Column: Which Clown Do I Vote For?

On separating out the dim bulbs

Listen: Given the option of electing a Harvard law professor or a glass-eating clown, vote for the clown.

Pop the bulb, and feed pieces to candidates. Vote for those who can eat it.

Pop the bulb, and feed pieces to candidates. Vote for those who will eat the glass.

For the average citizen, the voting conundrum is born of finite time and imperfect information: You don’t have the time or resources to actually meet and research each candidate yourself, and thus must rely on second-hand research of dubious provenance. ["Uncle Ted says the incumbent's mother was a half-goat demi-god from beyond the stars!"]

The traditional solution is a voter guide: Your local paper, or community-of-faith, or pregnancy-termination-opinion-group, or storefront outpost of a deep-pocked national political action committee, or unqualified demagogue runs off a tidy little list of who you should vote for, occasionally offering highly abridged bulleted summaries of why those candidates are Right for You, and how the other guys are Basically a Bunch of Crooked Fools.

It doesn’t take much cynicism to see a voter guide is little more than a marketing piece that a special interest group publishes to magnify its vote by reproducing its opinions in many concerned, trusting citizens. Viewed with properly jaundiced eyes, it begins to seem like an electorate that is well-informed only by voter guides is worse than one that isn’t really all that well-informed at all.

As such, you may be better off relying on a heuristic of your own making. My preferred rule of thumb is this: Always vote for the glass-eating clown.

In my capacity as the business columnist for the Current, I spent some time interviewing extreme clowns and burlesque dancers. These are folks whose vocations, if not careers, revolve around eating glass and roadkill, swallowing swords, or sliding spinning drill bits up their noses – a skill called “blockheading.”

I bring up these specific bits – rather than the slightly more spectacular stage business, such as sleights of hand, mentalism, and the ladies removing their tops – because these aren’t tricks: the power drill is a factory-standard Makita; the swords are solid steel and ungimmicked; the roadkill skunk is just that, not a cleverly taxidermied bag filled with cooked pork, red Jell-o, and canned fruit cocktail.

One geek explained his method for testing the edibility of found meat based on the texture of the carcass’s skin and structural integrity of its hide, then assured me that “basically it’s the same risk as eating raw fish, like sushi. That’s why we try and deal with mostly sashimi-grade roadkill.” [Incidentally, collecting and eating roadkill – cooked, raw, privately, or on stage – is entirely legal in the state of Michigan, provided one has a small-game license, which these freaks did; circus folk may be transgressive, but they aren't scofflaws.]

As a young boy – a chubby, loud-mouthed, unpopular boy – I had a flair for sleight of hand and a passion for technique; I knew how sword-swallowers trained to suppress their gag reflexes, how blockheads spelunked and mentally mapped the crevices of their sinuses, how fire-eaters angled their heads so that the heat of the flame was channeled up and away from their tender mouths.

But glass-eating? That was a better kept secret when I was in the throes of my nerdery; the rational mind insists it is either sleight-of-hand – exchanging the shards for hard candies – or that the glass itself is gimmicked.

Then I met Ann Arbor’s Chuck Rock, at that time performing under the name Preposterous the Clown. During an interview, Rock agreed to eat a light bulb I’d brought from home. After popping the bulb, he selected a piece the size of a half-dollar. Dusting the white powder from the inside, he noted, “This stuff is phosphorus. It’s bad for you, and tastes bad.”

He placed the glass between his molars and began grinding. On my recording of the interview, this sounds like a truck rolling over a gravel; the racket drowns out some of my questions.

Blood immediately welled up between Rock’s teeth.

“I’m, um, seeing some blood. Is that normal?”

He couldn’t hear me over the crunching glass, so I asked again. Rock nodded.

“Yeah, that’s normal. I’m eating glass. You might expect a little bit of blood.”

Earlier, Rock had explained that the act required a “tactful chewing” technique, but that in no way detracted from my terror and awe: He really eats glass. “It makes your dookies twinkle, man. It’s like a pearlized paint job.”

As I interviewed clowns and geeks, blockheads and burlesquers, what kept striking me wasn’t simply their erudition – the depth and detail of anatomical knowledge, specifically – but their abiding faith in rationality.

Rita Riggs, a young local sword-swallower and burlesque dancer, described the point where she’d developed the physical capacity needed to swallow a sword, but couldn’t quite get her head around the idea of doing it. Having mastered juggling, some rudimentary blockheading, and a hoop-dancing striptease, she was still “having a hard time with it conceptually,” because it required slowly and carefully sliding a sharp piece of steel into her body.

Rock had described similar moments early in his glass-eating apprenticeship: he knew his craft, knew it was perfectly safe as long as he did it carefully, thoroughly, and so he pushed past self-preserving fear and ate glass. Rock, Riggs, the vast menagerie of weird clowns, they don’t stand by the “courage of their convictions” and vote against extending welfare benefits, or for sending teenagers to kill and die in the wilderness; they stand by their hard-earned education and gut themselves on stage for crinkled dollars and wild applause.

As a voter, as a citizen, this is what I want from my representatives: Human beings entirely willing to stake not just their reputations or their livelihoods, but their actual and immediate mortality on their confidence in human rationality, training, skill, and competence.

To my mind, any debate is incomplete unless each candidate is handed a 60-watt bulb and reminded to dust off the white powder before chewing; that stuff is phosphorus; it’s bad for you, and tastes bad.

About the writer: David Erik Nelson writes the business column for Current magazine. He’s a co-working colleague of The Ann Arbor Chronicle at the Workantile Exchange.


  1. By Chris
    July 18, 2010 at 11:29 am | permalink

    As my mother used to say, it takes all kinds.

  2. By D.P. O'Connell
    July 18, 2010 at 1:01 pm | permalink

    Amusing, David, but what about the League of Women Voters Guide? A bit staid, I know, compared to glass-eating clowns, but it at least attempts to be non-partisan and LWV is not a special-interest group. Then there’s the Ann Arbor Chronicle, too … not a bad source.

  3. By Rod Johnson
    July 18, 2010 at 1:26 pm | permalink


  4. By John Floyd
    July 18, 2010 at 11:04 pm | permalink

    I submit that a rush-hour commute into metro Detroit on I-94 requires “Human beings entirely willing to stake not just their reputations or their livelihoods, but their actual and immediate mortality on their confidence in human rationality, training, skill, and competence” every bit as much swallowing glass. Do I get your vote, or are you just bluffing?

    John Floyd
    Republican Candidate for City Council
    5th Ward

  5. July 19, 2010 at 12:22 pm | permalink


    Happily, I live in the 3rd Ward, and thus can tidily sidestep the question. That said, I grew up in Metro Detroit and have family and friends from there to Chicago; I’ve driven I-94 in torrential rain, white-out snow, whole gale winds, rush-hour insanity (which, frankly, can’t hold a candle to the hijinks you see on the Lodge or Southfield Freeway), and mind-numbing construction back-ups–it’s not the same as eating glass. That said, I keep a fresh 60-watt bulb on hand at the Workantile Exchange offices, and can even arrange for a glass-eating tutorial with a legitimate glass-eating clown (Chuck Rock himself works downtown, and is a very affable man). I think we could probably work up something really special for Art Fair, combining busking and politics in a deeply, deeply honest way. Rock is a helluva showman, though; he might steal your fire (and eat that, too).

    And, just to clarify, I am 100% for-real on this, John.

    All Best,
    David Erik Nelson
    Freelance Writer and Impresario
    3rd Ward

  6. By Barbara
    July 19, 2010 at 8:42 pm | permalink

    I don’t think any glass eating clowns are running, but wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?

    July 24, 2010 at 2:41 am | permalink

    Is it your suggestion that there are OTHER kinds of clowns running?
    – John