Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cruise Ship People - Bobbie Cohen

When I first told people about my getting the cruise job, many of them spoke enviously about all the interesting people I'd meet.  I hadn't really thought about this much, being a usually anti-social introvert.  It's true, though.  The people on this ship are fascinating.  Mostly older, many have traveled extensively.  Some have had successful careers and financial success, but others save for months or years to be able to come on the round-the-world cruise.  They have had all sorts of experiences and are often very happy to share.

Bobbie Cohen’s husband, Jerry, has been collecting clowns for a very long time.  “Now,” she says, her grin lighting up her eyes, “I’m the biggest clown in his collection.”

Bobbie has been a clown for 12 years.  She’s a caring clown, as compared to a show clown.  She visits hospitals and nursing homes, and  entertains the people there.

Bobbie got into clowning through her volunteer work with the Retired Senior Volunteer Program in New York city  She and Jerry had volunteered for years with their local theatres.   A community association that worked with seniors asked Jerry if he wanted to join their work and be a clown, and he asked Bobbie to come with him.  By the end of the meeting, Jerry decided not to take part, because he’d had bad experiences in hospitals and so didn’t want to spend time there, but Bobbie was hooked.

There is an application process to be a clown, and a certificate is earned after a specified number of hours of class?

A Clown Alley is a place where a group of clowns share and learn together.  She joined one and, when she and Jerry moved to Florida six years ago, she searched and found one in Delray Beach.  Bobbie loves the work and the friends she makes.  When she first started working in the hospitals, she’d get home and Jerry would wonder who got more out of the experience, the patients, or Bobbie.

In hospitals, she focuses on adults, especially those who are in for a long time, and who don’t have frequent visitors.  With a partner, she knocks on a patient’s door and asks permission to come in.  When this is granted, the two clowns do a little schtick, and spend time talking with the patient.    Listening is big part of being a caring clown.  Bobbie relates especially to the seniors.  “They appreciate your time and they want to tell you their stories.”

In nursing homes and assisted living buildings, the clowns usually do a 45 minute show.  Former professional jugglers and magicians join the clowns, to produce a variety show with acts and skits.

There are strong connections in the clown community, and many people continue clowning into old age and through illnesses and disabilities.  Bobbie spoke of one man with a bad heart condition, and a woman with leukemia.  Clowning helps them stay involved with life and with other people.  Many clowns she’s known were in their late 80s and early 90s, and didn’t want to stop.  One elderly woman asked that, when she died, everyone come in costume to her funeral.

On this round-the-world cruise Jerry is the ship’s dentist, and Bobbie is a clown ambassador.  Her letter of appointment, from Clowns of America International, states that she is “commissioned to spread the joy of clowning as you visit Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, South Africa, India, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Korea, Japan, Russia, and wherever your travels may take you.  Be sure to share not only the joy, but the smiles, the laughter, the many traditions and history of our performing art with all of the people you meet.”

When Bobbie speaks of clowning her face, even though it’s bare of clown makeup, shows the humour, the wide-eyed examination of the world, and the innocent observations that are the hallmarks of the clown.  She’s knows how to live in the world and be part of all that exists, even in different places with different cultures.  Clowns know no nationality.  They belong to all of humanity, and they do this by reflecting back to us all that makes us human – the emotions, the weaknesses, the joys and the sadness – the things that bind us together.  She shows us ourselves, and then laughs, not at us, but with us.

It is funny being us.  When a clown shows us something about ourselves, but does it without implying otherness or superiority, we see the humour, too.  And we all love to laugh, don’t we.  Life isn’t always easy, but laughter can help get us through the rough spots.  And realizing we are all funny helps, too, by showing us that we are not alone.  We are all fools at times, we all hurt sometimes, we all make mistakes, we all want things we can’t have.  We all dream.  When we laugh together, we more deeply root ourselves into the garden that contains all that makes us.

Bobbie lent me an issue of a clown magazine.  In it was an ad that said:

Come to Mooseburger Camp, and people will laugh at you the rest of your life –

-               and wouldn’t that be great??

Yes, I think it would be great.

Bobbie is one of my writing students, working on travel pieces and thinking about the report she will write for Clowns of America International when she returns to Florida.

Jerry and I started to walk into the town of Puerto Limom.  This was a delightful street that was only for pedestrians.  There were vendors on both sides of the streets with their colorful carts.

So much to see, but what was this before me?   I could not believe my eyes.  It was a tall all-dressed-up clown and he was making balloon animals.

Oh, I was excited.  I was not dressed in clown, but I had my nose, balloons, balloon pump, and clown sketches with me.  Jerry and I walked over to the clown.  I pulled out my balloon pump and positioned my red nose as I greeted the jovial artist.  When he saw me, he gave me a filled but unstructured balloon.  I made him a dog and he made me an even fancier dog.  We could not communicate verbally, but we were friends immediately.

He started to put a number of balloons together at once, creating Daffy Duck.  It was a magnificent feat.  His friend spoke a little English and he kept telling me what my new friend was doing.  Jerry took video and photos of the two of us together.

What a joy.  What a pleasure.  The clown gave Daffy to a passing child.  I took a snapshot of the child and his present.  This was the most exciting experience of the day as far as I was concerned.   To travel all this way to a different country and find something and someone to make me feel so comfortable, and a part of this culture as well.

We bid the clown farewell and Jerry and I proceeded on our walk.  On our way back, the clown spotted us again.  He told us his clown name, but I did not have a pen or paper with me, so I couldn’t write it down.  I did give him one of my clown cards.  This pleased him very much.

Once again we parted with smiles on our faces.  It is such a good feeling to know  that wherever you go,  you have the opportunity to somehow communicate and relate to another person.  If you look for the similarities and friendships out there, I believe you can always find them.


  1. Having a cruise ship job will help you meet a lot of interesting and fascinating people. Many of the people will have lots of tales to tell about their lives and it will be fun listening to them.

  2. That is such an interesting story.