The Great Zucchini arrived early, as he is apt to do, and began to make demands, as is his custom. He was too warm, so he wanted the thermostat adjusted. It was. He declared the basement family room adequate for his needs, but there was a problem with the room next door. Something had to be done about it.
The room next door was emblematic of the extraordinary life and times of the Great Zucchini, Washington's No. 1 preschool entertainer. The homeowners, Allison and Donald Cox Jr., are in their late thirties, with two young children -- Lauren, who is 5, and Donald III, who goes by Trey, and whose third birthday was being celebrated that day.
Tall and handsome, Don is a federal government lawyer. Short and pretty, Allison is an IT recruiter. Like most successful two-career couples who started a family later in life, the Coxes have resources to lavish on their children. When they bought this spacious colonial in Bethesda, the large area next to the family room was going to be Don's study. But it soon surrendered itself into a playroom -- filling, floor to ceiling, with entertainment for the kids. A wall unit became a storage place for dolls, games and action figures, all neatly partitioned and displayed like heirlooms. The floor is a warren of toys: There is a little girl's vanity and a tea table primly set with cups and saucers. For Trey, there is a ride-on choo-choo train. A fully functional mini-moon bounce occupies one capacious corner. In another is a wall-mounted TV.
The Great Zucchini's problem? This room has no door. Its enticing contents were visible from the room where he would be performing, and the Great Zucchini tolerates no distractions. So he asked Allison to hang a bedsheet across the open archway, which meant making pushpin holes in the sheet and in the walls. Good-naturedly, Allison obeyed. Parents almost always do.
When the Great Zucchini arrived that Saturday morning, Don had no idea who he was. Frankly, he didn't look like a great anything. He looked like a house painter, Don thought, with some justification. He wears no costume. He was in painter's pants, a coffee-stained shirt and a two-day growth of beard. He toted his beat-up props in beat-up steamer trunks, with ripped faux leather and broken hinges hanging askew.
By the time the show began, more than a dozen kids were assembled on the floor. The Great Zucchini's first official act was to order the birthday boy out of the room, because -- a little overwhelmed by the attention -- Trey had begun to cry. "We'll re-transition him back in," the Great Zucchini reassured Allison as she dutifully, if dubiously, whisked her son away.
At the back of the room, Carter Hertzberg, the father of a party guest, was watching with frank interest. He'd heard about the Great Zucchini. "Supposedly," he explained dryly, "all the moms stand in the back and watch, because they think he's hot."
Many moms were, indeed, standing in the back. And -- in a tousled, boyish, roguish, charmingly dissolute sort of way -- the Great Zucchini is, indeed, hot. (Emboldened by a glass or three of party beaujolais, moms have been known to playfully inquire of the Great Zucchini whether there is any particular reason he merits that nickname.)
At the moment, the Great Zucchini was trying and failing to blow up a balloon, letting it whap him in the face, hard. Then he poured water on his head. Then he produced what appeared to be a soiled diaper, wiped his cheek with it, and wore it like a hat as the kids ewwww-ed. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Great Zucchini was behaving like a complete idiot.
Trey's aunt saw me taking notes. "You're writing a story about him?" Vicki Cox asked, amused. I confirmed that I was.
"But . . . why?" she asked.
A few feet away, the Great Zucchini was pretending to be afraid of his own hand.
"I mean," Vicki said, "what's the hook?"
Now, the Great Zucchini was eating toilet paper.
"I mean, are you that desperate?" she asked.
On the floor in front of us, the kids -- 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds -- were convulsed in laughter. Literally. They were rolling on the carpeted floor, holding their tummies, mouths agape, little teeth jubilantly bared, squealing with abandon. In the vernacular of stand-up, the Great Zucchini was killing. Among his victims was Trey, who, as promised, had indeed been re-transitioned into his own party.
The show lasted 35 minutes, and when it was over, an initially skeptical Don Cox forked over a check without complaint. The fee was $300. It was the first of four shows the Great Zucchini would do that Saturday, each at the same price. The following day, there were four more. This was a typical weekend.
Do the math, if you can handle the results. This unmarried, 35-year-old community college dropout makes more than $100,000 a year, with a two-day workweek. Not bad for a complete idiot.
If you want to understand why the Great Zucchini has this kind of success, you need look no further than the stresses of suburban Washington parenting. The attendant brew of love, guilt and toddler-set social pressures puts an arguably unrealistic value on someone with the skills, and the willingness, to control and delight a roistering roomful of preschoolers for a blessed half-hour.
That's the easy part. Here's the hard part: There are dozens of professional children's entertainers in the Washington area, but only one is as successful and intriguing, and as completely over-the-top preposterous, as the Great Zucchini. And if you want to know why that is -- the hook, Vicki, the hook -- it's going to take some time.
Even before they respond to a tickle, most babies will laugh at peekaboo. It's their first "joke." They are reacting to a sequence of events that begins with the presence of a familiar, comforting face. Then, suddenly, the face disappears, and you can read in the baby's expression momentary puzzlement and alarm. When the face suddenly reappears, everything is orderly in the baby's world again. Anxiety is banished, and the baby reacts with her very first laugh.
At its heart, laughter is a tool to triumph over fear. As we grow older, our senses of humor become more demanding and refined, but that basic, hard-wired reflex remains. We need it, because life is scary. Nature is heartless, people can be cruel, and death and suffering are inevitable and arbitrary. We learn to tame our terror by laughing at the absurdity of it all.
This point has been made by experts ranging from Richard Pryor to doctoral candidates writing tedious theses on the ontol-ogical basis of humor. Any joke, any amusing observation, can be deconstructed to fit. The seemingly benign Henny Youngman one-liner, "Take my wife . . . please!" relies in its heart on an understanding that love can become a straitjacket. By laughing at that recognition, you are rising above it, and blunting its power to disturb.
After the peekaboo age, but before the age of such sophisticated understanding, dwells the preschooler. His sense of humor is more than infantile but less than truly perceptive. He comprehends irony but not sarcasm. He lacks knowledge but not feeling. The central fact of his world -- and the central terror to be overcome -- is his own powerlessness. This is where the Great Zucchini works his magic.
The Great Zucchini actually does magic tricks, but they are mostly dime-store novelty gags -- false thumbs to hide a handkerchief, magic dust that turns water to gel -- accompanied by sleight of hand so primitive your average 8-year-old would suss it out in an instant. That's one reason he has fashioned himself a specialist in ages 2 to 6. He behaves like no adult in these preschoolers' world, making himself the dimwitted victim of every gag. He thinks a banana is a telephone, and answers it. He can't find the birthday boy when the birthday boy is standing right behind him. Every kid in the room is smarter than the Great Zucchini; he gives them that power over their anxieties.
The Great Zucchini's real name is Eric Knaus, and the last few analytical paragraphs will come as a surprise to him. Eric is intelligent, but he is almost aggressively reluctant to engage in self-analysis, even about his craft. What he knows is that he intuitively understands preschool kids, because he's had a lot of practice. He worked at Washington area preschools and day-care centers for more than a decade.
During a brief stint as a party host at the Discovery Zone in Rockville, Eric discovered his ability to entertain as well as baby-sit. He was making $2 an hour, so tips were vital. And he found that the most substantial tips came when he acted dumb, serving up laughter along with the pizza.
Four years ago, he decided to go solo. It may have been the best decision he ever made.
The Great Zucchini's clientele is mostly from affluent neighborhoods -- Northwest Washington, Chevy Chase, Bethesda, Potomac, Great Falls, McLean, Arlington. He's been to homes the size of small cathedrals and to parties where he was only one of several attractions, including cotton candy and popcorn machines, lawn-size moon bounces and petting-zoo sheep. Most famously, he did a party at the vice president's residence for a granddaughter of Dick and Lynne Cheney.
I first met the Great Zucchini at a location he chose, a coffee shop in White Flint Mall.
"In the beginning, I had almost no clients," he said, "and I would sit at a table like this in a place like this, and if a mom would be walking by with her 3-year-old, I would pretend to be talking on my cell phone. I'd say, 'Yeah, I do children's parties geared for 3-year-olds!' And a lot of times, the mom would stop, and say . . . 'You do children's parties?'"
When he first started, he found out what other birthday party entertainers were charging -- roughly $150 per show -- and upped it by $25. That worked; it seemed to give him agency. After a while, his weekends were so crammed with parties -- seven or eight, every weekend -- he felt overwhelmed. So, applying fundamental principles of economics, he decided to thin his business but not his profits by raising his prices precipitously -- from $175 to $300. It turns out that the fundamental principles of economics are no match for the fundamental desperation of suburban parents. He still was doing seven or eight shows a weekend.
Weekdays, he mostly haunts places like this, drinking coffee and tending to his cell phone. It rings a lot. It's ringing right now.
"Hello. Yes. Okay, sure, what date are you looking at?"
He flips open the tattered appointment book that is always with him. He's got dates penciled in as far into the future as October.
"I have nothing on the 12th, but I can do the 13th at 11 o'clock. Okay, good. You've seen my show? Excellent. Sure, I remember Dylan's party. Dylan's got short hair, right? Oh. Well, I remember Dylan anyway. He's got two ears, right? This party is for . . .? He is turning, what? Six, okay. Your name is . . .? Okay. And the dad's name?"
He listens, wincing slightly at his own misstep.
"Okay, dad's not invited. We don't feature dad. Not a problem!"
Raising children has always been stressful, but these days it seems even more so, with single-parent families, two-career time pressures and a bewildering explosion of diagnosed childhood developmental disabilities. Things are hard, even if you have a nice income and a nice house in a nice neighborhood. In some ways, that can make it even harder.
I first found out about the Great Zucchini through a friend of mine who lives in Northwest Washington. She gave up a high-prestige job to raise her four young children. Because her husband has a successful career, they can swing it, if not entirely comfortably. She doesn't want her name used because she has hired the Great Zucchini three times, and, like many of the parents I interviewed for this story, is more than a little conflicted about it.
"It's an insane, indulgent thing to do," she said. "You could just have a party where you all played pin the tail on the donkey or musical chairs or something. But that is just not done in this part of D.C. If you did that, you would be talked about.
"The whole thing has snowballed into levels of craziness, and it's just embarrassing to be a part of it. I would never tell my father about this. He grew up in Arkansas during the Depression. It would physically cause him pain to know what I spent on a child's party, for some guy to put a diaper on his head."
What's indisputable is that the kids love the guy with the diaper on his head. They talk about him all the time. They repeat his dumb jokes. They recognize him on the street. They see him at their playmates' parties, and ask for him at theirs. "The Great Zucchini," said my friend's husband, who deals professionally with Washington's power elite, "is the most famous person my children know."
It is crazy, and a little unseemly, and the Great Zucchini knows that. When he was a kid in Bethesda, he says, his own birthday parties consisted of a cake and touch football with friends in the back yard, and that was just fine.
Not that he's complaining about his good fortune, or bashful about discussing it. The Great Zucchini can elevate self-confidence to amusingly Olympian levels. "Why shouldn't I charge as much an hour as the best lawyer in town?" he asks. "I am the best children's entertainer in town."
And: "David Copperfield couldn't keep these kids from running around wild. I can do that."
And, when I noted that he relies on many of the same routines, time and again, he said: "When people come to see Springsteen, they don't want new stuff. They want to hear 'Glory Days.'"
His business plan? To become the children's entertainer to the stars, a star in his own right who is flown first class to Beverly Hills, to do parties at $5,000 a pop for Angelina Jolie's kids, or Britney's.
For all his swagger, Eric Knaus is instantly likable and effortlessly charming. He's got a hitch in his smile that says he's not taking himself all that seriously. His hair is moussed into an appealing, spiky mess, like Hobbes's pal, Calvin. He speaks with a gentle, liquid "l" that tends to put children at ease and seems to work with adults, too. And he is just stupendously great with kids, which is not an inconsiderable factor for a single mom looking for a mate, or a married mom with a single-mom friend whom she'd like to set up. It happens. Eric once had a romance with a single mother he met at a party, but he isn't entirely sure he'd do it again. When they broke up, the child was inconsolable.
Eric is aware that some of his party-time demands can seem obnoxious, but he insists they are reasonable. Very short people, he explains, have very short attention spans, which is why he is notorious for shushing parents who insist on talking during his show, even to the point of ordering them from the room. As he puts it, with characteristic grandiloquence: "I have the power. I've actually said, 'Do you want me to refund your money and leave?'" No parent has ever chosen that option, not with a roomful of kids sprawled on the carpet, giggly and expectant.
This has led to the occasional testy moment, particularly with one mother not long ago who not only balked at covering a picture window with a sheet but insisted on giving her child some macaroni during a show, in defiance of the Great Zucchini's inviolable no-eating rule. ("A choking hazard," he said. "He was hungry," she said.) She not only got a dressing down from the Great Zucchini at the party but a scolding letter afterward.
"My husband threw it away," she said. "He didn't show it to me, because he knew it would really upset me."
This mom happens to be a high-profile attorney with a big-name law firm. Though the Web contains quotes from her on important public-policy matters, you won't find her name in this story about a children's entertainer. She, too, insisted on anonymity. Some subjects are just too personally perilous. This lawyer-mother thoroughly dislikes the Great Zucchini and used a potentially litigable word to describe him.
So, is she sorry she hired him?
"I have to say, he did a great job with the kids."
Both anonymous moms I talked to mentioned something curious. They were surprised that the Great Zucchini required payment in full, up front, the day the party was booked. He actually drove over, that day, to pick up their checks.
It was odd, they said -- almost as if, for all his financial success, the Great Zucchini has cash-flow problems.
From the moment I met him, there were things that puzzled me about the Great Zucchini. Unless I drove him, for example, he relied on cabs to get to all of his gigs. He'd recently totaled his car, he explained, and hadn't gotten around to buying a new one. Besides, he said, he found cabs less restrictive.
Also, the Great Zucchini didn't seem to live anywhere. He had an address in Bethesda, but he would always want to meet at one Starbucks or another. Every time I proposed coming to his house some morning, he was staying elsewhere overnight. He seemed to crash everywhere but home.
His act was never fancy, but in recent months it had lost whatever frills it once had. On his Web site, the Great Zucchini is pictured at the White House Easter Egg Roll, where he once performed in a fancy black vest with cartoon smiley faces on it. He used to wear that vest to all his performances but lost it some time ago and has no plans to replace it.
He is more than a little disorganized. He lost a glowing-thumb trick, then found it, but it was broken, and he never got a new one. At one point, he lost his cell phone. When we were together, he often commandeered mine. Many of his magic props seem to be weathered to the point of decrepitude. His dirty diaper is years old. His magic bag with a false panel -- a "change bag," in magicians' terms -- is soiled and ripped. The once-orange sponge balls he palms for an illusion are brown with use. And there's that persistent, just-rolled-out-of-bed stubble. He didn't always have that.
Some parents I talked to were worried that the Great Zucchini might be rotting on the vine. Their guess was substance abuse, or something even darker.
This was understandable, but wrong. His demons turned out to be of a different species, more benign, perhaps, but also more interesting.
Have you ever tried to peel a zucchini? It's not like a potato. The skin is pretty thick. You don't get it all with the first swipe.
Eric and I were in Arlington, at a fifth birthday party for a boy named Charlie. It was the first time the mother, Sarah Moore, had hired the Great Zucchini, and she had no complaints. He was everything she'd been told he'd be, she said, as she surveyed her post-party, preprandial dining room, aswarm with giddy kids.
"He's a big draw. You know, we wouldn't have gotten half this turnout with a moon bounce," Sarah said, completely seriously.
On our way to the party, Eric and I had been talking football, and I had said I thought the New York Giants would win their next game. He agreed but said they wouldn't beat the spread. I'd found that a little odd, and on our way back from the party I took a stab.
"You're a gambler," I said.
"I need a cigarette," he said.
We stopped for cigarettes. He took a long drag, and smiled. It was as though he'd been waiting for this release for weeks.
"Look, I'm not Mister Rogers, okay?"
Eric definitely has cash-flow problems. They stem from the fact that, for the last several years, the Great Zucchini has been in debt to bookies. "I remember the first bet I ever made," he said. "I went to buy a voice-mail system for my phone, and was talking sports with the guy at the desk, and he asked if I bet with anybody. I made my first bet that day."
What followed, he said, was years of gambling, sometimes thousands of dollars a week, invariably more money than he could afford. He once went to Las Vegas on a Super Bowl Sunday and lost $100 before the game even began. He'd bet on the coin toss. Then he lost some more. Once, he went to Atlantic City, won more than $2,400, and then proceeded to lose it all, down to his last penny. He didn't have money for tolls on the way home and had to beg the tollbooth attendants for mercy. They gave him bills, which he never paid because he owed too much to others.
When the phone rings, it's generally a mom or dad. But he always checks the number warily before answering, because sometimes it's a creditor. Court records show he has a $1,500 income tax lien against him in Anne Arundel County, a debt he said he didn't even know about until I told him.
Anyway, he said, the worst is behind him. He decided some time ago that it's a no-win deal with sports bookies. "You get in a hole, and you can never get out," he said. He has stopped using bookies.
Good, I said.
Recently, he said, he's been doing most of his betting in offshore sports casinos, over the phone.
Eric believes that his gambling helped end the best romantic relationship he ever had -- one that might have led to marriage. This was a beautiful, funny, intelligent woman who, he said, chose him over a far more illustrious suitor, pro football quarterback Gus Frerotte. But in the end, by ignoring her needs, Eric chose gambling over her. "Gambling almost becomes your mistress," he said. "It grabs hold of your soul."
He knows he has a problem, he said, and he is planning on getting professional help. Lately, though, he said he's been making some progress on his own. "I've slowed down a lot," he said. "Let me tell you what I did on Sunday. I used to lay down two or three hundred on four or five different games. Well, I only bet $100 the whole day, which is a huge step up."
A few minutes passed. We talked about women, and how both of us love them. We talked about addictions, and how both of us have had them. And then, to cement our newfound openness, Eric proposed that, in a week or so, he and I take a road trip. To Atlantic City.
Eric's personal friendships are strong and enduring. His closest friends are his oldest friends. Nights out are filled with drinking, bragging and testosterone-laced one-upmanship. With a reporter present on two different Friday nights, it all turned into good-natured savagery, a pile-on, with Eric at the bottom of the pile.
Mike Conte, a seventh-grade math teacher, asked me if I'd seen Eric's apartment yet. Funny you mention it, I said, giving Eric a glance, but no.
"Listen to this," Mike said. "The guy gets an apartment, a big apartment, and all he has to put in it is a couch and a coffee table, right? That's all he's got in the whole place, right? So, then he gets some more money, and what do you think he buys next?"
Mike paused for dramatic effect.
"A bed, you think? No. An air hockey table."
Eric raised a hand and called out to the bartender. "Could I have a little dignity and self-esteem in a glass, please?"
On these nights, Eric tends to stick to Miller Lite. He has parties the next morning, and though he's missed, forgotten and mislaid many other things in his life, he says he's never reneged on a date with a roomful of expectant 4-year-olds.
K.B. Bae, a financial adviser for Legg Mason who has been Eric's friend since childhood, told of the time the two of them were at a strip club, and Eric was taken with a certain dancer, who was both pretty and personable:
"She seems to be taking a liking to him, talking to him between dances, and he's tipping like an idiot, not understanding what's going on. The next day, he says to me, 'Let's go back to that place.' Same thing happens. The third day, Eric reaches into his pocket, and he's got this glam photo of himself, and on the back he's written this really deep stuff, 'Is this chance, fate or love?' that sort of thing. And she's dancing naked onstage, right? And he goes up and tips her with the picture. She reads the back of it, and after that, she's nowhere to be found, dude!"
"When he goes into a house, his attitude is, 'You're lucky to have me.' When I go into a house, my attitude is, 'I'm happy to have the job.'"
This is Broccoli the Clown, ne Jake Stern, who, at 57 has been a children's entertainer in the Washington area for 27 years. He is one of the best. It was only recently that Jake saw a show by the Great Zucchini, when he met Eric to sell him some of his old magic props. Broccoli the Clown has seen a great... many characters in his career, but nothing prepared him for the disheveled package of strut and gumption that is the Great Zucchini.
"At first, I was pissed. I was sitting there kicking myself. I have full clown gear and expensive equipment, and he's got this change bag with a broken handle and a bedsheet with jelly stains on it, and he's making more money than I am."
After a while, Broccoli the Clown realized he was focusing on the wrong thing. It wasn't about the props or the costumes.
"He's got an incredible rapport with the children. I've known guys in this business who are stiff as a board. To them, it's a job, and they're bitter. They hate what they do, and they can't relate to the children. This guy relates amazingly to kids. He understands and enjoys them."
The Great Zucchini doesn't know how to juggle. But he does a bit where he claims to be a great juggler, and then fails dreadfully, the balls bouncing every which way. The kids crack up. Jake Stern, on the other hand, teaches juggling. But after seeing Eric, he began to modify his act. Now he sometimes lets the balls bonk him in the head.
"If you want to call me the poor man's Great Zucchini," says Jake, "I don't mind. I really don't. Listen, I look into his eyes, and he's a good guy. I look into his eyes, and there's almost . . ."
Broccoli the Clown hesitates.
". . . there's something almost innocent there."
On the turnpike, en route to Atlantic City, I was doing 80 mph when I whipped past a state trooper. He followed me into the next rest stop, lights flashing.
As we waited for the trooper to check my license, Eric said, quietly, "You know, if I had been driving, I would have been in real trouble."
I smiled, relieved. "I know," I said. "Your court date is November 21."
"How do you know that?"
"I ran your police records," I said.
For a moment, there was dead silence. Then: "So you didn't buy that I just really like to talk to cabdrivers, huh?"
The cop may have been 20 feet behind us, but I suspect he wondered why two guys he'd just pulled over for speeding were busting a gut laughing.
The Great Zucchini hadn't been driving because his license was suspended for nonpayment of parking tickets -- well over $2,000 in tickets that he'd simply tossed in the glove box. After the license suspension, he still drove for a while, furtively. ("Do you have any idea how careful a driver you become when you're on a suspended license?") Twice, he was stopped by the police. The second cop checked his record, found a bench warrant for his arrest and hauled him in, despite Eric's desperate, last-ditch plea to perform a free party for the guy's kid. It was in the police station, with his car impounded, that the Great Zucchini decided maybe he really ought to start taking cabs.
Eric's misadventures with traffic tickets are symptomatic of larger problems involving his inability to conduct life as a reasonably mature, moderately organized, marginally integrated member of polite society.
Take his apartment . . . please.
I did get to see it, finally. On the morning of the day I was to arrive, Eric awoke to discover he had no electricity. So he quickly had to get cash and run to the utility company. He knew exactly what to do because it had happened many times before. That's his tickler system: When the lights go out, it's time to pay the bill.
As I entered the apartment, to the left, was a spare bedroom. It was empty, except for a single, broken chair. Down the hall was the living room, with that couch and that air hockey table, which was covered with junk, clothes, cigarette butts and coins. ("You want to play? I can clean it off.") Coins and junk also littered the floor, along with two or three industrial-size Hefty bags filled with Eric's soiled clothing he'd brought back from a summer camp that he'd helped staff, three months earlier. The closets were completely empty. There were no clean clothes.
The kitchen was almost tidy, due to lack of use. There was a fancy knife set and a top-of-the-line microwave, neither of which, Eric said, has ever been deployed. There was also a gleaming, never-used chrome blender and a high-end Cuisinart coffee maker that was put into play exactly once, when a woman who slept over wanted a cuppa in the morning. Most of these appliances were purchased in a frenzy of optimism when Eric moved in almost a year ago. ("You know how when you get a new place, it's all exciting, and you say, Mmm, I'm gonna get me a blender and make smoothies!")
The cupboards were bare. The only edible thing I saw was a 76-ounce box of raisin bran, the size of a small suitcase.
The bedroom was similar to the living room, down to the Hefty bags, except there was actually something in the closet. Not clothing, though. A shoebox.
It doesn't belong on the closet floor, Eric knows that. He was going to bring it to the French Quarter of New Orleans, but that's out now. He's thinking maybe the bluffs of Big Sur. He just hasn't gotten around to it. It's been three years now, so another few weeks or months or years won't really matter, one way or another. It holds his father's ashes.
Eric doesn't know why he is the way he is. He knows he's perfectly ridiculous, and that his disability -- or whatever it is -- is out of control. We were about an hour outside Atlantic City, discussing his life.
"I make more than $100,000 a year," he said, "and I literally have no idea where any of it goes." He is simply lacking, he said, whatever mechanism most people have for dealing with the mundanities of life. His personal finances resemble his apartment: total chaos. He keeps no records. He knows he's not entirely square with the Internal Revenue Service, but hasn't a clue how much he owes. He's taking steps to negotiate a payment plan.
But it's not just about money, I said.
No. No, he agreed. It's not just about money. It's about a fundamental inability to cope. "Some people promise themselves that maybe one day they'll sky-dive, to prove to themselves they can do it," he said. "I'll promise myself that maybe one day I'll clean my house."
The devolution of the Great Zucchini's act over the last few years is not because his life has been spiraling any further out of control than it's ever been. It's just that he started his business with some discipline, but when it became clear his career wouldn't suffer because of inattention to detail, inattention to detail seamlessly followed.
I've known other men who approach Eric's level of dysfunction, including myself. I'm saved by the fact that I've been able to hang on to a competent wife. That doesn't seem to be an immediate option for Eric. He's frightened of commitment, he says, because he is terrified of making the wrong choice. The divorce of his parents, and divorces he's seen among his friends and his clients, make him particularly scared. It's odd, because he's not really afraid of much else. He's not even particularly scared of death.
"Life is a crapshoot," he said. When you understand and accept that, he said, it eliminates fear. Plus, there's something else.
"When I was 7 years old," he said, "I was walking in the street with my grandmother, and I got kissed on the cheek by an angel."
I laughed. He did not. He meant it. He said he felt the kiss, knew instantly what it was, and believes that this angel has been watching over his life ever since. He has survived serious car accidents, he said, and as a child recovered from two broken arms that doctors said, by all rights, should have turned into rag doll appendages. He believes he is protected. It's a healthy attitude for living, perhaps, but maybe not for gambling.
Our plan for this trip was to stay a few hours in Atlantic City and go home. Eric had told me he'd bring $200 in cash and see what happened. But he wound up bringing $500. If things were going good, he said, he just might gamble into the night.
An overnight? But you didn't even bring a toothbrush or a change of clothes, I said.
"Won't need 'em," he said, if things go good.
Half an hour away, he phoned a friend and left a message: "Gettin' near Atlantic City. Gonna roll some bones."
He saw me looking at him.
"Okay, I'm seriously geeking out," he said, laughing.
Five minutes later, he made another call, and left another message.
"Gonna be rollin' some bones, baby."
We are rolling bones.
Because he likes the company of people, Eric's favorite game is craps. Craps is not a solitary pursuit, like blackjack or slots. You are throwing dice, and other people around the table are betting on your throws. If you are hot, you can gain a lot of close friends.
At the moment, Eric is white-hot, and the table is going rip-roaring crazy.
Laying down bets of $10 and $20, Eric is up a couple of hundred. Others at the table are hitchhiking on his luck, including a very large woman with a very large tumbler of wine.
Right before every roll of the dice, for luck, she hollers the same thing at the top of her lungs, a corruption of a Kanye West lyric. "I ain't messin' with no gold digger," she bellows, "but I ain't messin' with no broke nigga!" Appalled, the pit boss implores her to stop. When she refuses, he backs off. At a casino, you don't monkey with mojo.
With each cast of the dice, the large woman's sister, who is even larger, is standing behind Eric, pounding his shoulders, yelling, "Lady Luck! Lady Luck!"
Eric is up to $350 and climbing.
The women keep yelling their inane mantras, Eric keeps rolling, everyone keeps winning. The noise becomes deafening. People from other tables migrate over to get part of the action.
We are in Bally's, which is pretty indistinguishable from any other Atlantic City casino -- which is to say, it is an illusion. The rooms are brocaded and chandeliered, the croupiers tuxedoed, the waitresses sequined, all to establish an atmosphere of genteel, aristocratic gaming, but it's all in service of banal desperation. The patrons tend toward the taut and the hollow-eyed, the pale and the pit-stained, dressed less for Monte Carlo than for Monty's Steak 'n' Ribs. Eric is in a Maryland Terps polo shirt, and the large ladies are in drugstore pink, and most everyone, as always, will go home a loser.
But while you're winning, anything seems possible. Eric is at the moment a heroic character, a romantic lead, a suave Bogart or Bond, rolling sixes and nines and never a losing seven, and the cheering continues. The classy illusion holds right up until the moment that the bellowing woman falls silent, sways, hiccups, and vomits all over the table.
It's now just after midnight. We'd arrived at 7, and Eric shows no sign of tiring. He's lost some money at blackjack but is making it back on a craps table, again. Beside him is a sweet, funny, attractive woman named Mollie, in a low-cut black blouse and white pants with a big belt. Mollie's maybe 30, a businesswoman from Texas. She'd arrived with friends whom she seems to have jettisoned.
Eric is hot.
"You want to see a five?" He teases the table, which has bet heavily on five. "Is five what you want, a five?" He rolls a five. The table erupts in cheers.
"I'm a magician," he says to Mollie. "I don't know if you knew that."
"It's showing," she says. She is leaning against the table, hipshot, dangling a sandal, watching his every move.
Eric is generous with his winnings, every once in a while tossing a few chips to the croupier, tipping waitresses magnanimously. He has switched from rum-and-Cokes to coffee, to keep alert, but he still tips $5 or more. That's a signature of his: At coffee shops, Eric will sometimes leave $20 on a $5 tab. He says he does it to make the day of someone who is not accustomed to generosity.
By 1:30 a.m., he's up more than $600, and still rolling strong. "I'm going to call it a night," Mollie says. She shakes Eric's hand and leaves for her room, his business card in her pocket. Then she comes back, looks at the table and Eric. She thought she might have forgotten something, but she guessed not. She leaves again, for good.
"This is the hottest roll I've been on all night," Eric tells me. "When it's over, they are definitely going to give me an ovation."
A few minutes later he finally craps out. There is some polite applause, and someone else grabs the dice.
I tell him: "You could have hooked up with Mollie."
"What? No way," he says.
"Eric, at one point there, she was giving you a back rub."
"You had her."
"You think, really?"
He smiles sheepishly, goes back to the table.
I went to bed. I found Eric again at 7 a.m. at another casino. He hadn't slept. He was up $1,100 but wasn't ready to leave.
The next three hours were ugly. The craps tables had cooled off ("The felt was too old, the table was hard"), and he had a couple of bad outings with steely-eyed dealers at the blackjack tables. ("Those women were cruel.") Eric finally quit at 10:30 a.m. His all-nighter had left him with a profit of $200, roughly his fee for 20 minutes of children's party entertainment. He wasn't disappointed. Life is a crapshoot, after all.
On the ride home, there was one image I could not get out of my head.
The Great Zucchini's tattered loose-leaf appointment book is filled with the names and dates of his scheduled parties, months and months into the future. He keeps no backup -- no other notes, nothing on a computer disk, nothing anywhere. If he were to lose that book, he'd have no idea where he was supposed to be, or when. For months of weekends, preschool children would be waiting expectantly in homes across greater Washington, and the Great Zucchini would simply never show.
Eric understands the importance of that book. Without it, the Great Zucchini would cease to exist, and all that would be left would be Eric Knaus. And so he carries it with him everywhere. He won't leave it in a car, in case the car is stolen. When he goes out of his house, if he absolutely must leave the book behind, he hides it in a special place no burglar would think to look.
The sight that I could not get out of my head was the Great Zucchini hunched over the craps table, lost in that flagrant illusion, flinging dice with his right hand, his left hand pressing that book hard to his chest, white knuckled, like a man holding on for dear life.
Lauren Cox, 5, on why she likes the Great Zucchini, whom she saw at her little brother's third birthday party:
"Because when the snake came out, and it didn't stop coming out? And when there was nothing in that box, and then there was jelly? He's for boys. Boys are funny and dumb, but they like trucks and trains, and I don't, and I'm not having the Great Zucchini. I'm having a party somewhere else in Virginia that's girly."
The Great Zucchini, on why he likes little kids:
"Because they are totally innocent and totally nonjudgmental, but they will say whatever they think, and that's beautiful."
Eric's mother, Jane Knaus, is a small, cultured, soft-spoken woman of 60. We met at yet another Starbucks, to discuss the enigma that is her son. I said I was trying to understand him.
"I don't know if I understand him," she said, smiling. "Actually, I don't know where he came from."
Literally, he came from Jane Cohen and Rodger Knaus, beat-era liberal intellectuals who met at Berkeley in 1963. They split to Sweden in disgust in 1968, with $2,000 between them, after Hubert Humphrey got nominated for president over Eugene McCarthy. There, they had their only child. They were back in the United States by Eric's second birthday.
Now Jane is creative services director at Montgomery College. Rodger was a PhD in mathematics whose pioneering work in early software design is still celebrated. What Jane means about Eric's dubious ancestry is that, temperamentally, from the earliest age, he fit neither parent.
Jane was a fine artist. Rodger was a scientist. "Our work required solitude," Jane said. They were eggheads, and loners. Eric was neither.
"In grade school," Jane said, "I would ask the teacher how Eric was doing in math, and the teacher would say, 'Eric likes to show off his muscles and flirt with the girls.' And I would ask, 'But how is he doing in math?' and the teacher would say, 'Eric likes to show off his muscles and flirt with the girls.'"
The most significant fact in Eric's upbringing, Jane said, was when she and her husband separated. Eric was 13. The divorce became final two years later, and the whole thing was obviously deeply painful. At 14, Eric was living with his mom in an apartment with cockroaches; Eric wouldn't let her kill them. "Cockroaches have families, too," he would say.
"Who still thinks like that at 14?" she said, smiling sadly.
Divorce is traumatic for any child, I said. But Eric had told me the divorce wasn't that big a deal, that he'd loved and respected his father, and stayed close to him. Was that right?
Jane hesitated. At the end of Rodger's life, yes, the two men were close, she said, measuredly. Eric actually quit his job when his father lay dying of a brain tumor, she said, to spend his final months beside him at the hospice. At Rodger's funeral, she said, Eric delivered an impromptu tribute so moving and heartfelt and self-deprecatory that it helped heal the wounds.
Jane took a sip of tea.
Rodger had been born prematurely, she said, with some attendant physical difficulties. He was blind in one eye, and had a palsied leg. He was not good-looking, like Eric, or affable, like Eric, or always surrounded by friends, like Eric. He drove himself to overcome his handicaps, but at a significant emotional cost. He had an incendiary temper, particularly if his peace and quiet was threatened by Eric, a rambunctious kid. When Eric's pals would come over, Rodger would lie and say Eric wasn't home, and literally slam the door in the faces of flabbergasted 10-year-olds. He would storm and rant at Eric, call him names, break objects in rage.
His violence was only to objects?
"There was physical violence to Eric. It's why I left Rodger. As Eric got older, and bigger, I knew he wasn't going to take it anymore. And I feared something terrible was going to happen, that one of them was really, really going to hurt the other. It got scary. I was a mother, and I had no choice. I had to leave, to protect my cub."
Jane never remarried, and loved her husband -- "a difficult, cantankerous, challenging, funny, impossible, brilliant man" -- until the day he died.
Jane said she has no doubts that Eric's mistreatment at the hands of his father influenced his life, though she isn't sure exactly how. She knows he's never fully accepted adulthood, growing up both guileless and naive -- still in many ways a child, for better or worse.
"Actually, he doesn't see the bifurcation. He probably feels 5-year-olds should be able to vote. He's very, very protective of children."
Jane Knaus took another sip of her tea, which must have been cold. We'd been talking for well over an hour.
"Did Eric ever mention what happened to the people across the hall?"
No, I said.
And then she told me what happened to the people across the hall.
When I picked Eric up for his court appearance on his license suspension, he was dressed in a nice pair of pants and a shirt still crisp from the package. He'd taken a cab to Filene's just that morning to buy both of them, because he hadn't a clean outfit in his house. He also bought a tie but wasn't wearing it.
Eric never learned to tie a necktie. I had to make the knot on myself, then loop it over his head.
The court appearance proved anticlimactic. Eric's lawyer -- a dad for whom he'd done parties -- negotiated a continuance.
Afterward, Eric and I stopped for hot chocolate in Rockville. One customer recognized both of us. She seemed particularly delighted to finally meet the Great Zucchini. Then we stopped for lunch. Over tacos, I asked Eric about what happened to the people across the hall.
"I don't really remember it," he said. "I told you, I don't remember anything before fourth grade."
"Fourth grade is age 9. You were 13," I said.
"The thing about fourth grade is I had a tyrant of a teacher, and my dad told her to stop picking on me, and that is why my fifth-grade teacher was important to me, and I started liking school, which is why . . ."
"What about the family across the hall, Eric?"
"I just don't remember it. I was watching a football game, maybe the Super Bowl. That's all I remember."
Not the Super Bowl. The New York Giants were playing the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday night, October 24, 1983, and midway through the first quarter, there was a sound of a scuffle, and then shots from the apartment across the hall.
Eric knew that apartment. On at least two occasions, he had baby-sat for the 18-month-old boy there, a child named Laurence. It was Eric's first baby-sitting gig, in a life that would, ultimately, be all about baby-sitting.
"I don't really remember him. He was just a baby. A lot of babies have passed through this head. All babies look the same."
"All babies look the same? You've told me you can tell, just from looking, what sort of personality a 6-month-old will have."
"I just don't remember. What I remember of my childhood was running through the sewers of Bethesda with K.B., and popping up out of manholes. We used to . . ."
"Eric . . ."
"I know you want this to be important, but it just isn't."
"I've never seen you upset before. Why are you getting upset?"
"I'm not getting upset."
The woman who lived in the apartment across the hall was a dark-haired beauty named Paula Adams. Five years earlier, Paula Adams had been a chief lieutenant of the Rev. Jim Jones, the brilliant, messianic madman who led 900 followers to a mass suicide in the jungles of Guyana. Adams survived the holocaust in Jonestown and fled to the United States with her lover, the man whose government influence had given her safe haven. His name was Laurence Mann, and he had been the Guyanese ambassador to the United States.
They had a child here, but their relationship -- no doubt haunted by the horror -- was deeply troubled. No one knows exactly what caused it, but at 9:30 on that Monday night, Mann forced his way into the apartment, shot Paula in the head, shot the baby in the head, and then turned the gun on himself. None survived.
"How can you not remember it, Eric?"
"It's easy for someone who is 35 to not remember someone he baby-sat for when he was 12."
"Thirteen. Your mother says you were really attached to that little boy. She said you were devastated to realize that a child can be unsafe in his own home. She said you never really got over it. Those were her words."
"Look, what do you want me to say? You want me to say I remember? Okay, I remember. I'm pissed because that mom still owes me $9 for baby-sitting, okay?"
We both laughed. Okay, Eric. Good one. No more questions.
Once, when Eric was leaving a restaurant, he saw a man disciplining his 2-year-old son. The kid had done something of which the father disapproved, so the father poked the boy in the face with a knuckle, so hard it left a mark. Eric says he made a scene, telling the parents he would call the cops if he ever saw anything like that again. He's stopped parents in the street to inform them that, at 3, a child is too old for a pacifier. Once, when a 4-year-old at a party seemed painfully timid, Eric told the mom to stop letting the child sleep in her bed. "How did you know he does that?" the mother asked. Eric just knew.
"At that age," he explained, "a child can't do much by himself. Making it through the night alone is a big accomplishment. You have to give him that victory."
In the two months I'd gotten to know him, I'd seen several slightly awkward encounters between Eric and a parent, but not one such moment between Eric and a child. It's tempting to imagine him as Holden Caulfield imagined himself, protector of children's souls, poised beside the field of rye at the edge of a cliff, catching them before they plummet to their spiritual deaths. But this man with the guardian angel on his shoulder; who forfeits love for gambling but looks to find it in a strip club; who can't tie a tie or remember to pay a bill; who makes a tidy living but doesn't know where the money goes; who can't recall things that deliver him emotional pain; who solemnly prays to God in the bathroom before every performance for the strength and wisdom to make the 4-year-olds giggle -- this guy has not yet surrendered himself, as Holden reluctantly did, to adulthood. He may never. Maybe it's that he's seen the alternative, and wants no part of it.
Maybe he's Peter Pan. He's even got some magic dust, until he loses it.
"If Eric ever grows up," Jane Knaus had told me, "his career might be over."
We are in the Great Falls home of Melanie and Denny Sisson, where eight children and their parents are gathering for a show. A few minutes earlier, Eric had asked me to pull my car up to the side of another one, so we were hidden from the house while he finished a cigarette.
The Sissons jokingly call their house a "bowling alley," because of the open space. It's more than 6,000 square feet of atria, solaria and balustrade, a beautiful home that is a testament to Denny's successful business as a landscape architect, which is itself a testament to the opulence of Great Falls real estate. It all dovetails nicely.
Things don't always work out so perfectly, though, even in Great Falls. The birthday girl is the Sissons' 5-year-old, Phoebe, and her guests are mostly kids from her special-needs class. Like Phoebe, these are children with developmental disabilities of varying degrees. They're a handful and a half.
A former elementary school teacher, Melanie chose Eric after seeing him perform elsewhere. She concluded he is "a true artist" who could entertain a roomful of kids equally well "in Great Falls or in the Sudan."
Eric didn't know these were going to be mostly kids with special needs, but it becomes apparent right away. They're beautiful children, and seem plenty smart, but they're all over the floor, with nanosecond attention spans. One mother with tired eyes and a wary bearing hovers at her son's elbow the whole time.
The show starts, and within seconds, Eric's got them. Instinctively, he's streamlining his act, making his gags last half as long as usual. He takes a drink of water, calling it, in a goofy, sonorous voice, "WA-WA." For some reason, this sends the kids into hysterics, so he repeats it. Hysterics, again. He does it a third time, and now they're doubled over, gasping for air. Eric looks out at the parents, shrugs, winks and says, "I'll just keep doin' this all afternoon, okay?" The parents laugh, maybe for the first time in a while.
For 35 minutes, Eric handles the crowd, improvising deftly as he goes. When one boy walks up excitedly and slugs him in the leg, he takes no notice. When another grabs a prop, Eric turns it into a joke. When he is done, he has actually worked up a sweat. Some parents applaud.
A little girl in pink walks right up to him -- she's not from the special-needs class, just an ordinary little girl with a special need of her own, right now -- and extends a forefinger, straight up in the air. It's puzzling. Eric meets her eyes. Something indefinable passes between them, something only they understand, and Eric reaches out, seizes that little finger in his big fist, and gives it a shake. The girl breaks into a grin. Then she hugs the most fabulous person she's ever known in her whole life, the Great Zucchini.