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SUNDAY READING

Tinsel and Sawdust : Life Under--and Behind-- the Big Top When Circus Vargas Comes to Town

September 20, 1987|JUDITH MOORE

"The Left Coast of Paradise: California and the American Heart," from which this is excerpted, will be published this week.

WHEN I WAS a child I went to the circus every spring. I looked forward to it. I also dreaded it. I was scared that a tightrope walker would plunge down onto the ground and explode like an overripe plum. I was terrified that a trapeze artist would miss her catch on the swing and sail into a far wall where her head would smash like a cherry bomb, or that a tiger would chew up a trainer--suit and entrails and hair--like I had seen an owl in a film chew up a mouse. Before the circus and afterward, my dreams would fill up with brightly colored images, like those in my comic books.

As I walked onto the grounds of the Circus Vargas, all that came back: the excitement, the longing and the fear. I recalled what had frightened and thrilled me as a young girl. Faster-than-the-eye spins, long teeth and sharp fangs. Mascaraed eyes. Open claws.

You remember bare skin. The women hang upside down, streaming their long hair like romantic fairy-tale princesses. They pull upward and reach across empty space, even as they hang by an arm, an ankle. Biceps, triceps, deltoids--every muscle bunches, ripples, knots, flattens. Spotlights wash the pale limbs paler and intensify the scarlets, violets, aquas. Spangle-encrusted fabrics sparkle. The eyes are exaggerated. The smiles, too. I could see why, at 10, I had awakened from dreams of the circus, sweating and terrified, and why at the actual performances I would often feel dizzy and sick to my stomach.

"It's older than Jesus," Congo said, meaning the circus. Congo was sloshing a gray string mop up and down in a bucket of sudsy pine-scented disinfectant. Putting down the mop, he leaned against "WOMEN," lettered in gold paint on one side of the red 18-seat rolling outhouse built onto a 16-wheeler. He drove the vehicle. He cleaned it and slept in a space above its cab.

Circus Vargas had set up that morning. Men had been pounding steel sledgehammers on tent stakes since sunup. People dressed for office work, mothers and a few fathers pushing strollers and holding toddlers' hands, and whole classes of schoolchildren stood watching the usually vacant lot on which the circus was rising. Behind the chicken-wire fence were 13 elephants, 7 llamas, 2 camels and 30 horses and ponies. Next to the larger animals under a canopy was a children's petting zoo, with geese, ducks, guinea hens, sheep, lambs, goats and one black yak.

Camels munched hay. Behind them, hobbled at the legs with hunks of logging chain, stood one long row of elephants. The elephants' big bones seemed to move under skins that were no more than shrouds of ashen fog. They lifted hay with their trunks and tossed the long stems back onto their shoulders. A hatchet-faced man in blue jeans and canvas work gloves passed a hose to each elephant, one after another, along the line. Each elephant grabbed the hose with its trunk, then turned the nozzle into its mouth, clamped down on it and drank. A roustabout pushed a hay-filled red wheelbarrow between the lines of llamas and elephants. Sweat funneled down the hollow of his spine and ran down his tanned sides.

I asked Congo how he liked working the circus. "I like it fine. It's like everything. All the world's a pretty picture till you walk in. Circus ain't no different. Out in front a picture looks good." I nodded agreement. "And the world's the same--pretty. In front. There's sadness in the world. Down inside it. I got my own sadness. But it's not here." He pointed toward the red-and-blue Big Top. On all four 56-foot center poles American flags blustered in the breeze.

He asked if I would like him to make me a cotton candy. I said, "No, thank you," and he said, "You and I got in common that our mamas taught us good manners." He asked if I was going to go to the circus. I said I was. He said, "This is a real good show this year. Goes past so fast you think it's been a dream."

Congo is correct. The circus is older than Jesus. The Romans, 3,500 years ago, screamed through chariot races in the Circus Maximus, whooping while half-naked men battled hungry beasts. When a Roman satirist said, panem et circenses --"bread and circuses"--he meant that all most people want out of life is food and entertainment.

I asked Congo if he knew the nuns who traveled with the show. Sister Priscilla? He nodded. I followed his directions to their trailer and introduced myself to sisters Lorelei, Joel and Priscilla.

The sisters all work in the wardrobe truck and as concessionaires. They eat and sleep, work, study and pray together in their one-room house trailer. Next door is the tiny chapel housed in a Chevy 310 van.

The Little Sisters of Jesus live in groups of three or four. They do manual labor to support themselves and live among nomads and migrants. These three have chosen the circus people as their mission.

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