They say you always remember your first time.
For me, it was a clown handing out balloon animals at the public library. I was four years old. I was drawn toward the colorful creatures shaped out of a little bit of squeaky rubber—and it was love at first sight.
I took my balloon home, sat down on the kitchen floor, and painstakingly figured out how to take it apart. When I had finished, I pinched and squeezed, trying to put it together again.What else could I make out of it? How many times could I twist it before it—oh.
I’ve felt that sharp sting of latex snapping in my palms hundreds of times since then. And every single time, all I’ve wanted was the chance to get my hands on one more balloon.
In the 17 years since that day at the library, I’ve sold balloons in three countries, turned in a 60-balloon dragon instead of a response paper on Beowulf, and been hired to clown at carnivals, birthdays, a bat mitzvah, and the Harvard-Yale tailgate.
I spent two summers working as a balloon artist at Friendly’s, an East Coast restaurant chain known for its ice cream and service so slow you need balloons to forget how long you’ve been waiting in your red vinyl booth. Those summers, I went through more than 3,000 balloons each year. I learned new animals—a chicken, a turtle—based on my customers’ requests. I became acquainted with the people of Friendly’s, too.
One man had come there for the $9.99 dinner-drink-and-sundae meal every single night since his wife died in a car accident; he was usually alone or occasionally with his utterly silent son. One waitress frequently cornered me near the kitchen to ask me for sexual balloons. A diner tried to convert me to Christianity, using the red cellophane decoder toy that came along with the children’s menus to represent the blood of Jesus.
One woman took in my situation—standing in a gaudy chain restaurant just off the expressway in an insignificant town in Pennsylvania, making balloon animals in a rainbow-striped shirt and a name tag that said “Zippy”—and asked me witheringly, “Can you do anything else?” Hyperactive Little League baseball teams asked for 19 balloon animals, and their coaches didn’t even tip me for all those snails. Children handed their erstwhile balloon dogs back to me to be twisted up again, shapes unrecognizable and surfaces sticky with ice cream and worse.
But at another table, a group of little girls made up a “Zippy the Clown” song. I held up a balloon bicycle above the tasteful glass barriers criss-crossing the restaurant one night and the entire clientele responded with applause.
And even when I had twisted a horse or a flower a thousand times, for some reason I never tired of my desire to play with malleable latex. When it’s your job to smile, at some point it stops being an act.
In high school, when anyone asked me where I was going to college, I told them I would be attending the Ohio College of Clowning Arts. After three months, I would run away and join the circus.
I guess my plans changed after that. A year later, after a freshman year that was magical in its own right but included no rabbits in hats on syllabi, the waitresses at Friendly’s were telling their customers, “You know the clown, Zippy? She goes to Harvard.”
A hilariously high number of people responded, “Harvard? Do they have a clown major there?”
Back then, I would always laugh it off. “No,” I said shamelessly. “I’m doing this to help make money for college, so I can do something else with my life!” That usually got a dollar or two out of them.
Yet despite what I told my Friendly’s customers, I’m not so sure I don’t want ballooning to be a major part of what I do with my life. I’ve looked into it. To be a Certified Balloon Artist, one must complete several written exams covering balloon décor, bouquets, and delivery, as well as a four-hour-long hands-on test. There are more than 2,500 CBAs working today. They meet biannually at the World Balloon Convention, where artists from around the world compete for prizes in balloon table arrangements, sculptures, hats, and fashion.