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The Essay
Show #179
The Circus
David Gunn

It has been some number of fortnights since the people of northern Vermont woke to the unsettling news that a circus of liberal notoriety was forever closing its annual pageant performance doors due to an influx of uncomprehending and hostile audients, an issue with which we fortunately never have to contend with on this radio program, and it brings to mind another disquieting episode I experienced with a different circus some number of years ago in the guise of temporary underpaid northern Vermont employee.

Expecting excitement, thrills and adventure under the big top, instead I found circus life altogether humdrum. The lurid tales of bizarre backstage shenanigans never materialized. The hot topic of conversation was how to quit the circus and get a real job. I worked in the box office, a meeting place for performers who, out of the spotlight, slumped into dullness and sloth. Sloths of the longer-tongued variety, on the other hand, were nowhere to be seen, though the traveling menagerie was stocked well enough with horses, dogs, two elephants, a baboon and a buffalo.

When the box office action slowed, I wandered over to the cookhouse. PeeWee was the cook. He looked like Gabby Hayes after an hour in a paint blending machine and he was unimaginably awful. His specialty was peanut butter and jelly; left out during the heat of the August afternoon it was excellent fly bait. Salads were as foreign to PeeWee as the French Legion. He preferred the subtleties of room-temperature peas scooped fresh from 55 gallon drums -- a trencherman's delight, assuming the hearty diner has a death wish. Once he concocted a tar-and-feathers-like swill called PeeWee Surprise, the contents of which he refused to reveal. After whispered speculation, the animal trainer ducked out to check on the whereabouts of the baboon. Food fights with PeeWee entrees gave new meaning to chemical warfare. Given the choice of eating a PeeWee pizza or choking down a pile of rancid rat skins the size of a dirigible, I'd choose PeeWee. But just barely.

The red, white and blue circus tent could accommodate 1,300 paying customers sitting in 16 rows of sticky unairconditioned seats, more than, say, could cling to the rapidly deflating exoskeleton of a punctured dirigible. Speaking of which, the bulk of the box office personnel made wrestler Haystack Calhoun look like an aerobics instructor in the midst of a nine-week fast. And what a dour bunch! They took to my rapier-like wit like hagiolators to Margaret Murray O'Hare, and refused to include me in their juicy gossip bees. Once they sent me in search of an ancient circustodian named Shrew. I never did find him. Rather I found cross roustabouts, incessant grumblers who split time between tent maintenance and concessioneering. Their stories consisted mostly of pithy pronouncements: "Hey, get outta here!" or "G'won, you're bothering me!"

The cookhouse was a grimy red trailer with a metal floor that was hosed down every so often to loosen the vilest of the spilled food, once while I was still inside. Another time a swarthy, slackjawed mental hospital escapee, who doubled as horse groom till one of the beasts kicked him and sent him sprawling onto a pointed wooded post, plopped down beside me and began mumbling something about Haystack Calhoun. I held my breath, as much in apprehension as from the luncheon platter stench in front of me. He grunted, which I guessed meant he'd like to demonstrate his own prowess, maybe tear a circus trailer in half. Instead he squared off against his meal, a bowl of PeeWee Surprise left over from earlier in the week, and I beat about 20 others to the door, figuring there couldn't be any winner in this match.

Wandering around again, sniffing the smells of the circus: cotton candy machines cranking out ephemeral strands of pink Sweet & Low by the zillions; immense popcorn poppers salting the air and creating holes in the ozone big enough to drive a hard bargain through; soda towers spewing out sticky caffeined syrup at astronomically inflated prices; inflatable guitars and dwarfs which had peculiar scents of their own -- not bad, actually, as non-degradable plastics go. Music now, recorded tunes preceding the live band: Under the Double Eagle, Thunder and Blazes March, the Toreador Song from Carmen (that is, "Carmen of the Circus"). Then lights, drumroll, fanfare, and enter the ringmaster.

And exit me, as box office detail beckons. But I'm momentarily caught in a convoluted time-space warp and don't get there for three days, by which time the circus has packed up and left town, leaving me with nowhere to go but to the rest of episode 179 of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, a circus in its own right, which rightfully now rests in the hands, flambeau and LPs of Kalvos.