Tent section supported by townies. "I came on in Oceanside, and that night we tore down and moved to Balboa Park. The main entrance was right where I used to park my van.”
  • Tent section supported by townies. "I came on in Oceanside, and that night we tore down and moved to Balboa Park. The main entrance was right where I used to park my van.”
  • Image by Erik C. Hanson
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

I didn’t really run away and join the circus when I was 19. The circus just sort of fell into my lap. In the early ’80s I had worked as a clown in San Diego, doing mostly birthday parties and promotions. I didn’t really want to be a clown, I wanted to be a rock star, but I had a knack for physical comedy and it paid well.

“They charge $1.25 for a can of Old Milwaukee, but as long as you buy one, you can bring your own beer in and they won’t say anything.”

“They charge $1.25 for a can of Old Milwaukee, but as long as you buy one, you can bring your own beer in and they won’t say anything.”

In early 1984, I left San Diego for southern Oregon with an offer to join a band, dreams of fame and fortune, and about $200. Two months later I was broke and homeless — sleeping in my car or friends’ living rooms and selling food stamps for cigarette money. Then a friend spotted an ad in the local paper saying, “Clown needed for circus.”

Lowering the quarter poles. When the quarter poles start swinging, get out of the tent. There is nothing more dangerous in the circus than a “blow down.”

Lowering the quarter poles. When the quarter poles start swinging, get out of the tent. There is nothing more dangerous in the circus than a “blow down.”

A year later I was in Mississippi on my second circus run, now with Daly Bros. Circus, a rinky-dink mud show (tent circus) that didn’t have enough money to pay us. My partner Rocky and I had been hired on as clowns but wound up doing advance promotions for the show. Sleeping in a van, moving from town to town (many with populations of less than a thousand), hanging posters, and generating advertisement.

Victor announces he will hold a lottery; he produces a hat and gives everyone a small piece of paper to write their names on.

Victor announces he will hold a lottery; he produces a hat and gives everyone a small piece of paper to write their names on.

We fed ourselves by trading show tickets and press passes for food at pizza parlors and cafes. We traded tickets for everything: newspaper ads, radio ads, electricity, parking tickets. We were one rung up the hierarchical ladder from the tent crew: a motley collection of indigents and bums who worked 12 hours a day for $10 and slept in the back of the truck. At least they were getting paid, and they were safe on the lot.

Rex is incensed by the idea of a lottery. He believes he should be chosen outright. He stomps and curses.

Rex is incensed by the idea of a lottery. He believes he should be chosen outright. He stomps and curses.

We were stopped by a sheriff s deputy outside of Bude, Mississippi, while stapling posters to telephone poles. He was from Kirby, a nearby town where the show was also scheduled to play.

He explained that if we continued to hang posters for the other town’s show so close to his town, he would throw us in jail and not be responsible for what happened to us in there.

I was on the road for three and a half years. The road is romantic, exciting, and dangerous, but in the end it’s just lonely.

I was on the road for three and a half years. The road is romantic, exciting, and dangerous, but in the end it’s just lonely.

We knew the sheriff’s department was sponsoring the show in Kirby and had a legitimate interest in reducing competition, but we had a job to do and our boss was prone to violence when jobs weren’t completed. So I called my father in San Diego, who was then studying law, told him what had happened, and asked if the deputy could legally jail us for hanging posters.

“It’s probably not legal,” he said, “but legality doesn’t mean much if you’re sitting in a jail cell 1500 miles from home.”

We considered our options, went back and joined up with the show. No one could touch us there.

Having lived on both sides of the invisible barrier that separates the “real world” from the “circus world,” I walk with caution and respect onto the lot of Circus Vargas, one of the last of the giant mud shows, set up in the Sports Arena parking lot for a March run in San Diego. I am looking for the tent crew. Unlike the performers — close-knit families who live in those fabulous fifth-wheel trailers with satellite dishes and electric barbecues and own homes in Arizona or Florida — the tent crew sleeps in a converted box trailer with no plumbing and cramped bunks. The 15 permanent crew members are paid $20 a day and have to buy their own food. With Circus Vargas, they are much more comfortable than the crew on my old show. Still, they epitomize the term “revolving door.” The average stay for a crew member is about two weeks.

The work is difficult, the hours long, and the travel gets old quick.

With that kind of turnover rate, the circus needs a constant supply of willing workers. In the past, circuses would make regular runs to the shelters and missions to scrounge up workers. That was the only place to find people willing to pack up and leave immediately — and to work for nothing.

Today the situation is different. A large show like Circus Vargas maintains a smaller permanent crew and relies heavily on local help for the set-up and tear-down of the tent, employing as many as 25 people at a time during the circus’s stay.

A volunteer coordinator at downtown’s St. Vincent de Paul Center says it’s been years since a circus came by the shelter looking for help. Now, instead of scouring the shelters for cheap labor, they go to the county employment division and work services, and they find plenty of willing workers. Often, too many. Wednesday before the 4:30 show, I walk around the perimeter of the Circus Vargas lot until I find a small group of people sitting near the concrete barriers dividing the Sports Arena lot from the parking lot at the strip mall next door. One guy in blue shorts and a ball cap leans on the barrier, another straddles his bicycle and rocks back and forth nervously while a man and a woman stay close to an adjoining fence.

I ask if any of them are tent crew. “I’m tent slime,” says the guy in shorts, who introduces himself as Steve.

“Tent slime?” I laugh. “How long you been with the show?”

“A little over a year now.”

“Wow, that’s a long time for tent work.”

“Yeah, but it beats the hell out of living on the streets. There are only two guys that have been with the show longer than me, but they left for a while and then came back — so I guess I’ve been here the longest.”

The man on the bike is adamant about not telling his name (it’s more difficult to get names than information), so we decide on George. George is a tall, blond, military-looking guy who spends a good ten minutes expounding on the virtues of his bicycle, exaggerating by at least $50 the cost of each part. He is trying to join the show as a permanent worker (perm) and is waiting to talk to Victor Arata, the Tent Boss. In the meantime, George rambles and sips at a plastic bike bottle full of beer.

I mention that I had put up a few tents in my time, and we talk about how difficult and taxing it is. “Well, it’s gotta be better than the carnival,” George says. “I’ve worked for two carnivals and I’ll never do that again.”

Later Steve tells me that the carny guys never last very long. “They think it’s going to be easy,” he says. “A couple of jumps and they’re gone.”

Steve explains that after he got out of the Navy he was stuck in San Diego with only a minimum of electronics education. “They say they’ll provide your education,” he says, “but they only teach you what they want you to know. If I wasn’t doing this I’d go back to school for electronics.

“They cut me loose with nothing. I spent a year on the streets. I was staying at Balboa Park most of the time, but I had just gone up to Oceanside when the circus came through last year. I tried eight times to get on before they finally let me.”

“Eight times?”

“Yeah. I had to really kick ass to get myself noticed.” He stops and grins. “Funny thing is, I came on in Oceanside, and that night we tore down and moved to Balboa Park. The main entrance was right where I used to park my van.” The man and woman hugging the fence stay silent through this conversation. Their shopping carts, piled high with green Hefty bags, are stashed 50 feet away in a corner. Their eyes dart back and forth as they alternate between listening and keeping track of their carts. They are trying to get on as temporary help but aren’t hired because women, according to one of the perms, “create an unusual dynamic. The guys tend to show off and people can get hurt.”

The circus is a world of its own: a tiny village of silver Air Stream trailers, fifth-wheels, and tractor-trailers lined up like futuristic cottages with the tent, a familiar blue and yellow striped mountain, always looming in the background. It doesn’t matter what city you’re in; in this tiny community you feel like you’re in the same place. All problems are handled from the inside. Its very posture seems to say, “Leave us alone,” and that’s the barrier I am trying to breach.

Steve and I trade anecdotes for nearly an hour before he is satisfied I know what I am talking about. Then he takes me on a tour of the lot and the new tent. The lot is quiet except for a few people making last-minute preparations for the upcoming show, wheeling wardrobe racks into the tent and checking props. The tigers can be heard roaring and pacing in their cages.

With shoulder-length, stringy hair and a scarred nose, Steve is friendly and articulate. He works hard, enjoys it, and seems genuinely involved in his description of the new Circus Vargas tent. Built in Italy, the new tent is the state-of-the-art in tent technology. Hand winches are built into all the side ropes, and electric winches are used to pull the center poles up.

Circus Vargas has scaled down from a three-ring to a one-ring circus. Though the tent is still the largest in the country, it is half the size it was in 1989 when I last saw the show.

“I saw that tent,” Steve says. “Back then you couldn’t fit it on a football field. But they had to go smaller. It’s the only way to make any money these days.”

Steve has been looking at the sky. Dark clouds have been edging in and out all day. “Titus was roaring this morning.”

“Who’s Titus?”

“He’s the big old lion. When he roars in the morning, that means it won’t rain tonight.”

“Is he pretty consistent?”

“No, but anything will help. It sucks to tear down in the rain.”

He walks me through the tent. The quarter poles (halfway between the side and the center poles) are now incorporated into the bleachers, which are supported by an impressive lattice of triangular chunks of steel. I remember the effect of high winds on a tent this big and mention the old axiom: When the quarter poles start swinging, get out of the tent. There is nothing more dangerous in the circus than a “blow down.” “Those Italians took care of that,” Steve says. “With this new tent there is no F.TD [emergency tear down]. It’s as stable as anything I’ve ever seen.”

“How fast does it go up?”

“When we got it, they said we should be able to set this thing up in two or three hours. So far our record is eight.”

We talk about the elephants — how intelligent they are, how they can fling a man 40 feet with their trunks, how they like to do head stands on people who make them mad. I tell him about Big Tommy, an African elephant on the Ford Bros, show who earned his name by once doing the elephant act with a huge erection. The audience was screaming and the ringmaster couldn’t keep a straight face. One time Big Tommy got angry with a tent worker and skewered him up against a truck with one of his tusks. It was real bloody. Steve becomes a bit reticent, looking around to see who’s near. “The bosses don’t like people to know about that stuff,” he says quietly. A woman walks by with a well-groomed poodle, and I ask if they have a dog act. “We only have the elephants and the cats now, and they’ll probably be gone by next year.”

“Problems with the animal rights activists?”

“That’s it. It keeps getting worse and worse.”

“The cats are especially hard to train,” I say. “I knew a trainer who supposedly beat a lion cub to death one night after a show. He was a real weird guy — had a drooling problem. Walked around with a towel

in his mouth. Good act though. Beating the cats kind of goes with the territory.”

“Not always,” Steve says. “You should have seen last year’s trainer, Wayne. Before he did his act he would have ‘playtime with his friends’ and go into the ring and roll around with them. He was real good to them. I only saw him use his whip once. A big tiger started playing too hard and Wayne had to remind him who was boss. But it wasn’t brutal, it was just to remind the cat.”

A thin, young Mexican walks by in a striped concessionaire’s shirt. The guys call him Paco. Steve says that Paco, along with many of the concessions people, helps with the tent. According to Steve, Paco has found his niche in life. “He’s small but he works real hard. When we were in Brownsville, Texas, he got popped four times by Immigration. He swam back across the river each time.”

“I played Brownsville,” I say. “Wild place.”

“Spiderville. All it did was rain. Tarantulas all over the place. We caught tons of them for the snakes.”

Like many closed communities, the circus has its own vocabulary — though many of the terms overlap with prison or carnival vernacular. On my first circus run I was warned to keep my mouth shut for a few weeks until I knew what everyone was talking about. The Boss Clown didn’t want the circus performers knowing I was a “circus virgin.”

Steve and I hang out by the tent and trade terms. Most are still in use: A “fin” is five dollars, a “yard” is $100, the “pie car” is the mobile cafe where the crew can buy food and beer (also called the “cook house”). Circus Vargas is too big to be called a “mud show,” but that term applies to most tent circuses. The toilets are called “don-nikers,” cotton candy is “floss,” the move to a new site is a “jump,” and quitting the circus is called “blowing the show.”

On the mud shows I worked, the members of the tent crew were called “lops” — a meaningless term that is still vaguely derogatory. Steve says now the permanent tent crew members are “perms” and the local help are “townies.”

George comes running up, excited. He has been in the office with the Tent Boss and has joined on as a perm. George smiles and tells us, “Victor said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ and I said, ‘Fuck yeah!’ So here I am!”

I ask George about his bike. “I’m leaving it,” he says. “I couldn’t take it anyway. That’s all right, this is better than the carnival.”

“So you’re jumping to Balboa Park tonight?” I say.

“Yeah,” George responds, “right where Tent

City used to be. I used to live there. Now I don’t.” Circus Vargas tries to book shows in alternating two- and three-day stops, hoping for four days but settling for what they can get.

The tent work is perfectly designed for people who want to hide from themselves, the world, the law. The crew can remain nameless and faceless and still receive regular pay, but lengthy stops breed discontent and exodus.

Steve tells of a couple of shows last year where they had several weeks of two-nighters. It was driving everyone into the ground. With the rapid turnover of permanent help and worker exhaustion, maintaining enough perms should have been a problem.

“Funny thing is,” Steve says, “during those heavy days no one blew the show. They were too busy to think and too tired to drink. Two weeks later, after things had calmed down, they all blew.”

The Wednesday night tear-down doesn’t go without incident. One townie, while loading a quarter pole onto the truck, gets his head pinned between the pole and the side of the truck. He flails helplessly for a moment and no one moves to help him. A photographer who is close by snaps two shots and then lifts the pole off the man, who is dazed but okay.

Another townie unexpectedly drops to the ground in a grand mal epileptic seizure. He shakes and claws at the asphalt. Concerned workers hover around the man, and some ask if they should call an ambulance. One townie insists that his brother is epileptic and the only thing to do is let the poor guy ride it out. Someone finally flags down a passing policeman, who does call an ambulance. A few townies are still comforting the man when the ambulance arrives. The Tent Boss comes over and requests the townies’ services, with just a hint of threat.

When I worked circus, the tent crew were treated little better than animals or slaves, herded around, and callously — sometimes brutally — kept down. I have seen men beaten senseless for making simple mistakes or commenting under their breath.

On the Daly Bros, show we picked up a kid called Red at a shelter in Beaumont, Texas. He was only with the show a couple of days before he got tired of being ordered around and went after the Tent Boss with a sledgehammer. The Tent Boss persuaded Red to set the hammer down, then tackled him to the ground. As the crew looked on, he sat on Red’s chest and beat his face until he was unrecognizable. Red wasn’t moving when he was taken away in the ambulance.

I relate this story to Steve, who raises an eyebrow and says, “Well, I’ve never seen anything like that happen on this show. I’ve seen the crew go after each other, but Victor’s okay— he is still the boss, though.”

Other crew members refuse to answer questions about the prices in the pie car or the Tent Boss. Steve shrugs. “Sometimes you can say a lot more by saying nothing.”

I do overhear one of the perms explaining to George the intricacies of pie car etiquette: “They charge $1.25 for a can of Old Milwaukee, but as long as you buy one, you can bring your own beer in and they won’t say anything.” Then he pauses. “Don’t show up with a 12-pack, but a couple of beers in your pockets are okay.” Victor Arata, a 52-year-old Sicilian (according to Steve) has worked circus most of his life. Trim and fit, he rules absolutely and he carries his authority well. If he suspects drug use or drunkenness with any crew members during tear-down or set-up, they’re fired on the spot. There is too much riding on safety, too many people depending upon each other.

Questioning crew members about their drug habits is useless. At one point, however, I am told by a perm that he takes a blanket and sleeps in a Subaru when the rest of the crew are “doing their thing.”

“So there is drug use going on?”

“Does Howdy Doody have freckles?”

On Thursday morning I hang out at the lot in Balboa Park and watch the set-up. They began at 6:30, and by 10:00 the center poles are up and the stakes and canvas are in place. It’s amazing that the tent goes up at all. Two-thirds of the crew don’t even know what’s happening. With nearly 50 men to coordinate, many of them can slack off whenever they see the opportunity.

I watch one townie languidly carting bleacher planks around, hiding a can of Budweiser under his torn T-shirt. Then I spot George wandering across the lot. His head hangs and he is limping. He sees me and waves, saying simply, “This is hard.”

“The first time I tore down I thought I was going to die,” Steve said when I met him. “I had been on the streets a year. All I did was hang out and eat. I was overweight, out of shape. Just tearing down the bleachers almost killed me.”

I roam the lot and finally ask two men in their cars whether they are with the show. One guy, with a dirty blond flattop and a tail, looks at me through his eyebrows. “We live here.”

Their cars are parked head to tail — a big green Buick and a maroon Pontiac — like cops on a break. Flattop says, “Are you looking for work? They’re hiring.”

“No thanks,” I say. “I’ve had enough of the road.”

“You can never have enough road!” he says with exuberance. “Hell, I’d be there in a minute if it weren’t for my son.” He pulls a postage-stamp-sized photo of a young boy from his dashboard and holds it up to me. “That’s him. I get to see him every weekend. Otherwise I wouldn’t be living in this car for the last three years.” “Hell, yes!” says his partner in the maroon Pontiac. “Those guys get 300 a week, and they haven’t done a goddamn thing in two days. I worked for them a couple of days. They pay five bucks an hour, in cash.”

“It’s real nice, the truck they sleep in. Of course, you have to buy your own food,” says Flattop. “Have you seen the prices in that cook house? They charge $2.50 for a 50-cent burrito.

It’s designed to hook you in and keep you. You make your money and spend it all in the pie car. That’s the idea.” Then he looks at me and says, “But you don't have to live like that.”

I mention that I have been talking to some of the tent crew. “Steve?” he says. “The guy with the nose?” He squeezes his cartilage for clarification. I nod. “Steve’s a good guy,” he continues. “I knew him years ago. Used to live right here.” He points to a parking space. Then he glances back at his dashboard with a faraway look. “I love my son,” he says. “If it wasn’t for him I’d be [with the circus] in a moment.”

Work call for Sunday night’s tear-down is at 4:30. The tent is coming down for the jump to Escondido, and the show will again need some extra help. The townies are paid a minimum of five dollars for the night and a maximum of five dollars an hour.

They are needed for about four hours for tear-down. “San Diego’s an expensive city,” Steve told me, “so they pay five an hour here.”

Some 60 men have shown up to fill 12 remaining positions. The guy in the maroon Pontiac is there. An older man with five kids has walked up from Barrio Logan. I recognize some homeless people from the park. Alvarez and Manuel, 16 and 17, respectively, have come across the border looking for a day’s work (they don’t speak a word of English). None of these men will work tonight.

Victor groups everyone just off the midway, near the reptile exhibit, and asks them to wait. Then he disappears into his trailer. The throng is in constant rotation, everyone working their way to the front of the group. They keep moving slowly forward and a perm appears and asks everyone to move back, out of the midway.

Victor makes them wait for 45 minutes. Those without patience or a real desire to work begin to leave, cursing at having to sit for so long. When Victor returns, the crowd has diminished. Victor understands the need to be fair in his choices. These are hungry men, many have gone to great effort to get here, and Victor is looking at a potential riot if he doesn’t handle the situation with equity. He does this every couple of days, so what seems like an inflammatory situation is just a day’s work to him.

Victor announces he will hold a lottery; he produces a hat and gives everyone a small piece of paper to write their names on.

Rex, a muscular, tattooed man, has followed the show around the county, setting up and tearing down on five occasions. His face is as rutted and coarse as the asphalt the workers drive stakes into. He works hard and is incensed by the idea of a lottery. He believes he should be chosen outright. He stomps and curses, but he has to participate nonetheless.

Rex and the remaining men scribble their names on the tiny scraps, frantically pass around pencils, and rush for the hat. Only the most devoted — or desperate — even get their names into the hat. The others are kept away, weeded out by mob mentality.

After several minutes of crowding, amid pleas to remain calm, Victor groups the men at a distance and explains that if he finds anyone has put their name in more than once, they’ll be fired. He begins to draw names. The first name called is Rex, who yells, “It was destiny, I was meant for it!’’ Rex moves to the line where the winners stand.

By the time the lottery is completed, the 5:30 show is well underway. Victor invites any remaining people to see the show for free and leads them around to the side of the tent, where they step under a flap of canvas and into the big top. To the others he gives a combination pep talk and warning, stating that he expects them to work, and he will not tolerate slackers.

Nearly 1200 people fill the tent for the final show. At 7:00, following the intermission, workers start tearing down the main entrance, pulling the poles from the 50-foot gauntlet that one must pass to enter the tent.

The concessions will stay open until the last person has left. Even at $9.50 a ticket for adults, the concessions are the bread and butter of any circus.

Rex comes cruising by in the tent and says, “I was right man, I was right!” He slaps hands with a few townies and continues to the other side.

The maroon Pontiac guy is in the stands watching the show intently. I ask if he got on the crew.

“No,” he says, “not this time.” And I sense that he hopes these people leave his home, soon.

At 7:50, the show is over and workers begin to tear down the bleachers the minute the audience stands. The lot outside now reveals the ephemeral nature of the circus. In less than an hour the glitzy big top illusion is destroyed. Suddenly the place looks like a campground: trucks, steel, trailers, snaking cables, garbage, asphalt.

Alvarez and Manuel wander by with bags of garbage over their shoulders, asking for a cigarette. “No hay mas. “ Conversation is difficult, but it appears they convinced someone to flip them a fin for cleaning up.

Within half an hour the last of the audience has left the lot and the canvas sides of the tent have been removed, exposing the interior. Scores of men bustle about, loading triangular steel bleacher supports onto pallets. This is when the pure beauty of the scene starts to sink in. When you can see through the tent, the sheer size is stunning. Four 20-foot panel trucks back up to the tent and the men load the bleachers, hauling planks and steel in a seemingly interminable line. It takes two hours to tear down the bleachers. It’s the most time-consuming task of the night.

At 10:00 p.m. the bleachers are out and the trucks have pulled away. Each section lets out a cheer as the last of the frameworks are loaded onto the trucks. Most of the nice fifth-wheels and trailers are gone. The don-nikers pull out. Several townies use plastic rakes to gather the trash: popcorn cups, Coke containers, empty floss bags.

I stand by the generator truck, which sits near the rear of the lot like a bizarre mechanical octopus, cables snaking out to lamps on poles, throwing light and long shadows across the lot. It is loud and dark there, and I can remain relatively unseen. I feel bad about standing around while all these men labor so hard. Leaning against the back of the generator truck is Jaime, a young Hispanic man from Lemon Grove. I ask him what’s up.

“I’m waiting for a friend.”

“You weren’t able to work?”

He explains in a thick accent that he and his friend have joined permanently, but he arrived late so he didn’t get to work tonight. “Next we go to Escondido,” he says.

“Then to L.A., I heard.”

He shrugs. “Don’t matter where they go. Wherever they go, I go with them. I got my stuff. I’m here.”

The tent is built around four center poles: latticed girders standing about 30 feet apart in a square. The circus ring sits in the middle of them. At the outer ends of the tent are the hundred side poles, each staked to the asphalt, and midway between them are 25 quarter poles, which provide much of the stability.

The canvas is divided into eight triangular sections on the fat oval tent: three each in the front and the back and one each on the sides. Each section is connected to a long, oblong piece of canvas and steel, which hangs between the center poles by guy lines and is raised by electric winches. The interior of the canvas is a colorful pattern of red, white, and blue stripes, radiating outward from the center, with orange stars throughout. This method of tear-down insures that the tent never touches the ground. Even with endless travel and use, the tent will hold up for years.

I have seen what happens when the wrong poles come down at the wrong time, and I am perfectly content to hide in the dark like a voyeur.

I watch a wiry man waddle in a peculiar fashion up two ropes connected to the side poles. He works his way up to the top of the tent like Spiderman, unlacing the section as he goes, flipping the rope from grommets, folding back the flap of canvas that hides the connection. Fifty feet up on a sea of blue and yellow, out of the spotlights and lit only by the moon, he is just a silhouette.

The tent truck driver skillfully jackknifes a huge flatbed tractor-trailer between the center poles while crew members pull the quarter poles. It takes two perms to pull the 20-foot steel poles, five townies to do the same.

By 10:30 the quarter poles are down and the crew is starting in on the side poles. They leave one of every three up so the tent stays standing, but it looks terribly unstable. Groups of six guys start working their way around the final side poles, which now support the bulk of the weight of the canvas. In a maneuver reminiscent of the statue of the soldiers at Iwo Jima, they slightly skew each pole, rendering it easier to bring down. The side poles still support the tent, but stability is tenuous at best.

At the generator truck I meet a young, muscular black man who introduces himself as Joe Frazier. He is the first worker to give me a surname without prodding. He is waiting for something to do. We shake hands, doing that combination hip handshake, fist-punch thing that everyone I have spoken to has done. A man I have been watching all night walks behind the truck and urinates. He is wearing a fuzzy hat with ear flaps, a filthy T-shirt, and brown corduroys. His most interesting feature is the five pacifiers on a string around his neck. Joe and I look at him, then at each other; no need to say anything.

We talk about the lottery that day, and he says it was very fair. I ask about the work.

“This is cool, man,” he says. “It’s my second year back. They treat you well, pay in cash. I’ve been helping here for three days.”

Joe explains that he was hired on through the employment division but still had to participate in the lottery. He says a lot of guys came in through unemployment and the circus had to choose them somehow, so he didn’t mind the lottery. Victor comes up and points to Joe, who nods and follows without a word.

Now the crew begins the punishing yet impressive routine of rolling up the sections of canvas. Four or five guys will be lucky enough to snag the ropes that hang midway between the pinnacle and the ends of the tent. The other 40 are consigned to the side section of canvas on the north end of the lot. The final side poles are yanked out, and the entire weight of that section falls onto the hands of 40 men in a line. One of the perms starts a military-style call-back, yelling, “Roll it up like a big fat joint!” The others return the call in rhythm. He yells again, “Roll it up like a day-old tampon!”

The men call back, rolling thousands of pounds of canvas, arms stretched over their heads, working their way toward the center of the tent and finally dropping the section of canvas in a horseshoe shape onto the tent trailer.

Those who have done this before know what comes next. They run, yelling in childish glee, to the other side of the tent, grab the ropes and swing on them like urban Tarzans. The synchronization and team spirit displayed by these men is amazing and necessary. There are some slackers, but most of them know that not pulling their weight could lead to disaster. The tent commands its own respect and cannot be taken lightly.

By 11:10 all eight sections of canvas have been rolled onto the tent and the lot is an eerie sight — just a few trailers left, a wide ring of stakes, and four center poles jutting into the sky. Swaying between them is the huge center-piece of the canvas. Billowing down 50 feet in blue-and-yellow stripes to the flatbed trailer, it looks like a painted waterfall.

Victor walks over to a spotlight near the generator truck. He has a wad of pink slips in one hand, a huge roll of cash in the other. There is a slight commotion as someone gets a little too close for Victor’s comfort; then he begins to sign people off as they hover around in a five-foot semicircle. There is still plenty to do, but the perms handle the final tasks: they pull the stakes with a gas-powered hydraulic jack or the forklifts, while others are ready to winch the centerpiece of the tent down onto the truck.

One by one the townies disappear into the night: some to the park, where they sleep, some to their cars, others to the trolley station by the college. The guy in the red Gucci sweatshirt, the satin Snap-On Tools jacket guy, men in beanies. All who worked together walk off alone tonight, some well-earned cash in their pockets, and maybe tomorrow somewhere else to make a little money.

One guy walks away, exhausted, head down. He flips through his money, three five-dollar bills, counting them over and over again as he crosses the empty lot.

Rex wanders up, smiling and swaggering, flapping around his work gloves. “I’m going home to take a shower,” he says. “I’ve been to five, six spots now. They want me to join, but they only pay $150 a week. I make a lot more in construction, I make 15 bucks an hour.”

Rex joins the group of townies waiting to get paid as Victor peels bills from his wad and signs them off. “I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. Never out of your blood. So, I do it for five, six bucks an hour.” He hitches up his pants, bringing his frame to full height. “Forty-eight years old! I tell you, I can still whip a young man’s ass! Still outwork him!” Rex turns abruptly and walks alone across the lot.

By 11:30 all the townies have gone. The perms lower the rest of the tent to the truck with winches and begin to bring down the main poles. Their night is coming to a close. A couple of guys dance on the massive pile of canvas. I go to my car and watch with the heater on.

At 1:30 everyone will be gone, heading to Escondido. An early night for them. In the clear, brisk sky I watch a shooting star dive behind the skyline. I can see Steve out there, bustling about — employed for as long as he can stand it — tearing down a circus tent where he once used to sleep.

To the crew this is an easy night. At 6:00 a.m., Steve and his cohorts will be setting the tent up again, laboring with a new set of townies. They won’t be finished until nearly 6:00 that evening, just in time to begin helping with the 7:30 show.

I was on the road for three and a half years. The road is romantic, exciting, and dangerous, but in the end it’s just lonely. You’re a nameless drifter in an anonymous town. Often you can’t even remember what state you’re in. But for some that’s a suitable life.

“I love the circus!” Steve had said to me one evening. “It beats the hell out of being homeless. It’s like being homeless with a job.”

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment