"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Circus–Or Life As Barnum & Bailey

I always hated circuses but was dragged to them every year when Barnum & Bailey came to Hartford. No matter how much I protested and told my parents that the clowns were creepy, the bearded woman reminded me of Pat Hobson, the fourth grade teacher, and that the trained bears and trick lions stunk to high heaven, we still went ‘as a family’.  My father, who had grown up in the Italian slums of New Haven and who had no idea of what was what until he left the ghetto and matriculated at Cornell, was eager that my sister and I had all the advantages he missed - circuses, symphonies, summer stock, and ballet.

I put up with the cultural events more than my father who snored his way through The Music Man and relied on my mother to ‘translate’ for him so he could follow the gist of Hamlet.  I at least kept awake for most of My Fair Lady – I thought the girl who played Eliza was cute – but fell asleep shortly after intermission, my chin propped up on the Playbill.

I never fell asleep during the circuses because they were so weird. I could never understand the point of the clowns who weren’t funny at all.  They never told jokes and the routines of The Three Stooges were much funnier.  My Uncle Guido was as stupid as Larry, and when he and his brother Louie got drunk on Christmas Eve and threw ziti and calamari at each other, I couldn’t stop laughing; but when Bozo the Clown whacked some other clown with a cricket bat or squirted him with a fake flower, it wasn’t funny at all, just plain dumb.

The trained seals flapped about, barking for mackerel, but other than that just pissed in the pool like the little kids at the New Brighton YMCA. The lions were old, mangy, and tired, and could barely scrape through the hoop that the Master of Ceremonies – Jimmy Catenaccio, night clerk at Jimmy’s Smoke Shop who sold rubbers and girlie magazines to the transit passengers on Peter Pan from Boston to New York by day – stuck out under the lights.

No one knew where the bears came from.  Some people said that they were real Kodiak bears from Alaska; but if that were true, then they must have played many third-rate venues from Saskatoon to Lancaster because when they got to Hartford they were a pitiable sight – big clumps of fur gone from their backs, teeth missing, and for some reason long rubbery dicks which dragged along the floor when they walked.

The trapeze acts were OK.  There was always a chance that one of The Flying Mylnarskis would catch a crab; and although we would feel sorry for his family, we always wanted to see Stash crash and burn.  The Hartford Courant reported that in the early 50s one of the Mylnarskis did indeed fall from the high trapeze, and to add insult to injury, one of the mangy Alaskan Kodiaks chewed on his ankle until circus staff rescued him.

The sideshows were my favorite; and even many years later I wondered who the Bearded Dwarf Lady was or where Barnum & Bailey found her. She was no bigger than a big dog, was as furry as a Chihuahua, and had these enormous tits that stuck out like torpedoes. I knew that she had to be someone’s daughter, but whose?  Once her parents saw what a total freak she was, they must have sold her to the circus.  I once saw Furry Baby, a sideshow special which featured a hairy baby that had so much ballast that she could sleep while floating in a washtub.

“I hate the circus”, I told my mother. “I hate the stupid clowns, the mangy bears, the sick lions, and The Flying Mylnarskis.  It’s creepy, weird, and stupid. Why do I have to go?”

“Because all little children love the circus”, she replied, dressing me in a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, her image of the proper West End young man stepping out on a Sunday afternoon.  I looked more ridiculous than the Barnum & Bailey clowns, and I deliberately spilled ragout sauce on my starched, ruffled Edwardian shirt.

Little did I know that the circus would be the most important part of my childhood education.  All the rest – country day school, Ivy League feeder Lefferts Academy, Mrs. Linder’s Dancing School, Holly Ball, Sylvan Meadow Christmas Cotillion – amounted to a hill of beans compared to Barnum & Bailey.

Take Broadway between 115th and 116th Streets in New York where I lived in the 70s.  On that block alone there are: 1) a crazy lady dressed like Black Maria who makes precision Marine about-faces all day long; 2) a derelict bum who attached a dreadlock weave to his bush, and paraded in front of Starbucks singing Jimmy Cliff reggae; and 3) a Hispanic woman with an old TV antenna strapped to her head and a necklace of skulls she claimed were the heads of Pissarro's armored knights who raped her ancestors on the banks of the Napo River.

There is no way that I could sit through a sermon by Father Brophy when he was in fine fettle and full form, lashing on about the sulfurous brimstone of Eternal Hell without thinking of Sir Wattlesford Binger, the lion-tamer of Barnum & Bailey’s. Both men had fire in their eyes as they met The Beast – either the forked Demon of the Underworld or the tired, sorry veldt cat from the Rahway Zoo.   “Back, fiend of Hell’, shouted Father Brophy, God’s lion-tamer, to his congregation. “Consume the evil and spare the good”, he intoned; and all of us who had been to  the Hartford B&B show the night before could only think of Sir Wattlesford, a.k.a  Jimmy Catenaccio, the night clerk at the Peter Pan bus station who moonlighted whenever the circus came to town.

Not to draw too attenuated a parallel, but in many ways Washington, DC was like a circus, burlesque, and The Three Stooges all in one.  Take for example, the underground rail shuttle between the House and Senate office buildings to the Capitol.

By sheer happenstance – and long before 9/11 and the near-complete lockdown of Washington – I rode the shuttle one morning right before an important vote in the Senate.  The shuttle car looked like the dressing room of a drag Hello Dolly. The senior and junior senators from Idaho, North Carolina, and Vermont were preening themselves before specially-installed vanity mirrors.  The august and comers alike both adjusted silk ties, patted pomaded hair, and smoothed shoulder wrinkles on expensive but ill-fitting suits before exit.  It was like a car filled with clowns.

Where isn’t there a circus in Washington? The tourist tubbies on the Mall, thirty-somethings to be seen at La Diplomate and Le Cercle Parisien, bling black dudes and crème de cacao booties drinking malt liquor on their 30-footers docked at the Waterfront, gussied and coiffured Georgetown matrons stepping out for a do at the Romanian Ambassador’s residence followed by Les Ballets Russes at the Kennedy Center.

When I was just out of graduate school I drove a night shift cab in New York City – Broadway theatre crowd, black tie dinners, after-hours clubs and then scummy back seat blow-jobs until sunup when I returned the cab to the barn. 

Calcutta is a circus – sadhus, saffron, temples, traffic, and beggars; and Cairo, and Port-au-Prince.  One night I was sitting on the verandah of the Olaffson Hotel, Victorian gingerbread pied a terre for Graham Green and Sarah Bernhardt, drinking rum punches with Aubelin Joliecoeur when a voodoo, candomblé troupe danced up the cobblestone path to the front steps with Baron Samedi at the head of the procession.  The dancers wore Venetian stylized masks. 


What isn’t a circus? Not my Auntie Angie’s Easter Dinner with Uncle Joe’s aged aunts sipping sherry and tucking into the soffrit’; nor Harry Grillo directing traffic in the uniform he wore as a doorman at the Palazzo Gritti in Venice in 1932; and certainly not Lou Zucker’s big nose and shiny gabardine trousers which he first wore at a 14th Street  burlesque review during Prohibition.

Life is a circus, not the big tent Barnum & Bailey variety, but the sideshows.  I have met enough fat ladies, defrocked priests, midgets, crazy Victorian trannies, K Street suits, super-moms, and baptizing brothers to last a lifetime; and if I picked only the best, I could go on tour for years.

Which is why I am not an environmentalist, gender activist, peacenik, or volunteer for Doctors Without Borders.  Life is simply too much fun beyond the pitched revival tents with the bearded ladies and three-headed dwarves.

Freak Show Woman

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