“Listen to me. A monkey could do this job. That’s what I am. I am a fucking monkey.”
I stared at the man standing behind the counter, next to an enormous helium tank. He was in his fifties, with wiry gray hair that stood straight up and straight out, and an equally wiry body. He was inflating balloons. Frantically. Every few seconds, one of them popped.
“FUCK!” he screamed, and flung the remains of the popped balloon across the room. “But really? Not everyone can handle it. Some people feel like real assholes out there. But you know what? They’re the assholes. So fuck ’em.”
I nodded. A mom-looking woman had walked into the balloon store and stood timidly next to me at the counter. “Could I ask you about your prices?” she said quietly.
“I’m a little busy right now, lady,” the man screamed at her, another balloon popping. “FUCKING SHIT.” He turned back to me. “So, the Cinco de Mayo parade is tomorrow morning. Come to West Saint Paul around nine. You know West Saint Paul? Where all the fucking Mexicans live.”
As I was walking out, Gary, my new boss, yelled after me, “Hey, do you have friends?”
“Yeah, I have friends.”
The lady began again: “Could I–”
“I SAID I’M BUSY, you stupid bitch!” Gary repeated. Another pop. “FUCK!”
It was the summer after my sophomore year of college, and the blackouts were starting earlier and earlier. Every night, I would meet my friend Guy, start drinking gin and tonics, get sad, and teleport into the next morning. I went to the balloon shop because I didn’t want to be sad anymore, and I figured it’d be impossible to be sad if you were a balloon salesman on rollerblades.
The ad in the school paper read, “FUN SUMMER JOB SELLING BALLOONS ON ROLLERBLADES.”
I like a job description that is straightforward and restrained in its enthusiasm.
After leaving the shop, I met up with Guy and another friend, David, to start drinking and convince them to come with me to the parade. I don’t remember anything after they said yes, but the next morning, the three of us showed up to West Saint Paul, hungover and wearing matching dingy Hanes undershirts.
We found Gary’s van parked in a lot off of Cesar Chavez Boulevard. To be clear, Gary’s business “van” was a rusted out, powder blue, unlabeled VW bus. It would have seemed molesty if it didn’t already seem so jam-bandy. But parked next to him was another, very different van. It was pristine white with beautiful red letters: “Balloon Time, Minneapolis Minnesota.”
Next to the new van stood a new man with a white beard, dark sunglasses, and big potbelly. He looked a little older than Gary, and much more normal. He was slowly and calmly inflating mylar balloons and handing them to Gary. When he saw us, he eyed us skeptically. “Who the fuck are these guys?” he asked.
“These are my employees, you asshole. Why don’t you mind your own fucking business.” Gary turned to us. “This is Tom. Don’t mind him. He’s been stoned since he got back from Vietnam. He’s Minneapolis and this is Saint Paul, so don’t listen to a fucking word he tells you.”
The Twin Cities, we realized then, had twin balloon men. Tom and Gary. They worked all the big Cities events together, but this is how they talked to each other:
Gary: Fill the fucking balloons faster, you fucking pothead fuck!
Tom: Settle down, you maniac.
Gary: I’m a maniac? At least my wife’s not a whore.
We observed all this in the first five minutes, while Gary tied money belts around our waists and hundreds of ribbons around our wrists. My friend David leaned over to me and whispered, “Tom and Gary. America’s other cat and mouse.”
Armed with an extraordinary amount of mylar Elmos and Dora the Explorers and Mexican flags floating above our heads, rollerblades under my feet, Gary shoved us out into the parade with these parting words: “Push Dora. Last year, we sold so many goddamn Doras. We were like, what’s with all these fucking Mexicans who love Dora so much? Turns out? Dora’s fucking MEXICAN!”
As I coasted into the street, a gust of wind sent me flying down Cesar Chavez, the mass of balloons acting as a sail and the rollerblades now completely beyond my control.
Every time I saw my friend Guy, he looked miserable. David and I are short and weak, so the combined strength of all the helium basically held our arms up for us. But Guy looked like a giant, walking forward slash, hunched beneath the balloons and trying to keep the ribbons from tangling in the wind.
Every time I saw David, he was on his way back to smoke cigarettes with Tom, who hadn’t moved from his post at the vans.
Seven or eight hours and thousands of balloons later, the sun started to go down and the parade was clearing out. It’s illegal for vendors to sell their stuff after the parade is over, but as the cops rolled around shutting everyone down, Gary skated past them, pushing his remaining product on families trying to walk to their cars. My friends had long given up their money belts for more cigarettes with Tom, leaning against his van with him like they were all old war buddies.
When I skated by them, David ran up to me. “Molly! Tom’s rolling a doobie and we’re gonna smoke it in the balloon van!”
Later, Guy explained to me how the whole thing had come about:
Tom, to Guy and David: So, you guys like to drink beer?
G and D: Yeah.
Tom: You guys like to smoke weed?
G and D: Yeah.
Tom: You wanna smoke some right now?
G and D: Yeah.
So while the Saint Paul police chased Gary around, Keystone Cops style, my friends and I got into a van filled with shiny, floating cartoon characters to smoke a joint of homegrown rolled by the Minneapolis balloon man. It was us and the reject balloons of the day– Cookie Monsters, blue dolphins, silver stars, glittering in the light of the setting sun.
After a few Vietnam stories, we asked Tom how he and Gary knew each other.
“Oh, we’re business partners, and we’re friends,” Tom said. “We’ve been through a lot together. We smoked a joint with this guy in Mexico once? Turned out to be a wanted serial killer.”
“It’s good that you guys are friends, that you have each other,” he continued. “You need people to be there with you for experiences like that.”
A wanted serial killer?
Tom looked up at the sky. “Uh oh.”
Some kid had let go of one of our balloons. When we looked up, we saw a pink and purple unicorn soaring through the pink and purple sky. “It’s beautiful,” I said.
“It’s going to burn up in the atmosphere,” Tom said as he inhaled smoke. “It’s really, really bad for the environment.”
Finally, Gary came back, defeated by the cops. As he and Tom packed up their vans, they started planning for the May Day parade the next day.
“Is your bitch wife going to come?” Gary asked. “God, I hate her.”
“Shh,” Tom said calmly.
“Hey Gary,” I said. “You shouldn’t talk to Tom that way. He’s your business partner, and he’s your friend.”
Gary stopped dead in his tracks and said loudly, “First of all, we’re not business partners. And we’re NOT friends.”
“Shh,” said Tom.
We said goodbye to Tom and got into Gary’s tour bus– which, luckily, was also filled with balloons– for him to take us home. We had the feeling that we shouldn’t tell Gary about Tom getting us high, and we were doing a pretty good job of playing it straight until Gary got out a bag full of all the other crap he sold– light-up Hawaiian leis, light-up headbands and rings, light-up sunglasses.
“Look at this shit!” Gary screamed, putting a pair of enormous blinking glasses on his face. “You’ll never believe what some assholes will pay for this garbage! This is my life!”
We were the audience Gary must have always dreamed of. We just couldn’t stop laughing. And as Gary performed for his devoted crowd, reveling in his utter disdain for his job, he finally started smiling.
Seeing him smile made me brave enough to ask him something that had been on my mind all day. “Gary…” I began. “Do balloons make you happy?”
“You know… have they lost their novelty? Are they still… fun?”
Gary took a slow, deep breath. And another one.
“Of COURSE balloons have lost their novelty!” he screamed. “You think this shit is fun? You think I get off on PLASTIC?!”
I’m not sure what I was expecting him to say.
“But,” he continued. “Every once in a while, there’s that one little girl who gets to you. She comes up to you with her older brother, crying, asking for another balloon because she let go of hers. So… you sell her another one. At a slightly discounted price.”
My friends and I, holding our breath.
“Then you lean down… you wrap the ribbon around her little hand, and look at her in her beautiful eyes. And you say to her: ‘Don’t let go of it this time, you fucking moron.’”
I don’t think I’d ever been happier in my entire life.