After years in the balloon game, Syracuse’s balloon man prepares to retire
Sam Ogozalek | Staff Writer
Joe Walker’s phone went off with a frantic jingle.
“Quick question, did you say second or third birthday?”
Walker chatted for a bit and then casually ended the call. He’s been buying birthday balloons from Rainbow Balloons Inc., a distributor based out of Boston, for the past 30 years. He then provides balloon decorations for special events across central New York. This is nothing new.
Sitting in a small, dimly-lit office space with a migraine-inducing, muted fluorescent light hovering above old thank-you cards, the Syracuse balloon man smiles.
This is his renewal, his rebirth, another chance.
Sam Ogozalek | Staff Writer
Walker, who officially opened Balloons Over Syracuse — which at its height was a nationally-known balloon event company — in 1967, is retiring at the end of the year. He is handing the business over to friend and Syracuse resident Jared Martin.
Martin met Walker in 2014 and was inspired by his story.
“Someone that came out of the inner city with practically nothing … went to a good university, started a business. (That’s) inspiring to me,” Martin said.
Walker’s business had been decreasing over the past couple of years beginning in 2008, when he was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, which can result in heart failure. He had previously lost his father and one of his sisters to this condition.
“I lost 150 pounds within the first three months (due to the treatment following the diagnosis),” he said.
But after about seven years of pain and a trip to a doctor in Rochester, Walker is feeling stronger.
At his home office in Fayetteville, a red neon sign depicting three balloons glows persistently in a downstairs window.
Walker proclaimed he’s an open book and when prompted, tells his story. It all began 50 years ago: 1960, in the housing projects along Fabius Street in Syracuse.
His father, Robert Walker, was a balloon man. When Walker turned 5, he began to accompany his father out for trips to street corners to sell the balloons. It was a side job to pick up a little bit of extra cash. Back then, balloons would go for 35 cents each, or three for a dollar.
“I was sick and tired of always doing balloons,” Walker said. “My friends got to go to parties and stuff. I’m stuck standing outside … freezing my bones off, trying to sell somebody a balloon.”
Walker left home at 12 years old, seeking a life without his father and balloon selling. He lived on the streets for a few months. He remembers using a laundromat to warm up his coat during the cold winter nights. He made his money working odd jobs, like clearing snow off railroad trestles.
After moving to the YMCA of Greater Syracuse, and then into a friend’s basement, Walker found a permanent residence on East Genesee Street. in 1968. He saved up the while working at fast-food restaurant Carrols.
But no matter how much he tried, he couldn’t get rid of the balloons. He continued to sell them in order to afford rent.
“I had to sell (them) to live,” Walker said.
Walker had been attending high school on the side, eventually graduating from the Corcoran High School in 1973. He received scholarships from both Harvard University and Syracuse University, but ultimately chose to attend SU. He settled on SU after recalling memories of hanging out on campus when he was homeless.
Walker was an English major studying black women’s poetry, and worked as night watchman at State University of New York Upstate Medical University. During his time in college, Walker helped set up SU’s first muscular dystrophy dance marathons throughout the early 1970s. He also organized blood drives and was a member of the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity.
All the while, he still sold balloons.
In 1977, during Walker’s senior year, his mother snapped at SU financial aid officials, who kept asking for Walker’s address, and his scholarships were revoked. His mother, who was struggling with a form of stomach cancer, died that same year.
Walker continued to sneak into classes for a few months but eventually dropped out of SU. The bills were beginning to stack up. He ended up working a few more jobs before finding himself back where he started: selling balloons to make a living.
Walker began to build up his business. He hired employees and opened up stores in local malls. When he was 29, after returning from a trip to the west coast, he met his future wife Vicky at a party in Spencer.
“I couldn’t be more proud. He’s an amazing person, he’s a great human being,” Vicky said. “He’s a good man.”
After his diagnosis in 2008, Walker had to close his three stores and let roughly 30 employees go. But the balloon man kept giving whenever he could: He and Vicky found new jobs for almost all of employees that were let go, and offered free services and balloons to organizations such as the Syracuse Vera House, a domestic abuse shelter.
Randi Bregman, the executive director of Vera House, recalls Walker helping out with their events since she started working at the shelter 26 years ago.
“He has donated thousands and thousands of dollars of balloons,” Randi said. “Everything has just been out of the kindness of his heart.”
By the time the summer of 2016 rolled around — about seven years after Walker’s initial diagnosis — his doctors said his health was slipping fast. He and Vicky began to plan a goodbye party for September, a celebration of his life with friends and family.
But then came Aug. 15, 2016 — a day of rebirth and renewal.
Walker, in desperate hope, had traveled to Rochester based off a recommendation from one of his doctors in Syracuse. Doctor James White, a pulmonologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center, told the balloon man simply, as Walker recalls it: “You’re getting poisoned by your medicine, you’ve been on your medicine too long.”
Walker was weaned off his previous medication epoprostenal, also known as Flolan, within a month. These days helium and oxygen tanks sit by his side.
“I’m still sick, I’m still dying,” he says, looking up. “But I’m not in pain.”
Graphic illustrations by Kiran Ramsey
Although Walker feels stronger without the epoprostenal, he still has pulmonary hypertension.
A photo from 1970 hangs on the wall of the small office — a picture of the balloon man, softly outlined and blurred in black-and-white. He’s walking alongside a parade in Boonville, New York, American flags tucked into one of his trousers’ belt loops. Walker explained that he would bring lots of flags to parades, because everyone wanted one. Sooner or later, parade-goers would start paying for the flags. In the background of the photo, balloons flutter in the wind.
But in all the years since that photograph was taken, it’s not the balloons that have had a lasting impact on Walker’s life.
“When I die, I’m not gonna remember what balloons I blew up,” he says. “I’m gonna remember the conversations I had. I’m gonna remember the people I shared ideas with.”
Published on December 4, 2016 at 10:04 pm