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Quasi-Stoics Lounge

Thoughts on The Bianchi Family Circus

May 2, 2012 by Somebody Else

I've never been all that much into circuses. Growing up, I remember going to the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, which boastfully proclaims itself as the greatest show on earth. Sure, they put on a great show. As you know, it's a company with a lot of money and a huge number of people working for them. They've got loads of exotic and dangerous animals. They fill up very large venues. They're pretty much an American institution.

After I've been to one of their shows, I feel impressed, very impressed indeed. But for some reason, all of that flash and sparkle, all of those impressive feats of death defying derring-do, have failed to make a lasting impact on me. A day or two after one of their awe-inspiring presentations, I've pretty much forgotten it all.

Then you've got Cirque du Soleil, kind of the foreign competitor to Ringling Brothers. If you think tickets to Ringling Brothers are pricey, get a load of Cirque du Soleil. They have no problems emptying out your bank account for you. For that reason, I never have been to a Cirque du Soleil show -- I just can't afford it. But I've seen little snippets of their stuff on the television and on the Internet. Their Beatles Love show has gotten a lot of positive press. They're supposed to be a lot more artistic, sophisticated and creative than Ringling Brothers, kind of like the difference between a cheeseburger with fries (Ringling Brothers) and a buttery croissant with a side of spinach quiche (Cirque du Soleil).

So, you can imagine my reaction when I heard that the Bianchi Family Circus was coming to town. At first, I thought, humph, another circus, big deal. I imagined something similar to Ringling Brothers. Initially, it didn't occur to me that this would be a whole different ball of wax.

I found out that tickets to the Bianchi Family Circus were only twelve dollars. Last I heard, Ringling Brothers tickets could go for forty-five dollars or even more. I must admit, the twelve-dollar ticket price really intrigued me. Would I get less of a circus show for a lower ticket price? Maybe a mini-circus? What exactly might that involve? I decided to go ahead and check it out.

Also, I figured that this would be a good opportunity to do some restoration work on my relationship with my girlfriend Kathy, who I hadn't been seeing all that much for the last couple of months. We'd had a few arguments and disagreements in the recent past, and I was kind of thinking that maybe we were finished. We'd been touching base fairly regularly by phone and by e-mail, and we'd been meeting for dinner or lunch about once a week. I had continued going out to the local disco club without her, because I like to dance for fun, and that's just not her kind of scene. Not exactly a robust relationship, but not exactly dead in the water, either. So, I called her up, and asked her if she wanted to check out the Bianchi Family Circus that weekend. Sure, that sounds interesting, she replied, why not.

We showed up for the circus show at around 6:30 pm. They had set up a red and blue tent at the nearby fairgrounds, the same place where they hold the livestock shows, rodeos, and annual county fair. It wasn't a particularly big tent, just large enough for a few sets of portable bleachers with room for maybe two hundred people. I suppose more folks could have sat on the grass next to the bleachers, up to an additional hundred or so. But that evening there was just enough room for everyone on the bleachers.

Cathy and I paid at the entrance. I presented my credit card and the lady giving out the tickets snapped at me: "Cash only, mister." I noticed that she had a strong Hispanic accent and an unmistakably Latin American appearance. Fortunately, Kathy had come prepared with two twenty dollar bills, so we were allowed into the tent.

Most of those adults coming to see the circus that night looked like they were from my socio-economic group, which is to say overworked, underpaid, tired, probably slightly grumpy most of the time, and living month to month on a paycheck. There were of course lots of bright-eyed, excitedly anxious kids pulling on their parents' hands, urging them forward into the circus tent. I saw quite a few cigarettes dangling out of expressionless mouths and lots of tattoos -- a low-budget audience for a low-budget circus. Somehow, this made the whole affair seem more interesting to me all of a sudden. Maybe it would turn out to be more of a shared, interactive-type of experience than I had been expecting.

In the middle of the tent was one single ring. We're all heard the tired old cliché: "This ain't no three ring circus!" Well, indeed, it was not. Wow, I reflected to myself, I've never been to a one-ring circus. How about that? I pointed it out to Kathy, who mysteriously replied, "Sometimes less is more."

The whole show seemed to be run by a barker on a portable microphone, a slightly chubby, middle-aged Mexican woman with a pleasant and encouraging but unmistakably hard-edged voice, the voice of someone who knows how to stand up for herself when necessary, who can lay down the law for those circus associates who screw up. The children must have heard "fun, fun, fun" in her voice, but what I heard was a palpable undercurrent of "just try me and you'll see what you get, pal."

As the show went on, and I continued to listen to her voice, I also heard a few hints of sincere tenderness and humanity here and there. I had a vision in my mind of her stepping out of her trailer into the cold rain, saying a last goodbye to a former associate who'd just been fired for some reason or another, sticking some of her own money into her former colleague's pocket, and whispering to her: "You go back to your momma for awhile, alright? Take a break for a few days, you know. You don't need this kind of life anyway. You take care of yourself, okay, kid?"

They asked us to clap and shout a lot. We were told to call out to the performers and encourage them. It was kind of neat. It gave the audience the sensation of being in control, of directing the performers, of making them do things, of having a sense of power in our otherwise mostly powerless lives. As illusory as I consciously knew all of that was, I couldn't help but really like it on some deeper level, and I was really getting into the clapping and cheering. I guess that in a way I was sort of being a cheerleader for my own class of people, since those circus performers weren't really all that different from me -- just like me, they are living day to day, getting by as best as they can. Although from my point of view, what they do for a living is much more interesting than what I do, that is, working as a cashier at a Majik Market.

All of the people in the circus seemed to be Mexican, except for the Italian owner, Mr. Bianchi, who actually appeared in the show as a clown, and his daughter, Federica, who did a solo trapeze act and directed a troupe of trained dogs. During the show, I tried to get an idea of how the performers felt about Mr. Bianchi, but it was hard to tell. As a clown character, he allowed his employees to whack him with a foam bat as part of his silly routine. I don't know, maybe Mr. Bianchi uses that as a kind of ego therapy, maybe to help him to be a more humble boss or something. Who knows?

There was a cool trampoline act where they had another clown come in and do some interesting stunts by pretending to screw up really badly on the trampoline and take off most of his clothes, finally revealing some hilarious underwear with rainbow colors and a little red heart on his butt. The other trampoline jumpers did some more straightforward routines featuring some very complex and undoubtedly dangerous moves. I've taken trampoline lessons before, and I can tell you from experience, that's some hard stuff to do, and it's quite easy to get seriously injured or killed on a trampoline if you're not careful.

What else? Well, they had the wheel of death, which was this man-sized rotating wheel thingy at the end of a long steel bar supported in the middle, with a very heavy counterweight on the far opposite end. The wheel rises up from the grassy ground all the way up to the high ceiling above, and then it swings all the way back down and repeats again and again, and some guy jumped on it wearing a massive buckle-and-strap-covered leather jacket, kind of looking like a Mexican version of Ronnie James Dio in his better days. He did some very dangerous-looking stuff on that wheel of death, and appeared to almost slip and fall a couple of times when he was forty or fifty feet up in the air. If that was all an act, it was a nerve-wracking one for people like me to watch.

There was also another dude who juggled ridiculously large numbers of just about everything imaginable. Then he did some stuff with ropes with wooden knobs on the ends of them that rhythmically whapped the floor to the music that was being played, kind of like tap dancing with ropes. At the end of his show, he set his ropes on fire and started twirling them at very high speed, and they turned down the lights in the tent -- it was a seriously trippy thing to watch, really quite beautiful. Kathy snuggled up to me there on the bench, so I suppose she thought it was pretty inspiring as well.

But I suppose that the main focus of the show for me, and maybe for everyone else as well, was a young Mexican with the stage name of Brittney, who did this amazing routine suspended from a rope that hung down from the top of the tent. Kathy and I speculated as to how old she might be. My guess was eighteen, but Kathy figured she was no more than sixteen.

Brittney, whose real name is probably something like Guadalupe Esperanza Vargas-Hernandez, was dressed in a shiny, colorful, elegant outfit that reminded me a little bit of the kind of getup that the color guard or flag-bearing girls used to wear in my high school marching band. Of course, I'm fairly certain that Brittney is not enrolled in any school, and probably hadn't been for quite some time. I'd also imagine that she gets paid cash under the table, and that it's entirely possible that she is an illegal immigrant. But I tried to push those thoughts out of my mind, since Kathy had paid for us to enjoy ourselves, not to be reminded of the misery that exists in our world.

Brittney was quite pretty, was astoundingly limber, and had a slightly muscular physique, no doubt absolutely necessary for the difficult and demanding routine that she had to regularly perform high up on that rope. It was kind of terrifying and a bit depressing to see this lovely young lady suspended fifty feet up in the air with no net below her, slipping her feet and hands into the loops in the rope. I dreaded the prospect of witnessing her lose her grip and of having to watch her plunge to the ground, which would undoubtedly have knocked her out cold, broken several bones, and quite possibly could have killed her. Luckily, this did not come to pass.

While Brittney did her routine, they put on some sexy rock music instrumental featuring one of those 1980s-styled electric guitars, kind of like something from one of those old Bryan Adams tunes. For awhile there, I tried to push out of my mind the brutal reality of what was going on, and to make an effort to see her performance as the circus wanted me to see it, as a fun kind of fantasy.

So, for a moment there, I imagined that Brittney was an exquisite dream girl from a wonderful dream world, like a real-life Tinkerbelle or a fairy princess. I suppose that the kids in the audience were seeing it that way, so I decided that I might as well join them. And then, oddly, it occurred to me that maybe Brittney actually saw herself that way as well, even after doing her routine hundreds of times in countless faceless and forgettable towns like mine.

Once Brittney had finished her act and had been lowered, she did a dramatic flourish to the applause and cheers of the audience, then jubilantly danced her way along the grassy ground to the tent exit. Just before she passed through the exit, she looked back at us and winked with an ecstatic smile upon her heavily made-up face, which caused not a few little girls in the audience to squeal with delight. Kathy wryly commented to me: "Looks like she's got a promising career ahead of her." I decided not to respond to Kathy's party-pooping sarcasm.

For a few brief minutes, I savored the pleasant illusion that I had just witnessed, but then Brittney herself shattered it by coming out wearing black jeans, a black t-shirt, and a black baseball cap with the circus logo. She had a bunch of funnel cakes on a large platter and was trying to sell them to the audience members. Brittney's magical smile had disappeared, and had been replaced with the bored, indifferent scowl of Guadalupe Esperanza Vargas-Hernandez, vendor of overpriced, artery-clogging, gut-bomb circus food.

And it wasn't just Brittney out there trying to sell stuff. All of the performers, when they weren't in the ring, were wearing the same all-black outfit as Brittney, and they busied themselves trying to sell crap to us. Throughout the entire show, the circus troupe members put their heart and soul into their sales activities, proffering indispensable items such as brightly colored plastic whistles, or their official circus coloring book, or rainbow-colored snow cones. I guess that's how they try to make up for their ridiculously low twelve-dollar entrance fee.

The performers also did all of the grunt work, moving around the heavy props, cleaning up the camel crap with big flat shovels, etc. If you weren't paying much attention, you wouldn't have noticed that everyone was doing double duty.

The show eventually came to an end, and Kathy and I got up off the bench and made our way out into the night. It had started raining a bit, a slightly cold, dreary kind of rain. I stopped for a moment and turned around to look at the circus tent one last time. They had already started dismantling it at high speed. I saw Mr. Bianchi giving orders and inspecting the work, not looking very clown-like any more. I thought I might walk up to him and thank him for the entertainment, but Kathy stopped me, remarking: "Come on, leave him alone, can't you see he's busy?" I decided not to bother the man, so we left the fairgrounds.

I started to share some of my impressions of the circus with Kathy as she was driving me back to my apartment, but she didn't seem all that interested in hearing what I had to say. Finally, she blurted out: "Can we change the subject? Instead of yammering on about some two-bit circus, why can't we talk about our relationship for a change?"

Well, that turned out to be a lengthy conversation, to say the least, and it continued on in my apartment and didn't end until the wee hours of the morning, when both of us fell asleep sitting on the couch watching television. The next morning, she declined my offer to eat breakfast with me, and left in a rather irritable mood. So, I don't know if that evening improved, worsened, or made any change whatsoever to the status of our relationship. But we certainly talked a lot.

Anyway, I'm really glad that we went to see the Bianchi Family Circus, and I heartily encourage you to check them out as well. In my view, that would be twelve dollars well spent. I can't really recommend the stuff they sell at their show, except for maybe the official circus coloring book, since it does have some interesting pictures in it.

"Won't you tell me where my country lies?" said the unifaun to his true love's eyes...