I just finished the book Water for Elephants, which is about a circus in the 1930s. I’ve always been enamored with the circus, especially the old timey circus, so this book really had me absorbed—traveling on a dirty train car with animals and tents and candy. My friend got me a book about famous sideshow acts once, so I’m well versed in subjects like Lobster Boy and Eng and Chang the notorious Siamese twins. I’ve also seen the movie Freaks. Freaks was made in the early thirties and it starred a lot of the popular sideshow performers of the time. It’s about a circus, obviously, and it is thoroughly traumatizing. Especially when the sideshow acts are slithering toward the trapeze lady in the dark trying to kill her. The Human Caterpillar with the knife in his mouth was a particularly nightmare-inducing image for me.
I doubt working on, or running away with, a circus these days is anything like it used to be. Is there a circus union? There are still trains, I know that. And I know that because in high school we had to write reports on what we wanted to be when we grew up and actually interview people with that job and my best friend chose circus performer. It turned out to be a big conflict because the teacher claimed she wasn’t taking the project seriously and she couldn’t choose circus performer because she couldn’t get around the “interview a real person with this job” requirement. Well, lucky for my friend the circus was in town, and she interviewed those performers and enlightened us all. And the teacher got what she deserved for making a bunch of 16 year olds write about jobs they wanted. The other jobs I remember that people wrote on were lighthouse keeper, taxidermist, guy who clears birds off plane runways, and florist. Florist was mine, under protest. I had originally chosen pirate, but the teacher had the same problem with mine that she did with circus performer. But if I didn’t go and find myself a real pirate! His name was Bananas and he lived on a boat in the Caribbean and we had arrangements to conduct the interview over the phone at a port. And wouldn’t you know, the teacher still wouldn’t let me use it.