"¡Ay, Chihuahua!" Balloon Man John Dukeminier (stage name John Duke) says as a section of what was meant to be a crown for a child patron bursts. Gliding on comedic momentum, he pops the whole thing and starts an impromptu dance.
"The children; their faces; their huge smiles," he says are his favorite part of the job.
Duke stumbled into balloon figures through juggling and magic some 20 years ago. "I never asked to be the Balloon Man, I never wanted to be the Balloon Man, but after I got fired from every restaurant in town, I thought, 'Hey, maybe I should just be the balloon guy.'"
His words are laced with a Pee-wee Herman-style chuckle and off-the-cuff comments like, "I'm Harry Potter's uncle," and, "This kid the other day asked me if I could make him Jesus and I said 'How about a poodle?'"
He cites Jane Fonda as a fan of his signature creation, a pregnant monkey on a Harley. “You gotta get the baby on the right spot, or else it’s a tumor,” he explains.
Lately, Duke’s humor has been affected by what he calls “selective enforcement” of the city’s busking guidelines.
“It seems like they change the rules on a daily basis,” Duke says. The conflict, he explains, is the city’s vague definition of what a busker is. “I fall into a weird category because I’m not a musician.”
He assures that he tries to follow regulations to a T. “I always perform sober. A lot of people have brought a lot of heat on,” he says. “A lot of these idiots—the drunks with guitars that are overly aggressive—they lump us all together.”
It’s Monday evening, and Duke has traded his regular Plaza location for one near the corner of Water Street and Don Gaspar Ave. “There’s a law that says that when there’s a performance on stage, there cannot be a performance in the park,” he explains. “That law was written for musicians, because if you think about it, you cannot have a band onstage and then have a guy playing the guitar in the park. I completely understand that it clashes.”
He says he has the Santa Fe Bandstand’s “blessing, permission and invitation,” to busk during concerts. “They realize that what I do with the balloons not only does not conflict with the performance onstage, but it actually enhances it.”
For Fiestas, he secured a permit that allows him to perform as a recognized vendor. “It’s good for the city,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many people tell me that I made their vacation—they look for me year after year with their kids. There’s not a lot going on for kids. Do you think kids care about freakin’ jewelry and shit? No.”
The special permit that allowed him to take part in the Fiesta Fine Arts and Crafts Market over Labor Day weekend came with its own set of rules—among them, closing shop at 5 pm.
His vendor permit expired, he thought he could switch over to his busking license and keep on ’looning. He was wrong. “I’m not trying to cause any trouble,” he says. “I just want to be able to do the art that I have taught myself to do.”
So, he chose the location near Hotel St. Francis to duck from market organizers and, hopefully, to make ends meet.
“I don’t pressure people. If you don’t like what I do, just walk on by,” says Duke, who works for tips. “You have to keep in mind, I wait [through] 10 months of hard, slow times in Santa Fe—non-tourist times—for these two good months.”
He says he goes through 1,000 balloons daily and only half of his customers tip. Asked for a ballpark of how much he earns on a good day, Duke flounders. “It depends. It’s very seasonal. I spend upwards of $1,000 a month on balloons.”
The 49-year-old feels he’s been unfairly targeted by the Parks & Recreation division’s special events staff, who try to run him off from Plaza summer happenings.
Not so, says Barbara Lopez, special events administrator. “There’s a city ordinance for buskers, with rules and regulations they need to follow. My job is to enforce it.” Lopez also says she treats all buskers equally and if she were to bend the rules for Duke, she’d have to do the same for the city’s other 119 or so buskers.
“I totally understand and respect what they’re trying to do, but man, you would think they’d be used to me by now,” Duke says.
Through sheer persistence, he hopes to single-handedly elevate local busking. “Santa Fe is having a difficult time embracing the whole idea of street performing,” he says, adding that it’s huge in cities like Portland and Austin.
“New Orleans? Oh my God, people go to New Orleans just for the street entertainment,” he says. “It doesn’t cost the city anything, and you’re getting some amazing entertainment in most cases.”
If the city were to stop “fighting it, kicking and screaming,” he thinks, Santa Fe could be known for its busking. “My dream is to get to a point where we can even have a busking festival in Santa Fe that is designed and centered around busking, and busking is celebrated, as opposed to looked down upon,” he muses.
Extinguishing a cig he snuck in during a five-minute break, Duke is ready to keep on entertaining.
“It just seems ridiculous that I need to fight so hard to be able to work.” He pauses, “This is the least I could do to try to not just be a total bum.”