Clowns Versus Crackhouse Shots

Can alcohol kill an excessive fear of men in giant shoes?

If you've seen Killer Klowns From Outer Space, especially that scene in which they drink human blood through cotton-candy cocoons, you know there's something inherently freaky about clowns. No offense to the clowns of the world: Honestly, we know you gotta make a buck. But c'mon. The excessive makeup? The baggy, multicolored clothing? The canoe-sized shoes and red-ball noses? The weird gimmicks and inhuman amounts of energy? Clowns are just an uncomfortable social violation.

Unreliable sources tell me that coulrophobia is the fear of clowns, and you know what my prescribed remedy is? Beer, of course. And at the Circus Bar, I may have found a remedy for clowns, no matter how many squirting plastic flowers they have.

Ambiance: The Circus Bar is situated in a quiet industrial area, with creepy, old-fashioned, circus-style lettering, blacked-out windows, and a vault-like front door. Not sure whether to expect a mob of circus rejects or a mafia of cutthroat criminals, I mustered up the courage, dragged the heavy door open, and stood blinking in the low-lit, smoky doorway. To the right, an open space with pool tables. To the left and center, a thick, trapezoid-shaped bar. My companion led me over to a spot on the far right side of the bar, beside a dusty DJ booth and slightly elevated stage with a stripper pole, which had been decorated and labeled "The North Pole" for Christmas. On the walls, faded, curling posters chronicle the rise of circuses, from Buffalo Bill to Barnum & Bailey. Photos and paintings depict a motley assortment of circus freaks. Photos and paintings of clowns cover every wall. Chipped wooden clown masks and clown dolls hide amid beer posters. It didn't take me long to realize that this bar is Bozo's bitch.

Basically, this bar is the bastard child of a horror movie and an antiques store. I shifted on my barstool and tried not to look at the creepy painting staring right at me: In old-fashioned paint strokes, a clown was depicted dancing near a rainbow. A nearby orange-and-white stained-glass picture of a mime-like clown twice distracted me from conversation. He was the absolute vision of a perfect nightmare: His intent to cause bloodshed by way of balloon animals was all too apparent. I decided to keep an eye on him.

To make things even more unnerving, between all the white-faced clowns were more caricatures of strangers than you could shake a flying trapeze at, staring out from the walls with their big heads and exaggerated teeth.

With Barry White playing in the background and The Simpsons and sports flashing intermittently across the flat-screen TVs surrounding the bar, I began to relax a little. What I really needed to do was get a beverage from the ringmaster of sorts and find out more about this little hole in the wall. I felt like I'd wandered into some time-warp or late great-aunt's clown collection.

Bartender: Sara wore a T-shirt that said "99% nice, 1% naughty" and a fringed skirt that was slightly too short in the back. She was pleasant and warm, and when I hesitantly asked about the place, she delivered a rapid-fire burst of information: The bar is 30 years old, has both pool and dart leagues, and it's one of the oldest bars that no one's ever heard of. She also told me that they host "Kill the Keg" nights (all the draft you can drink for $7) — certainly guaranteed to be better than watching a man put his head in a lion's mouth.

She paused to deliver me a Beck's.

"At any given time, most of the people in here are regulars," she told me. "I've been hanging out here for about ten years. I've heard some people say it's like a black hole in here."

I pointed upward toward the names and phone numbers that adorned the ceiling and asked, "What are these advertisements doing on the ceiling?"

"Oh, those have been here for years," she said. "The panel over the DJ booth actually was an ad for the guy who used to be our DJ."

" 'Mark Luis Mortgage,' " I read aloud.

"The psychologist's panel is over where he used to sit at the bar," she continued. How endearing — just like Frasier Crane but with a clown theme.

Patrons: Sara passed me around the bar like a half-smoked joint. First she introduced me to Torrence, who was broad with a booming voice, and Carlos, who was slight and straight-backed and wore a green polo. Dara, Torrence's dainty wife, wore purple stone jewelry and sat silently, absorbed in a mystery novel.

"You'll see all kinds of people in here," Torrence said. He pointed at an elderly gentleman who had just wandered in. "That guy's rich. And last week, we had the guy in here who owns all the jukeboxes in the bars around here."

"Wow," I said. "Why do you come here?"

"We followed Sara here," Torrence said, indicating the bartender.

"Where'd she work before here?" I asked.

"Doesn't matter. It's shit without her," he said.

I believed it: Just then, Sara came by with shots for all. Torrence and I swigged down Crackhouse shots — cranberry juice and Blackhouse — while Carlos had a Jäger shot.

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