(Bill Ross first met Raymond Thunder-Sky in 1999, when he was hired as a social-worker for people with developmental disabilities. This essay is about this initial meeting and the inspiration from it that has lasted for ten years. Raymond passed away in 2004.)
On my case load of about 30 people one name stood out: Raymond Thunder-Sky. I read through his file and found he was Native American and more specifically was from the Mohawk Tribe. There was an article from the Cincinnati Post that celebrated Raymond’s eccentricity as a local figure known to walk around downtown in a clown suite with an Elizabethan collar and hard hat. He was known as the Construction Clown by those who would see him as he would frequently hang out at construction sites.
I was informed he was not in the best of health. So I needed to see how he was doing and the condition of his apartment. I started by simply trying to call, but he never answered. I stopped by his place late in the day a few times and realized this was not a time you would find him home. He lived in an apartment in Northside. A bar of sunlight flooded out from under his door in the dark hallway that smelled of old food and mildew.After a few visits, I could tell when he was home. There was a TV on, a shadow under the door that moved back and forth. He wouldn’t open the door, so I spoke to him through it explaining who I was and that I would be checking on him every so often.
The next time I stopped by he cracked the door a little as I was about to walk away. I still couldn’t see him but he made a sound that kind of resembled the clearing of his throat. Maybe the sound of agreement. For the most part, though, I just felt ignored.
The next time I showed up, Raymond opened the door and let me in. Raymond stood in his doorway in a turquoise green T-shirt and checkered boxers. His shirt was covered in toothpaste spit and what looked like food from the night before. His legs looked painful with varicose veins and scabs. He didn’t look well.I asked if I could come in and he made that throat clearing noise. He left the door open for me as he went back in. He sat in a kitchen chair facing his TV. I sat on the couch. The apartment was filled with tool boxes, a work bench with a vice, traffic cones and many pieces of machinery that were unrecognizable.We sat and watched an episode of the Tele Tubbies. His TV had poor reception, and the image flipped and fuzzed out every so often. He watched with a smile, aware I was noticing him, but letting me know he was OK with me being there.
Seeing how he looked and the condition of his apartment I felt obligated to do something social-workery. I thought, this poor man needed more help and needed to be checked out medically. Back at my office, I called everyone I could on the list of names connected to him including the nurse from the agency that provided him with drop-in services.I pulled a meeting together that even included an old family friend who looked out for Raymond and who would later share Raymond’s story in a lot more detail than I knew at this point.
Raymond was the last to show up at this meeting. In fact, I was beginning to think he wasn’t going to show. He came in to the room in a pair of overalls and his clown collar. On his head he wore a King Wrecking Company hard hat. He carried a tool box in his hand.Raymond sat across from me and opened the red tool box as if he were opening a violin case. He had that smile on his face, like he had when watching the Tele Tubbies. He would not make eye contact. He pulled out a stack of drawings from the tool box and pushed them across the table in front of me.It was truly a life-changing moment.
This mysterious and very private man choosing this time to share something so amazing and deeply personal with me in front of all these people. In all the attempted visits, talking through his door, watching TV with him, I had never shared with him I was an artist. I was pretty much all business. I hadn’t really considered his dressing as a clown and walking around Cincinnati as a creative act until he shared his drawings. Honestly, I thought it was some kind of idiosyncrasy probably related to his disability.Each drawing was very composed, each a little different than the next. Raymond was drawing demolition sites with buildings in various states of destruction. He included in the composed chaos of the drawings a caption of what he wanted to put in place of the building being torn down, which often times included clown suit factories or amusement parks.
The point of the meeting was to try to get him to take better care of himself and to try to convince him to let his caregivers take him to the doctor and help him try to live healthier. This message never really sank in. Looking back he had his own agenda for me at this meeting.I learned a lot more about Raymond from Larry Higdon, the friend of Raymond’s parents. I learned about his Native American heritage as his Dad was a Mohawk Chief and his mother was a descendent of an Austrian Nobleman. I learned how Raymond fell in love with the circus and wanted to go onstage the first time he saw the clowns come out. How Raymond longed to work in construction. Through art he was able to merge these two passions.
It is true that everyone is a door opening to another world. When I knocked on Raymond’s door, I had no idea. Getting to know him helped me better understand who I am. Without Raymond,I would be a lesser person, and the world would be a lesser place.