Under the Big Top: My Season With the Circus - Part 5

Part 5

"What makes me the saddest," he said, his voice turning more Southern as his story went along, "is that the people in this circus don't realize how much she did for these cats. How she trained them. How she loved them. I remember last year Mr. Pugh and Mr. Holwadel came to see me practice in DeLand. I had only practiced the act once or twice. I was scared s.h.i.tless. I took a deep breath and went into the cage. To my surprise everything went perfectly. They applauded after every trick. Kathleen got so upset watching them approve of me that she ran into the trailer and hid. Later I had dinner with Mr. Holwadel in a restaurant in DeLand. He said, 'Khris, I'll be honest with you. I think we'll have a better cat act this year.' Outside I was very proud. I said, 'I'll do my best for you. I'll try not to let you down.' But inside I felt so bad for Kathleen. She trained these animals. She raised many of them by hand. She had been with them for six years. And still no one ever respected her."

"Do you think they'll ever respect you?" I asked.

"Yes," he said without hesitation. "I'm a man. Just the other day Mr. Holwadel stopped me in front of the tent and asked how things were going. I told him they were going okay. 'Good,' he said. 'Now that you're a member of the team I want you to do me a favor.' I said, 'Sure, Mr. Holwadel, what's that?' 'Start calling me Douglas.'"

Buck knocked at my door at a little after eight.

"Get up," he said. "We're going shopping."

"But the mall's not open for another two hours," I protested.

"We're not going to the mall," he said. "This is Hanover, Pennsylvania: Thrift Town, U.S.A."

The show crossed the Mason-Dixon Line at the end of April and for many it wasn't a day too soon. To landowners before the Civil War the famed surveying line may have been a divider between slave and non-slave states, to officers during World War II it may have been a warning of when to segregate their troops, but to butchers on the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus nearly fifty years later the line was the signal that for the first time all year they could raise the price of popcorn. Popcorn wasn't the only thing. The coloring books that the clowns sold during intermission jumped from one dollar to two, programs went from two dollars to three, and c.o.kes, cotton candy, and hot dogs all surged fifty cents to two dollars apiece. Look out, Yankees, one almost wanted to shout, a herd of carpetbaggers from Dixie are coming to cart your money away.

Moving north also heralded other changes-first among them, the crowds. All through Georgia, the Carolinas, and southern Virginia we had seen mostly all-white audiences with few blacks and even fewer Hispanics. In addition, Southern audiences tended to sit in the general admission bleacher seats in the corners, which cost nine dollars for adults and six for kids, instead of paying two dollars more and receiving a reserved chair alongside the three rings. Moreover, they would sit quietly, without much emotion, and during the Ivanovs' balletic hand-balancing act late in the second act many would hurriedly exit the tent. As we headed north, through Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston, before the climax of the summer in New York City itself, the audiences began to diversify. Crowds were more ethnic and much wealthier; they purchased better seats, bought more concessions, made more noise, and stayed until the very end. This made everyone happy, especially Sean, because with fewer people leaving after the s.p.a.ceship act more people would see him fly.

While the shows became better, daily life became worse. The roads deteriorated (Jimmy insisted Pennsylvania had the worst roads in the country: "They ought to pay us to travel on them," he said), gasoline became more expensive, and the building inspectors started forcing performers to move their trailers in the morning to add a few inches to the fire lane. It made some veteran performers long for the days of simple bribes. Karen Rodrguez even complained that in the ritzy suburbs around Washington, D.C., she had to drive thirty miles to find a Laundromat. One person who particularly dreaded going north was Buck, because once we headed into New England there were fewer flea markets where he could buy or sell his wares. Hanover, Pennsylvania, was his last chance to stock up, and he didn't intend to let it pa.s.s.

"Now there are two things you have to remember about the flea-market business," he said as we sat down for a breakfast of biscuits and orange juice at a Roy Rogers across the street from the tent. "First, you can never have too much of a good thing." The previous day, Buck said, he had driven one hundred miles to a library sale in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, where he had purchased thirty-four books for a total of three dollars, which he would later resell for six dollars apiece. "The second thing is, you should always use psychology. Every flea market I go to I put up a sign saying since it is my first visit I'll sell all my books at half price. It works like a charm. Everybody just stops to talk."

In truth, there were probably other reasons everybody wanted to talk to Buck. Even without his makeup on he looked like an alien-a quaint, rather awkward alien that had stepped out of a B-grade 1950s science fiction film. Everything about him seemed to accentuate his height. His black hair with streaks of gray on the side was always standing on its end from where he slept on the eight-foot foam mattress that occupied most of the back of his van. He wore black horn-rimmed gla.s.ses that looked as if they were hand-me-downs from a comic-book science teacher. Plus his neck, shoulders, and even his waist all slumped continually from crouching every day for half a century under doorways and signboards in six-feet-and-under America. Whether it was an optical illusion or not, I don't know, but even though Buck was well over seven feet tall, his hands always seemed to drag on the ground.

Beyond his appearance, there was something a little unnerving about Buck. As a clown, he was definitely a relic. He didn't move much or particularly make faces. Instead he liked to make fun of children, play tug-of-war with their arms, or shock them with his personal brand of bathroom humor. His favorite walk-around was to carry a large piece of granite and a roll of toilet paper with a sign that said: "Old-Fashioned Rock and Roll." It was hardly clean family fun, some complained. Around the lot his behavior got him into even more trouble. Perhaps as a result of having people gawk at him his whole life, Buck had become something of an exhibitionist. Without access to a shower, he regularly bathed out of a bucket directly in front of Clown Alley. Also, he had a well-known and mostly disapproved-of habit of sunning himself nude up and down the East Coast. He also urinated at will in public. As a result, many of the performers thought him perverted and kept their children away. They even complained to management. They feared that one day a paying customer would as well.

Finished with breakfast, we headed into town on Route 94, a typical congested semiurban highway with strip malls, gas stations, and fast-food playgrounds all clamoring for the best frontage and median cut. But here there was a difference: many of the signs were local in nature. According to the neon vernacular, Hanover was the home of Snyder's Pretzels, Utz Potato Chips, Hanover Shoes. Stores touted discount clothing, discount auto parts, even discount beer. Arrows beckoned drivers into darkened streets promising cheap thrills. It all seemed like bargain heaven for Buck. "I like to drive in alleys," he said, finally pulling off the main drag closer to town. "People throw out all sorts of interesting stuff in alleys." Sure enough, a few minutes later he pulled over behind an abandoned hotel. "Why, look at that." He stretched his arm through the driver's window, reached into the top of a dark green Dumpster, and pulled a mangled object out of the pile. "It's a CB radio!" he exclaimed, tinkering with the b.u.t.tons and putting it up to his ear as if he really was a science teacher. "You can hear it, but you can't talk. I'd say it's worth about five bucks."

As we moved on, our first stop was the semiannual factory outlet sale of the Hanover Shoe Company, just off Main Street. Buck rummaged around the second-floor rows of mismatched moccasins and patent-leather dress shoes but found nothing in his size. This was not uncommon, he said. Several years earlier he had gone to a similar sale in Brockton, Ma.s.sachusetts, the self-proclaimed shoe capital of New England. "'What size shoe do you wear?' the woman asked. 'Sixteen,' I said. 'Well, you're in luck. Go to the back wall and look there.' I went back there and they had a whole wall of perfectly new shoes. 'They say those are seconds,' the woman said. 'But I can't find anything wrong with them. The price is two dollars a pair.' I tried on one pair and they were comfortable enough, so I handed the woman a hundred-dollar bill. 'How many would you like?' she said. 'That's a hundred-dollar bill, ain't it?' I said. 'I'll take fifty.' 'What are you going to do with all of them?' she asked. 'Save them for future use.'" He smiled with wicked delight. "I walked out of that store, kept two for myself, and sold all the rest for forty dollars a pair."

Our next stop was the Salvation Army, two blocks up Main Street. This time Buck didn't bother with the shirts or jackets, but headed straight for the kitchen supplies. Half an hour later, he walked out with two belts for a walk-around Arpeggio was making, an eggbeater for the chef in the stomach-pump gag, and a slightly rusty Sterno stove. "Look, it still has the fuel cartridges," he boasted. "I'll use it to heat up my makeup when the weather is cold." Altogether he had spent $1.75. "Boy, the books in there were terribly expensive," he said as he tossed his purchases into the back of his van, the atticlike s.p.a.ce where he slept, ate, watched television, and gave himself insulin shots, as well as kept his sodas on ice, stored dozens of pairs of secondhand shoes, and maintained what was reported to be the most extensive supply of p.o.r.nographic videos of anyone on the circus. "They had some Westerns and even a Civil War book. I opened them up and they wanted three dollars apiece. I would never pay that much. I would pay a buck a book and sell it for two. But three dollars? How do you make a living off that?"

We headed back toward Route 94 and the Goodwill Mission Store. Once again he found little of interest-no china elephants, no clown books, no round Coca-Cola signs, but as we were leaving he noticed several boxes of day-old bread, m.u.f.fins, and pies. "Why, look at this," he said, bending down at the waist like a mechanical cherry picker and filling up most of the aisle. "Five to a family. Get you five, we're from different families." He picked out a loaf of raisin bread, an angel-food cake, two cartons of English m.u.f.fins, and a shoofly pie. "Ever had one of these?" "No," I said. "Well, you're in for a treat. It's Amish. Feel how heavy it is...It's made from turkey syrup, eggs, and brown sugar. In the thrift store where I work in the winter I could feed five families with this stuff."

Back in his van heading home Buck was philosophical again. "There are not many thrift stores I leave without buying a book. Their selection was real bad. They had a lot of Bibles and blooper books. You can get rid of Bibles in the South, but not up here around New York. Also, you would think blooper books sell, but they don't. It's a real art to knowing what books'll sell. At the store back in West Virginia where I work in the off-season I throw away a lot of books. Clear up the shelf s.p.a.ce. I put the books in boxes and give them away as heating fuel. One guy came back once a week for several months. Finally, he told me he was feeling real guilty for heating his house with books, so he decided to read each book before he burned it up. People in West Virginia know how to get by with very little."

"So do you miss that life?" I asked. "West Virginia. Home."

"My mother's still there. I go back a couple of times during the season to visit my doctor. But my life's out here now. When you've been living on the road as long as I have you learn to like it. I have special parking lots I like to sleep in in every city. I have special treats I know where to find, like shoofly pie around here or clams in Boston. I know this great place that has scuppernong jelly with no added sugar in Columbus, Georgia."

Soon the tent came into sight. Surrounded by a mall on three sides and a Roy Rogers and discount fabric store on the other, it looked as if it belonged to a bloated used-car sale instead of the world's largest circus. "And for how much longer can you live like this?" I asked.

"I suppose I can do it till I die. I do want to go to a smaller show, though, with one or two clowns, and produce again."

"Have you done that in the past?"

"Sure. I've done all sorts of things over the years. I've produced. I've done advance. I've even been in a few movies or so. I tell the boys in the Alley it's important to move around a lot. If not, you'll get stale. The worst thing you can do is be on the same show all your life. h.e.l.l, I myself have been on Carson & Barnes, as well as Hoxie Tucker. I put in a lot of years at Great American. But still, I think I like this show the best."

"Why's that?"

"I can get away with murder."

I laughed. "What does that mean?"

"It means exactly what I say." He didn't seem to be laughing with me. "I always say, you haven't lived until you've spent a week in jail."

"And you've spent a week in jail?"

"Oh, sure. I've spent more than that. It's not until you've lived in jail that you know what you can do without. Oh, you can run, you can escape a few times, but sooner or later they're going to catch up with you."

"Who's they?"

"The police. The customers. The parents."

"The parents?"

He pulled his van in front of Clown Alley and turned off the engine. "I'm afraid that's all I can say," he insisted. He stepped out of the van and slammed the door behind him, speaking to me through the half-open window. "I'll just have to leave a little mystery in the air." He turned and lumbered away, leaving the door rattling in its sockets and me sitting in the dark.

"You want to know what I really think of these clowns? They don't put one penny of what they earn back into their art. I don't know where the money goes, because they sure get enough of it. Their costumes look like they came from the Salvation Army. Their makeup looks like it came from the Clown College a.s.sembly line. And above all they don't look clean. In my day every clown was required to have at least one white costume. These guys don't know white from their a.s.s. They're dirtier than the workingmen, and that's pretty dirty."

Jimmy James was angry. Earlier in the day, during the 4:30 show in York, chaos had struck the firehouse gag. Joe couldn't find the ax for the knockoff head. Brian fell on the first hop over the jump rope. Marty couldn't get the fire going for the blowoff. And worst of all, Henry ran into Rob during the run-around and chipped off the bottom half of his two front teeth. Back in the Alley, Henry threw his helmet on the ground, examined himself in the mirror, then slammed his chair into the ground. Moments later Jimmy came storming into the Alley. It was his first appearance all year.

"Where is the fire?!" he demanded. "This gag is nothing without the fire. I want to see the funnel." He examined the funnel that Marty was using to blow the lycopodium into the air. "It's a wonder you don't burn yourself," he fumed. "Go to the store. Buy a tea strainer. Pour the powder into the strainer, then blow once into the lighter. A small flame comes up and the girl rubs her a.s.s real hard. Then blow again, harder. She lets out a big f.a.ggot scream. There's no need to pour powder into the funnel every time you blow. Then there should be a big bang, a big flame, and the girl should jump with her feet in the air like in a cartoon and land in the net. Nothing beats fire, friends. And nothing beats a girl dropping her pants. You boys are relying on slapstick and knocking each other's brains out for laughs. Sight comedy," he boomed. "Simple gags that everyone can understand. That's the way you ought to work." He threw his hands into the air like a trained actor making his grand farewell and marched out of the Alley. Once outside he turned quickly back toward Henry. "Get those teeth capped and send the show the bill."

After the show, he came into the cookhouse. "Let's see what culinary arts Pops has prepared for us this evening," he said. Inside the sagging, sievelike tent, Arpeggio had spread his broccoli and cheese on a piece of white bread with margarine. Pops, the grizzled former Marine turned grease gourmand, had actually run out of cheese and subst.i.tuted Nabisco Cheez-Its. It was broccoli and Cheez-Its for the boys. Jimmy spooned out his serving into a trash can. "But, Jimmy," Arpeggio protested. "Those are vegetables. They're good for you." "I'm on a diet," he said. The previous night, during a rare rehearsal to tinker with the finale, he had announced that he had lost some weight. "Your ringmaster, your fat ringmaster, has lost twenty pounds since the season started." The cast applauded. Later he confessed he had actually lost twenty pounds since January. In the circus Barnum's humbug does not stop with the show.

"We'd like to see a dessert list when you have a chance," Arpeggio said to Pops, who stared back at him, baffled.

"And how about a gla.s.s of your house wine?" Jimmy added.

Pops wandered off shaking his head. Jimmy sat down across from me.

"I hate yelling at the boys," he said. "But I have no choice. Sometimes they don't have the proper respect for tradition. For most of them it's just a lark. But for me it's something else..." Jimmy quietly poured salt on his soggy corned beef, the only thing left on his plate except for vanilla pudding from a can. He was dressed as he always was between shows, in black formal trousers, ankle-high boots, and an open-necked white dress shirt. On the pocket of his black waistcoat was a barely detectable clip-on pin displaying a pink triangle. "My friends at home think it's glamorous. If only they knew that for years I lived in a two-by-two room and poured buckets of water over my head for a shower. Like many people, I came here to get away, you see. From the witch-hunts of the 1950s. If I had it to do all over again I probably would have stayed in school. But I was never a good student. In high school I had so many other things on my mind I could never concentrate on my studies. I got C's as a result. And by then it had started to ooze out."

Jimmy ate a spoonful of corned beef and winced at the taste. He took a sip of Kool-Aid to wash down the food.

"For me it was an escape. n.o.body here asks any questions. Look at Buck. Look at me. You haven't learned many of the secrets yet, but you will. You'll learn about the animals, the workers. h.e.l.l, a few years ago a clown was raped by the elephant department on another show. He came to work on Clyde Beatty but was never the same. I'm afraid to say it, but most people here are running from something. There's mystery everywhere. Just look at the people around us. My mother would turn over in her grave if she saw the people I eat with every night. She used to always say, 'James is away at school.' My father used to say he could introduce me to someone, which was his way of trying to get me into industry. But I stayed."

"I bet they'd be proud of you today," I said. "You still have something, something from the outside..."

He looked at me primly. "Cla.s.s." His back was straight. His hair was neatly trimmed. Earlier that day I watched him get out of his pickup truck carrying pies to the office. I noticed that his hair was shorter, straighter, and, well, darker. "What are you looking at?" he said. "I'm admiring your haircut." "You mean my dip job. I got up this morning, looked in the mirror, and said, 'Jimmy, you look like a dead Communist leader,' so I went into town and got my hair dyed." Within a week it had begun to gray again.

"I was raised in a proper Southern home," Jimmy continued. "I'm sure you know what that means. I was taught to say 'Yes, ma'am' and 'No, sir.' To this day I still feel that manners are appropriate. It's because I was raised an Episcopalian. We were taught there was a place in h.e.l.l for anyone who eats their dessert with a salad fork. And of course we had a servant. Lulu was her name. I loved Lulu. I went to her funeral and tears streamed down my face. She bathed me, rubbed my back, even touched my privates. After all these years, I have never used that word." He gestured at the black men sitting at the table across the tent. "We were always taught they were colored men and women. And I still believe a person is nothing without compa.s.sion."

After thirty years on the road, I mentioned, he still seemed to be, at heart, the same person he was when he left home.

"I sure hope so," he said. "I love the South. I love my hometown. I can't stand all these Northerners, these New England roads. I'm still my mama's boy. At heart I'm still Agnes's child." He became silent and pushed away his tray. After a moment he looked up at me. "Bruce, have you lost your mother?"


"Prepare for it, son. It's the most difficult thing that has ever happened to me. I've lost my friends. I've lost my religion. But nothing was like losing my mother. We did everything together. We played games. We saw shows. She was my best pal." We got up to clean our trays. "My father died when he was in his late fifties. He was a chain smoker. My mother died when she was in her early sixties. Heart disease." We dumped the leftover food in the garbage and dropped our trays into the dirty metal tubs.

"I've got it as well," Jimmy said, "a serious case of heart disease. That's why I'm so pa.s.sionate about this show. Did you know that my paycheck hasn't gone up in ten years? They even stopped giving me contracts several years ago. I was upset about that. I used to get fifty bucks by selling them to circus fans." Out of his modest weekly salary Jimmy had to pay health insurance, mortgage insurance, and the insurance on his truck and trailer. "As it is, I'm already cutting into what I have set aside for later."

"Why's that?" I asked.

"Because they don't pay me enough money."

"Then why don't you leave?"

He smiled and lifted his hand in the air as if he were about to start the show. His tone was wistful, almost ironic. "Because I can't.... And that's the circus, my friend. Don't get me wrong. I love the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. I wouldn't care who owned it, a corporate sponsor, Mr. Pugh and Mr. Holwadel, the state of Florida. I love this show. But the fact is, it takes your life away. Sometimes the circus is a ball and chain around your legs."

In the distance three whistles blew, indicating ten minutes before the start of the evening show. Jimmy blew three whistles in return, indicating he was on his way. Without speaking we both stepped back from our conversation and moved in the direction of our separate worlds: he to the big top, I to Clown Alley. And in that movement was the essence of the circus. Stop talking, stop thinking, stop trying to put it into words and get back to the show before it goes on without you.

Back in the Alley there was an envelope on my trunk. It was addressed to Ruff Draft, my official clown nickname given to me by the band. My other nicknames included Bruno, Rewrite, and, from one of the butchers, Hemingway. Inside was a card showing a duck on the front with his arms outstretched. CONGRATULATIONS! it said. YOU DID IT! Inside was the message:...NOW AREN'T YOU GLAD YOU TOOK A QUACK AT IT?! Below the printing was a handwritten message: "Happy 1st of May on the 1st of May." It was signed: "Li'l Buck."

Give the Bear a Dog If there isn't an old circus saying that after a while an animal trainer begins to look like his animal, then there ought to be. After Venko Lilov there probably will.

As soon as the allegedly Russian swingers go sprinting from the rings, the lights go dim, the ba.s.s drum thumps proud, and the spotlights come up on the back door of the tent, where a dour, doughy wrestling hunk of man swathed in an alarmingly bright yellow tuxedo is leading behind him a burly dragoon of actual Russian bears. Hardly Mexican wolves in sheep's clothing, these bears are the genuine face-slashing article. Venko's wife, Inna, who walks next to her husband in a lavishly low-cut yellow evening dress and well-styled burgundy hair, has a forty-st.i.tch scar and a recrafted face to a.s.sign to the wrath of her love.

"In the center ring, the children's favorite, those lovable Russian bears, presented by the Lilov family..."

Arriving in the center ring with his bears, the forty-six-year-old Venko looks like an overgrown stuffed bear himself, like a kid with a black eye and broken nose who had been plucked from outside the princ.i.p.al's office, stuffed into an ill-fitting rhinestone jacket, and thrust onto the stage as Papa Bear in an elementary school production of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." Next to him, his wife looks like a luxurious Mama Bear with fingers slenderly stretched in the air, toes gracefully pointed toward the ground, and face shyly adorned with the beatific smile of an aging Bolshoi star. Between them, the person who leads the first bear into the ring is Danny, their fifteen-year-old stick-figured Baby Bear of a son who despite a hint of adolescent fur on his upper lip looks more like a chess prodigy than a wrestler. Earlier in the year he had earned the indelible nickname Danny Busch after drinking his first can of beer one night and walking stone drunk into the side of the tent. The Lilovs' rather grim appearance may not be Hollywood in style, but their personal story is certainly fairy tale in scope.

"When you live in a Communist system," Venko explained, "any way out is a miracle. Kenneth Feld was our miracle maker."

Venko Lilov was born in Sofia, Bulgaria. Because of his prodigious size, he was selected as a child for special athletic training schools, eventually rising to become three-time heavyweight wrestling champion of the country. Championships, however, did not guarantee him freedom, and one day at the height of his career a friend suggested he try out as a catcher for a famed teeterboard troupe that was leaving for the West. "I went to the practice like it was a joke," he remembered. "Two weeks later I was in America." Overnight he knew that's where he wanted to be. Returning home two years later, Venko married Inna, a Russian wirewalker born in Tbilisi, and the two of them set out to develop an act. Starting with two Russian bears her father had presented to them as a gift, they went to work. In no time they had a family, an act, and a way out. They also had an enemy. "It was a nightmare," Venko said in his beefy Slavic accent. "The director was f.u.c.ked up. For some reason he hated us. I had an offer to go to Italy. He said, 'No, you go to Czechoslovakia.' I had a contract to go to France. He said, 'No, you go to Russia.' He didn't want us to get out. This lasted nine years."

Until one day Kenneth Feld appeared. "He came to the office and said, 'I want that act.' He was the producer of Ringling Brothers. He saw our pictures and wanted us on his show. It was that simple. We got hired by photographs. The director didn't dare turn him down."

"So why did he pick you?"

"Because we were different. Our act was based on sports-rings, hurdles, parallel bars. No bears in dresses. No waltzing in the ring. One month later we flew from Sofia to Paris, from Paris to New York, and from New York to Sarasota. The bears went to sleep in Bulgaria and woke up the next morning in Florida. They never knew the difference. I did."

In America the Lilovs once again began to build a new life, though at the time they were making little money. Kenneth Feld paid the Bulgarian government, and the government in turn paid them-$105 a week. Undaunted, they began to breed their bears and cultivate a stable of well-trained animals. Within six years they had developed enough of a reputation and saved enough money to break away. They left Ringling Brothers and moved to Mexico. This proved to be a near-fatal mistake. Once they left the United States, the bottom fell out of their dream-their banks recalled their notes, their working visas ended, and they were stranded with five bears, two loans, and no resources. It was at this point that Douglas Holwadel stepped into their lives. Having promised them a contract, he guaranteed their notes and arranged for working papers. The next year Venko Lilov's Performing Bears would find a home on the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus.

After the first trick, in which Jackie, a two-hundred-pound toddler, jumps over track-and-field hurdles, Venko leads his bears through several displays of gymnastic skill-turning somersaults, jumping rope, balancing on the parallel bars. This series climaxes when Venko unhooks his prized patriarch, Dobush, an eight-hundred-pound, sixteen-year-old behemoth of a bear, and leads him to a set of gymnastic rings suspended from a bar. Dobush lumbers slowly to the front of the apparatus, places his paws tentatively on the rings, and with a gentle kick with his legs leaps up onto his forearms and performs a towering handstand two feet above the ground. The trick elicits gasps of approval.

"A good trick has to be close to the people. Something they can relate to," Venko told me. Unlike the Rodrguezes or the Bales, Venko had originally been unfriendly toward me. He was hostile toward outsiders, and, even though I mostly stayed clear of him at first, he actively sought me out around the lot to deliver a series of dire admonitions. "I'm warning you, man," he liked to say, "these people will kill you once your book is published." About two months into the season he finally confronted me directly one night on my way back to my trailer. How could I write a book about the circus business, he wanted to know, when I was only traveling with one show? I'm not writing about the business in general, I told him, but about this show in particular. Well then, how could I write about this show at all when I didn't know anything about animals? That's why I'm interviewing performers, I told him, because I didn't know anything about the acts. Interviewing? he said. I didn't know you were doing that. And with that he offered me a beer.

"For the last few years I've been working on a new comedy car," he went on to explain in that first of many late-night drinking sessions. "In the act the car breaks down and the bear and I try to fix it. When the bear sticks his head under the hood and pulls out the radiator, the people will go crazy. Why? Because everybody in that audience-at least the adults-has a driver's license. They've been d.i.c.ked around by service people. They will think it's funny."

"And does the bear think it's funny?"

"Are you crazy? She doesn't know it's funny, She does it for the cookie. She wants the reward. Now she likes it, of course. You can't make a bear do something it doesn't want to do. But all these animal rights people who say we force the bears to do the tricks, they don't know what they're talking about. They say that we teach the bears to jump rope by using a heat pad. That's crazy, my friend."

"So how did you teach them to jump rope?"

"The bears, they were young. I had some bread one day and I was waiting to feed them. Jackie jumped up to get the bread. I ran and got another piece of bread and she jumped up again. The next day I got a rope. She jumped up to get the bread, I gave her the bread and pulled the rope underneath her. And that's it. Once I have the trick I don't practice it anymore. I wait a couple of days, maybe a week or two, and let her remember what she did. Then I go back and do it again and she's learned the trick. I don't teach them the tricks, you see, they teach me."

"And they do all of this for a cookie?" I asked.

"All for a cookie. Just like the ones you buy in the store. Gingersnaps, sugar cookies. We can't use raisins or chocolate chips because they get stuck in their teeth."

"So why don't they ask for more?" I said. "When I was a child and got rewards for doing something I would ask for more the next time. Will they do the same trick for the rest of their lives all for the same reward?"

"Bruce," Venko said. "You sure are a dumb f.u.c.k, aren't you? Use your head. You have to think about what you're doing in order to get a higher reward. You have to think, 'Today I get five dollars; tomorrow I'll ask for ten.' The bear doesn't think that way. For him it's all a reflex."

"If that's the case, then why are so many people upset about having trained animals in the circus?"

"Because we have them on leashes. Because they wear muzzles. Of course, the people don't realize that the bears can walk without the leashes, they can work without muzzles. It's all for safety."

"So why don't you just explain what you're doing?"

"You can't rationalize with the public. People are f.u.c.king stupid, my friend. You just don't understand. They come up to me every day and say things like 'Wow, man. Where did you get those monkeys?' Just this morning I was opening the cages to feed the bears and a woman behind me called, 'Excuse me. Excuse me, sir!' I ignored her but she kept on calling, 'Sir, sir. Can I ask you a few questions?' She wouldn't shut up, so finally I turned to her and said, 'Lady, don't you have a f.u.c.king brain in your head? What are you thinking? I have an eight-hundred-pound bear in my hands and if I turn around and talk to you he just might decide to eat me.' She pressed her lips together and shot me a bird."

"Does this only happen in America?" I wondered. "Or all over?"

"It's worse in America," he said. "Also, it's worse now than it's ever been. You just watch, it's bound to explode."


The chant was faint yet clear as it wafted up from the parking lot of the Apple Blossom Mall in Winchester, Virginia, a little after three o'clock in the afternoon. The show had arrived the night before in the pedigree-perfect pink-and-green town just across the West Virginia border from famed Harpers Ferry, and for the first time all year a small group of protesters showed up on the lot to picket against the show's alleged violation of animal rights. One of the women wore a polyester tiger costume. Another carried a cardboard sign that said: "MAKE THIS YOUR LAST CIRCUS." A man was dressed in a saggy pom-pom clown costume with runny makeup on his cheeks that already raised my territorial ire: Don't you know how to powder? I thought.

The first person to notice them was Sheri from concessions. She came climbing over the hot-dog counter and screamed at the protesters to get off the property. The second to arrive was Dave Hoover, the former tiger trainer turned "chief safety officer." He waved his soggy cigar in their faces and threatened to have them arrested. Doug was much calmer when he appeared. "You are welcome to picket," he said. "But this is private property and you are not allowed here." They quietly moved toward the parking entrance.

"This isn't private property," I said to Doug after they had left. "Do you have the right to ask them to leave?"

"No," he said. "I just bulls.h.i.t a little."

Several minutes later I walked toward the parking area to speak with the protesters. When I arrived they were discussing the best place to stand. Jimmy told me that in one town the picketers stood at the stoplight and directed people to circus parking "just up the way," which actually led them out of town. This group was less destructive, but equally adamant. They were from PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and had driven in fifty miles from Washington, D.C. A reporter had told me earlier that they had sent a press release to the local newspaper announcing their picket. As they were setting into a location, several children stopped in front of the man in the clown costume with his polyester orange wig and said, "Look, a clown!" The man frowned. I grimaced. The children walked away. In the meantime his partner handed me a pamphlet. CRUELTY IS NOT ENTERTAINMENT, it said over a photograph of an elephant in shackles. "Although some children dream of running away to join the circus, it is likely that most animals forced to perform in circuses dream of escaping them."

After glancing at the pamphlet, I asked the woman whether she had seen the show. She said she had not. Had she spoken with any of the animal trainers on the show to see how they care for the animals? I said. Again, she said no. Did she picket all circuses, I wondered, or only this one? She said they picketed all places where animals are cruelly treated. As we were speaking, Doug appeared at the edge of the lot and looked at me with harsh, disciplinary eyes. He gestured for me to follow him. "I'm only speaking with them," I said when we met at the top of the stairs. "There's no harm in that, is there?"

"Just don't pay any attention to them," he said. His voice wasn't angry, only firm. "The people on the lot get all excited. The best thing to do is ignore them. They're all vegetarians and don't respond to reason."

We nodded goodbye and I returned to my camper.

Back at home I continued reading the pamphlet. NO FUN FOR THE ANIMALS, it said across the top. "Colorful pageantry disguises the fact that animals used in circuses are mere captives forced to perform unnatural and often painful acts. Circuses would quickly lose their appeal if the details of the animals' treatment, confinement and training became widely known." To support this claim the pamphlet listed five alleged abuses.

1. Animals are forced to travel thousands of miles with the show for 48-50 weeks every year. Although the length of our season was only thirty-four weeks, the fact of the travel was accurate. 2. Tigers live and are transported in cages only 4? 5? 6?-barely enough room to turn around in. This statement was also essentially true (even though the cages were slightly larger), but it failed to mention that the size met USDA regulations. 3. Animals perform unnatural acts like balancing on one foot and jumping through flaming hoops only under threat of punishment. While the animals on our show did perform some unnatural acts, most of what they did were natural behaviors, and in any case they didn't do them under the threat of punishment, but in the promise of a reward. 4. Elephants are chained in filthy railroad cars which are often left in the sun in 90 to 100 degree weather. Our show did not have railroad cars, and the animals were never left in the truck on hot days but kept under canopies. 5. Elephants are beaten across the eyes, on their trunks and on the backs of their legs with "bull books" and whips. Elephants on our show were not beaten across the eyes, and in my experience were not beaten at all, although they were prodded and slapped frequently in the other places mentioned.

All in all, I was left with the feeling that the pamphlet was overstating its case and was ultimately not very convincing. This came as no surprise. After several months on the show I had gleaned enough about the animal rights movement to realize there were two camps: first, a moderate camp that doesn't mind animals in circuses as long as they are well treated; and second, a more radical camp that doesn't approve of animals in entertainment at all. The picketers from PETA belonged to the latter group. After observing them in Winchester, as well as two dozen locations around New England, I was left with the distinct impression that they were more interested in stirring up controversy than in engaging in a dialogue with the circus to address their concerns. While their lobbying in Washington has at times been extremely effective, their gra.s.s-roots efforts around the show were ineffective at best and often laughable. In Ithaca, a group of PETA protesters appeared on a nearby bridge during a heat wave to claim that it was too hot for the elephants (who are from Southeast Asia, after all) to work. After twenty minutes the protesters themselves got so hot they gave up and went home.

As for the circus, its treatment of the animal rights issue seemed just as bad. While the circus has many points in its favor-many Americans clearly like seeing animals perform; circus animals often exercise more and live longer than their counterparts in zoos; circus animals, by and large, are in fact well treated-circus people have generally ceded the platform to the protesters. Instead of reaching out to moderate groups and inviting them to inspect the animals (as the USDA does several times a year), circus owners and animal trainers alike have treated all concerned people as irrational rabble-rousers and refused to engage them in any reasonable discussions. As a result, public sentiment is slowly but steadily moving in the direction of keeping animals out of circuses altogether. It was a widespread a.s.sumption around the lot, for example, that if the show itself survived for another ten years the number of animal acts would be severely curtailed if not eliminated entirely.

In Winchester, meanwhile, the first arrival of the protesters prompted all sorts of agitation on the lot. Khris Allen, who after all called himself a "cat ch.o.r.eographer," was the least ruffled of the trainers. "I actually consider myself more of an animal rights activist than most," he said. "I'm actually doing something for these animals. If any protester wants to see how we care for our tigers, I have a standing offer that they can travel with us for a week. We'll even pay their way. But they don't even come and talk with us. They'd rather stand in front and picket."

Dawnita Bale, whose father was a cat trainer and who with the aid of her sisters cared for and presented the horses, was less sympathetic. "These protesters have nothing to say to me," she insisted. "These horses are my livelihood. Why would I want to mistreat them? Sure, there are some bad trainers. There's one bad apple in every bunch. But I make sacrifices in my life to make their lives better. And what bothers me is the unprofessional att.i.tude of these protesters. Why don't they get current information? Their pamphlet is the same one they've handed out for six years. They've got a picture of one of Gunther's elephants and some outdated information. Remember, these are people who wear leather shoes. They eat at McDonald's. They wear perfume, which, after all, is tested on animals. Why don't they do something about the cat and dog populations in their own hometowns? That is a problem they can have an impact on, not circuses."