Riding the train to Boston, to check in with my nephew and family (including the great-nephew who, when told that if he met a monster he could just say, “Oh, monster, you’re not real!” thought about that and said, “Maybe I should say, ‘Monster, you’re probably not real, but I could be wrong.'”) In the Bronx we passed through the railyard where the Ringling Bros. train is parked while the circus plays the Barclays Center. When I was a kid we went to the circus every year and I loved it. It was a less enlightened time, and I was a kid. I thought the elephant parade was delightful, and the acrobats and tigers were equally thrilling to me.
When I was twelve — just about time for the magic to wear off anyway — we went first to the midway, as we always did. I don’t know if they still do this at the circus, but in those days the midway was the prep area and they let the audience stroll through it before the show. (And parenthetically [is that redundant here?] I have to say that when I think of times like this, I must admit that my folks, though they were difficult in many ways for a kid to grow up around, had their moments: not just the circus, but the midway? With four little kids, and a neighbor kid or two? Every year?) I loved the midway as much as the show. The animals stared at you from their cages and the performers wandered around, clowns putting on makeup, acrobats testing their rigging. That trip I saw one of the clowns almost fully in costume except for his gloves. I don’t have a problem with clowns; the problem I had with this guy was, he was a dwarf and he was wearing a wristwatch. I guess he took it off just before the show; but I was hit with the realization that he was a person, just a regular person who needed a watch to tell time like everyone else, only because he was a dwarf he was a clown because people thought being a dwarf was funny. Twelve-year-olds have quite a sense of the tragic and that struck me as about as tragic as you could get. It wasn’t that I hadn’t known the circus performers were people, but it hadn’t occurred to me until I saw that wristwatch that maybe they weren’t entirely happy in their lives.
I had another brief flirtation with the circus when Gunther Gebel-Williams joined Ringling Bros. Anyone remember him? An electrifying animal tamer who put some serious old-fashioned thrills back in the lion and tiger acts. But by then you had to work hard to keep from noticing that, whether or not the people in the circus were happy, the animals certainly weren’t. Even a charismatic guy like Gebel-Williams could only sell me the magic for a season or two.
Now the only circuses I’ll go to are ones without animals, with the possible exception of dog acts because dogs actually like to do tricks. But when I saw the Ringling Bros. cars this morning I was hit with a wave of nostalgia for a time, both more innocent and more brutal, when what rolled into town in those train cars was an intoxicating combination of a weird, exotic world, and the thrill of a life on the road.