Back in the early ’80s, I was just starting grade school. Around the same time, my dad had also decided to go to the local community college to study photography, something he had wanted to do and would wind up doing for the rest of his working life.
Occasionally, my mom and I would meet him at the college (for what reasons I can’t recall), and we often wound up in the cafeteria. At this community college, the cafeteria was split up into two areas: the main room that the food was actually served in, and a much larger and more open room just outside the doors.
I remember we used to sit mostly in the food room. And I remember meeting a lot of people who knew my parents. One in particular stands out, and I thought of him on my birthday last week.
His name was Mike, but I knew him as Mike the Balloon Man. I assume Mike was a student there (he was close to the same age as my parents), and he was often in the food room when we were.
Mike carried balloons with him ALL THE TIME. He would make balloon animals for pretty much anyone. I wish back then (I was probably six or so) I had asked him what made him want to do that, but I was young and even if I had asked him, I’m not sure I’d remember his answer. So basically I’m wishing I could go back in time and ask him now so I’d remember his answer.
As a child who grew up in a very poor household, these balloon animals were mesmerizing. I could ask him for anything and, after a few minutes of that crazy squeaky sound, it would come to fruition.
He was magic.
He was magic and kindness and generosity rolled into a balloon wielding dude.
At one point I heard about a fabled balloon octopus. I asked him about it. He told me it was big and complicated and a little time consuming, and that he would only make it for someone’s birthday.
I told him I wanted one for my birthday.
So, later that year, when my birthday rolled around, we found Mike (I assume my parents told him we would be there so he would have enough time to make said squeaky octopus), and he set to work.
As promised, it did take a while to create. There were various colored balloons. There was a lot of squeaking. I saw the octopus take shape and I can still remember a hint of that excitement.
I recall the balloon octopus being almost as large as me (keep in mind I was six, perhaps seven at that point). I loved it so much. I felt so special being able to walk around the campus with my balloon octopus knowing he would only make an appearance on birthdays.
When I thought about this last week, I felt a pang of sadness. Birthdays always do that to me. I wish I could remember Mike’s last name. I wish I knew how to find him, if only to say thank you for that balloon octopus and for making me feel so special on a day that was always melancholy for me. I also wish I had a photo of it. It’s ironic that my dad was going to school there for photography, yet, to my knowledge, no photo of it exists.
It was a whimsical and meaningful work of art, and I’ll never forget it.
Thank you, Mike. Wherever you are.