One gloomy afternoon in February, when icy weather had shut down much of Charleston, Charlemagne Pittsford, a.k.a Mr. Pitts, was drunkenly hurling hypodermic needles at a dartboard in a back-alley hobo camp on Upper King Street. Graffiti was splashed all over the brick walls around him, and malt liquor bottles littered the muddy ground. Rain pattered on a tarp that formed a makeshift tent. Under it, Mr. Pitts and his friends Sippi, Sumac, and Ralf were having a howl of a time shooting dice, gulping booze, and spilling cigar ashes all over each other. Old-school jazz music played from a cracked iPhone in a tin pot nearby.
The Tier One Wild Hobo Clown Tramps of Charleston were in their natural habitat. Lately, the group has been causing a bit of a scene and gaining a reputation in the Holy City. You might have seen one of their wheatpaste posters that looks like a political ad on a building downtown. "Leadership ... with booze!" reads one for Sippi, who says he's not quite sure what office he's running for. "You do want your children safe! Don't you?" reads another for a bid by Mr. Pitts for police chief.
But on that afternoon in February there was no talk of politics. The tramps were at their leisure, enjoying themselves away from the town-and-gown crowd on King Street beyond the graffitied concrete wall. Later they'd tie a good one on and head out there. See what kind of action they could rustle up, what kind of trouble they could get into. Leering at the four tramps from a chair off to the side was a 61-year-old man with no teeth named Robert who had just met the bunch. He'd ducked into the alleyway and stumbled across their encampment, he said, while hiding from the police so he could finish an Icehouse tallboy in peace.
"They're goddam unusual," Robert said, side-eyeing the four crass gentlemen in tattered vagabond clothing, sooty makeup, and dirty clown noses. "They ain't like no-goddamn-body else."
The text message came one rainy afternoon. "The Tramps care not for inclement weather. The Tramps thrive in it. The Tramps thrive in this shit."
In a roundabout way, the message came in response to a recent Charleston Craigslist ad. An outfit called the Tier One Wild Hobo Clown Tramps were advertizing themselves as local "party enhancers" who offered some rather intriguing services free of charge. If you invite them to your next throwdown, said the ad, these tramps would be more than happy to "come and jovially fuck your shit right up." In fact, according to the ad, there was a whole host of sundry services that Sippi, Sumac, Mr. Pitts, Ralf, and the gang would provide should you solicit them: "Dice games, drinking, insults, OTB betting, more drinking, face slapping, copious amounts of malt booze, really bad Bartitsu demonstrations, being asked to leave, release forms, alibis, not leaving, more booze, cheap cigars, singing, dancing, being asked to leave again, sleeping outside your window, just waiting for you to fuck up, a strong desire for pancakes, more dancing, not leaving your house, mental molestation, choral outburst, spoken word, copious amounts of crass language, team building, and corporate motivational speaking." Oh, and face painting for the kids.
Here at the City Paper, we were a little skeptical about whether these wild hobo clown tramps were legit. A YouTube video accompanying the Craigslist ad did show Sippi and Sumac in locations in downtown Charleston — and in various stages of sobriety. They seemed local, and offbeat. So we answered the ad. Days went by with no response. But Charleston is a small town, and it didn't take long to track down where at least a couple of these characters were staying in their non-clown life. One Sunday afternoon in February we dropped by and caught two of the off-duty tramps a little off guard in perhaps the most punk rock flop house on the peninsula. They agreed to let us tag along the next time they suited up and clowned out. But it would have to be on their terms. "The Tramps don't fuck around," one of them said. "The Tramps will send you a map ... and a list of demands."
The map came on Wed., Feb. 12. It was raining and cold, and schools and bridges were closed around town. Toward the end of the workday three men showed up at the City Paper office. Dressed in long coats and fingerless gloves, their faces painted, they looked like they'd tumbled out of a 1920s traveling boxcar or a Charlie Chaplin flick. One of them, Ralf, had a bindle on a stick slung over his shoulder. They banged on some office windows downstairs, ordering members of the sales staff to get back to work. There was booze on their breath. The tramps handed over a rusty railroad spike wrapped in what looked like bloody medical tape, and tied up with dental floss. They left without saying much more than that they really didn't want us to show up without at least a few of the items on their list. Scrawled on the medical tape, they demanded, in order: Cigars, booze, liquor, sardines and saltines, new cards and dice, a vinyl copy of War of the Worlds, one tooth, a copy of Soldiers of Fortune, matching socks, breakfast with Al Cannon, tea with Jenna King, lunch with John Barnhardt, dinner with Joe Riley, and "booze + toots" with Thomas Ravenel. The tramps also wanted a Norman Rockwell print and a key to the city.
Also included was a crude map of Upper King, denoting certain landmarks in vulgar terms. An X marked the spot where we would meet the tramps. With 30 minutes to round up the supplies, we bailed on several of them. But we brought the basics, including cigars, sardines, and gambling paraphernalia. We topped it off with a bottle of absinthe that had been sitting around the office.
Sporadically, more text messages had been coming in. "So, the tramps are curious ... how long ya plannin on spending with them? More importantly ... How far into this are you willing to venture? Open the shark cage. Run with the bulls. Hitch your wagon and all that shite."
On the day a reporter and photographer would meet the tramps, their map led to a back alley in the Cannonborough-Elliotborough neighborhood. Wooden planks served as a makeshift walkway over mud puddles toward a tent-like encampment covered by a blue tarp. There, Sippi was smoking something and walking around lighting candles in the rain. "We're transients, ya know," one of them said in a nasally vaudevillian accent. Under the tarp was a table covered in beer cans, bottles, cards, and candles. It looked like the camp had been there a while. Hypodermic needles stuck out of a dartboard on a wall. (Disclosure: We were assured one of the tramps was taking care of a diabetic cat.) A painted portrait of a clown and some pin-up girls were tacked up here and there. The tramps appeared intoxicated and were difficult to interview. Sippi kept spitting up long frothy ropes of dark Guinness — what he referred to as "Irish titty juice." Instead of answering questions about their behavior around town they fought each other or played dice. They drank absinthe and sake out of a bottle and smoked cigar after cigar. They were crude.
"You wonder why they don't let us make reservations at Halls, you can't control your fuckin' mouth," said Sumac at one point. They talked about the "tightwads" in Charleston and lamented the high prices of a nearby restaurant called Stars where they'd been surprised to find themselves allowed upstairs one evening. They told war stories, like the one about a bouncer after they'd crashed a stand-up comic's act at a local bar, or that time a man tried to run them down in a Mini Cooper.
The tramps have been spending plenty an evening dressed up like that and taking bites out of the downtown crowd. "We're no different from anyone you see walking around downtown with fancy clothes on. Once you don't look like anybody else, people treat you like you don't exist or don't have feelings," Sumac said. "I'm actually pretty sensitive." He pointed to Sippi. "This one here's a sociopath. That's how I got in this position."
For his part, Sippi seemed pre-occupied.
"You better tell Thomas Ravenel to take us to Halls," he said.
Around mid-February, the New York Daily News published an explosive story about clowning that sent shockwaves through the world of giggles and good times. "EXCLUSIVE," screamed the headline. "National clown shortage may be approaching, trade organizations fear." The story cited plunging membership in the nation's largest clown association and declining interest in the field of clowning. "What's happening is attrition," Clowns of America International President Glen Kohlberger had told the paper, adding that membership at the Florida-based organization has been plummeting in the past eight years. "The older clowns are passing away," he said.
The story got picked up all over the country. "Who will fill those big shoes?" asked NPR. "It's no laughing matter," said The Huffington Post. But here in Charleston, the Tier One Wild Hobo Clown Tramps were scoffing at the national news. Membership in their little group was actually on the rise. When they went out at night, people asked if they could join. The tramps, however, will not take just anybody. One must be serious. One must research a clown from way back and tweak the persona. You must have it in you — and the tramps can tell if you don't.
On an unseasonably warm March afternoon downtown, the tramps were out and about, and they had a new member.
"That's Iffy," Sippi said, jerking a thumb at the new guy who came dressed in a white dress shirt, clown makeup, slicked-back hair, and trousers. "And he is Iffy."
That day, the tramps were ambling about the Market. It was nice out and townies and tourists were picking at early dinners on outside patios or having a beer. Now and again a camera phone in the hand of a young man or woman would angle for a clandestine shot of the tramps as they strolled by.
"Welcome to Charleston, I hope you enjoy your stay here," Sippi said, politely tipping his hat to a bewildered tourist. "Enjoy ya booze!" Mr. Pitts barked at a table of patrons outside Molly Darcy's. Around the corner, the tramps ducked into The Griffon to chat over beers with the City Paper about what exactly they're going for with this whole Tier One Wild Hobo Clown Tramps thing. The Craigslist ad is real, they insisted. "If somebody called us and asked us to come over and enhance their party, we'd end this interview right now," one said.
"Basically what you're getting when all of us roll in your house is you're getting a shit load of memories," said Sumac. "Remember when those crazy clowns showed up, pissed in the flower pot, and drank it?"
"It's the subversion of an expectation, that's all it is," said Iffy. "You never expect a fucking clown to show up — and we do."
Iffy knows clowns. He's researched them. The tramp clown, he said, is the only true American clown. "It's the only clown invented in this country outside of native American tradition," he explained. "If you showed up to a European clowning show, it's the American guy in the show." Being a tramp clown, he said, is about having nothing and making what you can of it. The others nodded and gulped down their beer.
According to Clowns of America International, there are eight "clown commandments" essential to remaining in good standing in the world of professional clowning. "I will keep my acts, performance, and behavior in good taste while I am in costume and makeup," is one commandment. "I will neither drink alcoholic beverages nor smoke while in makeup or clown costume," is another. "I will remove my makeup and change into my street clothes as soon as possible following my appearance, so that I cannot be associated with any incident that may be detrimental to the good name of clowning," is another, and "I will conduct myself as a gentleman/lady at all times."
By all accounts, the Tier One Wild Hobo Clown Tramps of Charleston have appeared to take a collective piss on that list.
"I will always try to remain anonymous while in makeup and costume as a clown," is another such commandment.
Spend some time with the tramps and it can be hard to tell when they're in character and when they aren't. Even some of their female friends will attest to that — and they love it, by the way. What members of the group do in their real lives sometimes seeps into their tramp lives — and the other way around. Some of them play in local punk bands, and they've been known to put on their garb in the middle of a show. Others in the group are show promoters or work in local bars. Some of them keep their outfits in the trunk of their cars. One night you might see Sumac dressed in his tramp gear and standing alone in a dark corner of a Charleston haunt, not speaking to anyone. He likes to just have a drink and take in the random reactions. "Really it's seamless," Sumac said about his life in and out of trampdom. "And that's what's kind of scary," added Mr. Pitts. Ralf, who hadn't said much until then, spoke up. "We've got a joke amongst ourselves," he said. "Not 'can you stay in character,' but 'can you not go into character.'" The tramps all nodded and chugged their beer.
One thing is clear: The tramps have big plans for the future.
Lately there's been talk amongst the crew about putting together a hobo film festival with the Mini Cine, a pop-up shipping container that acts as a public viewing party wherever it lands in town for a screening.
"We're going to build an entire hobo village and we're going to have a dice tournament with actual betting ... and all the money you give goes to charity," Sippi said. "We're going to have a hobo art festival so anybody can bring a painting of a hobo tramp, and you can auction it off for money, bring in canned goods, food, everything. Our goal is to do it for Wounded Warriors or [other charities]. It's entertaining, and hopefully it gives something back to people."