Under the Big Top: My Season With the Circus - Part 9

Part 9

"Do you have any ice?"

"A few cubes, I think." I sat down in my chair.

"Wait right here."

Jimmy disappeared and returned moments later with a bag of ice and a tube of Betadine.

"First of all, get your makeup off," he said. "You're not going to perform tonight. Then put some ointment and this ice on your cut and get yourself to a doctor as soon as you can. I've got to go back and announce the second show. Do you think you'll be all right?"

I a.s.sured him that I would be fine. After he left I carefully removed my remaining clown face, unplugged my camper from the generator, and just as the whistle blew for the start of the second show wobbled slowly off the lot and away from the tent.

"So, you're a clown?" the doctor said to me as she entered the emergency room a little over an hour later. The ice pack was still on my face. Clown white was still behind my ears. I felt like a boy left behind in summer camp after the rest of my cabin had gone fishing.

"Yes," I confirmed. "I'm a clown."

"Well, then, make me laugh," she said.

Why do so many people ask this question of clowns? I thought. Everywhere I went people asked for a free performance. If you want to be made to laugh, I felt like saying, come pay to see a show. She certainly wasn't offering me free medical care.

My look managed to get the message across, and the doctor turned her attention to my face. After a brief examination she announced that I was at risk of developing an infection and if I didn't take care of my wound it might require plastic surgery. Plastic surgery? I gulped. For a cut? Maybe I should have made her laugh. Yet she a.s.sured me that surgery wouldn't be necessary if I followed her advice. "First," she said, "I want you to go home and stand in the shower for thirty minutes and use this sponge to clean out your cut..." Now I truly had to laugh. If only she knew that I didn't have thirty minutes' worth of water in my Winnebago. "Next," she continued, "let the shower water run over your face twice a day for the next three days. Water is the best cleansing agent." Again I had to smile. The water that came out of my showerhead was hardly a good agent for cleansing anything. "Finally," she said, "no makeup for a week."

That would be the hardest of all.

"Were you fired?" Guillaume wondered when he saw me out of costume near the end of the second show. Everyone was surprised when I told them about the accident. They hadn't seen it and, in the intervening two hours, hadn't heard about it either. I was shocked. "You mean to tell me that, with all the worthless gossip that goes around this lot, when somebody actually gets injured n.o.body talks about it?" The performers know whom their neighbors are fighting with, flirting with, even fornicating with, but, it turns out, they know very little about what those neighbors are doing in the ring.

This seems only fitting. The American circus, I was beginning to realize, has developed its own standards of behavior unrelated to the larger world it inhabits. With these rhythms, of course, comes a code, a kind of artificial religion. In this religion the show itself is G.o.d. It's unjudgmental, yet unforgiving. It rewards perseverance, yet accepts no excuses. Under its tent it expects allegiance, while outside its walls it doesn't care. After four months I was just starting to appreciate the true dimensions of this world. Inside the ring I must act like a priest and spread the gospel of the circus, but after the show I could do as I pleased. On the surface this formula seemed simple enough. But as the show headed for New York City and the long sprint for home, I was unprepared for the wave of disenchantment that gripped our fold and the challenge that this would place on my ability to believe in the goodness of our cause. The season was far from over.

"Welcome to the beginning of the end," Dawnita said a week later as I was preparing my camper for the drive from northern New Jersey into Queens.

"Any advice before leaving?" I asked.

"Yes," she said. "Don't go."

Chuckling through my trepidation, I hopped in the driver's seat of my Winnebago and headed alone for the George Washington Bridge.

Intermission The Color of Popcorn With the houselights illuminated for intermission the tent begins to stir. The clowns come pouring into the center ring to sign autographs; two elephants come plodding into ring one to give rides; and a dozen butchers come wandering down the track. The show is in recess, but the business marches on.

"Ladies and gentlemen, there will now be a precise fifteen-minute intermission..., with elephant rides in ring one-elephant rides for the entire family: you must purchase a ticket before boarding the pachyderm...concessionaires selling hot dogs, hot b.u.t.tered popcorn, ice-cold Coca-Cola, peanuts, Cracker Jack, cotton candy, and delicious cherry Sno-Kones...plus-Mom, Dad, bring your camera, come right down to the center ring, and meet the clowns in an autograph party: don't forget to purchase the all-new Clown Alley coloring book..."

The business makes quite a show.

As the circus inched its way back down the East Coast from New England toward its inevitable date with New York, it also moved steadily toward another important date: the change of leadership from Doug to Johnny. By early July, Johnny's back had recuperated and he was preparing to rejoin the show. Before that could happen, Doug would have to chaperon the show's twenty-seven trucks, thirty-five trailers, and two hundred employees to the door of the Big Apple. To date it had been an uneven ride.

When John W. Pugh and E. Douglas Holwadel first became partners in 1982, the two of them could not have been more different. Johnny, a boxy boater type at home on the high seas, was short and pugnacious, an English bulldog with a lovable face and occasionally vicious bite who was raised on the wilds of a circus back lot. He always smiled and never wore a tie. Doug, a self-proclaimed "dyed-in-the-wool Bob Taft Republican from Cincinnati, Ohio," was tall and aloof, a Great Dane with an imperial mien and imposing strut who could roam golf courses and country clubs with ease but did not enjoy getting mud on his shoes. He never smiled and always wore a tie. He also understood money.

"As a kid in the 1930s I went to see the circus when it came to Ohio," Doug recalled, "but unlike my friends, I wasn't interested in the high wire or the flying trapeze, I was fascinated by the movement of the thing. Once my uncle took me to see them unload the railroad cars and I was hooked. From then on I became infatuated with the logistics-railroad cars, setups, tear-downs, things like that. Later that grew into a love of marketing."

And what a marketer he became. When the two novice owners bought the circus, their princ.i.p.al step after redesigning the show was to rethink the marketing plan. Together they developed a new way for the circus to approach each town, a process they later termed the "true circus parade." The first person in the parade is the booker, who, months or even years before the season, scopes out potential lots in a town and books the circus into a location. Terms are agreed on-usually the show pays about $500 to $1,000 a day-but no money is transferred. In many towns, the circus will then seek out a sponsor, a Rotary Club or high school band, which will agree to get all the necessary permits, licenses, and security personnel in return for about a third of the take. Still, no money changes hands.

Next, two months before the show arrives, a media buyer visits the town to book television, radio, and newspaper advertising. He is followed by a marketing director, who actually lives in the town for up to a month, schmoozing the local media, ordering hay and feed, and trying to generate publicity about the show. Some of the advance purchases are paid for with IOUs, far more are bartered for with complimentary tickets. Thus, if the front end has done its job, by the time the red arrows leading to the lot are posted and the stake line is laid out, the circus has generated thousands of advance sales but still not spent any money. The actual cash doesn't arrive until the show does. When that happens lots of people smell it out.

A century ago, whenever a circus arrived in a town the sheriff would remove the central nut from one of the wheels of the show's main wagon to make sure the circus couldn't leave town until its bills were paid. Ever since, the term "making the nut" on a circus lot has implied taking in enough money to cover expenses. On our show the nut was around $25,000 a day (roughly $6 million in yearly operating expenses divided by 240 show days). That meant the show had to sell enough six-and nine-dollar tickets as well as enough one-, two-, or four-dollar concessions to earn $25,000 every day-rain or shine, ice or heat. The expenses were relentless. There was a $50,000-a-week payroll, a $3,000-a-week fuel bill, and a $500 added charge every time the circus played a mall in order to pay a local contractor to visit the parking lot after we left and fill in all 476 stake holes left behind by the tent. In addition, every week the show bought an average of three hundred pork chops, eighty pounds of ham, sixty pounds of sausage, ninety dozen eggs, thirty gallons of milk, and fifty pounds of coffee, not to mention five hundred pounds of oats, seven tons of hay, and a quarter ton of sweet feed.

Of course, there were all sorts of unexpected costs as well. A weigh station outside Burke, Virginia, for example, cost the show a small fortune. Three trucks-the horses, bears, and cookhouse-each received fines of $260 for not keeping their logbooks up to date. The cookhouse was fined an additional $1,000 for having a pa.s.senger in the cab with an open beer can in his hand.

All of this money-for food, fines, and weekly salaries-was paid out in cash. Some local vendors felt so uncomfortable receiving their fees in cash that they came to pick up their payments with armed guards in tow. I could understand their apprehension. Never in my life had I seen so much money. During a good engagement the show could take in close to $100,000. At certain times of the year there was probably close to a quarter of a million dollars locked in the safe in the office truck, stuffed under mattresses in performers' trailers, and tucked under Q-tip boxes in the clowns' trunks. All cash. Much of it in small bills. Most of it untraceable. Since many of the people on the lot were often broke, or had very limited resources, just the knowledge that all this money was floating around prompted some pretty sordid behavior. The money was like an unspoken curse tempting people to misbehave.

Those who lacked it were desperate to get it. Workers, for example, regularly hounded performers for money. One went so far as to steal money from one of the clowns while we were doing the firehouse gag. Another, more innovative, purchased a metal detector and staked out dibs to be the first person to search under the seats after each performance. Those who had it, meanwhile, were desperate to stretch it. One senior staff member, realizing the need workers had for cash, offered to pay an advance to every worker on the Wednesday before payday. He would give them seventy-five cents for every dollar of their paycheck, then claim the full dollar for himself from their salaries five days later. In the Middle Ages, this noncompounded annual interest rate of 1,300 percent would probably have made usury the eighth deadly sin.

Still, one of the things that amazed me most about the circus was how these workers-who by the time they took their draws might make only fifty dollars a week-could live in complete harmony within inches of the show's owners-who in a good year could split nearly a million dollars in profit. In stationary America, fences, guardhouses, zoning laws, and approval boards usually make sure there's a greater distance between the haves and the have-nots. Without these barriers, the owners were almost compelled to be generous with their money, if for no other reason than to preserve the loyalty of their workers and the safety of their possessions. In the first half of the year alone Doug personally loaned out close to $25,000 to various people on the show, including $12,000 for Mich.e.l.le and Angel Quiros to buy a new truck when the one they had purchased from a Pentecostal friend in Florida broke down during its second month on the road. The couple was teary-eyed with grat.i.tude. "No other owner in the world would do that," they sobbed. "Anyone else would have fired us on the spot."

For all the equilibrium on the lot, however, and for all the profits the show was making in the first half of the year ($153,000 in April alone, twice as much as the year before in the midst of a recession), Doug could still rarely manage a smile. First he had the problem of dispersing all that cash. Most banks will not accept large deposits of cash from out-of-towners, he noted, because they have to report every transaction involving over $10,000. The process became even trickier in the early 1980s, he said, when Florida banks were accused of laundering money from drug dealers. Even today Doug and Johnny receive an average of one or two calls a year from people seeking to launder money. Instead, they take the equally risky approach of driving long distances with hundreds of thousands of dollars in small bills. Like political correctness, gender equality, and racial tolerance, the much-heralded cashless society has yet to reach the circus.

The second and much more serious problem Doug faced was the skyrocketing cost of protecting the show. In 1983 the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus paid a total of $80,000 for insurance. Ten years later that figure had ballooned to just under half a million-over $200,000 for trucks and general liability, and an equal amount for workers' compensation. In the weeks leading up to his leaving the show, Doug spent much of his time trying to renegotiate these rates. The show had produced only $50,000 in claims in recent years, he argued, surely his rates were exorbitant. Safety was up, he a.s.serted, risks were down. By late May he thought he had a breakthrough when suddenly the show was battered by a series of mishaps-Danny fell from the swing, Henry chipped his teeth, Big Pablo was told he needed knee surgery-followed by a series of freak accidents-man killed by an elephant, woman slashed by a bear, worker drowned in a pond. "We are not liable for these incidents with the animals," Doug said, "especially the one in Fishkill. But when you bring ten elephants into a small town you make a pretty big target."

By early July, when Doug was ready to leave, business was up, but morale was down. The show was ready for its old captain at the helm. On the morning of July 4, Doug hopped into his maroon Cadillac with the EDH plates and headed south down I-95. The same day Johnny arrived in his matching white Cadillac with BIG TOP on the plate. The show breathed a collective sigh of relief. Little did anyone realize, however, that within a week the show would have its first genuine financial crisis of the year.

KEEP OUT THE CLOWNS, blared the headline in Newsday on Thursday, July 15. ISLIP BARS CIRCUS, CITING COMPLAINTS.

The news from Long Island stunned the show. In the nine-month season of the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus the seven weeks the show spent in New York were considered the highlight of the season, a core stretch of dates when business was usually good enough and the crowds generally enthusiastic enough to make up for the grit and grind of the City. The New York engagement was also the pearl of Doug and Johnny's revived marketing strategy. The circus didn't merely play New York City, it played the City's parks. The invitation came about after years of intensive lobbying of the Parks and Recreation Department. As soon as a creative profit-sharing agreement was reached, the show moved first to Forest Park, then to Shea Stadium, Staten Island, and the Bronx, and finally this year into Marine Park in Brooklyn, a gra.s.sy lot off Flatbush Avenue not far from Coney Island. Business overflowed in most of these areas, but the red tape was nearly overwhelming.

In most towns along the route the show would pay around fifty dollars for a building permit and maybe twenty-five dollars for a health inspection. Police and fire departments were usually willing to provide complimentary protection just so their members could stand in the wings and watch the show for free. In New York nothing was free. In fact, the circus was forced to pay more than $2,000 a lot in surcharges: $200 for building permits; $100 for food handlers' permits; $250 for fire guard licenses; and $1,500 for fire permits covering the tent, the welding machines, the generators, the truck repair shop, and the two carbonic drink dispensers. To make sure these rules were followed, an inspector sat in the front of every show taking notes like a court stenographer. "In the past we used to resort to bribery," Johnny recalled almost fondly. "The fire inspector would come on the lot and say, 'I sure would like to bring my family to the show.' We'd give him some tickets; he'd sign the sheet and leave. These days we can't do that anymore. If they don't like that and want to cause trouble, I'll just follow them all over the tent and agree to the changes they suggest. They'll usually tire of the process and leave."

Sometimes, however, they don't. Early on in the show's stay in New York one fire marshal was so peeved that he decided to shadow the ringmaster throughout the performance. "It was awful," Jimmy recalled. "He was standing next to me and between every act he would slap me on the shoulder and say, 'Make another no-smoking announcement.' Finally, after about ten no-smoking announcements I got so sick of listening to the man that I turned to him and said, 'Go f.u.c.k yourself!' You can imagine what happened. He stormed off in a huff and went looking for one of the managers. The one he found was napping in his trailer. The fire marshal pounded on the manager's door, waking him from his sleep. 'Sir, your announcer just told me to go f.u.c.k myself.' 'Well, what do you need from me?' the manager shouted. 'Directions?!'"

Despite occasional breakdowns like this, the aboveboard bribes that the City demanded hardly hurt the circus's bottom line. As soon as we hit New York the show stopped its policy of giving out discount coupons; it added a third show on Sunday evenings (though salaries were not increased); and it raised ticket prices by a dollar. Still we couldn't keep people away. In Marine Park the community was so overjoyed that a circus would venture into its isolated neighborhood that families thronged the lot at all hours of the day and we turned back nearly a thousand people every night. All fears that New Yorkers would be hostile and cynical were, for the moment, laid to rest. In fact, several days after we left the City the following letter appeared in the Daily News: CAN'T (BIG) TOP THIS Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages, I witnessed a miracle in Brooklyn! I saw families sitting together, laughing, having good clean fun-no violence, no nudity, no dirty language. Where was this rare occurrence? At the circus in Marine Park. A big thank you to the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus and N.Y.C. Department of Parks and Recreation.

E. Francis The show was still savoring this unexpected bouquet when the bombsh.e.l.l arrived from Long Island.

"Where does a two-ton elephant sit?" quipped Newsday in the opening line of its article about the circus being banned. "Anywhere it wants to-except Islip." The article went on to report that the Islip Town Board had voted 4-1 to deny a permit to the circus "based on pressure from animal rights activists and a recent incident where a man was killed in a freak accident at the circus." "Animal lovers have come out of the woodwork," said the town clerk, whose office received a reported one hundred letters and thirty phone calls protesting the show's alleged cruelty to animals. Complaints included inadequate food and the use of cattle prods, the report said. Also, protesters cited the incident in Fishkill as proof that animals are potentially dangerous. "G.o.d forbid [the elephants] should break loose here," one board member was quoted as saying. "About fifteen years ago at a Republican parade here, an elephant was scared by a car that backfired. It broke loose and trampled the car." The one dissenting vote came from a member who said stories of animal abuse are "greatly exaggerated," much like the story of the Islip elephant. "Every time I hear that story the elephant gets bigger," he reportedly said.

By the time the news arrived on the lot the elephant had gotten even bigger and the impact even larger. Johnny Pugh was irate. Meltdowns this serious weren't supposed to happen on two weeks' notice, especially on Long Island. Johnny had even hired a fixer for the area, a man with widely touted connections, who was supposed to escort the show effortlessly through its three-week stay on the Island-a place with well-known political and family rivalries. Now the system had broken down. In the days after the incident was first reported the details became clearer. Johnny believed that one particular animal rights activist from Islip was behind the circus being canceled. She had been bothering the show for years, he said. This year she demanded that she be allowed to speak before zoning boards in Commack and Yaphank. In Commack she was denied because the flea market where the circus plays is zoned for circuses. In Yaphank she reportedly stood up and read for twenty-five minutes from Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories.

"Listen, I'm concerned about animal rights, too," Johnny griped. "h.e.l.l, my wife spends a lot of time running after stray cats and dogs. But this is going too far. When I was a child I used to have an original copy of Kipling with gold on the pages and a piece of tissue paper over every drawing. I wish I'd never given it away. Maybe that would show them I care."

At this stage it probably wouldn't do much good. The debate itself had already become part of the absurd theater of American political life, with each side posturing, sloganeering, and even threatening legal action over the other's head. In one corner were the protesters. "We welcome the clowns and acrobats," one mother in Islip had said in the meeting, "but please spare us and our precious children the spectacle of animal torment." In the other corner was the circus. Johnny and Doug told their lawyer to consider bringing suit against the organizers for slandering the circus, disrupting business, and generally being a nuisance. In the middle were the politicians. Worried it might have failed to give the show due process, the town of Islip began bending over backward to appease the circus. The media, of course, were all over the story. Radio stations in the area began blasting the town board, especially after they learned that proceeds from the show's three-day run were to benefit the Talented Handicapped Artists Workshop, known as THAW. Several lawyers in the area who regularly took their children to the circus went so far as to contact the show and offer to sponsor a cla.s.s-action lawsuit against the town. The circus is supposed to bring its own entertainment to town, but with b.u.mbling local officials, grandstanding lawyers, bleeding-heart protesters, and heroic handicapped artists, the cancellation of the circus brought out a far more interesting sideshow of modern American freaks and gold diggers. The publicity was priceless.

"We didn't want it to happen this way," Johnny said after he extended our stay in Staten Island for three days and then booked the same lot in Islip for the following year. "But in the end this case may bring us more good than harm. The truth is, I'd hate to see the animals disappear. Look at the audience. When they think of circuses, they think of animals. They can see acrobatics or gymnastics on television. They can see sports anywhere they want. But they have no chance to see trained animals. Even the ones at the zoo don't do anything. That's why they come to the circus, and that's what they remember when they go home. A circus without animals is just not a circus."

For all his breathless enthusiasm, Johnny knew those days might soon be over. Animal acts, like the circus itself, are being pressured out of business. Human acts, even the interesting ones, can hardly fill the void. People are much less reliable than animals...and much harder to control.

Second Half


The Star of the Show Elvis came back to life in Queens. Big Man met him at the gates. For the two loudest crooners on the show-actually whiners is more like it-the great showdown finally occurred in New York when they battled each other grunt for grunt in the only ring that isn't round. It was the brawl of the year on the blacktop lot around Shea: "Blue Suede Shoes" meets "Jailhouse Rock."

In fairness, Sean and Big Man weren't the only ones whose blood was boiling in New York. By late July we had reached that time of the season commonly referred to as "that time of the season." Johnny was mad at Jimmy for paying Sean to usher (most performers were required to do it free). Jimmy was mad at Sean for implying his contract didn't demand it. And Sean was mad at Elvin, who ultimately concluded that Sean should stop complaining and give back the money. The Rodrguezes, meanwhile, were mad at the Estradas for not letting the Quiroses borrow their tumbling mat, while the Estradas were mad at the Quiroses for not cleaning the mat when they borrowed it the first time. Everyone, of course, was mad at the clowns-for spilling water in the ring, for splashing water on the swing, and for getting so much applause without ever having to usher. "It's called the midseason blues," said Henry, the cryptic sage of Clown Alley. "You feel like you're taking these long strokes and you don't know if you're closer to the beginning or the end. Then suddenly you realize you're about to drown."

Drenched in self-pity, the show arrived in New York at the same time as the most devastating heat wave in a decade. For most of our first week-in Forest Park and the Bronx-the seats were mostly empty as the performers struggled through a liquid a.s.sault much more deadly than mud: humidity. The temperature in the rings was well over 100 degrees: near the top of the tent it was closer to 115. Mari Quiros nearly fainted while doing a split on the high wire. Her husband, Little Pablo, nearly slipped from the trapeze when the chalk on his hands turned to milk.

The clowns, once again, probably had it the worst. With the number of shows now at seventeen a week, we were required to be in makeup nearly twelve hours a day, an exercise that is best likened to soaking in a tub of congealed perspiration consomme. Grease may be repellent to water, but greasepaint is not repellent to sweat. In fact, by the time I put on my stocking, skullcap, T-shirt, dress shirt, gym shorts, trousers, socks, shoes, bow tie, jacket, gloves, and hat, just the mere act of opening my eyes brought torrents of chalky white perspiration gushing from my powdered pores. That, of course, is when the white stays on. You can always tell a clown in heat by the rash of pink flesh peeking out of his white upper lip or the beads of red moisture dripping off his vanishing nose. Naturally the worst thing for a clown is to reveal to the world his true colors.

Besides the heat, we still had to grapple with the trials of producing a circus in the middle of the Big Apple. Arriving in New York dramatically increased the level of tension on the lot. One clown started sitting out every gag to watch over the Alley, while Sheri from concessions bought a two-way walkie-talkie system to communicate with her children, whom she kept locked in her trailer during the show. Dawnita even placed a sign next to her door that said: DANGER: BEWARE OF LIVE COBRAS. While some of this anxiety may have been misguided, much of it was well founded. Driving into Manhattan via the George Washington Bridge, crossing the Bronx on a two-lane, two-story pockmarked thoroughfare, pa.s.sing into Queens over the thoroughly clogged and completely unmarked Throgs Neck Bridge, and driving down Flatbush Avenue through Little Havana, Little Haiti, and Little Sicily might be expected to produce a certain amount of stress even under ideal conditions. But imagine doing this in the middle of the night, on an empty stomach, with a child in your lap and a map on your dash, after walking on a high wire all day or playing the trombone for ten straight hours, all while driving a thirty-five-foot mobile home with a teeterboard in the kitchen, a tractor-trailer full of hungry elephants, or the world's largest cannon. Even my twenty-three-foot Winnebago, which took most of the b.u.mps in stride, responded to the relentless abuse by spewing out my paper towels in a knee-high serpentine mulch and tossing my microwave onto the floor. Anyone who dreams of running away to join a circus should take a test-drive first.

When we arrived at Shea Stadium at the end of our second week in New York, the collective tension was beginning to show. On Friday, Marcos and Danny were walking home from a movie and just missed being hit by two bullets fired at random from a pa.s.sing car. On Sat.u.r.day, Kris Kristo had a near-crisis with a woman he picked up in a bar. "We went back to her place and screwed, went for a walk, came back, and went to screw again. Only that time I couldn't get it up. But the great thing is, around here when you get cable you automatically get the p.o.r.no channel. So when I was lying on top of her and couldn't get hard, I picked up the remote control, switched to the p.o.r.no channel, jerked off, blew my load, and switched the channel back-all without her knowing it."

By Sunday afternoon the silliness and sordidness brought on by the City finally came to blows. It happened in front of Clown Alley.

Sean stepped out of the tent just before intermission of the 4:30 show. His cannon suit was unzipped to his waist and pulled down off his shoulders. His hair was freshly combed with the new winged bangs he had recently adopted. "I never used hair spray before in my life," Sean had remarked. "Now I can't get enough of the stuff." His hair spray was indeed glistening in the sun, which itself was careening off the lights in Shea Stadium, where the last-place Mets were due back for a home stand the following day.

"It started during the first show," Sean said. "I sat down next to Big Man on one of those sets of three red chairs. There was a magazine on the seat, so I put it in the chair between us. He looked at me and said, 'What the h.e.l.l did you do that for?' I said, 'Is that yours?' He said no, but looked at me real funny. He has had that att.i.tude ever since he stole those tapes in Willingboro and I told him to watch what he did."

Sean left the tent without incident. An hour later he returned.

"During the second show I sat down beside him again. Once again he looked at me real aggressive, and when I went to help lead out the horses he put his hand to his crotch and pretended to m.a.s.t.u.r.b.a.t.e. That p.i.s.sed me off. He said if that was how I felt I should just come and fight him right there. I wasn't in the mood, so I got up and left. The next thing I know he followed me outside."

As soon as Sean stepped out of the tent Big Man stalked out after him. Sean turned around and stopped in place, and for a moment the two men just stared at each other like dogs staking out territory. Shimmering waves of heat floated up from the pavement. The sun beat down on Sean's exposed back and Big Man's broad neck. A small crowd began to gather. After several tense moments Big Man began to dance, bobbing up and down like a mock prizefighter with his fists in front of his face. Sean kept his arms at his side but began to bob and weave as well. At the time it looked like simple posturing. Big Man was considerably taller and heavier, but Sean was much quicker on his feet. Perhaps sensing this, Big Man feinted several times in Sean's direction before dropping his arms and turning away. For a moment the episode appeared to be over, until Sean-unexpectedly, inexplicably-pumped his arms, lifted his fist, and swung at Big Man's head.

"Pow! I hit him right over his eye. Dropped that sucker right to the ground. He didn't even know what hit him. Then I jumped him and started hitting him, kicking him, beating his a.s.s."

As soon as Sean jumped on Big Man's back, several people jumped on his and tried to pull them apart. Charlie, the aging mechanic, was the first to arrive, but Sean pushed him away with ease and continued pounding away. As Big Man tried to crawl toward the tent, Sean clung to his back, eventually riding him underneath the sidewall and behind the seats.

"I lost my head," Sean said. "When I get scared, I get angry. It's almost like I lose my mind. Scared...angry. Scared. Angry. When that fear turns to rage there's no stopping me. So when that son of a b.i.t.c.h stood and started walking toward the tent I attacked him from behind. I started punching him in the back of the head and pushed him through the side flap. Everyone in the seat wagon was watching. Some boys in the top row were cheering me on. I even hit my hand on the pole and cut myself with my bracelet. I might have killed him if I had a few more minutes, but around then Marty came and pulled me away."

Big Man, for his part, was not so nonchalant. His job was not so secure.

"Everybody's trying to make out like it was my fault. All those Mexicans, those whites, they were telling the manager that I pushed him. I never laid a hand on him. He had been bothering me since the first show, actually since New Jersey. I finally had enough. I told him to stop. Then he punched me from behind and I fell flat on my a.s.s." By the time the fight was stopped Big Man was walking with a limp; his upper lip was swollen from a blow. His red Clyde Beatty shirt was stained with blood. "Now what am I supposed to do?" he asked. "They told me if I didn't call the police I could stay, but if I did they would fire me. They wouldn't even take me to the hospital to get st.i.tches."

"So what are you going to do?"

"I called my uncle. He's coming with all my people tonight. After that I'm going to decide."

"Why is he bringing so many people with him?"

"Why do you think? They want to see the show."

I had to smile. Here was a man who had been on the show for less than four months, who had already been fired once for shoplifting, had been to jail, had been rehired, and now had all but been fired again for getting into a fight with the Human Cannonball, and he decided not to leave the one place where he obviously wasn't wanted until his family could see the circus-not just any circus, his circus.

"And after that...?"

"After that I'll decide." His voice was hardly optimistic. "But I don't really have much choice, now do I? He's the star of the show."

That star finally crashed on Staten Island.

As he had predicted, Sean hit the pavement before the end of the year. It happened during the second show on the last Monday in July. For a full twenty-four hours after his inglorious bout Sean was walking with a little more swagger and a lot more att.i.tude. The previous night, as Sean, Danny, Kris, and I were lounging around my camper eating bagel sandwiches and drinking Yoo-Hoos, Sean was still boasting about his exploit. "I just whipped that n.i.g.g.e.r's a.s.s," he said. Hubris never knew a purer breed. The next day his sw.a.n.k got even bigger and Sean felt so invincible that he didn't bother to sew a small rip that appeared in the air bag after the first show.

"I left the barrel as normal," he said. "I saw the three dots on the air bag where I usually land, but then as soon as I hit the bag everything went into a spin. From point A-getting shot-to point B-landing-everything is usually slowed in my mind because I do it every day. Anything past that is just a blur.

"This time, as soon as I hit the bag it just ripped. It didn't even slow me down. I landed on the seam in the middle and immediately ripped open a twelve-foot hole. At that point I was moving so fast I slid, bounced, and rolled around in the canvas. At first I didn't know where I was. I looked back and saw the tent through the hole and realized: Good Lord, I'm in the bag."

Outside the bag, when Sean didn't reappear promptly the whole cast nearly erupted in panic. As background players in the finale we had certain rhythms we were accustomed to as well: he starts at point A, he lands in point B, then he emerges and sprints to point C and takes his style in the center ring. When Sean didn't move from point B to point C our internal clocks sounded an alarm. Dawnita went dashing toward the bag. Several of the Rodrguezes covered their mouths in horror. Jimmy snapped to attention. "Turn off the lights! Turn off the lights!" Someone even whispered the unthinkable. "Oh my G.o.d! I think he's dead."

Inside the air bag the darkness only heightened Sean's confusion.

"I looked around to make sure I didn't break anything," he said. "I was in shock. I didn't know what was going on. I made sure everything was all right-my bones weren't popping out or anything. I moved my toes to make sure I wasn't paralyzed. That's always the first thing that runs through my mind. I heard Jimmy say something about the lights. I heard people calling my name. They knew I was somewhere, but they didn't know where. They were looking for me in the middle of the bag, but I was at the end with all this material on top of me. Finally I managed to climb outside. Several people grabbed me, but I told them to leave me alone. 'I'm all right. I'm all right. Let go. I'm all right.'"

Sean staggered to the middle of the center ring. The performers scampered back to their places. The lights came up in a blaze of victory and Sean Thomas accepted the accolades of the audience, most of whom were undoubtedly convinced they had just witnessed a perfect display. Then chaos descended.

Standing outside the tent after the show, most people barely waited for Sean to explain what happened before hurrying off to their air-conditioned trailers. The truth was, many performers were still upset with him for losing his control the previous day. "Don't get me wrong," Big Pablo had said. "I'm a performer, so I back Sean. But in Mexico if somebody sucker-punched somebody else like that, even his friends would beat him up." The workers, meanwhile, took a parallel stand. "Look, I'm a worker, so I back Big Man," said Darryl from props. "But to tell you the truth, he had it coming." Cla.s.s warfare is alive and well...so is stabbing your friends in the back.

By the time I removed my makeup and stopped by Sean's door he was already all alone, and already in excruciating pain. "My leg's all swollen up," he said, "and I can't even move my ankle. Plus one side of my a.s.s is already twice as big as the other."

"I think you should go to the hospital."

"Royce said he'd take me but he couldn't stay."

"What about everyone else?"

"They say they can't be bothered."

"Would yu like me to go with you?"

Sean looked genuinely relieved. "And sit with me all night...? That would be great, bro'."

It was just after ten o'clock on Monday night when I drove the world's largest cannon into the parking lot of Staten Island University Hospital, a boxy beige inst.i.tutional building tucked away behind a mental facility and a shelter for unwed pregnant women on Father Cappodano Boulevard. We had come a long way from picture-preppy Winchester, Virginia. Inside, dozens of bedraggled bodies littered the vinyl waiting-room couches, with a wide variety of bandages, ice packs, and open sores on their appendages and a generic, seemingly hospital-issued dazed look on their faces. I stepped up to a waist-high counter and was handed a clipboard with a registration sheet attached. I entered the name "Sean Thomas" in the empty s.p.a.ce and briefly described his injury. Then we went to wait.

And wait.

"Sean Thomas. Sean Thomas. Please come to the triage room." The announcement came over an hour later. By this time Sean needed a wheelchair.

"No problem," the nurse informed me. "Wait right here."

And wait some more.

Twenty minutes later, Sean was summoned for a preliminary examination. That was followed fifteen minutes later by a supplemental evaluation. Thirty minutes after that we were beckoned again.

"Good evening, my name is Elizabeth and I'm going to ask you a few questions." Elizabeth was wearing a bright green dress. "First of all, would you like to pay with cash, check, credit card, or bill?" Our initial registration, our subsequent evaluation, even our supplemental examination were just warm-ups to our most important test: the financial investigation. After Sean asked her to send him a bill, Elizabeth proceeded down the list of queries. Who is your employer? The circus. What is your job? The Human Cannonball. Where do you live? The world's largest big top. With each response Elizabeth grew increasingly concerned.

"Where should we send the bill if you can't pay?" she asked.

Sean thought for a second, then said, "My parents."