I stand alone in the garden. Unique. One-of-a-kind. An eternal misfit. A woman transformed by modification, modest in showing it off.
I stand alone in the garden. It is where my desires and dreams are; where I am the royal Queen and armored soldier. It is filled with brightly colored striped tents and long banner lines, flawless classic cars with shining chrome, and music that is a blend of so many varied styles which somehow combine into a single harmony.
I am an oxy-moron. I am complex but quite simple. I am a lot of different things in one bizarre package. No bells, no whistles; cut down to the bone despite any critics that might come my way. It is something I will defend against those who wish to break me; I will not fall.
I am a Carny, and I live in a modern world that is forgetting about its long-standing circus history. Circus is part of Americana; just a small slice of what makes this country great. It is slowly being replaced with bloated moves, over-rated reality and drama soaked television—oh yea, and let’s give a big thanks to the Internet, where one can find anything the mind contrives with on single click. At the same time, the very thing threatening sideshow has also made it possible to view bizarre acts in the comfort of your home [but then again, such technology hurts live performances—that will be covered later.]
This is not a movie, television show or some damn pixellated image on a screen. This is real life. This is preserving tradition and heritage. This is about pride of oneself and all those who devoted their lives to the business. It’s knowing you are not only keeping history alive, but that you are also becoming a part of it.
I was born with sawdust in my veins, in a state notorious for all things strange, odd, bizarre and unusual called New Jersey. My soul thrives on the tales of horror, unknown and weirdness in general that power Jersey’s reputation of being the state with the most of it.
I am a product of the wilds of the Garden state. It is an honor to call it home alongside other performers from days long gone. They were freaks that were born, lived and/or died in Jersey. I hear that Ringling lost an elephant in the swamps of the Meadowlands—an example of how circus is a prominent part of the state’s history. Living in Philadelphia, it seems that circus is following me and has led to meeting others who appreciate this long-standing art form. I cannot escape that which is such a major part of my life, and responsible for what it has become.
The underground re-invention, revival and resurrection of the circus and sideshow experience leaves room for hope these acts will not lay down and sputter until tragically expiring. The DIY Punk-adopted attitude prevails, which seems to be a must when one desires to make an impression with limited resources; to make a show out of nothing; to draw a crowd to what was once an empty lot and leave them with the lasting memory of a performance they should feel fortunate to have witnessed. If that’s not what Punk was, than the kids of my generation are the definition of the subculture. How ludicrous it is to have the word so generously—and grossly—tossed around, the bastardized label applying to things that make the founding fuckers roll in their graves. Which is pretty much equivalent to the big productions circus passes off these days. Where are the third-generation aerialists? The boy who trained cubs, now a man interaction with lions? The traditional clowns? All of it has been sterilized for public consumption, target market being children too young to even know what the hell is happening.
I grew up with the carnival and spent years going to circuses without realizing how special those evening were. I have vague memories of carnivals with single-o’s along the midway and grinds blaring thru loudspeakers, the words crackling and distorted. It became less of a hobby and more of a passion—an obsession if you will. I had to constantly get my fix, and every time I did—no matter how satisfying the moment had been—the desire for more remained. I wound up on the other side of the stage; went from spectator to performer with respect and the intention of following the legacy of those pioneers who came before me, whose impressive images are tattooed in memory.
Punk is certainly dead. It died when those who lived it grew up; those who so animatedly protested the mainstream of society systematically fell victim to vanity, greed and all that other evil corporate shit. Now it is just a buzz word applied to pre-manufactured over-priced dolled-up fucking crap, mass-produced and of poor quality, ready and available for purchase at the local mall—on-line for the incredibly lazy. The clothes do not make the man; the stereotype, the hypocritical uniform and ‘fashion’ do not make the punk. It’s a fucking attitude that I’d have even if dripping in expensive jewelry and designer clothes; I’d still be modified; I’d still be a Carny.
This is where I step up and state I don’t buy into that bullshit which states a Carny is anyone who travels and works with a carnival for a full year. Any schmuck from the street willing to do the job can make the claim and have no respect for the history—not to mention lacking in knowledge of it. Being a Carny—living it every fucking day—is a battle; the constant struggle against the heavy flow of mainstream society; the pursuit to educate the ignorant and answer curious questions, no matter how many times they are asked. It’s knowing everything happens because you make it happen, not wait like an ass hat.
I am a subculture of one. I find much in common with a variety of people, but only identify with a few. There is pride in being unique; a rarity; a social freak and constant misfit that has to deal with the fact that there is no equivalent. Someone may come along to form a partnership, but that is a whole other can of worms which involves emotion and trust. Too much is centered on lust and the momentary fulfillment of physical desires. Empty people leading empty lives and never knowing any better because they are content in their plastic comfort zones. They need to be waken up and pulled out of their media-fed zombification.
They all need on good day at the circus.
I am a Carny fighting to keep the traditions of circus and sideshow alive. That is the motivation behind every performance, and the reward is the reaction of the crowd—from laughter to shock to disgust. The army I enlisted in is composed of circuses and sideshows. Circuses came first, and while the ancient arts are still carried on today, there are but a few traditional ones owned by surviving generations of their ancestors. Circus is rooted in the Old World, where values of honor and a code of ethics actually meant something. Respect was hard-earned but certainly worth the effort. One big—and vastly arrayed—family, capable of ups and downs; the show must go on, and it is important to remember not to mix business with personal matters.
The spawn of circus is sideshow, often misunderstood by those who wonder why people choose to be put on display. It is not exploitation when one willing exhibits themselves to educate and entertain. Besides, those individuals made a decent living while the rest of society would have rather locked them in an institution. To me, being taken care of in exchange for having people gawk at you for several hours a day sounds like a pretty good job. Event today, people can take advantage of body modifications and get hired because of the way they look.
Final summation is this. Pitch a tent and they will come. If not today than tomorrow; next week; the week after that. Bad day? Fuck it—the next one will be better. Use tools and skills and knowledge to your full advantage, i.e. make money off the consuming public. Survival is not easy but satisfaction is gained from being able to accomplish it. Humans are naturally curious of things that are not ordinary, from the girl with the pink hair to the guy with a full body of tattoos. The list is endless, full of descriptions that fire up the imagination. Sideshow must adapt to the times and has taken the step on to the internet, where a video can be accessed with ease. It is the wave of the future, a faster way to get the public involved. However, those same numbers are not always present at live shows, the very thing that drives us to do this in the first place. To be in front of curious eyes and show off a bizarre talent is the ultimate high, compared to nothing else and incredibly addictive. The same feeling can be achieved by participating in the audience, because your presence is just as important of a foothold in history as the act you’re watching. Preserving the art is as simple as attending a performance.
“The money you spend will be forgotten, the experience will not.”
Sideshow survived rough times, including the depression, a period when Americans were down on their luck, as depicted by the HBO series Carnivale. Despite this hardship, the spirit of circus remained strong, providing entertainment for all: young and old, rich and poor, every man, woman and child. The carnival life is not one filled with glitz and glamour; all visions that it is not-stop fun are quickly demolished once you have actually gotten a glimpse behind the proverbial curtain. That’s not to say those who make their living with a carnival aren’t hard workers, but they don’t have the best reputation either.
Sideshow is not as highly respected as circus, and often time’s people ask why subject one to modifications and working acts. Those very traditions are in danger of becoming extinct, and it is important that they are not lost to the pages of history. I am a Carny at all times. I am proud to represent the circus and sideshow, and it is something that I carry with me where ever I go. The life is one not recommended for those that cannot handle it, because it certainly is not easy. I wouldn’t have things any other way though. This is what I know and what I love. I live it because there’s plenty of others which make up that big useless mass of society. I will be waiting in my tent, collecting their money.
This article was originally published in Issue 1 of Alive On the Inside, copyright 2005 Lenore Lovelace.