I was idly googling around a few days ago, procrastinating on Camp NaNoWriMo, when I thought I might see what would pop up for "George Matthews Great London Circus." And what to my wondering eyes should appear but a link to Ivan Henry's circus blog. I clicked and there it was -- the route card for 1976, my First of May year in the circus biz. Just looking at it brought a flood of memories...
Parkersburg, WV - Baptism by fire - or rather rain and mud. I had to help fold the big top when the crew finally got it down. At the very first pull, I slipped and almost got buried in the canvas! That's also where I hooked up with the boss clown - a big mistake.
Knoxville, TN - The show was set up in Chilhowee Park, a lovely park that had a lake, picnic tables, and even a little zoo. Even better, it had restrooms with hot showers! That's where I went to a clinic to see if I had the clap, because the boss clown claimed I must have given it to him. The clinic was actually an abortion clinic. During the group counseling session, the leader asked me why I decided to get an abortion. I replied brightly, "Oh, I'm not pregnant; I have VD!" It definitely broke the tension. It turned out that he got tested at the free clinic and found out he had a UTI. I paid $35 and found out I had nothing. The relationship went rapidly downhill from there.
Huntsville, AL - We were allowed to use the locker room facilities at the high school next to the lot. I took the best shower of my life there. I was all by myself in the girl's locker room, so I stood in the shower and aimed all of the showerheads right at me. It was heavenly.
Anniston, AL - On the other hand, this lot was awful. It was full of weeds and knee-high grass and in a rough part of town. But that's not the memorable part. The memorable part is that Anniston is where the lion trainer was attacked and bitten by the young male lion. After he was carried out of the big top, the clowns - who else? - had to run into the ring and take the audience away from the horror. But wait, there's more! Anniston is where the male trapeze artist finally completed a triple somersault to the hands of the catcher. So... from the horrible to the sublime, I guess.
Tuscaloosa, AL - The show set up in Snow Hinton Park, the most beautiful lot I ever saw. Of course, the fact that it was where I finally got together with the canvas boss might have something to do with it. At that point I was still riding with the boss clown. When we got to the lot, I asked him if would walk with me to the gas station. It was the middle of night; I still get nervous walking by myself at night, back then I was only four years out from the gang rape. He knew about it, but he still said, "No, I want to go to sleep. You won't get raped." (FYI - That is not the right thing to say to a survivor.) I walked over anyway. When I got back, I joined a group of big top guys who were drinking beers and telling lies. Apparently they all thought I was married to the boss clown. When I emphatically denied this, the canvas boss definitely perked up. He invited me back to his van for a smoke. I didn't leave for the rest of the season. The relationship didn't survive circus life, but it was a very good summer.
Biloxi, MS - We were right on the Gulf. I got to go swimming! On tear down night, I watched the bale rings come screaming down the poles. The canvas boss popped out from underneath; that was a nice surprise.
Natchez, MS - I helped post the arrows to the next lot, and we got pulled over by the Mississippi State Police for a broken tail light. The cop found rolling papers in the open glove box (it didn't have a door) and then searched the van pretty thoroughly. Luckily, he didn't find anything.
Shreveport, LA - On the way to Shreveport, my boyfriend fell asleep at the wheel of the spool wagon. I was already asleep. The truck jumped the median and that woke us up. However, we didn't realize we were on the wrong side of the highway for several minutes! Good thing it was the middle of the night - we were able to pull back onto the right side of the road quickly and easily. We were wide awake after that.
Jackson, MS - I learned to drive my boyfriend's '68 Ford Econoline van. I managed to jam the linkage during the lessons, but I learned enough to be able to pilot the little POS from town to town.
Memphis, TN to Blytheville, AK - On the midnight ride to Blytheville, I ran out of gas. A trucker picked me up, drove me to the next gas station where I filled up the gallon milk jug we used as a gas can, and then drove me back.
Annapolis, MD - My whole family and several friends came to see the show. They couldn't put up the big top for some reason, so the show looked especially raggedy. My Pop said, "I'm so glad we paid for Mary to get her degree. Just look how far she's come!"
Baltimore, MD - Billy Barton told me that all of his friends were coming to the show. I said that a bunch of mine were coming too. Billy said, "But all my friends are gay!" I replied, "Well, a lot of mine are, too!" He cracked up and said, "I always knew you were a fag hag!" Really, it's one of the nicest things he ever said to me.
Cuyahoga Falls, OH - Bobby Davis, Billy's partner (both show biz and personal), was pissed off at the PR guy. The PR guy had told Bobby that he was bisexual, and Bobby took offense at that assertion. We were walking toward a shopping center when Bobby said to me, "Goddammit, if you like to suck cock, you're a faggot!" I looked him right in the eyes and replied, "But Bobby, I like..." And Bobby fell over laughing and said, "Touche!"
The show closed for good in Willowick. Everyone got paid: performers first, clowns next, bosses next, and workin' men last. I got paid in dollar bills. My boyfriend the canvas boss got paid in rolls of quarters, a big box full. And the last guy got paid in pennies. No lie; I saw them.