They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row
- from Desolation Row, Bob Dylan 1965
Sunday, October 21, 2012
From The Pen Of Joshua Lawrence Breslin- …the circus is in town, circa 1962
They’re selling postcards of the hanging
Josh Breslin had to laugh as he saw the kids, broke kids for sure, probably from over in the Acre projects (officially the Olde Saco, Maine Housing Authority Complex but known since it first opened, or at least from the time when he and the Breslin family lived there in the 1950s, as “The Acre” as in Hell’s Acre not God’s Little Acre), slap-dashing with the eternal cheap jack flour paste signs on every available telephone and light pole , every brick storefront wall, every vacant telephone booth, every plexi-glassed bus stop shelter, hell, just say everything and you would not be far off. Obviously these kids, just like when he did that odd job himself as a kid fifty years ago on those cold October 1962 nights to earn a few bucks and free admission, were being paid by how many they put up and so no public space was safe from their brushes.
And of course the posters being placed up helter-skelter through the town could only signal one thing, Bob Brewer’s One And Only World Famous Circus And Carnival (all letter capitalized just like that, not some typo error ) was coming to town, coming to magnificent Olde Saco for the fiftieth straight year, the fiftieth straight October. And probably for the fiftieth straight year since Josh was one of the first to catch hitting the circus road fever, and be damned with plain vanilla Olde Saco, that some kid, boy or girl these days, also will get that long ago genetically-encoded wanderlust on seeing that sign.
Jesus, Josh said to himself, he could still feel the tension in his mouth as he thought about what might have been, what lowly life he would have led if he survived that long on the rough and tumble big top, had he just skedaddled that last Sunday night the show was in town. He certainly had the bug, a bug aided by troubles within the Breslin family, meaning troubles with Meme Breslin (Delores, nee LeBlanc, French-Canadian LeBlanc from up Quebec City way as were many other Acre residents) like many another kid in those days when Papa worked and let mother raise the kids. He could barely remember the direct cause of the argument but it was probably just some wisp of time thing that could have been resolved short of running away with the circus. But that would have taken the romance out of that ingrown teen angst. Instead he bided his time, had ten or twenty more wisp of time battles with Meme (and with Pa thrown in a couple of times so you know they were serious) and then flew the coop just after high school when the summer of love, San Francisco 1967, was his rage.
Thinking back, Josh, still watching those kids slap-dashing heaven, thought how the idea of some new adventure, even as he came to recognize some tacky, and dangerous adventure like running away with the circus, will sent any kid spinning, and maybe a few adults too. Everybody, well, almost everybody has been to the circus as a kid, or later maybe. Many probably had their first exposure to the circus when some small side-show ramble wreak operation like Bob Brewer’s was that fifty years ago when it showed up made up of a three truck gypsy caravan and came to your not big city town, a town not unlike Olde Saco, and put on a show or two and then headed out, laughing at the rubes as they left.
Or maybe that first look was even less than a circus, some two bit neon-flamed carnival with every drifter, grafter and midnight sifter trying (and mostly succeeding) to get you to part with your hard-earned dough (back in the day maybe you had a kid job, mowing lawns or a paper route, or slapping signs on walls and so those were really hard-earned dollars that were soon departed). But mainly, if you didn’t look too closely, at the ragged not recently cleaned costumes, the ancient girlies, some real gypsies, some faux gypsies strictly in it for the gyp that went with every show to bring in the farm boy (or small town harmless corner boy) rubes, the broken-down animals just short of serious complain to the local Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Animals, and the broken-down has been tightrope walkers, sword-swallowers, bearded ladies, sad-eyed clowns and other geeks performers you bought into the grand circus illusion, the spectacle. What you bought into as well was the bright lights, cotton candy, the kewpie dolls, and the other gee-gads and the art of something different, some minute change of pace. Just don’t deny it okay
See, though it wasn’t like Josh didn’t get to see the seamy side of the travelling hustle. In that October of 1962 (shortly before the October missile crisis with the Russkies and Cubans that almost smacked all dreams, tacky or pure, to oblivion) Sammy Whammy, Bob Brewer’s main barker kind of took Josh under his wing, and Josh thirteen going on ten lapped it up. Sammy was in need of an assistant and he had zeroed in on Josh when he showed the slightest interest in learning the ropes. (Sammy, deep in alcoholic trauma, really didn’t need an assistant but needed someone to get his liquor for him, sober him up for the next day’s efforts and if he was too gone to go on to take his place as barker. Yes, Sammy was in tough shape but all Josh saw was a way to get even with the world, or at least make his own rules in a world he didn’t create, and didn’t get a say in. Powerful stuff)
In those days Bob’s Brewer’s operation would decamp on Olde Saco for a week, showing up on Monday to set up, running nightly Tuesday through Thursday and then all day Friday through Sunday and then hit the road that Sunday evening early. In those days as well Bob himself would show up a couple days early, hit the Acre, and get his sign-posting crew to splash the town with signs. That is how Josh got his big start in the circus dream business. Olde Saco, unlike Portland, where the suckers were a little more hip or down in Kittery where the naval workers might very well torch the damn operation if things didn’t add up, was a high spot on Bob’s calendar because the French-Canadians, Irish and Down East Yankees who mainly worked in the dying textile mills were big spenders (and frankly, as Sammy Whammy confessed, easy, easy like taking candy from a baby to take dollars from on almost any foul- ball proposition). And they, the Olde Saco men and boys, needed to show their women that they could beat these ramshackle circus gawkers at their own game. Yes, like Sammy said, easy stuff, really easy.
That week though Josh learned all the ins and outs of every carny game, of every illusion, of every attempt at busting down human defenses against one’s own greed, of every trick, tricked. Here is a beauty courtesy of Sammy, as an example, that he still remembered (and later had pulled it a couple of times himself when he was on the bum but only when he really needed dough bad, real bad). Everybody has seen the shell game, right. Three shells with a pea underneath one of them. If you call the right shell you win. Simple. Here was Sammy at work though (at work early in the evening when he was half-sober). The first five or seven times you work it so you have a pea under all three shells (not all that hard to do on cold October nights with artificial light and that gawker-busting rube ready show who is who) so that the rube wins, no question. So maybe he gets ahead ten or fifteen dollars and is feeling like king of the world, and especially so if his lady friend is around. The rube is so in love with his prowess that when Sammy cries that he wants a chance to get even so he can feed his kids (or some such malarkey) the rube says sure thing, no problem. At that point said rube’s luck runs out-runs out because there is no pea under any shell. See the rube is so into his pride that he is not really watching the play. Twenty bucks of his own money down (and asking his girlfriend if she has any dough to see him through a luck change) and he is out for the count. Beautiful.
Josh also learned that the night time glitter gave way to day time sad sack sites. Those tents that housed the bleachers for the man show were filled with patches and looked like a stiff wind would blow them to smithereens. The neon highway of games down the mainline venue looked like the product of some demented mind along with the faded kewpie dolls and cheap jack stuffed animal prizes. Worst the acts, the mustached lady turned out to have no mustache, the clowns looked pathetic in the sun, and worst of worst those hoochie-goochie girls who hustled guys for drinks (and the guys got not much else), who made so much of Sammy’s new boy turned out to be as old and ugly as Medusa come dawn.
Still he loved it, loved the idea of it, and had his rucksack ready to go come that Sunday afternoon. And then that Sunday morning, as will happen with thirteen year old boys who have a falling out with mother, Meme said she would really miss him if he left her and that maybe she would buy him that typewriter that he was hounding her for. So what is a thirteen year guy to do when his mother caves in and turns out to be, well, a mother. Yes, but still it was a close thing.