My little brother and I would leave the house right after breakfast on Saturday mornings and set out for the thirteen blocks down North Ave heading east to the Enoch-Pratt Free library on the corner of North and Pennsylvania Ave. The half hour walk would take us anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours with the numerous excursions and detours we were so easily turned to. We might decide to follow a cloud that my little brother claimed resembled a horse galloping or spend fifteen minutes closely examining an ant hill before we destroyed it; or we could just walk silently along together.
We always held hands when we crossed the streets. There were big, busy, four lane streets with a light for pedestrian traffic like at Fulton Ave; which we ran across when the sign said “WALK” like we were running across a battlefield, our eyes stretched open with excitement; and there were small streets that only had one-way traffic like at Herbert Street, where we strolled across casually, but still holding hands.
We usually stopped at a corner store and spent our fifty cents on Bazooka bubblegum, Kits, Sugar Daddys, wax lips, Pixie Straws and other penny candy, because back then fifty cents spent like a dollar. Then we’d transfer our goodies from the brown paper bag to the pockets of our jackets and our corduroy pants, because you were not allowed to bring candy into the library, and you most certainly weren’t allowed to have bubble gum in there. Some kid must have destroyed not a precious few books by letting the Bazooka fall out of his mouth into the pages and ruined it for the rest of us. My little brother had no idea how to hold bubblegum in his mouth without working his jaws up and down on it and the librarian would ask him every time… “Are you chewing gum?” and he would have to spit it out in the wastepaper basket that she held up in front of him. He would frown up and pout as if he might cry until I said “Told you Corey.” Then he’d change to his tough look and answer “Shut up, girl.” He was six.
We always wanted to make it to the library in time for Story Time. One of the librarians would read some wonderful story to whatever group of kids were there; usually a good eight to ten of us. I was permitted to check out five books and my brother could check out two. I read so much. It was marvelous to have access to all those books. I would deposit my brother in the little kid area where there were books and puzzles and crayons and paper for him. He was happy right there, while I went into the bigger, little-kid section and rummaged through the aisles. I read all the Harry, the Dirty Dog books and all the Curious George books to my little brother.
He wanted to hear The Biggest Bear over and over again. I read all the Dr. Seuss books to him that he couldn’t read for himself, like To Think It All Happened on Mulberry Street. He read the Cat in the Hat and Go Dog Go and Green Eggs and Ham for himself. I only had to help him a little bit. He would make up the words to the stories based on the pictures and I would just nod my head and go along with whatever he said. He was only six. I was eleven. I read all the Pippi Longstockings series, the Borrowers, the Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I’d love to read long, unabridged classics like David Copperfield. Books were marvelous friends, just like now.
During the summers when school was out and we’d participate in the Summer Reading Program at the library, we could make that thirteen-block trek three or four times a week. In 1967, my mother had no qualms about an eleven-year-old taking a six-year-old by the hand and going thirteen blocks away alone. My brother dutifully held my hand when I told him to and looked to me as the authority on everything we encountered; even though I may get mad at having to get his attention and jerk his arm damn near out of its socket. At that he would come back with the ultimate threat… “I’ma tell.” He didn’t even have to say “who” he was going to tell. For the most part, we had no problems. We were on a mission– to go to the Enoch Pratt Free Library and get some books. There may have been dangers out there, but we didn’t seem to know it and they never touched us.
Then our adventure with Clown Man began.
Now that I’m a hundred years old, I know that the gentleman must have had the skin condition, vitiligo. But forty-some years ago, to an eleven-year-old little girl and her six-year-old little brother, he was the Clown Man. Our first encounter with him came when we were maybe seven blocks away from home. The pink and tan splotches covering most of his face made him look just like a clown to us. He was coming out of the door of his house that day and had his back to us as we approached, strolling casually along. He was dressed nicely in a tan trench-coat, nice shoes, and hat. He finished locking his door and turned to face us. The very nice man looked down at us from the top of his steps and gave us a nice wide smile and a cheery hello. “Well, hello there,” he said.
My brother and I stopped in our tracks. We both looked at the man and then at each other. Now, I might have regrouped instantly and realized that there was no reason to be afraid, but my little brother wasn’t seeing it that way. He let out a scream and started running.
“Ahhhh…ahhhhh,” and I ran after him. I let my little brother’s terror infect me.
“Was the man coming after us?” I didn’t turn around to see, I had to get Corey. I didn’t know he could run so fast with those little legs. I had to catch him. He was fast approaching a four lane crossing.
”Wait, wait Corey. Wait!”
When he got to the big street curb, he just made a right turn and kept on running. Thank God he wasn’t going to cross without me holding his hand. Some of my panic subsided, but I still needed to catch him. I finally caught up to his swift little legs about a half a block down and was able to grab hold to his jacket. He let out another yell when I grabbed it.
“Ahhh… Ahhh!” He thought the Clown Man had him.
“Corey, Corey!” He finally realized it was me and came to a stop. He was really scared.
“He’s a Clown Man,” he was finally able to say between heaves of breath.
“I know,” I told him, breathing heavily too. We both turned to look back up toward North Avenue where we’d left the Clown Man behind. “We lost him,” I assured my little brother between my own exhausted gasps.
We went over and sat down on someone’s marble steps to take inventory. Corey lost his wax lips, but it was okay…I gave him mine.
“Let’s go home,” Corey said.
“No. We’re almost at the library now.”
“What if he’s waiting for us?” Corey’s lips started to pout up.
“Don’t cry. Come on.” I took my little brother’s hand, determined that I would protect him. We were going to the Enoch-Pratt Free Library and no Clown Man was going to stop us. We would just have to keep our eyes peeled.
We made it to the library in time for Story Time that day. On the way back home I know people were wondering what we were doing as we traveled the thirteen blocks ducking behind parked cars and shimmying along walls and peeking around corners like two soldiers infiltrating hostile enemy territory. We may as well have had on camouflage and face paint the way we were going. But we made it back home.
We saw the Clown Man many, many times after that. He would be walking along North Avenue, seemingly minding his own business. Every single time we set out for the library together we would look at each other knowingly. This was no longer a simple outing for two little kids. We knew the dangers we were about to face. Clown Man could pop up anywhere and he could “get” us and we had no idea what he would do.
When we came to that particular block of North Avenue, we would do one of two things — steal past his house, quietly tiptoeing along as if not to wake him; or run past his house screaming and flailing our arms like we were about to be killed. That depended on whether or not I decided to suddenly yell out “THERE HE IS!” to my little brother.
Sometimes we waited to cross on the other side of the street, but North Avenue was huge and we really didn’t like crossing that street… it even had a median. So we had to pass Clown Man’s door. It was the only way…we had to be brave.
I wonder what that poor man thought. Had he been through that so many times that it no longer hurt his feelings? Was he able to just laugh at two silly little kids? One sure thing, he’s a part of a special, warm and hilarious memory to me. I love Clown Man.
My brother is forty-eight years old now. If I call him right this minute and say “Hey Corey…Clown Man,” he would whisper back in a low voice “Clown Maaan.”