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99 Glass Balloons

Many years ago, I read at an event covering the topic of writings found on the Internet. It was the late 90s, and the Web was still a brave and uncharted new world. The concept of uncompensated writers covering unusual and personal topics was novel enough to warrant this sort of attention.

The guy who organized the event was a friend of a friend, and he asked me if I wanted to participate. “Sure,” I said. I like attention, I wanted to pimp my writing, and I almost always accept any public speaking engagement because it forces me to step out my shell. Words of advice for young people: do the things that terrify you, while avoiding the things that might kill you—you’ll be the better for it. I was free to read whatever I liked, just as long as it came from Web version 1.0. I told him I’d give it some thought.

I was already treating the Internet as my personal book genie—whatever I wanted to read appeared on the screen after punching a few words into Yahoo’s search engine—magic! Yahoo provided everything in a tidy outline format, with links leading to links leading to other links. A search for Religion led me to paganism, satanism, and alien-astronaut-worshipping sites; a search for recipes turned up chili, hot sauce, and dog meat dishes (a weird obsession of mine back then, though I’ve never indulged); and a scan of the Sex subject heading turned up every kind of humping imaginable. Humans sure are funny, and the Internet brought me more than a few surprises. I recall the paraphrased words of Rev. Ivan Stang: No matter how strange you think you are, after you start digging you discover you aren’t.

Such was the case when I discovered a balloon fetishist’s site. I’d heard about “balloonatics” before—Quimby’s sold a zine addressing the topic (doubly strange since it was a balloon/inflatable furry zine—because, you know, why the hell not?). Given the commonality of latex fetishes, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine someone being into balloons. For perspective, I read a psychiatric report about a fellow who was in love with his car. Yes, he did THAT, and in exactly the way you’re imagining it.

Comparatively, the site was almost cute, with no photos or films—just little sketches of puffy unicorns and vignettes about the site owner “frolicking” with balloons. If there’s such a thing as hardcore balloon porn (probably), this wasn’t it, and while it wasn’t something you’d show your 90-year-old Presbyterian grandmother (unless she’s into that sort of thing), it was amusing. I’ve seen far worse.

The guy provided an “About” page that seemed perfect for the reading. No profanity, no icky-sticky imagery, just a honest description of the fun he had bouncing and boffing about in a closet full of balloons. I don’t remember the storyline, such as it was, but it ended with the memorable phrase, “The balloon didn’t pop… but I did!” Come on. If you’re not chuckling at that, your heart has ceased to beat. I’d found my soliloquy. I e-mailed the guy and asked for permission to read it. The balloonatic had a sense of humor and said, sure, go right ahead. Nice fellow.

I showed up at the event with my girlfriend/future wife Michael and my friend Kathy. It was held in an auditorium at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and I was surprised the place was at least half-filled. I was expecting something much smaller. I certainly wasn’t expecting recording equipment on the stage, manned by a bespectacled guy in a suit.

I told the event organizer what I planned to read, and he was fine with it, not to mention amused. Cool. I figured I’d stand up, read, plug my zines, and then sit down. As I recall he mentioned the event was being broadcast on the radio. Really? Wow. Where? He told me the name of the show. I’d never heard of it, but of course, I was a fairly insulated person back then. Just like now.

As I waited my turn I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. I can’t remember most of the speakers, but two stood out. One fellow walked up and started expressing his concern about his mother being online, sharing the usual predator fears. The host began inquiring about the roots of his problem, turning the situation into a humorous therapy session.

Another reader… Ye gods. I’m almost afraid to describe the situation.

His reading was… disturbing. He’d found (I assume he found it rather than written it himself) a creepy testimonial by a man in an apartment, raving paranoiacally about the “loser” next door. The part that sticks with me—and I mean “sticks” as in “GETITOFFME!GETITOFFME!”—involved the “loser” neighbor having a three-way with his buddies, featuring various unpleasant descriptions of the attendant sounds, smells, and stains. The guy read it in a creepy voice, sweating buckets and shuddering so hard you could see him quivering from the back seats. It was uncomfortable. I would have put it down to method acting, but when the organizer called time (we had a time limit), he screamed, “Fuck! FUCK! FUCCCCK!” then ran from the theater, smashing the push bar on the exit door on his way out We could still hear him screaming “FUCK!” in the lobby. Ye gods.

During the first reading I mentioned, the recording guy seemed bemused, but more interested in flipping switches and turning dials, though he described the “therapy session” for his audience: “At this time, listeners, both men are laying down, stretched out, on the stage.”  I couldn’t see or hear his reaction when the second fellow self-immolated. Wish I had.

Then came my turn. I set the scene and proceeded. Well… I didn’t have them rolling in the aisles, but I got a few chuckles (and not just Mike and Kathy’s, thank God). When I reached the part about “The balloon didn’t pop… but I did!” I looked up at the crowd with a gaze of wide-eyed wonder. That got the big laugh I was looking for. After I finished and the crowd applauded, I heard the glasses and suit guy (stationed stage right) say, “Wow…” I didn’t expect him to talk. I figured he was just some AV nerd, not a co-host. I turned to look at him.

I wouldn’t call his expression one of horror. Slightly shocked, yes. He looked like many another person I’ve met, suddenly discovering the world isn’t as homogenized as they thought it was. I can’t claim to have read his mind, by the way. That was just my impression after he paused, shook his head, and said, “I wouldn’t know where to BEGIN editing that!”

I shrugged and said something like, “All right. Good luck!” But I left the stage thinking, “Good Lord. After that other guy you’re worried about editing ME?”

Now… I can’t say when I first learned who the host was (I bet many of you have already figured it out). More than likely Mike or Kathy told me he was a local radio personality named Ira Glass who had a newish show called This American Life on WBEZ. Really? Neat. I tuned in the following week to hear myself on the radio. Considering Glass’ response, I didn’t get my hopes up. Sure enough I wasn’t on the show. C’est la vie, I said with tremendous originality.

I later heard from my friend (the one I shared with the organizer/host) that Glass was fairly unhappy with the event (all hearsay, so don’t hold me or him to any of this). He was particularly displeased with the human volcano, but he made a point of mentioning, “that balloon guy!”.

Oh, how I laughed at that. Dan Kelly: Balloon Provocateur.

Again, humans are funny.

I get it. TAL isn’t for people striving to reach the boundaries of human endurance and good taste. But it all seemed a little silly. I’ve never sought to shock people. My tolerance for weirdness is higher than most, but I’ve trained myself to edit my topics according to my audience. Still, every now and then you have to introduce high strangeness to the general population, otherwise they’ll never grow up. Getting it through the gatekeepers is the challenge. It’s interesting that, in 2012, someone like Louis CK is an NPR darling. Clearly, he should be, because his show Louie is an often touching and highly intelligent exploration of humanity, emotion, society, sexuality, and so on. Still, while they’ll chat with him about his adorable daughters and that suicide episode, I doubt they’ll ever run sound clips of him singing his happy song: “Shittin’ in Hitler’s mouth/and I’m pissin’ in his mother’s face.”

As a postscript, life moved on, things have changed, and other cliches have abounded. Glass got famous, works out of New York, has a TV show, and had a voice cameo on 30 Rock. I, on the other hand, remain unknown and have aged badly. WHO’S LAUGHING NOW?

As a semi-serious postscript, I’ve run into Glass on occasion over the past 15 years, usually at social events where we share friends. He’s a pleasant enough fellow, though he seems to have a drive to perform for whoever he’s with. But even as he talked at me about whatever, I was able to amuse myself by looking him in the eye, smiling, and nodding, all the while thinking, “You have no idea I’m balloon guy, do you?”

As a post-postscript, I shared the above purposeless story for one reason. Namely, to explain why this video filled me with wrongful delight.

You… you don’t think I converted him, do you?