Under a cloudy purple night sky, a small group of clowns gathers on the lawn at Bull McCabe’s. Above the fluffy blue, pink, and red wigs and top hats ranging from tiny to way-too-big, string lights animate the space with a carnival-like atmosphere.
Soon, more clowns arrive and anticipatory conversations bounce across the picnic tables at Bull McCabes. At 8:45 p.m., the event organizer, Sara Bloo, slings a shiny backpack holding a clown doll named Baby Kevin over her thick blue yarn braids and onto her back. She raises a megaphone to her clown-makeup-lined mouth to announce the second stop of the night, Rubies on Five Points and its downstairs sister restaurant, The Remedy Room.
A horn honk from Bloo and a chorus of circus music from the crowd (cue Julius Fucik’s “Entrance of the Gladiators”) mark the start of the “crawl” portion of the inaugural Triangle HONKS Clown Crawl. Bloo gleefully announces, “You got all your jollies out at this stop and we’re going to go to the next stop” and directs the group, saying, “Just, you know, follow the clowns. I’ll honk honk us all the way there.”
The group climbs the narrow stairs to Rubies on Five Points and pours into a head-banging crowd dancing to rock hits played by the Blind Tigers Karaoke Band. At the top of the stairs, one clown squeezed in the large crowd laments, “I don’t have room to juggle!”
Throughout the night, the clowns will make their way through some of Durham’s most iconic nightlife spots: Bull McCabes, Rubies on Five Points, The Remedy Room, 21c Museum Hotel, Bad Machines, and 106 Main, with a swing by downtown Durham landmarks like Major the Bull. Toting props like a giant rubber chicken and a muppet named Roger, the procession of clowns walks from bar to bar, with more clowns joining along the way, cheering, whooping and honking. In their wake, the clowns leave several lucky bar-goers with balloon animal party favors.
En route from Rubies on Five Points to 21c, the group approaches a crosswalk. A clown with rosy cheeks, a red nose, and sloping white eyebrows in a perpetual state of surprise commands the rest of the clowns, “No normal walks!” Some clowns cross the street with a long-strided, loping bounce, and one clown with a striped tail opts for a jaunty gallop.
A passenger in a car stopped at the traffic light rolls down his window to compliment the clowns’ outfits and asks what the occasion is. Some passersby smile at the procession, while others don’t look twice.
Bloo ensures that the energy stays playful and positive. One clown scolds another who uses a spooky, deep, growling, clown voice on the megaphone. Some clowns are also “haunts,” or people who work in haunted houses, Millie Pede explains, and therefore have some “scary clown” tendencies. Tonight, Millie Pede, a clown in his early twenties, dons a top hat, bright patchwork pants, platform boots, worm-on-a-string earrings, multicolored contacts, dark lipstick, and red and blue teeth. “A lot this, I think, stems from kink,” he says.
After the dimly lit dancing at Rubies on Five Points, entering the quiet, artsy, minimalist 21c lobby at 10:15 p.m. feels like a sudden vibe change. The group maintains the mischievous, fun, clown energy, nevertheless. Some clowns take a seat at the bar to rest feet tired after walking in oversized clown shoes and tall clown heels. Others mingle with intrigued guests, and a group splits off to explore the museum.
A more reserved clown pair dressed in soft pastels, with mime-like make-up, quietly roams the halls of the museum, snaps some photos, and settles in at the back of the 21c bar.
In the bowels of the 21c Museum, a few clowns take a moment of respite in the vault, an intimate bank-vault-turned-event-space, exchange compliments about make-up and outfits, and share clown tips. Admiring Millie Pede’s teeth, one clown asks how he achieved the look, and the pair discusses the merits of using tooth paint. “Tactical decisions” like choosing the right shoes or applying make-up in a certain way, are some of the pre-event considerations shared by all in attendance.
Clowns in hoop skirts and tutus squeeze through 21c’s maze-like mirrored hallway, a space that feels built for a Clown Crawl. Bloo refers to the hall as a “clown car,” presumably due to its tight corners and cramped walls, as she calls for more friends to join her in the maze.
“Adults just need some more play in their lives!” exclaims one clown wearing rock-and-roll make-up and a black jean jacket with the words “down to clown” painted on the back. As if on cue, two clowns burst into the vault, loudly honking. They pretend to throw and catch an imaginary squeaky ball, exaggerating their movements and facial expressions. The “down to clown” attendee pointedly gestures at the pair. “See, play,” he says.
Many attendees are here to support friends who regularly clown, and are dressed by those more seasoned friends. One first-time clown sports long purple eyelash extensions and squeaky shoulder pads. She hides an endless bandana string in one striped overall pant leg, ready to be pulled out with gusto.
The group will continue to clown around Durham until the wee hours of the night. As Millie Pede says, “That’s the life of a constant clown. A workin’ clown.”
Pictured above (from top): Millie Pede donned patchwork pants and a top hat; Sara Bloo organized the Clown Crawl; a pair of more subdued clowns. Photos by Ana Young — The 9th Street Journal