At the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Jack, 4, can’t believe his eyes — there, so close he could reach out and touch it, is a plastic cup the size of a small garbage can, with a tiger’s head for a lid, filled with carbonated water, cola flavoring, and enough high-fructose corn syrup to give one of the elephants in the ring below diabetes.
“Can I have one, Daddy?”
“No. Eat your sodium and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.”
In the darkened arena, we watch a married couple get shot out of a cannon and hurtle a hundred feet through the air into a net. Between the costs of admission, parking, and all the junk food and flimsy plastic novelty items we’re buying, I’m weary of children’s entertainment today, and lost in fantasy, picturing a cannon big enough to hold all four Wiggles and instead of a net, a brick wall…
“Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages… ” the ringmaster begins.
I’m not so sure — I think the show is geared more toward children of the Middle Ages. In the center ring below, a man has a team of horses running in circles, standing on their hind legs, executing caprioles and courbettes, and Jack’s gotta be thinking, Big deal — the donkey in Shrek 2 could talk. Circuses used to bring the world to small towns, exhibiting “marvels” and “curiosities” like camels, or Hindus, or tattooed men. If P.T. Barnum were alive today, he’d be exhibiting America’s last tattoo-free teenager. A circus seems tame when the whole planet’s a freak show.
“Cotton candy!” Jack says, spotting a passing vendor. “Can I have some?”
“No,” I say.
“Please-please-please?” Jack begs.
We buy cotton candy. And Cracker Jacks.
We watch the Inner Mongolian Acrobatic Troupe jumping through brass hoops at one end of the arena, while at the other, the Windy City Acrobats play trampoline basketball. Jack is more interested in the battery-operated-plastic-thing-with-the-top-that-lights-up-and-spins-when-you-squeeze-it that I just bought him. There are thousands of them in the darkened arena. Having one makes Jack feel a part of something. Interactive.
Then, for 15 minutes, his attention is drawn to the center ring, where a high-haired clown named Bello does funny flops and bounces on his own trampoline. I think Jack is drawn in because it’s the simplest of all the acts — the others require a degree of focus or a capacity for empathy that may be beyond him.
At intermission, I take Jack to the potty, past gift stands selling, among other crap, light-up swords. We’re not a light-up-sword family. I buy a snow cone, Smurf blue. Soon his lips are blue, too.
Pete Nelson has written for Esquire, Harper’s, and Outside. His latest book is The Christmas List (Rutledge Hill).
The main event
The big stuff’s in the second half. We watch tiger-tamer Taba and his tigers occupy the center ring, where the animals mostly sit on their stools while Taba does somersaults. I can’t help having the same fantasy I had as a kid at the circus, wondering what would happen if a tiger escaped into the audience, but I’m not sure Jack shares my concerns. We watch the Sky Surfers do their trapeze act, and we watch Alberto and Mauricio Aguilar balance on chairs on the high wire, and I watch Jack’s face. Not impressed. Does he know that not everybody can do that?
In the grand finale, Bello returns to defy death, walking around, in, and on top of a sort of gigantic eggbeater that rotates faster and faster, high above the ground, but Jack is bored, playing instead with his battery-operated-plastic-thing-with-the-top-that-lights-up-and-spins-when-you-squeeze-it. “Death defying” would probably mean more if death held any meaning for him, but it doesn’t, and we’re glad it doesn’t.
To close, the entire troupe comes out for one last parade, clowns waving to the crowd, young women and muscle-bound young men in sparkly unitards, unicyclists, jugglers, horses and elephants, and I think if we had a remote control for all this, Jack would fast-forward. In the car on the way home, he collapses in a narcoleptic coma, dead to the world, his usual angelic appearance disturbed by the cadaverish Smurf blue of his lips.
We think he had a good time, but not as good a time as we told him he was going to have. “We’re going to the circus,” we gushed. “You’re going to love it,” we promised. In retrospect, I don’t remember having that great a time at the circus as a kid, either.
But the world is full of cool stuff — stuff that maybe you’ll find on the way to somewhere else. When I took Jack to the American Museum of Natural History, what he remembered the next day was feeding pigeons in the park.
When I put Jack to bed, I ask him what he remembers about the circus. He says, “I liked that guy with the hair. When he was jumping.” Perhaps as he closes his eyes, Jack pictures himself performing similar tricks, bouncing on his bed. He rolls on his side, hugging his battery-operated-plastic-thing-with-the-top-that-lights-up-and-spins-when-you-squeeze-it, and I pull up the covers.