We all have an archetypal circus in our imaginations, something out of Dumbo: sawdust. Bright brass bands. Big striped tents topped with rippling pennants, their dim interiors smelling of wet canvas and sawdust, beer and animals. Seals on pedestals marked with a star; tigers coiled on boxes, tails coiled with rage and resentment. Automaton pachyderms on parade. A man in a red coat with a megaphone. Clowns. Always clowns. The sort of clowns you know have liquor on their breath. Aerialists dancing in the ether without a net to save them. And every few minutes, that song: reet deet deetle deetle reet deet dee-dee. If you left your seat - no more than a wooden plank, really - and went outside, past the big pegs pounded in the ground, around the corner to one of the trucks where the circus people lived, you’d find a woman in tights with a big feather on her head, smoking a cigarette and talking to the strongman - who of course wore a leopard skin leotard.

“I’d like to join the circus,” you could say. “I want to come along.”

And they’d have to take you. It’s the Way of the Circus. It’s the Carnival Code. It’s like banging on a church door and demanding sanctuary. The circus exists to give you a reason to stay just where you are - why leave home? Why travel the world? The world will come to you, in the guise of Guido the Magnifico, straight from Belgium, where he charmed and amazed the crowned heads of Europe. But if you want to go . . . here’s your chance.

Went to the Shiner Circus on Saturday. Or rather: Cirque de SoLame. Oh, I shouldn’t be so critical, as my mom always said; I did have fun, and clapped enthusiastically, but it didn’t really feel like a circus. It felt like Vegas Lite.

It was held at the Target Center downtown. I decided to drop off Wifenchild at the Hard! Rock! Cafe! with the intention of saving time: they’d get a seat while I parked the car. And you’re thinking: Hard Rock? Listen, pally: it was about 75 degrees out. Gorgeous. Unbelievable. You just don’t get days like this in the last half of October. I’d spent the day outside washing windows, which seemed less a chore than a reward. Heard one cicada, which proved the point I made a few weeks ago: you never miss them until you hear them again. Welcome back, annoying late-summer friend. On the other hand, we had swarms of Chinese Ladybugs, who thrive in the late-fall heat; thought we’d finished with them a few weeks ago, but now here the were again, crawling all over the western wall of Jasperwood. And these bastards bite. What, exactly, is the reason for a ladybug to bite? Hello! I’m here! I bite you now! Kill me!

So it was warm and it was good, and if we had to endure Hard! Rock! food to sit outside, we would. I pulled over, noted the NO STOPPING sign, and bade the family to exit quickly. “I don’t want to get a tick -”

Lights in the rearview mirror. Well. That was prompt.

“Don’t go,” I said. “Wait.” If I have some warrant out for a ticket I never heard about, BAIL ME OUT!

The policeman approached.


I fumbled out the cards, almost handed him my PRESS pass. Found the license. He looked at it. “You’re from Minneapolis,” he said. “So you know what ‘No Stopping’ means.”

Incorrect response: that’s a complete non sequitur, pig!

Incorrect response: I was just letting my family off, officer. C'mon, give a guy a break.

Incorrect response: I didn’t see the sign.

But I had seen the sign. Correct response:

“You’re right,” I said, looking the coppiceman square in the eye. “No excuse.” I’m not going to beg or explain. Facts are facts. I’m in your hands.

He looked at me, handed back my license, and said “Don’t. Do It. Again.”

Whew. Parked the car. Joined family outside Hard! Rock! and discovered the restaurant had a 45 minute wait. Whew, again. Up to Appleby’s, then. Crap, but fast family-friendly crap. We wandered around attempting to find an entrance to Block E, the brand- new fabulous entertainment complex that is without question one of the worst-designed facilities in human history. There’s a door that leads to a blank stairwell that leads to a blank corridor; pieces of paper with SKYWAY printed on them are taped to the wall. Six hundred million for this POS! Finally found our way in; ate, paid, killed some time at the bookstore, then off across the street to the Target Center. Vertiginous seats in the nosebleed section. We found the parents of Gnat’s friend, and settled in for some Masonic Entertainment.

Meh. The MC opened the show with some note about the Shriners Children’s Hospitals, which was tempered by the fine print in the program: proceeds from the circus went to the local Zurah Temple, not the hospitals directly. Then the Ringmaster came out. Muffled overamped sound system:

Which I took to mean the Rage in the Cage, as the program called it. A tiger act. This set the tone: the tiger-wrangler was dressed like a member of Spinal Tap, and his entire tiger act had a mid-80s hair-metal soundtrack. He made tigers sit. He made tigers jump. He made tigers walk a tightrope. In the post Siegfield & Roy world, the entire theme seemed to be “Oh Man He is So Asking For It.”

If there’s anything that rivals a teen for pure black sullenness, it’s a circus tiger.

Next: Trapeze Artists. Pretty cool, as they always are, but the net takes away from the thrill. It’s like stock-car racing with helmets and seatbelts. We were told to hold on to our seats as the lead acrobat did something rarely attempted, the triple-somersault first shown in the Burt Lancaster movie, “Trapeze.” (Wha?) He flubbed it. Massed intake of breath as he fell to earth.
DO YOU WNT TO SEE IT AGN? We did. And this time he made it. I’m thinking: they flubbed that one on purpose. We had become accustomed, in the course of six minutes, to stupendeous feats. We needed the tang of danger, failure, humiliation, male pride, etc. etc. Individually, we might have declined the offer to see it again - no, that's okay! You tried, and that was great! Thanks! Collectively, we bay for the possibility of additional humiliation.

Elephant act. O joy. Lumbering Jumbo interacting with a frickin' clown. The clown does clown schtick, and the elephant - ha ha - tries to one-up the clown. Like the elephant knows of such social oneupsmanship. Like the elephant cares. You watch the elephant perform its tricks, and you think: I don’t want to know how they made him learn those things. You suspect that poles with hooks were involved. Indeed, when the trainer tries to get the elephant to turn around, I saw him hook a fold of the beast’s back leg with a stick, and pull. Whether the stick was barbed I don’t know, but you can't help but wonder if the beast is responding to the memory of a hooked pole. Hence I can’t enjoy this stuff. I don’t like this stuff. But this is the circus. Yank that gray fold! Reet deet deetle deetle reet deet dee-dee.

Next, a juggler. This guy is great. Unlike the Rage in the Cage guy, who was going through the motions, and the trapeze troupe, who, understandably, were going through the motions, this guy has enough energy and ego for the entire circus. He doesn’t just bow, expecting our applause, he bounds to the edge of the ring, jumps on the ledge and DEMANDS it. And he gets it, again and again. it’s the least thrilling act so far - he cannot be bitten, he cannot fall to his death, he cannot be crushed by a rogue elephant. He’s just juggling, for heaven’s sake. But you can’t take your eyes off him. Whoa - flaming death! He’s juggling fire! Dude! This is great! You’re sorry to see him go - because it probably means another “laser light show” with graphics from 1982. In fact most of the circus felt like it came from the 80s - the music, the sets, the costumes all had a Reagan-era vibe, and if the houselights snapped on to show an arena full of people wearing Members Only jackets and Cyndi Lauper hair I wouldn’t have been surprised. Perhaps even a little grateful.

Trick dogs: amusing. At least with dogs you know they want to do this stuff. Dogs are probably the only animals who’d volunteer for a circus. Then four women doing an interpretive dance in black-light: you could hear all the little kids just leeeeave the building, right there. Then, motorcycle CAGE OF DEATH! One motorcycle drives around the inside of a metal ball. Then two! Then they’re joined by a woman who has, to quote Aunt Patty, bosoms ‘til Tuesday; they race around in the metal ball as she stands in the center! Then a THIRD motorcycle! Then the LIGHTS GO OUT as they race around! Whoa!

Intermission, and all across the Target Center parents turn to their yawning kids and say: circus is done, my child! Time to go home.

I’m glad we went; it was a wonderful family night, a grand time. On the way back to the car we walked through the skyway, and came across a fellow playing the violin. His case had exactly one quarter in it. He had a wild beard, thin jeans, and his shoes were falling apart. I gave Gnat a dollar, told her to drop the bill in the case, and he’d play a tune.

“It’s Madeline?” he said, having heard me call her over. I said “Natalie,” and he nodded: “Here’s Natalie’s song,” he announced to the world, and he played a lively jig. She began to dance. The skyway had emptied out; just us, the busker, and Gnat dancing on a downtown Saturday night.

The circus cost a double sawbuck. The fiddler cost a buck. Both made my daughter smile. But she’s at that kismet stage of life. What doesn’t?

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