched shirts and ragged pants with rope belts, ambled over to the park to investigate the games and goodies available. First there was a parade, where we marched in front of some nameless adult dignitaries and were each awarded a prize for our costumes -- splintered palm frond Chinese finger traps or an anemic plastic whistle that only issued a dispirited hiss. Somehow the Como Merchants had persuaded the current mayor, Art Naftalin, to volunteer his services at the dunking booth. Anyone who could hit the bullseye and send the mayor plunging into the tub got a Bit-O-Honey bar -- one the least popular confections of the era; parents apparently thought it was healthy because of the word honey in the title and bought bags of the stuff which then rotted away untouched in the back of innumerable kitchen cupboards.

The whole affair had the feel of an under planned company picnic to it. What kept me at the park, after my sisters had decided to troop back home for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Wonder Bread, was the advertised ‘Big Clown Skit’ that the merchants themselves would perform under the direction of a real live professional circus clown. This I had to see.

The performance took place on the patio of the warming shed, where in winter we battled chilblains when skating in the Minnesota sub-zero weather. Kids were raised hardier back then -- or maybe parents just didn’t care as much, I dunno. Anyway, things got off to a promising start when ‘Hobo Joe’ sauntered out to do some warm-up schtick. First he removed his tattered white gloves -- which entailed pulling about two yards of material out of each sleeve. Then he blew his nose on a piebald rag, which he nonchalantly threw to the ground and deftly caught when it bounced right back up to him. He ended with a devil sticks routine that, in retrospect, was pretty basic -- but at the time blew my ten year old mind. The restless sea of kids that had billowed around the patio on the verge of bored mischief were likewise enchanted by Hobo Joe’s deft comic skills.

Things got dicey again real quick when the Como Merchants, dressed in their hobo rags, stumbled out at Joe’s direction to do the tried and true ‘Niagara Falls’ routine, ending it with a bucket of water thrown on the audience that actually contained nothing but confetti. They botched the entire gag from start to finish, forgetting their lines and asking Joe to prompt them -- spilling water on each other at exactly the wrong moment -- and throwing the confetti bucket out into the crowd in an exuberantly lethal manner, where it hit a girl smack dab in the eye and gave her a handsome ‘mouse.’

After the debacle was over and the crowd and merchants had drifted away, I worked up the courage to approach Hobo Joe, who turned out to be a real nice guy -- he didn’t mind talking to a diffident little kid like me at all. He real name was Gene Hammond, he said, and he made his living doing Shrine circuses and also renting himself out to coach amateur comedians at charity events and men’s smokers. When I innocently asked him what a men’s smoker was, he hastily changed the subject by asking me if I ever thought of running away to join the circus. Of course, he was just being a typical jocular and unthinking adult with that question. He had no way of knowing that that is exactly what I had been planning to do for the past several years. For a breathless moment I thought that he was my ticket out of town to the bright lights and sawdust of the big top. I’d ask to be his apprentice! But then I saw he was packed up and impatient to leave, and had no thought of actually encouraging lot lice like me to tag along. He was no Pied Piper -- just an itinerant entertainer looking for his next gig. Before he left for the bus stop (not much money in clown coaching, I guess) he gave me a little trinket to remember him -- a miniature spy glass. It actually worked, too! I could see things up close with it, and it seemed to have some magical power that caused people to chuckle at me the rest of that afternoon whenever I would hold it up to my eye to take a gander around.

When I finally went to the restroom later that day I saw that I had acquired a large black circle around my eye. That was a cruel setback, I admit -- still, I finally managed to escape my dull Scandinavian neighborhood seven years later when I scarpered off to the Ringling Clown College in Florida. Without the help of Hobo Joe.

(An interesting sidelight to this memoir is that the ‘real’ Hobo Joe was actually a mascot for a chain of coffee shops. At one time there were dozens of Hobo Joe Coffee Shops all over Arizona and adjoining states -- with a life-size statue of Hobo Joe leaning nonchalantly near the cash register. I’m pretty sure that the Hobo Joe I met at Van Cleve Park had nothing whatsoever to do with the coffee shops. The chain went belly up in the 1980’s, apparently as a consequence of the franchise owner’s embezzling ties with the mafia. For more details, read Ben Leatherman’s fascinating article here.)

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