there it was, true as life, in
the chronicle help-wanteds last april: "MUSICIANS to travel
with tented CIRCUS. . . 1 Trumpet, 1 Trombone, for appt. call Mr. Cash.
"DIG THIS," spoke my mind. i, fish in one of the more stagnant
pools of magical marin: the unemployed high school teacher, substituting
for years in these oh so white suburbs, waiting for an opening. "but
teachers are getting laid off, not hired, dontcha know?" a little
weary of the 6:30 AM phone by my ear, of being the jibe & jive target
for bored rich kids with authority hangups--wasnt i looking for
a chance to play my horn and get paid, and, hell, how many tunes did
the Street Choir use me on, anyhow? Id been talking about running
away with the circus before the ad appeared. time was ripe. so i dashed
off to martinez and contracted myself to George Matthews Great
London Circus and a seven-month flashview of 74 underbelly america
as one of its more anonymous entertainers: a truck-driving trumpeter.
a lark, an adventure, a mad meditation. a scary commitment to long hours,
low pay, and loneliness. yeah. Real Life. the circus, Real Life? herbie
fakefalling off the "silver strand," convulsing dazedly on
the mat, but rising with a limp to the cheers of hoi polloi, waving
off the mock concern of a pompous ringmaster to climb his steel platform,
tiptoe out & jump over the proffered backside of his lovely assistant
(mr. latino will now attempt this most difficult feat once again), fakequavering
spastically but this time bringing it off, then turning, grabbing the
wire between his feet and spinning full circle round to end on top,
skip to the other platform, leap down & rush (with no limp) to the
ring curb, palms up as an excited suppliant to shouts and heartthrobs
from the crowd--this, repeated, on occasion, thrice daily, real life?
well, realer than things had been for me here--not in the way an office
workers daily shift or washing dishes is real, though there was
something of that in it, too. but most definitely Real Life in the sense
Tom Wolfe used to describe Ken Keseys party with the Hells
Angels: unavoidably, inexorably there, impressing itself on your senses
and demanding that you cope.
drive till you see things stop
run around the truck drive till dawn crash in yer tent till you miss
breakfast wake to gas engines smashing stakes pumping water pumping
gas generating hit it hit it hit it set it up freeze yer ass try to
practice try to even think try to find a laundromat or someplace to
wash the sweat off yer arms & neck. snow in pocatello, bozeman,
laramie. lions roar mid the enormous rankness of elephant piss. bruise
yer face blowing 4, maybe 6 hours real hard & real fast. teardown
drive till dawn, every day someplace new but never new conversation
in the cookhouse (sometimes i talk real loose but never FOUL like my
pals the grunts) walk 3 miles for a beer or some real food then back
for the show. tear down. what? no show? yeah hit it hit it hit it they
wont give us no permits cuz a whut hapind last year. hit it hit
hey the pigs got joe the gas man he wuz drunk tryin tuh push some kinda
dope on the shurrifs wife hee hee. only 120 miles tonight & hot
showers at FOOD skelly TRUCK/AUTO and now the heat months of it 105
in wichita 97 in louisville: no days off in 3 weeks and theres
gotta be a sucker born every time they say hit it hit it hey why is
there only guys on this tour anyhow gonna be a horny summer, huh? nahh.
everybodyll just get real good at hustling GRIPS but they just
hosed down in front of the bull truck and ALL THE ELEPHANT PISS IS FLOWING
RIGHT UNDER MY TENT and i havent had clean socks for a week.
THE MOST DEATH-DEFYING MAN IN THE WORLD-TODAY! YOUR ATTENTION, PLEASE, TO
THE INCLINED CABLE ABOVE RINGS ONE AND TWO AND PRESENTING THEREON, IN
HIS CLImb to the stARS, THE GREAT HUBERTO! and again out skips little,
wizened herbie, who during other acts can be seen in a coke jacket with
"its the real thing" on his white paper cap, pushing
cotton candy, herbie--truly "old circus," reputedly once one
of the best wire men In the country.
we blow a series of half notes, following his steps up in a slow crescendo
of chromatic tones till he reaches the top: AND NOW, THE SLIIIDE
FOR LIFE! and he gracefully zips down, on arrival activating a gunshot
and cloud of smoke which never fails to shake the faces in the reserved
bows, chasers, then a brassy, almost wagnerian fanfare for
THE EQUILIBRISTIC SENSATION OF THE CENTURY. DIRECT FROM LONDON, ENGLAND,
THAT CONtinental gentleMAN, LOTHAR!
lothar the beautiful
the girls all love his style
and when they see him smile
or stand upon his finger
to see if this fabulous dude
is for real!
lothar & Achim during setup
need we say more? never mind that england isn't the continent, or that
he's actually german, he makes a good living standing on his finger.
dont let nobody tell you circuses is goin outa business. $30,000
advance for 1 day in richmond, va . . . a week In D.C $460,000. and
theyre paying you WHAT?
thank baal for the bigtoppers. they could
barely stand on their feet, let alone their fingers, and not one would
look pretty on the trapeze, but they were topline entertainers: there
was always a show to watch. sometimes it was killer, vaunting his under-the-seatwagon
or in-the-laundromat-bathroom sexual exploits. . . sometimes it was
the gang of them, drunk on their ass and playing King of the Ring. or
maybe youd be startled, rounding the port-a-john, at the hit
it hit it hit it marvelous cleavage of hit it hit it beattys
buttocks as his pants maintained a steady suspension near the top of
his thighs. there was the "brighton heist," here Brains and
a few others picked a storeroom lock at the dams county fairgrounds
& lifted 65 cases of old milwaukee--and then the woozy daze &
nights after. and just the names! janitor, M.I.T., stowaway, BeBop,
gums, greencoat, sidewall sid & stitchin steve, little man
. . . see the crew of them, pulling on guy lines like marines straining
at the flag on iwo jima.
the show itself had some
integrity. we werent a really big circus, but we had three rings
and sometimes used two at once, and all the basics were there: animals,
aerial acts, juggling, acrobatics, clowns, etc. with performers born
into generations of circus families, working young ones into the acts
as early as possible (AND NOW THE NEWEST ADDITION TO THE WAL-TIMS,
FOUR-YEAR-OLD TOBY!) in an honestly gypsy-ish life, maintaining
a culture that passed through the core of mainstream america yet was
not of it: a society with its one mores and traditions, some looser
and some stricter than those around it, but seemingly more stable.
the only place i felt a little embarrassed
was blowing horn for the sideshow. even if RUSSELL BROS. PALACE OF ODDITIES
did provide about the only chance to get loose and jam a little, playing
dixie all through dixie country in a hot little ensemble we dubbed "the
dirty five," still we were there to suck em in to see mother
natures curiosities, the strange, the odd, the unusual, real,
living & alive, no wax dummies or pasteboard cutouts, no two-headed
babies in a bottle of formaldehyde, but only- living performers like
neon lean, the electric wizard, monsieur le bounce (he always pronounced
it "bone-say"), our rubbersklnned boy, the indestructible
girl, the little wooden-headed people from siam (or sometimes burma)
and snakes? why, as big around as my leg and twice the length of my
body. this show, at least at the beginning of the season, was a stupendous
ripoff. the "performers" were usually spaced kids from the
prop crew dressed in dirty gym shorts. half the acts mentioned In the
bally were nonexistent, and the others involved such virtuoso feats
as sitting on a harmlessly crackling box marked "100,000 volts"
or holding a small, very friendly boa through a halting delivery of
an insipid rap on What Snakes Is Like. exiting, one poor towner said,
"why, i wouldnt pay a quarter for that!" to which ringmaster
ed: "i already have your money, sir." sold to america.
the sideshow got better
when sparky the clown joined it--but that was due to his seasoned showmanship--the
guy had worked with Ringling, fergodzsake, and not to the attitude of
the management, which was interested in bucks alone. this managerial
attitude clouded all circus life during those seven months and made
what could have been a pretty happy experience at least a little bit
of a bummer for everyone. the ads they put out asked for "student
clowns," but what they actually wanted, and got, were bigtoppers
who would work cheap and stay on in hopes of a breakthrough to the glittering
role of performer. There never was a "clown school," and anyone
who signed on for it was treated like all the other grunts: like animals.
everyone from the band on down was given a plywood bunk in a filthy,
crowded fifth wheel semi trailer and hauled around like so much dirty
baggage (that's why some of us bought tents), and performance? showmanship?
taste and class and responsibility of the entertainer to his audience?
that was left entirely to the performers. the management, once tickets
were in, would begin the noisy business of tearing down the tent while
the last show was going on just lo get an early start on the next jump.
if the crowd was really small, theyd cut the show, sometimes in
"in a european circus you would never
see this," said Achim, "the people wouldnt stand for
it. over there they dress the prop crew in tuxedos and they rake the
sawdust on the ring to a strauss waltz. they even hide the stakes behind
obviously european taste was foreign to Ketchum & Cheetham Bros.,
our bosses and owners, "oh, he died up there? well, put another
one up!" was the ethic, and as long as the police dept. or the
jaycees or the firemen or whoever else was sponsoring us came up with
a fat check before show time, no one worried much about whether the
audience got off or not.
"hey man, like you really did that for seven months?"
"hope to shit in your shoe i did."
"hey, well, like, was it really that hard, with the living conditions
and all, and like, you didnt get much bread for it, wasnt
it kinda like bein a slave?"
"you are not the first to suggest that analogy."
"well, then, like, why didnt you leave?"
"What? and quit show biz?"