Drunkapalooza ’05: Day Four

[Originally written on this date in 2005]

That time of year has come again, when carnivals pop up in local lots and the children pester their parents until they agree to spend loads of cash on junk food and rides that will spin ’em sick.  Then you have the big shows, the circuses that bring entertainment to men, women and children of all ages.  Ringling Bros has two shows that tour venues across the country while Big Apple takes it to the next step by pitching a tent.  Attending either of these events has always seemed as normal to me as going down to the shore every summer.  My memories of being a young child at the circus are vague at best, but the instinct that drew me to this culture in the first place only grows stronger.

This time around it was the Cole Bros Circus and while I have read quite a bit about them, I had yet to see a performance.  As I was driving up the field hosting the show, the familiar sight of a giant red and yellow striped tent put a smile on my face.  The circus in all of its star-spangled glory had come to southern New Jersey and I was bursting with excitement.

My foot was still a little sore, or perhaps that is the excuse I needed to chug a mixture of vodka and that vanilla Coke, the contents disappearing quickly as I wanted to get a good seat.  Dined on a hot dog and popcorn as the show began, scanning the faces in the crowd around me as anticipation was satisfied with the entrance music struck up by the live circus band.  Every act was spectacular even if it was mostly traditional stuff like high wire and horseback riding; no matter what it takes a lot of practice to flawlessly perform those acts, and I have an enormous amount of admiration and respect for those who do so with great showmanship.  The most death-defying stunt was the motorcycle on the high wire, where a woman in a sparkling costume sat on a fixed bar as the bike rode up and down the tiny wire.  When it turned upside-down, I was cheering just as loudly as everyone else.

Trapeze is still my favorite act, and part of me would love to give it a try at least once.  Perhaps I have watched the movie of the same name one too many times, but it helped me understand why tradition is so important in circus.  That afternoon I watched a fifteen year-old boy fly through the air and pull off a triple, so clean it nearly brought me to tears, and I wondered if anyone else realized how difficult the feat was.

When the show had ended and people were filing out of the tent, I had the opportunity to talk with the ringmaster and probably gushed about circus history a bit too much while he listened politely.  Then we were in a discussion about sideshow, and he actually knew a fair bit of history of Cole Bros having their own congress of oddities in the past.  To me it is incredibly important for the ringmaster to be a liaison between the public and the circus, having the ability to answer a variety of questions with the utmost patience while staying in character.  The opportunity to talk history with someone like that was a great experience and I left the tent in a fantastic mood.

Somehow I navigated myself to a diner where I had a cup of coffee and piece of pie, knowing that after the last performance the circus would have to disassemble the marvelous world they created, pack it into a truck and haul it to the next spot they would be setting up.  Jon often spoke of what this process was like and that everyone had to work in harmony to get it done as efficiently as possible.  There were times where the tent came down at night in one town and was being put back up the next morning in a completely different one, where everything needed to be in place by show time that same day.  To an untrained eye the scene would be chaos, but the way he described it made it seem as though actions are guided by instinct and no one has to question what goes where.  How someone even learns that is mind-boggling, and to do it in what some would view as a stressful situation makes the accomplishment that much more impressive.

Before leaving I sat in my car and was overwhelmed by too many thoughts, which seemed to be a common theme during Drunkapalooza, pausing while my head swam with emotions.  All I could think of was how at that moment I wanted sell everything that I did not need or had no sentimental value, practicing for hours every day until Jon came back.  When he did return, we would reconnect as we always had and then leave the Garden State for a tour of the country, hitting diners, motels, roadside attractions and any other kitschy distractions we encountered, racking up miles and photos and stories.

If not today, than tomorrow.  If not tomorrow, than next week.

One comment on “Drunkapalooza ’05: Day Four

  1. I had no idea I’d wind up as a performer; I was running the pony ride and being a candy butcher. When I was on the shows though, I did the sideshow and then I candy butchered in the big show. Drove a truck and all that. I lived on Whiskey and speed. In those days, when you were on the circus, you know you’d move every day. Every f’n day, you’d set up in the morning and tear down every night. You were working 18 or 22 hours a day, you can’t keep that f’n pace up very long. At night, when you’d go to the office, they’d give you an envelope with gas money for the truck and there’d be speed in there. The show gave them to you, so you wouldn’t wreck their f’n trucks.

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