Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Circus schmircus

Photo copyright Andrew Dunn, October 28, 2004
A photo of Billy Smart's Big Top

Edited to add: I had to change the time--blogger still doesn't like me. Maybe because I go slightly off the deep end in this post?

I just got into a cat fight on a newsgroup this weekend when I took someone to task for calling poor horse training, "Circus Tricks."

"Hey," says I. "Don't denigrate what you don't know. Those guys work for generations to get their horses to do that in performance. It's not a trick."

"Hey," responds Idiotic Dressage-inista. "We'll call it what we want because that's what it is, a Circus Trick. Not all of us have run off to JOIN the circus. Some of us live less interesting lives." She tried to call circus training obvious, while her dressage work was mystical and difficult. (Also said she could do it sitting down)

Gloating--Moment of victory came when I asked, "If it's so obvious, then how do you propose to have a group of six horses enter a ring, split into two groups of three, have one half change direction and then weave in and out through each other as they race towards each other in a 38 foot ring? I can't lunge one horse while seated, and you can train six?" Ah...Sweet Victory...She backed down.

That stupidly long preface is to say that I get a touch defensive about either belittling or glamorizing the circus. Circus folk are just like that.

Half of the stuff you see in the circus is based on tons and tons of really hard work. The other half *is* really only a trick, a pig fetus in a jar pretending to be something else. I get ticked off when someone presumes it's all one or the other. And I really don't know why it's so personal to me. I was only at one circus for eight months--that still makes me a "First of May", someone who shows up for the first day of the new season and leaves before "Green Night", which is the last day of the show. My husband stayed for more than a year--he qualifies--I'm mostly a pretender.

Why do people end up at a circus? Well, you're either born into it or you join. Born into it--whole other kettle of fish. Those of us who have lived in houses with cars and yards and commitments to society (school, taxes, laws, etc.) are never going to get our head around those guys. Really. Take my word on this. Born-circus are their own separate society, and they like it that way just fine. You can marry in, and they will gladly accept you and treat you as born-circus, and your children will be born-circus too. They will be polite to those who are not born-circus, but they are separate.

Sometime in the 1980s the Federal Gov't realized that they hadn't included Ringling in their census for some time. (Ringling has three separate shows, Blue, Red and Gold. Blue and Red alternate in North America and Europe. Gold travels in Japan. Ringling is HUGE.) Gov't asked the Front Office permission to take census. Front Office (Stupids!) said, "Sure. Go right ahead." Census takers showed up at the lot and were greeted by four roustabouts holding tent stakes. (Another aside, sorry. Ringling hasn't performed under a top since the Hartford Fire, but apparently they kept the tent stakes around. Lot bosses like to threaten tired roustabouts with them. They are about 4 1/2 feet long 4" diameter iron rods with a flat pan head for driving into the ground. Mean things.) Roustabouts told the census takers there was no one on the lot who had any interest in talking to the American Government. They could go to the front office to see if anyone left the lot to go talk to them there, but not to hold their breath.

This story rings so true for me. Circus folk are SO protective of their own. No townie anywhere is going to harass a circus performer. No one is getting behind the yellow fence to wander through the back lot.

Circus life is male and violent. Guys get drunk and play chicken in bars. (Two forearms held together with a lit cigarette held between them. First to move their arm while the cigarette burns loses. Knew a guy with trails of burns down his forearm. Sick shit.)

But women are protected. Guys, even husbands, aren't allowed to beat women. But they are allowed to run a woman off the lot if they've gotten bored with her. Our cookhouse cook gladly called the roustabouts Niggers and Hebes--but when a townie threatened a black circus worker, the circus rednecks cleaned his clock. Some townie makes goo goo eyes at a circus girl: look out.

OK, this is devolving into some gross rant. Like I said, some of the circus is really twisted and really violent. But it is what it is.

I read Kiss an Angel. And I can't make it work for me. A lot of it was OK, but the attitude of the lot was wrong.

The hero pissed me off, make no mistake. He got better over time. The grovel scene was good, but I do not think that any girl would put up with his behavior for a minute. Then when she got to the circus, I couldn't get what in the world she was doing. Trying to make a marriage work? Trying to have circus performers *like* her? Eh?

No one's holding you to the circus, making you stay. People bug out all the time. A fellow groom left the lot one day to do laundry and never came back. The entire crew shrugged their shoulders and said, "No sawdust in her veins," and went on about their business. The heroine in Kiss an Angel kept wondering if people liked her. Oh, get over yourself. It's not about finding acceptance or love or approval. It's all about what's going to make the top go up and the show go on. You don't want to stay? Fine. Leave. See if we care. No one tells you while you're there that you are a valued part of the system. Because really? You aren't. There are fifteen more just like you waiting to join up. And maybe they'll work harder than you ever did.

The plot thing where the jealous biddie convinces the hero that the heroine has to be made part of the act? NO WAY!! NO HOW!! That show is sacred and separate, Separate, SEPARATE from anything else in the back lot. No one goes in front of the audience just because. Putting her in the "spec", the first parade-like portion of the show where the performers are introduced? No freaking way. (We called it the charivari, for what it's worth.) Putting her to work with the elephants? Who belonged to another performer? No freaking way. Putting her to work with the menagerie. Oh good lord! Please. NO WAY!

No. No. No. NO.

You join up, you work grunt stuff (or if you're a performer's wife, you don't work at all). You work the sub-tent crew, checking the top in the middle of the night during storms to make sure it doesn't blow away. You work a butcher's gig, shelling out popcorn. You work the ticket window (Although that's pretty cushy--usually reserved for a pregnant wife of a performer.) Mostly you sit around and wait and clean while the circus is performing and then you work a 48 hour shift straight through, no sleep, no rest, tearing down the top, loading it, driving to the next spot, unloading it, and resetting it. Then you sleep for 4 to 5 hours, get royally drunk, and start the whole thing over again. Unless you work for the trainer, you don't work with the animals. Ever. (You think trainers want drunken rednecks around their animals?)

(Kiss an Angel got load-out wrong too. They would tear down and then rest, and then move the tent to the next spot. Um. No. You take that tent down, the owner of the property wants you off. NOW. Sometimes if you get to the next lot fast enough you can grab a few hours sleep before dawn and set up. If not, tough luck. You'll sleep when that tent's up and the ring's set. I'm not kidding about the 48 hour shifts--there are tricks, none of them pleasant, for keeping you moving. Performers leave before tear down, sleep at the next lot, and sleep right through set-up. Tent crew thinks performers are bunch of pansies and performers don't bother with tent crew.)

When I joined the circus (to work for the equestrienne) I was wildly angry with my family. I was sure I was deeply unloveable, that maybe I had even been marked with some secret symbol on my forehead which made me, The Unloveable, instantly recognizable. I went to the circus and spent a fair amount of time complaining to the first guy I met about how hard the work was, and how angry I was, and how miserable I was. Without batting an eye he would say, "So?" Whoa.

If I complained about the equestrienne yelling at me he said, "She's a jerk. We all hate her. But if she hated you she'd never bother to notice you. You just need to work harder. Do it or leave." Whoa.

The circus is very sentimental and very brutal. Families are honored above everything. Mothers are worshipped, friends are loyal, and the violence and passive-aggressive defensive attacks never cease. And this just didn't ring true for me in Kiss an Angel. Everyone who was mean was either a villain, or a wounded tiger waiting to be healed by a woman's love. No, circus people are both really mean and really supportive, often in the same sentence. I knew one really awful "villain" in the circus--could have been a character in a book. But then he got drunk one night, picked a fight, and a "First of May" tried to come after him with a cleaver. (I never saw it, only heard it from across the lot.) And I suddenly felt so protective of him. How dare that guy threaten one of us? Didn't he know who he was dealing with? That rush of protective love scared me terribly.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips got a lot of the lingo right--donniker, for sure. (Circus guys, if they get in trouble with the law while in town often give their names as "Donny Kerr" or "Don O'Kerr" or "Don Acker", just as an FU to the townies. Made you say it. Made you say it.) But why, oh why, does the heroine win over the crew with telepathic communication with animals? Pul-eese. Circus folk are suspicious. Telepathy? Good night. See you later.

And then suddenly at the end of the book we discover that the hero is actually privately wealthy, and a professor???? No!! Just killed the whole set-up in one extra fantasy-fulfillment plot device. You're circus? Fine. Be that. But you cannot be born-circus and flitting about teaching courses somewhere. On another schedule? Like, you just show up in the summer? Once every other year or some such thing? Poser.

Circus workers just hate the front office and those silly people who work a desk job and get all excited that they "work for the circus." (Your advance man is your friend. But the twits who get corporations to donate money to your educational foundation? Please.) We had a picnic once on the lot for the Front Office. One of them saw the Bobcat and asked who drove it to the next lot. I thought the tent boss was going to get violent. Someone else pointed out that the Bobcat wasn't rated for highway travel, and that it was loaded onto the prop truck. We never had another picnic for the poor fools. If the lot boss were also an art professor on the side, I don't think he'd survive this level of hatred for incompetent people who "think they know circus."

I think I get mad about circus stuff in the same way magicians get mad at psychics. The pyschics are gleefully tricking the public while the magicians are screaming, "You idiots! Open your eyes! Don't you know ANYTHING?!?" There's a strange level of contempt for people who get fooled, especially when your job is to delight and confuse them.

The guy I met in the circus went on to become a chef, and found himself in familiar territory. If you know Anthony Bourdain, you'll not be surprised to hear that a lot of kitchens hate the very customers they are serving. Somewhere in the back some very talented people are burning themselves on the grill, bleeding into your food, and muttering, "Think I'm here to entertain YOU? Don't you GET it?"

After all that, I didn't hate Kiss an Angel, but I did find myself muttering, "Ugh. You don't GET it, do you?"


Jay said...

Very interesting post about the circus. I think all of us have low tolerance for a story that uses a setting we are familar with improperly. I pay extra attention to books that are set in NYC - I always want to make sure the author didn't put Central Park on Fulton Street or something stupid like that.

ReneeW said...

Very educational post about the circus and fascinating. Reminds me how I heard that doctors don't watch ER because they get it all wrong. SEP obviously should have done more research.

Megan Frampton said...

Wow, really interesting stuff. And OF COURSE there's secret lingo and code and stuff. Makes sense to me. I always hate reading contemps where the leads have anything to do with the music industry for the same reasons--they always get it wrong.

Suisan said...

I think I'm mostly surprised at how very annoyed I got *while writing* the post. The book didn't send me over the moon, but you wouldn't be able to tell that by reading this screed.

It's annoying when something you know isn't portrayed accurately--but then that would severely limit what authors *could* write about, wouldn't it?

And I think SEP *did* do a lot of resarch--it's more accurate than a lot of drivel I've read. But she missed the anger, the defensiveness of the place. Something about her tone was off.... But then, circus people are *so* secretive and defensive about outsiders, how would she really be able to pick the bones, so to speak? Tis a puzzlement.

CindyS said...

Suisan, I think it is easier to get riled up while writing about something you are passionate about. Also, if something in a book was just not right I find that I can be foaming at the mouth by the time I blog about it. Weird.

As to the atmosphere of a circus, it doesn't surprise me that the people would be like that. More surprised at the violence than anything else. Also, it is normal for those who have a certain job to feel A) threatened by those who are new and B) protective of the core group.

And onto something completely different. Do you know Anthony Bourdain? Cause I love that SOB! I can honestly say I *don't* get a chef's hostility to his clientel. Without his clients he would be nobody. Course this could be my customer service gene that I grew at a young age. Customer is never wrong, even when they are because without them, you don't have a job.

Bob has the same philosophy about business so we are always shocked when a company pulls an obvious FU on the customer base and then wonders where all their orders went. *shakes head* Idiots.


Suisan said...

I heart Anthony Bourdain.

No, I don't know him, but I'd just fall into a puddle of fangirl glee if I ever met him.

There's a difference between the front house and the kitchen staff. For Michelin stars, the first two are for food quality. Any extra stars are for service. Service is so key to an excellent restaurant. (I grew up in high end retail, and I too get annoyed when companies don't get the importance of cust. service.)

But that's different from the attitudes of the kitchen staff. Ask for sauce on the side? Ask for a substitution? Your waiter is happy to comply, but the chefs are furious. How DARE you muddle up my menu and my sauces. I put that sauce on the chicken for a reason, you ignorant fools.

This is why it is rare to have the chef come out from the kitchen and greet you at the table. The chef, the line cooks, and the prep boys really don't want to be bothered with you. Anthony Bourdain got that attitude just right in his bok, Kitchen Confidential.

They may be relying upon you for thier business to succeed, but that doesn't mean the back room staff *likes* you. The Maitre D's job is really to protect you, the paying customer, from the freaks in the back room.

Megan Frampton said...

I heart Anthony Bourdain, too. Reminds me of my husband, the snarkster.