I was driving fast through the Ozarks when I saw Ronald McDonald sitting like a yogi on the side of the highway. I was in a hurry: I had a frequent guest discount at Deb’s Motel in Paragould, Arkansas and wanted to get there before dark. My Chevy Sprint had no air conditioner so I drove with all the windows down, blasting Depeche Mode and New Order. I was 21, working as a sales rep on straight commission covering Oklahoma, Arkansas, and northern Louisiana for a novelty show room in Dallas.
After 5 years of attempting to work my way through college I’d run out of money again,
and dropped my classes again, and gotten a gig that strangely suited me. It was kind of a crapshoot—I had to live off a credit card and hope I’d make enough sales to cover everything. But I had lots of time to myself, driving in my 3-cylinder car through towns I’d never heard of before.
And I always had new things to learn. I represented something like 74 different product lines — everything from dinosaur backpacks to bridal accessories like crystal wedding cake toppers and white satin guestbooks with maribou-feathered fountain pens. I sold a line of purple rubber keychains modeled after the California Raisin guys and designer potpourri that made my car smell like hot apple pie.
My show room was kind of famous: the founder had made a fortune selling the original pet rock back in the ‘70s.
The travel seemed exotic to me: after living in suburban San Diego, too angst-ridden and self-absorbed to explore its beauty, I was now trekking through mountains and forests and lakes and prairies. The wide-open spaces gave me room to think.
And it felt just a little dangerous — like the night I stayed at the Motel 6 in Russellville, Arkansas, next to the big nuclear power plant.
I knew I was gathering up life experiences. I fantasized about being a writer and would take snapshots of things that might make a good story some day: a broken chair leaning against a wall, a charred tree in a pasture, and now this 20-foot inflatable clown doing pranayama. Each time the wind blew his head nodded gently forward in an unspoken mantra.
I pulled into an empty lot behind the McDonald’s, walked around the drainage ditch with its mouldering sludge of unfinished meals and smashed drink cups, and crossed the scruffy grass to find the giant fan blowing air into his rump and up his spine.
I saw the thick canvas straps anchoring him to the ground as the top of his head flashed red and silver in the sunlight.
I stood there a while, taking it all in.
And I knew it was time to go back to college.