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Monday, October 20, 2003

The Smallest Show on Earth

As always, if you have nothing to say, you can always take off from a Bleat.

This week, the Minnesota Family Lileks goes to a circus. Go read about that there. I use this mostly to tell you about the time I went to the Worst Circus in the World.

We went to the circus occasionally as kids. It was very stressful, because it entailed driving clear to St. Louis (about an hour away), watching Dad sweat bullets as he navigated the Big City, and then again as we walked from the parking lot to the car, expecting to be mugged at any moment.

Once in the circus we waded through ankle-deep litter to our seats, and then the fun began! Well, not really. TV spoils you for the circus. When I was a kid there was a televised circus at least once during the year. On TV you could see all the acts really close---the fearsome tigers, the daring trapeze artists, the disturbing clowns. It still was only marginally interesting, but at least you could see it well.

In person, you saw little blobs whirling about somewhere far below, until finally the music told you they were done and you could applaud. When it was all over, you spent five minutes being told no, you could not have a balloon, or a banner, or a stuffed tiger, and then you kicked through the litter back to the car, and fell asleep while Dad was still telling you to lock your goddamn door already.

So when we were given tickets to the circus in my senior year in high school, I was not terribly enthused. But I was curious to see the circus that would come to our tiny town. As far as I knew, we had never had a circus---or any other kind of social event---in our town, ever. Unless it occurred at the high school or the Amvets, we never had concerts or anything of that nature. And here was a circus coming to our little town, and it was free! (To me.)

So off I went with my friends to see (what turned out to be) the Sad, Sad Circus. This sort of thing must have inspired Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes.

We approached the circus tent by passing the tiger cages. We could have easily put in an arm and had it chewed off. There was no one and nothing to stop us. Nothing, except the profound disinclination of the tigers to bother us, or look at us, or even move. These were very tired tigers, with ragged coats.

Inside, the lion tamer didn't appear to be in mortal danger every second from the ferocious beasts only he could control. He practically had to get up behind the arthritic cats and shove them up onto their perches. I love big cats, and felt very sorry for them.

It wasn't just the cats who were tired. You could tell the human performers were too; if not physically tired, then tired of their work, of themselves, most of all of their audience. The female trapeze artist did not look like a fairy princess, she looked like a cigarette-y broad in shabby chiffon who was dying to get back to her bottle. When she took her bow she flopped over perfunctorily, twice, in the general direction of the audience, and stalked off as if her ass ached.

Best of all was the tightwire act. A man threw on a serape and sombrero, and, mimed drunkenly swigging from a bottle while the band played the "Mexican Hat Dance". I was mildly aghast. Those were the days, eh? He would drink from his bottle and wiggle back and forth and stagger across the wire, and even as bigoted as it was, it might have been worth seeing if he had been more than six feet off the ground. Truly. The wire was not as tall as he was.

I looked around at the audience and wondered what they thought of it. Were the grown-ups amused, the little kids impressed? I have the impression they sat there somewhat grimly, as if determined to be diverted, but having a bad time of it. Maybe they were thinking what I was thinking---that this would've satisfied our homebound ancestors, who never saw a real circus, but would not do for us. I wondered if this was the last of the small travelling circuses, and whether that was a bad thing.

No. I don't think it is.