J. J. Crashbang has a trunk made of blue cardboard. It is battered and held together with old scarves braided and tied around its middle. The trunk is full of toys. There are puppets, bright scarves, juggling balls, bean bags and a harmonica. Not even J. J. knows of everything that is in that trunk because when he plays with people, he invites them to throw in anything they think might belong there.
J. J. wears the trunk strapped to his back. He leaves his hands free to balance as he rides his unicycle around the town. J. J. Crashbang is a clown. He is a street clown in Montreal.
J. J. is seasonal because Montreal is seasonal. In the winter, he rides his unicycle through the slush and snow wearing layer upon layer of second-hand sweaters. He goes from the home of one friend to the home of another. How he manages to balance on that unicycle with a trunk strapped to his back and the roads slippery with snow is beyond all knowing. Yet he does it. I’ve watched him set off with as much concern as if he were driving a car.
In the summer, J. J. is on the mountain, on Prince Arthur Mall or in Old Montreal. He’s always out of doors, it seems, and he’s always playing. He has a bent black felt hat which lies on the pavement in front of him to collect coins from passers-by.
Somehow J. J. always has enough money to buy a friend a cup of coffee. I’ve never seen him sad. I’ve never heard him say that he was tired.
Now it’s early May and the weather reporter issues a frost warning. J. J. Crashbang cycles down the Main against the flow of traffic and almost hits a suddenly opening car door. He’s wearing a fool’s cap with an impossibly high peak and a red silk tassel. He’s wearing three sweaters one over the other. I call to him as I come out of the bakery and he unicycles weavingly through the pedestrians.
“Salut, J. J.” I say, and he greets me in his half French, half English way.
“Salut, ma belle! How are you?”
J. J. is on his way to Parc Lafontaine to pick up litter and then to juggle with a friend. His enthusiasm for each moment is so palpable that he seems to radiate a glowing love of life. I decide that I can afford the time on this Saturday morning; I will join him.
I put my bakery bread in my bicycle basket and J. J. and I cycle on down the Main, through Prince Arthur Mall and the Carré Saint Louis. There I ask him, “Why don’t you pick up litter here too?”
“The Parc Lafontaine is calling me. That hillside near Sherbrooke….”
We ride on down Cherrier Street to the park and I help J. J. to pick up litter. As we work, he sings a little song that he makes up in the moment, about the hillside and the cool windy day. When his song is finished, I sing one with a strange light-hearted feeling. I used to sing like this as a child in the back seat of the car. Not for many years have I sung a song that I made up on the spur of the moment. For now, I am a child again and time has no more meaning or power than it did for me then.
Later, how long it’s been is hard to say, J. J.’s juggling friend arrives and the trunk is opened. J. J. and Michel pass clubs and practice together. I watch them and play with a puppet that looks like a dragon. The day darkens and the rain begins. It is cold.
Michel invites J. J. to his house and I realize how it is that J. J. has a place to sleep most nights. Tonight he’ll eat with Michel and sleep on his couch. Tomorrow, he’ll go on to Sarah’s house. I know this because she invited me as well to a barbeque dinner on her back porch. He’ll sleep there, as he has slept at my house, on the extra mattress or a couch. J. J. just goes from friend to friend relying on their generosity. I leave him with Michel. The lid of the cardboard trunk is spotted with the slant of a cold Spring rain.
“I couldn’t live that way.” I tell myself. “I couldn’t live that way ever.”
But what about that wonderful playfulness of his? What about those moments when he sings a song that has never been sung before and will never be sung again?
I’ve never seen him look worried, anxious or stressed. Yet, he has no security, no home and no job. I wish that I could live that way, like a butterfly on a breezy day, but I can’t. I cycle home in the cold May rain, trying to understand my friend J. J. Crashbang the clown.