Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Routine Schemes

Every party is different (hence, the Saturday morning terror). I never know if the kids will be monsters, the parents dictators or the costumes particularly foul-smelling. But there are some things that don’t change, a routine to fall back on when despair overwhelms hope.

Twenty minutes before I’m due to arrive, I call, give the mother an ETA (always an odd number of minutes, so as to seem more precise), and ask if they have any particular activities they’d prefer. How they respond does not affect the substance of the performance. The description of the imminent entertainment, however, will vary dramatically to give the impression that I’ve just shelved all the timeworn tricks and am bringing out only my best material for this show.

Twenty minutes later I call again, from “two blocks away.” In fact, I am sitting two houses away, cursing at the electrical tape that is supposed to keep Black Ranger’s mask together. They don’t even notice I am now five minutes late.

We meet out in front, to “map out the party.” If I’m lucky, the parents come out as a couple. This adds another level to the mapping and soaks up more time, as they debate with one another. If I’m standing in a patch of four-leaf clovers, they will repeatedly try to force offerings of food and drink upon me. I repeatedly refuse, citing professionalism. The hour is now ten minutes old, I haven’t even crossed the threshold, and they respect my commitment to the craft.

When the well of stalling runs dry, it’s into the party. This is where the water balloon hits the fan (hey, it’s a kids party). You really can’t control for the children, the space, or if there will be any initial success. Some kids have blood that a Tour de France rider would have killed for, while others act like they’ve eaten more Ritalin than Doritos. It’s going to be hairy, regardless. But if the party really starts trending downhill, I break out the trump card: balloons.

The balloon animals have never failed me. But that doesn’t mean I can let my guard down. In a post-Wedding Crashers era, there’s no shortage of children willing to sabotage the party by demanding a T-Rex, 747 or scale replica of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. But they don’t laugh at alternate suggestions (“How about a sword, little buddy?”). They tend to scream. The key, then, is to get to them before their imagination does—or their older siblings.

The number one goal is to start an arms race among the boys. I have come up with no fewer than eight variations on the basic sword. The list includes a buccaneer’s cutlass, Three Musketeers rapier, fencing foil, claymore, longsword, dual ninja blades, dagger and a Roman gladius. Rudimentary shields are simple to create, but it’s best if the escalation continues. A pair of kids in Malibu once worked their way into full suits of armor, returning after every duel until they both had helmets, breastplates, oval shields, leggings, and two weapons apiece. It was like watching multicolored Michelin men fight to the death.

The girls are better off being girlish. While the boys tend to be more outlandish in their requests (“I wanna blue moose and a Corvette”), girls have an uncanny knack for suggesting those things I really ought to know how to make: “Could I have a mouse? Or a horse? How about a teddy bear?” I try to throw them off the scent with leftfield suggestions: “How about an octopus? Or a Viking helmet? Or a submachine gun?” We usually compromise on flowers.

The balloons are a lifesaver and they keep you off your dogs. Five minutes to go, I start catching the attention of the host and packing up my things. Then, just as Mum is approaching with the cash, I strategically yield to the crowd of kids, sticking around for a couple more minutes of furious ballooning, before retreating to the parents surrounded by children begging me not to leave. This makes for a perfect backdrop when gently reminding moneybags, “Ahem, the gratuity is not included.”