I have written before about my brother-in-law the clown. After all, if the fickle finger of fate provides a writer with set-up lines like "Did I ever tell you about the time my brother-in-law, the clown, and his Lebanese wife moved in with us for two weeks?" who am I to resist adding (cue the drummer) "Seriously!"
While this yarn contains elements similar to anecdotes about multifaith clergymen walking into a bar, this story is true. Strange, but true. And kind of sweet.
Tony Daley and his wife, May, live in Paris, where he moved 33 years ago to pursue his career as a clown. In a strange way I was responsible for that.
It's not as if I told my wife's youngest brother to run off and join the circus. That he did on his own. All I did was mention in a column for The Inquirer that Ringling Bros. was holding tryouts at the Spectrum for anyone who wanted to attend Clown College at the circus' headquarters in Venice, Fla.
The remarkable thing wasn't that Tony was selected from thousands for one of a handful of openings. The truly unbelievable thing was that teenage Tony was actually reading a newspaper.
After a year of rigorous clown scholarship, including six months performing with the company's second-unit circus, Tony returned to Philadelphia. He hoped to break into the street-performance scene at NewMarket and Headhouse Square, where unknowns like Penn Jillette (another Clown College alum) and Central High School graduate Raymond Teller performed as the Asparagus Valley Cultural Society before becoming the magic-comedy duo Penn and Teller in 1981.
On the paving block streets of Old City and Society Hill, Tony developed his signature clown character, Narbo, a salute to his hometown, Narberth.
In an act of breathtaking courage (some say to escape a broken heart), and with $600 and a plane ticket home, 22-year-old Tony took Narbo to Paris to establish a new life as a clown-for-tips working outside the Pompidou Center, then considered the street-performance capital of the Western world.
Tony spoke no French. (His English wasn't so hot either.) But within days he cashed in the return ticket and he never came home again, except to visit. Which he recently did for two weeks. With his Lebanese wife.
Her name is May. She is sophisticated, beautiful, and I love her even if she can make a complete meal out of parsley. She speaks Arabic. Along with French, English, Syriac, and now, Philadelphian. "Wit'?" she asked. "No, it's wid," I say. "Cheese wid. It's very subtle."
May works as the capital assets manager at Euro Disney, which is where Narbo has worked for 23 years. You wouldn't call their initial work-related encounter love at first sight or even cordial. "Are you the one here to fire me?" Tony said in a "J'accuse!" tone with a weird American accent.
My brother-in-law the clown inherited his strange sense of humor - he has a Facebook page called Daley Strange.
Tony's father, Duce Daley, was something of a legend in Narberth and Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Duce would take the Paoli local home from construction jobs in Center City and plop down next to Main Line businessmen.
In his tool bag he had a bell ringer hooked up to a battery that he activated when he wanted. It sounded like a phone. From out of the tool bag Duce would pull a powder-blue Bell Telephone receiver with spiral cord trailing into the bag. This was the '60s, mind you.
Duce would have a brief annoyed conversation with some unseen underling, bark instructions, and then put the phone back in his tool bag as the Main Line suit pretended to read the Evening Bulletin.
Then Duce would sigh, "They can't do anything without me being there."
Sometimes he'd set off the ringer, answer the phone in his tool bag, and then turn to the bewildered businessman next to him and say matter-of-factly, "It's for you."
Thanks to May I got to see Philadelphia architecture through Parisian eyes. Maybe you're tired of hearing how unique, gracious, and irreproducible the city's buildings are, but it's still music to my ears.
And if May hadn't married into the family I probably wouldn't have attended Sunday Mass (Divine Liturgy) at St. Maron's Maronite Catholic Church at 10th and Ellsworth Streets in South Philadelphia. I felt like a tourist in my own city.
The choir sang almost the entire service in three languages. So beautiful, so strange, to hear Arabic sung in a Catholic service. And at some point it struck me like something so obvious and so important that I was ashamed to have never noticed before.
In this historic immigrant Philadelphia Catholic church, God is called Allah, just like everywhere else in the Arabic-speaking world.
Incidentally, the name Donald Trump has been barred from discussion by the Facebook administrator in Daley Strange.