The real victims of the time I learned how to make balloon animals were my roommates. Our apartment overflowed with deformed flowers and guitars that looked like strap-on dildos. The constant nails-on-chalkboard sound of balloons rubbing against each other was only interrupted by the gunshot sound of balloons bursting. The place stank of rubber. But perhaps most annoying was my newfound habit of giving away my practice creations as gifts. Not just to my roommates, but to everyone I could find.
“Thanks,” a friend would say, trying to be polite as I handed him what looked like a mutilated horse in desperate need of a nose job.
“It’s an elephant,” I would explain as he calculated how long he had to hold onto this monstrosity before he could politely throw it out.
“Oh I can tell,” he would say, in that way that parents pretend they know exactly what is going on in the pictures their five-year-olds draw.
For two weeks, the apartment was my laboratory. I poured over YouTube how-to videos and cranked out practice attempts. Dozens of puppies and swords and crowns stacked up beside my chair as I tossed my finished figurines to the side and started new ones. The math seemed simple enough. At $2 a piece with the occasional five- or ten-spot thrown in from a generous patron, making 8-10 per hour, a ten-hour day of balloon-twisting in a public space could easily generate $200 in untaxed cash.
Or, at least, that was the thought.
At 11:30, on a beautiful Thursday in August, I arrived at Boston Common, a public park in the heart of the city, ready to launch my career making balloon animals for kids. I set up shop at something called the Frog Pond. The Frog Pond is populated exclusively by children, because they are the only people with active enough imaginations to imagine a scenario where the Frog Pond could actually be any fun. It is a pool of water that barely rises past your ankles, and it is presumably infested with the bacteria of the homeless people who bathed in it that morning. For some reason, adults tend not to go in.
But the kids love it. They race through the water and splash around with their friends, while their parents sit strewn about on the sidelines with that war-torn-refugee look that all parents get when they spend entire days with small children. As the kids giggle and play, the parents spend their time asking themselves why the hell they didn’t just spring for summer camp this year.
For children and parents, it is an oasis. But for balloon vendors, it is a literal teeming pool of potential customers. I set up my stool and inflated demo balloon animals. I planted my tip hat in front of me and a greaseboard (on which I had written catchy advertising phrases like BALLOON ANIMALS!! and SWORDS!! and MONKEYS!!) to the side. All that remained was to wait and let the business roll in.
And so I waited.
I tried to stay positive, but it was impossible not to notice that no one was coming over. I could almost hear the parents mind-melding with each other, sending messages like, “Don’t you dare buy one, because if you buy one then that kid is going to want one and then they’re all going to have one and I’m gonna wind up shelling out fifteen bucks just so my kids can have a few piece-of-shit swords which will pop inside of ten minutes, and next thing I know, my beautiful day will be ruined and filled with crying and broken latex, just like my prom night!”
My optimism started to melt away. My estimates of $20 an hour plummeted. That I had positioned myself amidst a herd of my target demographic and was making nothing was bad enough. But to make matters worse, with each moment that passed of no one talking to me, I seemed less like a street vendor and more like a creepy guy sitting on the outskirts of a pool full of half-naked children, just kind of hanging out.
It was only a matter of time before Chris Hansen showed up to cart me away.
At around the 40-minute mark a woman mercifully approached me with her daughter. “Can she have a flower?” The mother asked.
Yes!! Yes you beautiful, wonderful woman, I could hear my brain shouting as I turned to her. “Of course.”
I inflated a long green balloon and, with a few simple twists, turned it into a perfect stem with elegant leaves extending from the sides. It looked so nice that if someone had walked by in that exact moment, they might have actually thought I was competent. I handed the stem to the little girl while I pulled out a pink balloon for the petals. “So what brings you to Boston Common?” I asked, determined to be the guy who was not only an expert balloon maker, but also a charming conversationalist.
“We’re visiting for the day from Connecticut.”
“Oh wow, you came all the way from Connecticut just for some balloon animals?” I joked.
The woman stared at me blankly, her face unchanging.
This was my best material.
“So you like flowers?” I asked the little girl.
“Yeah.” She said, her face as stony as her mother’s.
Good. Great. Definitely nailing this charming conversationalist part. I lowered my head and kept on working. After not too long, I had created what I must say was an awesome set of flower petals. I seamlessly attached the stem to the petals then threw myself an internal parade for making a beautiful flower on my first try.
I had decided to copy the pricing model of a balloon artist I had talked to a couple weeks earlier. He gave the balloons away for free, then wrote on his greaseboard “Gratuities are appreciated.”
The mother pulled out two dollars to hand me in exchange for the flower, which is about what I would have charged if I had made up my own prices. “Believe it or not,” I told her as I took the money, “you are my first ever customer. I’ve never done this before.” Again, her face remained a stone wall as she nodded. It appeared that she did in fact believe it. She then walked away.
Over the next couple hours, I made another sale or two, but business was slow. Things only got worse when a rival balloon artist set up camp on the opposite end of the pond, in a spot I quickly realized was far better than mine. By the time people saw me, their kids were already in the water and so engaged that they weren’t going to get out of the pool for anything. Meanwhile, he was getting kids before they ever reached the water and, in turn, before they ever reached me.
After three hours of telling myself there was no money in the balloon business, I watched this guy sit down and immediately start cranking out creations and raking in tips. He was destroying me. I wondered for a moment if he would come talk to me, if we would have turf wars, but I quickly realized that to him I wasn’t even competition. As far as he was concerned, I was just some guy who liked to sit on stools with balloon animals attached to them. He never once even looked my way.
I decided to switch things up. I found a new spot by an entrance to Boston Common. But business was even slower. Not only did the new place have fewer children, but it was also overwhelmed by a horde of flies who, apparently, are attracted to rubber. But the flies were the least of my worries.
“Hey man, can I get one?” An adult with no kids came up and asked me. Instantly, I got the vibe that he was messing with me, but who was I to turn down a customer?
I inflated a balloon. “What would you like?”
“Just the balloon is good.” He said and took it out of my hands.
“You’re supposed to tip him,” his friend grunted as he walked up beside him.
“Tip him? Man, I’m homeless. I ain’t got no money for no balloons.” I was beginning to regret my pay-what-you-want policy. “But don’t worry,” he turned to me, “I’m gonna make this into something fly and then it’ll be like advertising and you’ll get mad business.” Did he just use the word fly as an unironic adjective? There are people who still do that?
The man then proceeded to make one of the shittiest and most phallic swords I have ever seen. Actually, I should rephrase. The sword itself wasn’t all that phallic, it was really just made phallic when he held it against the base of his pelvis and started thrusting excitedly into the air. Somehow I didn’t think this would be the boon for business that he had predicted.
More people started coming over with no intention of paying for anything. “Hey man, I’m just trying to catch the bus, do you have some spare change?” One guy asked.
“Sorry, I can’t,” I said. “I’ve barely made any money today.”
“Ya gotta do more to get peoples’ attention, man. Dance around or something.”
Yeah, that’s my problem. Not enough dancing. “Thanks. I’m thinking of going down to the Aquarium, trying my luck over there.”
“Yeah man! You should go down to the Aquarium,” he said as though he had just come up with the idea himself. “I just came from there and it’s really busy, and I just walked over here to tell you you should try there.”
“No seriously man, go check it out.” What happened to the dance proposal? I thought that had legs. “That’s why I came over here. To tell you you would make bank down there.” This guy was really trying to sell me on the notion that he had come up with the Aquarium approach, not me.
“Yeah, I think I’ll give it a shot,” I said, packing up my stuff. Even if it wasn’t his idea, his presence was definitely going to be the impetus that drove me there.
There was a feeling of despair as I left the Common. Until that moment I could still delude myself into thinking I could somehow make money on the day. But as I paid my garage fee, a price that, at $18, represented twice my earnings so far, reality finally set in. Combine that 18 with the 20 I spent on the stool, 20 more on balloons, seven on the greaseboard and fifteen on lunch and this day was an unmitigated disaster.
I pulled into a spot near the Aquarium with resignation. Really, I just wanted to go home. To soak in the misery of all those wasted hours and dollars. But I forced myself to get out and try one last spot.
The Aquarium isn’t like Boston Common. You can’t just show up and start selling your wares. You need fancy things like permission from the venue. But I wasn’t there to play by the book. I was there to make my money back. I defiantly set up my stool and my sample balloon animals and my grease board. Fuck the man. I was going to make some money if it killed me.
“Sir, you can’t do that here,” a guard said as she walked up to me.
“Oh sure.” I said and packed up my stuff.
Yup, totally just stuck it to the man right there.
My day was a waste. This was going to be my most costly odd job yet. I threw my stuff into my car and slinked into the driver’s seat. Perhaps there wasn’t quite as much money in the balloon industry as I had thought.
Odd Job: Making balloon animals in downtown Boston
1. Or so I imagine.
2. I spent about ten minutes trying to write this sentence in a way that implied I am normally very charitable and give away tons of money to the homeless and that this was one isolated moment of selfishness induced by a slow day of business before I finally decided, “fuck it. Who am I kidding?”
In some but not all articles, names or identifying characteristics or individual lines of dialogue have been changed to protect identities or because remembering exactly how things happened is hard. Like, really hard. But in every case, an effort was made to maintain the integrity of these events that did indeed actually happen.