Scraping around from one odd job to another lately has me pondering this burning question: what was the crummiest job I ever held down? Was it the "candid camera" photography counselor gig at Breezemont Day Camp? Maybe it was the Sears paint department in the ghetto end of Bridgeport, Connecticut; clip-on tie and a tan badge that proclaimed, "Welcome to the Friendly World of Sears – DAVID A. – Courtesy is Caring," and beneath the badge was a ribbon that begged, "ASK ME TO ASK YOU." Perhaps the worst job was at the Evil Retro Record Store in Chelsea. Or that one fateful night at the Hagaan Dazs in the West Village. Or that one night busing tables at Fitzwillies. Or that one night busing tables at Figaro's. Or that one hour working the register at Conran's. Or that sub-zero New Years Eve job tossing confetti off a building in Times Square (the boss' name was Treb Hiney). Or that sweltering summer delivering helium balloons. Or that high-end house wares inventory job that was run by a crazy ex-Kennedy in-law. Or the seven years at the stupid vintage clothing store. Or nine freakin' years at the Harris Poll. All jobs. All crummy. However only one of these aforementioned positions required the daily use of a duck suit. And if you guessed Sears, you're wrong.
Summer of 1981: I'm nineteen, disillusioned, and my only immediate plan for the future is to be a Good Humor Man. How many of you know that ice cream trucks have to be plugged in all night to recharge the refrigerator? I didn't know that either and that's why my frozen ice cream dreams were rapidly dashed asunder. Living on the second floor and dealing with multiple extension cords down to a parking space was more than my teenaged attention span could handle. I checked the Bridgeport Post (or Telegram? Or whatever the hell it was) again. Balloon delivery job? I'm your man. I mean, I'm your duck. It appeared that getting together my sixty dollar a month rent nut would require drastic measures.
I Luv a Balloon was located on Main Street in Bridgeport about halfway between Seaside Park and the Trumbull Mall. It was nestled safely in a tiny pre-fab shopping plaza right between a really bad neighborhood and an even worse neighborhood. There was a donut shop next door and one bleary morning I saw legendary Phillip Morris midget Johnny the Bellboy ("Call for Phillip Morrrrrr-rissssss") getting his daybreak jolt of sugar and joe. He was a hundred years old and sported a dapper white windbreaker with a matching golf cap. Spotting Johnny was probably the highlight of the entire job.
Listed in the "Balloon Boutique" section of the Yellow Pages, I Luv a Balloon was run by two middle-aged twins, each with identical G.I. Joe salt and pepper beards. I couldn't tell them apart and I couldn't remember their names even back then. All I recall is that one was Good and one was Evil. Good Twin Boss had a loving wife and 2.5 kids, was jovial and a chronic touchy-feely back slapper. Evil Twin Boss endured a ten year wait while his true love served in the Peace Corps only to get unceremoniously dumped (in true sad clown fashion) when she returned home. Evil Twin Boss would frequently have me stay late doing non-duck specific chores like cleaning out the van and lugging in the spent, oxygen-heavy helium tanks at the end of the shift.
I named myself "Raul the Duck" for reasons long forgotten. Shy about my lack of a strong duck voice, I remained uncharacteristically mute. I waved a lot, ran around in circles and flapped my wings. Having since perfected my Donald Duck cussing impersonation, I remain, decades later, chagrined by that missed opportunity at duck obscenity hilarity.
Most of the transactions required the delivery of balloons from a clown (5 minutes maximum) or for thirty-five bucks more, the big spenders could spring for a duck that the clown would lead out of the back of the van with a rope tied around its neck. The tethered duck routine was an implicit directive, again from management. They insisted on the rope shtick. That must've been a fun brainstorming meeting.
Each morning The Twins would hand me a Xeroxed map with penciled notations along with some screwball itinerary for that day's business. Then I'd go down to the storefront's basement and haul the massive helium tanks up through an entrance in the sidewalk and into the van. The hottest balloons that summer were Pac Man and Strawberry Shortcake mylar heliums, so I would grab a three dozen of each. Kids would slit their wrists to get their clammy third grade mitts on one of those balloons. (If you were one of those kids and you're reading this now: you're an idiot.)
There were two identically filthy duck costumes for me to choose from. The ninety degree Bridgeport summer exacted its toll on those battered duck suits and they stank like real ducks. My transformation from man to duck consisted of a duck head with a stupefying expression and eyeholes in the beak, a bulbous zip-up duck torso and stained yellow tights that I reluctantly wore under my Chuck Taylors. Trying to do anything in the duck head was like playing harmonica in a bucket underwater. Management advised that I remove the duck head while driving (another stupid rule).
In the I Luv a Balloon universe only men (ducks) were allowed to drive the delivery van and women (clowns) were the navigators and designated balloon wranglers. The house rules withstood their greatest challenge midway through the summer when one of the driving ducks had a sex change from he to she and was summarily demoted to a balloon toting clown. My new partner calmly hid her freshly shaved eyebrows under a thick layer of clown white and Balloon with Duck delivery continued uninterrupted. Having no qualms about getting her unit removed, my partner nonetheless had an odd phobia about inflating balloons from the helium tank (something about them bursting), so I took on this non-duck task as well.
From Greenwich to Danbury, West Haven to Ridgefield, seated in three-quarters of a damp duck suit, that summer I owned the highways and zigzagging service roads of Southeastern Connecticut. Making Stratford to Willimantic (60 miles away) in under 45 minutes was a skill only afforded to skilled duck impersonators and I recklessly rose to the task. The day's schedule was usually packed solid, yet The Twins cheerfully accepted last minute day-of-birthday-party requests from any corner of the state. They in turn would beep me (via the Motorola Shoebox 9000), forcing frequent off-ramp visits to random payphones for updated instructions. The duck calls typically came near the end of the shift while journeying back to the store during the evening rush hour. It seemed as if all the eager families in Trumbull and Wilton could ever hope for in this lifetime was to dazzle their neighbors with a backyard sunset, some barbecue, ice cream cake and a surprise five minute visit from a clown and a duck bearing silver balloons.
I don't remember the exact events that led up to my quitting I Luv a Balloon. As I recall, me and the clown pulled into 813 Main Street around 9:30 to drop off the van and lug in the empty helium tanks. It was the tail end of a routine shift and I was wearily shifting into non-duck mode. One of the twins (it didn't matter which one at that point) asked me to make an emergency Balloon with Duck run to an Italian restaurant in Danbury for some jerk's retirement party. I placed the van keys, beeper and the fetid rubber duck head on the counter and told G.I. Joe to find himself another duck with a driver's license. Shocked at my abrupt decision, the twin informed me that I was making a big mistake and that I would live to regret it. (If he only knew how right he was!) I unzipped the rancid duck torso and still clad in the dirty yellow tights, hopped into my Olds Cutlass Supreme. Hitting the accelerator a little too hard, I disappeared into the night; free from the shackles of feathery duckdom, thirsty for blessed slack, yet ultimately fated for a three month stint in the paint department at Sears.