At Peace with the Circus

At Peace with the Circus

by John Dzenitis

I know this doesn't really hold up in court, but let me start by saying, ``It wasn't my idea, and it's not my fault.'' I was looking for something new to do on a Thursday night; I had seen Seinfeld so many weeks in a row that my Kramer imitation was flawless. In fact, I was bursting from room to room in my apartment when the phone rang. The caller happened to be a reliable source of things to do, and when he suggested that I join them and attend ``The Greatest Show On Earth,'' my first thought was, ``Great.'' I suppose that's to be expected, along with ``Show'' and ``Earth.'' I hadn't been to the circus for many years, however, and I wasn't exactly sure what it was.

``Is the circus the thing with The Bearded Fat Ladies and The Guy With Two Butts?'' I asked.

``No, that's the Democratic National Convention. This is the thing where they fire clowns out of cannons.''

Well, I thought that was the Republican National Convention, but I decided I was game anyway. I mean, how can you pass up the chance to see some serious and potentially lethal clown pyrotechnics?

As I was jostled along the Mighty, Mighty Green Line towards my destination, I wondered whether the show would start on time, since most of the circus freaks seemed to be riding the T with me. My mind drifted back over the years, back to that fuzzy period when things seemed really big. I think it's called childhood. In my reverie, it was as if I strolled through an art gallery of still scenes from my last circus, although this gallery's price was lower and the work of better quality than most I've seen. I saw my father leading me through the bustling crowd. I saw him refusing to buy me the cool flashing light toy. I could see and feel the gigantic Coca-Cola-brand sugar drink purchased as consolation, ice-cold in my small, warm hands. Next came several scenes of confusing clown activity, then a very sudden, very loud explosion, and I knew that was the end of the circus for me. Somewhere beyond that, more facts were lurking in the dark reaches of my mind, but I could not recall them. I wasn't sure that I wanted to.

I snapped back to reality as the train ground to a stop, and the driver announced, ``Hamphgrliphm.'' We raced from the station to the Garden, stopping only long enough for five or six beers at a nearby bar. I had not been to the Boston Garden before. Upon entering it, I couldn't help seeing the irony of ``The Greatest Show On Earth'' being held in ``The Biggest Shithole On Earth''. Another rush of nostalgia came when I smelled that familiar circus animal odor, although in this case the odor was probably just left over from the Bruins game the night before. The ticket prices were surprisingly high, but I reasoned that they were only about ten dollars more than a movie, and here we had a chance to see someone die for real. Even with this rationalization, I knew that if I had a child, I would not buy him a flashing light toy in addition to the ticket. Nature or nurture?

I snagged a sugar drink and two balls of cotton candy on my way through the concourse. (A circus-viewer's adrenaline rushes burn thousands of calories, and I didn't want to suffer from low blood sugar.) A beaming man in a red ``Bingling Rrothers and Rarnum & Railey Circus'' blazer [name changed for legal purposes] handed me a one-page letter entitled, ``Genuine Animal Welfare.'' The letter was some kind of counterattack against radical animal activists that were not in evidence except on the sheet. I imagined them huddled around the loading dock in ninja garb, making final plans to free the 16 Bengal tigers in the heart of Boston. The letter built to a feverish, foaming pitch, crying that these free radicals would, ``...even forbid the eating of eggs, drinking of milk, and wearing of wool or silk.''

``You're right,'' I said, eyeing the beaming man's red polyneoprene blazer, ``these bastards must be stopped! How do I join?'' Actually, I was thinking that I was going to get my money's worth. I reckoned that if they had to issue this letter to patrons who had already committed to the show, there must be some hard-core, dangerous, man-versus-beast entertainment in store. My impatient friends whisked me off towards the music that had begun.

The show was into full swing as we made our way to our seats, if you use a fairly liberal interpretation of ``full swing.'' The cheesy announcer guy (either Fonzie or Potsie from ``Happy Days,'' I can't remember which) was singing and dancing atop a mobile stage. The song was ``The Heart of Rock 'n' Roll Is Still Beatin'.'' To begin with, if this song represents the heart of Rock 'n' Roll, then this beating heart should be torn out of Rock 'n' Roll's chest with our bare hands, we should show it to Rock 'n' Roll before it looses consciousness, take a bite out of it, and flush it down the toilet like the crap it is. (Would I be belaboring the point if I added that the version performed by Potsie and the Circus Orchestra was even worse?)

I found myself back in the food court. I thought that the early beers had sufficiently sedated me, but the introductory fanfare had already proved me wrong. A bathroom break and more supplies were in order. As I stood in line at the urinal, my childhood circus memories returned like unwanted guests, one at a time, drinking my beer and urinating inaccurately. Actually, that turned out to be one of the clowns.

``What are you, some kinda clown?'' I asked.

``Fuck you,'' he slurred.

I think someone once said that clowns were the window to our souls. If that's true, we're all going to hell.

I bought three large beers to settle my nerves, a box of popcorn to keep my blood pressure up, and two Sno-Cups (Boston Harbor ice impregnated with colored sugar, in a 3-D souvenir cup featuring the clown from the bathroom). This cost me more than the ticket had, and as I regained my seat I felt that the circus owed me some amazing spectacles.

Potsie had apparently recovered from his brutal ``Heart of Rock 'n' Roll'' performance. He would run out into the center ring between performances and announce what we were about to see. He must have been pretty persuasive when he created his position, because the need for an announcer was not apparent to me. For example, nearly everyone would have figured out that there were elephants in the ring even if he didn't say, ``Here come the elephants!'' Occasionally he expanded his role by trying to get us to shout things back to him. Oftentimes what we shouted back was not what he had asked to hear.

There must be some theory to scheduling the order of the acts and assigning each act to one of the three rings. The ring farthest from us was the ``green'' ring, where promising young performers could hone their craft and gain the maturity that center-ring performance demands. The center ring was the ``center'' ring, obviously for the best performers in the peak of their genius. These are the people that we wanted to become when we thought of running away to join the circus. Closest to our seats was the ``washout'' ring, the domain of alcoholic elephant taunters, dizzy tumblers, and sagging acrobats. These are the people that we would have become if we had run away and joined the circus. They were performing for the people who paid the least for their tickets, and they knew it. Worse yet, we knew that they knew it. I'm sure that this ``knowing exchange'' went on and on, but I'm already confused so I'll stop.

The first real act I saw featured animals running around the rings with people standing on their backs. I guess I should have taken a notebook or had less beer, because I can't remember what kind of animals they were. Dogs would have been too small, and I probably would have noticed elephants, so I think they must have been horses. What I did notice was that we were indeed at the washout ring, because the people on the animals were larger and less mobile than those in the other rings. It takes a special kind of confidence or hopelessness to wear those circus costumes, but to then stand up in the merciless spotlight and be shaken around the ring takes Zen- like unconsciousness. Someone made an unkind statement regarding the relatively close sizes of the draft animal and human butts in the ring. I tried to scold them, but I had a sharp ball of popcorn and colored ice lodged in my throat, and it just sounded like I was laughing.

Our end lost out again on the next performance. At the far end was the second-worst circus act I could think of: Dancing Dogs. At our end was the first-worst: Two Sizes of Running Horses. The one notable aspect of this act was the tremendous kindness and patience of the giant horses towards the tiny horses. As the excitable tiny horses ran between the legs of the giant horses, they would occasionally strike their spiked hairdos against what must be a fairly sensitive area of a giant horse. None of them looked like they enjoyed this, but neither did they raise their huge hooves and mash the tiny horses into pulp. That's control.

The contortionists were quite amazing. I guess you have to be extremely thin to work in this field, because these three women were as thin as rails, albeit very flexible rails. I guiltily regarded my own girth as I polished off my fifth cotton candy ball. The male audience members seemed to be particularly impressed by the contortionists, many of them groaning and grunting with a weird combination of pain, disgust, and respect. In some ways it was a synopsis of male-female relationships.

I was beginning to feel rather strange. I sensed that the salt, synthetic sugar, and alcohol were fighting for control over my nervous system, and I was getting pretty nervous. Weird prickly clouds formed around me and disappeared, only to reappear in color, then with stereo sound, and finally with driver-side airbag standard. Small packets of spasms rushed from my left toes up across to my right finger tips, and it was only by smashing my head against the seat in front of me that I could get my fingers to unclench. I looked down and saw the giant coke of my childhood in my hands. My father was to my right. When I looked up, it was not the ugly Boston Garden and Potsie that I saw, but the lovely Louisville Freedom Hall and the scariest clown in the world. With a bomb. When it exploded, I yelled, ``Nyah!'' and threw the icy coke into the air, not directly up, but in a high, narrow parabola that had my father's lap at the other end.

Back in the real world, people were clapping as the trapeze folks came out. I regained some of my composure and clapped along with them, although slightly off-beat. The dark secret of the past circus was looming around the corner, and I didn't want to see it, so I tried to concentrate hard on what was going on. In my opinion, the real hero of the trapeze act is the catcher. This guy continually swings, upside down, waiting to expertly nab the wrists of his brother. Meanwhile, his fancy-pants brother is hanging out on the platform with the two chicks, telling them how stupid the catcher is. It's a cruel world.

How long do you think it takes to erect a cage that will hold 16 Bengal tigers and their ``tamer''? If you answered anything over five minutes, you're wrong. (Maybe we should get those guys to finish off that biology building...) The circus used to have a German with fluorescent teeth as the tiger-tamer, but now it was some long-haired dirtball from Kansas. Here was the real animal cruelty: some of the most powerful, lethal beasts on Earth, accustomed to kicking ass in whatever jungle they wanted, forced to jump up on stuff whenever this guy yelled their names. I'm just a weak human, and I don't want to hang out with a long-haired dirtball from Kansas, let alone jump up on stuff at his call.

Tandor the Tiger was the Mischievous One, which is a standard part in any animal act from dancing dogs to running horses to clowning clowns. The Mischievous One is the animal that growls the most, jumps up last, and makes faces when the trainer has his back turned. Tandor the Tiger acted with incredible sophistication; not only was he mischievous, he was also playing the mischievous part mischievously. He jumped up much too soon or much too late. He performed the entire routine twice while the tamer had his back turned. When the tamer nicked his hand on one of his sequins, however, Tandor became incredibly still. You could see his nose flaring as he breathed in the sweet smell of warm blood (``he'' in this case being the tiger, although who can say what the tamer's nose may have been doing). There was a tense minute while Tandor refused all commands and pleas, and then he padded off into his private cage, prematurely ending the tiger show. It was a powerful experience. No one clapped much, I guess because the flimsy Five Minute Cage really made us feel like a part of the action.

The acrobats tried to revive the shaken crowd with audience participation. Just as they were asking for volunteers from the audience, I had another sugar spell. As luck would have it, this one featured spine cramps that forced me to stand ramrod-straight, raise both of my arms, and yell, ``yesyesyes yesyesyes yesyesyes!'' This was apparently the correct response in their eyes, and they led me to the center ring. The smiling acrobats were jabbering quickly in English, and I couldn't make out what they were saying. They all looked surprisingly like the scary clown from the bomb hallucination. I was positioned in the center of the ring, but the jabbering and gesticulating could not make me understand what was happening. They seemed happy enough when I just stood there.

The lights were extremely hot and bright in the ring, and when I closed my eyes against the sting of the sweat pouring down my face, I saw the past instead of the back of my eyelids. This was not a great time for another flashback, but there it was. The explosion ended and the cold drink landed on my father. I was screaming, my father was yelling, and the evil clown was laughing maniacally. I realized that the terror that gripped me froze many of my muscles, but contracted some too, in particular those associated with bladder control or lack thereof. This, then, was the dark secret of that circus, somehow twisted into obscurity by panic and shame. At least I could now face it, and understand it as the response of a terrified child. My memory was sharp and clear; my mind was no longer using forgetfulness to protect me from the trauma. I was finally at peace with the circus.

As I opened my eyes, I realized that I was reliving my loss of bladder control in a physical manner as well, this time as an adult, and in the center ring. Potsie noticed that something was wrong and came running from the side of the ring. At the same time, one of the acrobats went sailing in a flip over my head. At least, that's what I think he was trying to do, because I lashed out quite frantically with my 3-D Sno-Cup when I noticed him. The force of the unbreakable plastic tearing off his nose and left cheek really changed his trajectory, and he went flying off into the tiger cages, releasing the latch on Tandor the Mischievous and Bloodthirsty One.

Bengal tigers are so graceful that you don't realize how fast they're moving, but you can kind of guess it from the amount of damage that they're doing.

I could go into a lot of details if I remembered them. The details are not really important, though. Let's just say that it was the Greatest Show On Earth.