It was summer at my neighborhood block party on the northwest side of Chicago. I had to have been seven because he was arrested in December of '78. We lived a mile or two from the house where he killed all those young men. The neighbors who organized the block party hired him as a clown to amuse us kids. I heard he was making balloon animals at the end of my block, over by the bouncy house. I was fascinated by balloons when I was a little kid and I'd never had a balloon animal. It sounded cool.
He didn't really look like a clown and he didn't carry himself like one. He looked like some tired, fat dude sitting on the street in an old metal folding chair.
I stood in line while he twisted balloons into the shapes of horses, dogs, ponies and giraffes. (Catching the trend here?) But my favorite animal was the monkey.
When it was my turn I stepped up to him. I remember thinking there was something about his make-up that was weird. His mouth looked strange. Everyone always talks about how he painted this big gaping mouth on his face and how it accentuated the fact that he was such a monster. But that's not how I remember it. His make-up actually made his real mouth stand out and look smaller. I remembered clowns from the circus with these big, silly mouths, but his didn't seem like theirs. It wasn't really “clownish” if that makes any sense. Like I said: he just looked like some tired, fat guy in some messed-up red and white face paint. He didn't talk like a clown either. In Chicago we grew up with the Bozo Show: we were used to quirky clowns with crazy voices. He sounded like: well, like some tired, fat guy.
He asked me what kind of animal I wanted.
“A monkey,” I said.
And like every other adult I'd ever met, he gave me fifteen reasons why what I wanted just couldn't be done. Then after telling me how it couldn't be done, he told me about some guy on the other side of Chicago who could make a balloon monkey for me.
“On a stick!” he added, gesturing like he was dangling a monkey from a stick. As though this was somehow suppose to make everything better.
Yeah, I thought, I'll run and ask my dad to set down his beer and drive me across town to buy me a balloon monkey. “On a stick!” I'd add and gesture the way Gacy had. Surely that would motivate him.
“Then make me a frog,” I said. And he gave me fifteen more reasons why frogs and monkeys where not in his ken.
I tried one more time, but this time I don't remember what I asked for. All I remember was he yelled at me and told me to, “Get out of the line and see how it's done!”
He pointed at the kid behind me who dutifully stepped up and asked for a horse. He blew the balloon up, tied it then started twisting it into the only shape he knew how to make. I shrugged my shoulders and walked away, the sound of rubber squeaking behind me. I'd heard someone on the other side of the block party was handing out helium balloons. It seemed like it would be a lot less trouble. Screw this guy and his dog-horses.
At that moment when he yelled at me, Gacy had 27 bodies buried under his house (Or close to it, considering that was what they'd dig up four months later in December). Every night when he went to sleep and the heat kicked on in his house he could smell them through the vents. One of the cops who finally found them said he could smell it when he went into Gacy's house to use the bathroom.
I could take this moment to say that looking back I knew there was something seriously wrong with that clown. That something seemed “off” about him. That he was a fiend who gnashed his teeth at me and that I was afraid of that terrible red grin on his face. But that's not how it was. He was just like every other adult I met back then: tired, impatient, tense, angry, boring, gruff and completely devoid of imagination. As far as I was concerned he was no different from my father, my teachers, the Corner Tap owners, the librarians, or the pastor of the Catholic church my parents dragged me too every Sunday. (Who, by the way, is currently in jail for molesting young boys.) They all seemed the same to me. All of them had horrible problems they wore like messed-up face paint that made some part of them look "off".
We found out about Gacy that winter. It was all anyone talked about. All that was on the TV and radio. They were all so shocked but I don't know that I really understood it one way or another. So, the guy who yelled at me about a balloon monkey had killed at least 27 young men and turned his crawl space into a graveyard. I heard them. I understood what they were saying. But I didn't get that it was unusual. Adults seemed so crazy. I figured it was just the sort of thing they all might do.
When I was a kid I swore I'd never stop playing, never stop having adventures and I've never let go of that vow. It bothered me too much that adults grew up to be killers.