Will Frost—“gods clown,” bluegrass harmonica player, certified midwife, UC Berkeley graduate and Abraham Lincoln look-alike—sits on the bench outside Small World Coffee eating a bagel with grape jelly. His leather vest is studded with Myrtle Beach pins, and the chain around his neck holds a metal cross and a turquoise ring. Across the sidewalk, below his powder-blue bike with a basket full of balloon creatures, a cardboard sign says, “Trying to get home to Lancaster PA.” I ask him how he got so far from home and he responds with a toothless smile. “I came here to become a godfather,” he says.
Back in Pennsylvania, where he lives in “a shadow town of Three Mile Island,” Will works at a mental health socialization program helping disabled individuals transition from an institutionalized childhood to an independent lifestyle. His very first student, Brandon (he occasionally refers to his students as “my children”), came to him after living in the psychiatric ward of a nearby hospital for fourteen years. Will worked with Brandon for four years, and even let him use the Internet on his computer, where Brandon met the woman who would become his wife.
Brandon moved out, but he still calls every day. Will, who has a doctorate in child development, is acutely sensitive to Brandon’s particular needs: “He gets claustrophobic when he gets excited, so I have to walk him outside.” When they discovered that Brandon was going to become a father, Will knew he would have to make the trip.
“I took a week off work. My wife said, ‘You’re gonna lose money, things will go wrong.’ But this is more important,” he said.
Although he still has the characteristic sharp beard and stove-pipe hat of a Mennonite, Will allows several exceptions in his technology-free lifestyle. He hopped on an Amtrak and made it up to the Princeton Medical Center just in time for the birth of a baby girl.
His obligation, though, was to her father. “It’s a stressful time. I wanted to make sure I could be there for him.” In the first few days, he slept outside, off of Route 1, as close to the maternity ward as possible.
When his duty to Brandon was fulfilled and it was time to head home, Will encountered a few twists: he lost his wallet somewhere in the vicinity of the hospital, and without his ID, he couldn’t make it onto his train. And without his credit card, he couldn’t get the money that he requested from his wife. “Although she probably wouldn’t want to send it anyways,” he laughs.
So he headed to Trenton for a few days, where he ran into “some really crazy folks” and narrowly avoided being mugged. Following that unpleasant encounter, he made his way over to Princeton, where he replaced his broken folding bike with a tiny blue beach cruiser from the Cyclab. He’s also a professional balloon artist (his business card says “gods clown”), so he posted up outside Small World Coffee and got right to work.
In the five days since he arrived in Princeton, Will has been living off of balloon tips, ingenuity, and a cheerfully resilient attitude. “I’ve taken a few hits in life,” he adds, gesturing to an errant driver on Witherspoon, “so I know how to bounce off a car.” He has made friends in and around town, and even played harmonica in the Small World bluegrass jam session.
“Small World, they’ve been nice to me,” he says.
That said, some days have been better than others. He had expected Palm Sunday to be especially fruitful, considering “all the Christians about town. That’s a basic Christian value—that’s a value in every religion—you see someone in need, you help them out.” Despite the churchgoing crowd, though, “I couldn’t scratch a dollar off the ground if I tried to.”
He stresses that he doesn’t take handouts; he wasn’t raised that way. “You want a balloon? I’ll make you a balloon and you give me something.”
Besides the occasional five-dollar bill, he takes obvious pleasure in chance encounters. When two kids walk by his bench with banjos made from cardboard and pie tins, he pulls out a long balloon, stretches it, and starts plucking out a song for them. “Harmonica, guitar, banjo, ukulele,” he says. “I forgot to tell you I play balloon bass.”
Despite his predicament, Will somehow maintains an air of casual stoicism. “You break things, you lose stuff, things happen,” he says.
After all, he says, “It was worth seeing the smile of that baby.” It takes him a moment to summon the picture to his Samsung tablet—he gave up the horse and buggy five years ago and has been trying to learn “fifty years of technology” ever since.
When his goddaughter appears on the screen—pink, blurry and squinting—his delight is evident. He’s done his job. Now all he has to do is find his way home.