Even though they may spend hours in the place during any given week, David and Diana Mullins insist that they don't mind having lunch at Chevys. They generally don't get to eat there, after all. They are, rather, father-and-daughter members of that mysterious sect of people who approach you at your table, hoping to catch you in a good mood, and chat you up while spinning sculptures out of latex and air, in return for a gratuity. They're balloon twisters.
It's a business for, as the saying goes, a "people person." David and Diana might not initially seem to fit the bill -- they're friendly, but hardly ebullient. Diana, who's 20, speaks slowly and laconically, in a polite deadpan that somehow has a faintly tongue-in-cheek ring to it. Still, she says she finds that, no matter how good her balloon creation, her tip is principally based on the connection she makes by talking to people.
"Everybody without fail asks the same question," she says, as she munches chips and salsa: "'How'd you get into it?'"
I ask that question, too. When I learned that Diana's father also worked table-to-table as a balloon artist in the chain restaurants, I assumed she had picked up the skill from him. I thought perhaps they were part of a dynasty of balloon twisters that went back centuries to some proud master in the Old Country, and that Diana would someday tell her own child, "One day you will be the Balloon King."
Nah. It was just a way to make some extra money. The full-time sophomore at Southwest Bible College, who hopes eventually to be a teacher, started twisting balloons about three years ago, when a guy she met from a firm called Balloonabilities asked her if she wanted to learn how. "And my dad was like, 'Yes, you want to, so you can pay for your own bills,'" she says.
Six months later, David got interested in his daughter's newfound vocation, took it up himself, and soon he, too, was working for Balloonabilities. After putting in about 45 hours a week as a maintenance supervisor at Grace Christian School, he now folds balloons two or three nights a week and on weekends, at various chain beaneries -- all three area Chevys, Old Chicago and El Torito. His daughter twists in between schoolwork, work as a YMCA lifeguard and playing on her school's basketball team.
After we order -- Diana's on a first-name basis with the servers -- I ask the next obvious question: What's the trick to making balloon sculpture? "There's no real trick to it," Diana assures me. "To learn everything only took about eight hours, but it took about three months of practicing, just sitting and watching TV and making balloons, to get it right, the proportions and stuff like that."
She and her dad start pulling balloons and hand pumps out of their knapsack, to demonstrate. Diana shows me the major twists of the art: the basic Bubble Twist; the Apple Twist, which gives an indentation to the end of the balloon; the Pinch Twist, used to create a 90-degree angle; and finally the Double Pinch Twist, which is used to make . . . well, asses. "It's usually used for the rear end of my basketball players and sports figures." She shows me the technique, and the result does indeed look like a little butt.
Her father chimes in. "You don't fill the balloon up too much, and you twist the same direction all the time. . . . One of the first things we'd do when we started learning it is we'd blow a balloon up and blow it up and blow it up, and then just keep squeezing it 'til it popped in our hands. That way you'd get used to the balloon exploding in your hands and it wouldn't startle you after a while."
The first animal that novices are taught to make is a poodle, but Diana is such a veteran she claims she no longer remembers such elementary exercises. Both she and her old man create more ambitious works. Along with her human figures -- she can do a "baseball player, basketball player, soccer player, hockey player, Power Ranger, ninja, cheerleader, ballerina and football player" -- Diana specializes in hats, most of them of her own design. The largest she ever made was seven feet wide and about five feet high, and involved about 25 balloons. Another specialty, which she sets to work on, is a Snoopy with goggles on a motorcycle.
While she tells me this, her old man holds up the poodle he's wrought. Then he fills a pink balloon and tries to talk me through my first sculpture -- a mouse. Cringing in anticipation of an explosion, I follow his instructions, and at the end I have a little pink creature that looks like some sort of sad postapocalyptic mutant, an effect that is not reduced when I clumsily draw its smiley face on sideways.
Our lunches arrive. I start in on my steak quesadilla, feeling justified by my belief that I wouldn't prove a balloon-twisting prodigy. Still, I didn't pop it, which is more than I expected to accomplish.
As we eat, I begin to see the difference with which David and Diana talk about balloon twisting. To her it seems to be pleasant and a relatively easy way to make money; to her father, who started later, it's something like a passion. He sometimes sits on his front porch and makes balloon sculptures for the neighborhood kids. He has developed designs of his own -- a frog catching a fly, and a more complex version of the Tyrannosaurus rex than the standard. "He's a lot bigger than the ones I've seen other balloon twisters do," he says proudly. "He takes three balloons, and most of the other ones only take two."
David gets up, his combo plate unfinished, and begins twisting balloons. Soon he's in creative frenzy, his daughter assisting like an O.R. nurse. The frog sprouts from his hands, and a dragon, and a tiny Jason Kidd. Diana, meanwhile, shows me her chopper-borne Snoopy, and a variety of her elaborate headwear.
They really are charming creations, if short-lived. All art is ephemeral, perhaps, but even origami can stand the test of time longer than balloon sculpture. According to David, the longest that even the most well-tended balloon sculpture, like the teddy bear he made for his wife on Valentine's Day, is likely to last is perhaps two or three weeks.
I ask about the occupational hazards of balloon twisting. "I've been hit on a lot," says Diana with resignation, "but you know, any job, you get hit on." David says the same thing has happened to him.
Diana also points out that balloon twisters occasionally receive requests for X-rated balloons, which I suppose makes sense given the oblong nature of the medium. As their backgrounds -- and the WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do) necklace Diana's wearing -- might imply, David and Diana don't take such requests. "Everything is rated G for family fun," Diana says, in a deadpan that Steven Wright would be proud of.
And is the money any good?
"Yes," says Diana. "Last week I made $140 in six hours. My best day was Cinco de Mayo at Chevys at Arrowhead -- $130 in five hours."
The worst days, by contrast, are those seasons when people are most uptight about their finances -- especially the weeks before the Ides of April. "Christmas is not that bad," says Diana. "But tax season is like, why even bother?"
NOTE: In last week's Lunch Meet, I identified one of Scot playwright Stephen Greenhorn's works as The Salt Wind; the correct title is The Salt Wound. Beware of Scottish accents.
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