Delivering balloons to funeral homes made me care about humanity more than my millennial side hustle

Scraping rent together can be pretty deflating.
Scraping rent together can be pretty deflating.
Image: Reuters/Omar Sobhani
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Delivering balloons on the subway isn’t a job for the faint of heart. I was standing on the platform of the Chambers Street stop in downtown New York. It was the rush before rush hour—the affluent crowd who has the benefit to think, I’m going to leave work a little early today. A teenager walked past me and smacked the bags in the hope of making a balloon pop. Every veteran New Yorker that filtered in rolled their eyes and informed me to watch out.

I’d answered the Craigslist ad thinking I’d be working in a Norman Rockwell painting, handing bright fun to smiling kids all day. I would have been more apprehensive had I known I’d be working 10-hour days transporting these fragile balls of panic all over Manhattan. I’ve learned how uptight people can be about such a lighthearted item, like the Upper East Side moms who hold me hostage in their doorways as they count their balloons, one by one, to ensure they’re not shorted. Last time you guys came I was missing two! they screech. And I’ll never look at doormen the same. I can’t count the times I would snake bags filled with over one hundred balloons into residential lobbies while they stand there with their mouths open, watching me break a sweat—and only then tell me to use the service entrance.

I tried to keep the wind of the tunnels from whisking away the two bags that were bigger than my own six-foot-five frame. When the train finally pulled up, I hustled the bags into the last car, hoping it would be less crowded. My iPod blasting Nirvana B-Sides only drowned out so much of the attention.

For the umpteenth time that month, I questioned why I was doing this. I had originally skipped out on college to come to New York and try to crack the stand-up-comedy scene. While my friends were doing keg stands and complaining about finals, I was spending most of my days hanging out with helium companions. In high school, I would daydream about performing at the Comedy Cellar—now I was so tired that I would fall asleep on the train at the end of the day, awaking in a panic forgetting if I was coming or going. If you’re going to make it as one thing in this city, you likely have to make it as something else first.

Back on the subway, my anxiety rose along with the amount of passengers boarding at each stop. Every additional commuter only increased the odds of something bad happening. Sweat raced down my back. I gripped the balloons harder. I closed my eyes and prayed nobody did anything dramatic or, even worse, recognized me.

After over a half hour of this hell, I finally arrived at 125th Street in Harlem. I got out of the station and re-read the address on my log sheet. The company name was vague, and I wasn’t sure what to be looking for. I stood staring at the address’s multiple entrances, hoping someone inside would see me holding a clown car’s worth of balloons and come out to help. Eventually, an older man approached and asked what I was looking for. I showed him my sheet. He shrugged and handed it back.

“Upstairs is the main area to the funeral home,” he said “Looks like where you need to go.”

Funeral home? I thought. Is it a mortician’s birthday? While wondering if it was ever appropriate to give a morgue worker balloons, I took my helium-filled buddies up the stairs as directed. I pushed them into the narrow doorway, snuck in behind them, and pulled the entire bouquet through.

I had walked in mid-service. Open casket, grieving relatives and all. I whisper-shouted sorry and frantically pulled the colorful orbs back out the door I came in.

I tried to regain my composure. Should I have knocked? Should I have known? And if not them, who did these balloons belong to? Deeming it inappropriate to ask a bunch of sobbing people if they knew whom this abundance of latex was for, I brought them back downstairs and hesitantly tried door number two. Luckily, it was a waiting room. The receptionist explained that the order was for a young boy who had recently passed away. The funeral was the next day, and the family wanted to try and brighten the service.

Once I learned who the balloons were for, my whole approach to the situation changed. I went from annoyed to empathetic and eager to provide any additional help I could. I explained that the balloons had to be tied down somewhere so they would last until the next day. We scanned around for somewhere to do so. All I needed was something heavy and straight with some space around it, but nothing in the claustrophobic office seemed suitable.

“Would you be bothered by seeing dead bodies?” she asked sheepishly.

As an Irish Catholic, I had plenty of experience with open caskets, and I wanted to go the extra mile. I shook my head. “Not at all,” I replied.

Before I knew it, I was guiding the bags between rows of occupied caskets.

“Geez,” she grimaced. “How about onto this?”

She pointed at the brass handles on the coffin that had the young boy inside—the one who wouldn’t get to see the present his family had given him. I took a deep breath and attached the ribbon onto the handle so that the balloons were all safely suspended in mid-air.

I tried not to, but I couldn’t help but gaze at the body inside. He was just a little boy, no more than 5 years old. He lay there in a crisp royal-blue suit, and his school picture sat on a table a foot away. To me, funerals had always been an adult occasion—an adult in the coffin and adults grieving. I thought about the unimaginable loss parents must feel after losing a child.

I picked up the large bags with the store’s logo on them off the ground and made my way back toward the reception. The receptionist sat back down and signed my papers. I looked over my shoulder one last time and noticed the life that the color brought to such a dark moment.

Standing on the corner waiting for a bus to take me back to my small, unfurnished apartment in West Harlem, I realized that there was a lot I didn’t know about the people I met everyday over the course of my job. I may have been trying to make it as a comedian New York, but in order to do that, perhaps I should spend less time focusing on getting the job over and done with, and more energy understanding the people I intersect with every day.