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The photographs in this project were edited by Scott Thode.
The Mudshow Diaries: A Journey.
It's about us.
It's about a small circus traveling around the country gathering memories and fighting oblivion.
It's called The Mudshow Diaries.
It's about making sure my kids stay away from the elephants, trying to find a laundromat in a strange town, documenting a world built around blood ties and sweat: a diary kept over several years of traveling with a circus in America became a journey in photography and motherhood, along with an odyssey into the circus' hidden world and the country's forgotten paths. Along the way it also became a journey in belonging - in discovering my family in a fleeting cast, reluctantly, and of finding acceptance, slowly, in this close-knit family that is the circus - love unfurled by tenuous chance, as on a tightrope.
The diary follows the Kelly Miller Circus, a mosaic of people who live, work and travel together, from Texas to Massachusetts and back again, for nine months out of the year, seven days a week. My husband, Fridman Torales, is an acrobat from Peru. I followed him into another life, an itinerant life of learning, endurance and self-discovery, a life of constant lessons, the embodiment of impermanence and pure beauty. The circus a life of unbearable lightness.
Out of California.
January 20, 2008, Hugo, Oklahoma.
It took us a week to come from northern California. A week and another world altogether, a week of bitter cold nights, strange bedfellows and a sordid motel.
We left the Bay Area and the parking lot behind a friend's business that we called home on Monday, almost six months to the day after Circus Chimera closed unexpectedly in early July.
After a night in a Texas panhandle motel, dubious carpet stains and dirty towels, reeking mattresses and jail windows, we drove the last leg of the trip, up to Hugo, Oklahoma, and Fridman and I took a memory ride on a road we traveled together many times before, state highway 70 in Oklahoma, a road cutting through the rolling hills of the southernmost part of the state along the Red River that makes up the border with Texas, past the Shamrock gas station where we stopped two years ago for lunch, it had then and still has the forlorn look of a scene out of The Grapes of Wrath, past abandoned small towns, through Durant, where the Peruvian circus family Cavallini played a few dusty, empty-house dates before closing, the year before Dylan was born, a sad ghost of a circus, and as we arrive in Hugo the first stop is at the Walmart, where we run into our friend Marcos and I've never been happier to see him, and his house and the junk in his yard makes me feel happy, I'm somewhere near home, I'm forty-one years old, I have two babies, I'm on the move, but I have arrived for now.
March 10, 2008, Hugo.
The winter quarters of the Kelly Miller Circus are next to those of two others circuses, Carson and Barnes and Chimera. Kelly Miller's has the look of an RV park, if it weren't for the bright red fleet of trucks with elephants and clowns on its flanks lined up near the entrance. It is a small, well-established circus that two years ago was bought by one of the Ringling brothers' heirs, John Ringling North II, and revamped. Last season, its first under the new management, went rather well. Today as I walked Dylan and Nicolas around to see the horses and the camel and the donkeys, I met most of the cast of characters of our life this year.
I met Lucky Eddie: I play the drums and here's the rest of the orchestra, he said, pointing to a computer he was carrying. He's in his late sixties, tall and thin, with light grey hair and a Buffalo Bill mustache and an air of mischief. On his trailer there is a sign that reads "Lucky Eddie and Ms. Vickie."
I met Jim Royal, the general manager, who was the ringmaster at Carson and Barnes when Fridman was working there, Jim the boss ready with a joke always, tall and upright but with an easy-going manner, he's like family we've known him so long. I met John Moss and his wife, Reyna, and their two sons, Johnny, nine, and Nathan, five; John is Kelly Miller's ring master and artistic director, and worked with Jim Royal at The Big Apple Circus and before that at Carson and Barnes. And I met Sara, whose last name I never knew, as with most people in the circus, and whom I remember from Circus Chimera, where, the first year Fridman worked there, she helped taking care of the ponies; she left the year after that. She's now performing a trapeze act and has a baby girl, ten-month-old Grania, "a souvenir from Australia."
I am looking forward to Nicolas growing up hand in hand with Gigi, as Grania is called.
March 16, 2008, Idabel, Oklahoma (44 miles, rodeo grounds.)
The circus moved a few days ago to its first locale of the season, right here in Hugo, a mere few blocks away from the winter quarters, to set up the tent and prepare for the debut, on Saturday. The location is the Choctaw County Agriplex, which, the signs says at the entrance, is also the Hugo Fairgrounds and the OSU Extension. There is a ballpark, a roller-skaters' ring, and a sprawling building.
Hugo hasn't changed much since I first discovered it seven years ago. Set in the rolling hills of Oklahoma's Red River valley, a two-and-a-half drive northeast of Dallas, it is still a down-trodden rural town, so like many others we've driven through along our circus routes through the Midwest and the West. Drugs and alcohol use seem to be rampant if the case of the extended family of a local friend of ours is any sign; downtown is deserted, a picture of decay, with the exception of the new library. There is a Ford dealership, several hardware stores, an ugly clothing store, a thrift store. Most of them look like they closed sometime in the sixties and were left to gather dust, and pity. Hugo bills itself as "Circus City," either a grandiose notion or a madly optimistic one depending on your point of view.
Opening day was yesterday; I wanted to see the show but couldn't, stuck in the trailer with three babies, as I've offered Sara to leave Gigi with me when she goes to work.
Short of people Jim asked Fridman if he could drive a truck over to the next town after helping to take down the tent tonight (they're short on tent crew for half the Mexican workers are still awaiting their visa; quotas have been slashed this year.) Fridman said yes; I felt him slide into bed some time deep into the night.
We woke up at five thirty to drive to the next town, Idabel, fifty miles away, the first in a long list of travels: the Kelly Miller Circus travels each and every day during the nine months it is on the road. It reminds us of the first circus Fridman worked at in this country, Carson and Barnes, where I met him when it played in Jacksonville, Illinois. The one good thing is that Kelly Miller travels in the morning: seeing the sun rise every morning and getting to see the country as we travel all the way to the east coast and back, I can't wait, I feel like a kid in a candy store.
It was pitch black still when we started out today but we had to wait a long time for Fridman's truck to be ready and when we drove into town the reddish pink arc of the sun was appearing above the tree-lined horizon in front of us. Highway 70 east was a straight shot through the southern Oklahoma countryside, pine trees towering along the road a little before Valliant, a small town dominated by a paper mill, smaller towns yet, lopsided houses, a run-down gas station and a brand new corrugated metal church building, long horns sitting in the grass, and then Idabel, "dogwood capital of Oklahoma."
Finally, the first trip already brought a serving of traditional circus fare: Sara got stuck in the soggy terrain leaving the lot in Hugo and had to be towed by one of the tractor trailers, only to get stuck once again upon entering the fairgrounds here.
March 17, Honey Grove, Texas (73 miles.)
More circus fare: a motor-home slid off the road in a town called Blossom, on highway 82 in Texas, on the drive over this morning, and several other drivers, including Fridman, stopped to help pulling it up. There were three cows grazing in a field next to my truck as I waited, parked behind them, feeding Dylan the crumbs of a gas station muffin and later breastfeeding Nicolas when he woke up. It was sunny but a fleet of low-lying clouds was racing across the sky under a stratus of other clouds much higher up that looked completely still.
The Red Oak Gun Shop sits in a shady grove a few miles outside of a small town called Detroit; that, and the surprising sad beauty of a short, single strip of downtown facades down main street, the faded hues of the mismatched brick fronts, all the more beautiful for their decaying descent into the slow oblivion of rural America, beautiful the way I imagine Havana, Cuba, to be beautiful, its appeal its very shabbiness for those lucky enough not to be scrapping a living there. And there is something about highway 82 and airplanes; outside of Blossom, on the left side of the road, the nose of an airplane in the dust of a yard, and later on, west of Paris, in a place called Toco, an entire aircraft sitting there pointing at the road as if the crew were waiting for us to board; it is old and rusty but above all incongruously big. I had seen it before, driving by on the way to Hugo from Dallas over the years.
March 17, Honey Grove, Texas (53 miles.)
Paris, Texas, Wim Wenders' movie, a cult movie in France and a heart full of memories, circa 1983.
Paris, Texas, maybe because it was my father's favorite movie and I miss him; maybe because many of my friends all live in Paris, France; or maybe just because you never get to see Paris, Texas, after all, in the movie.
Paris, Texas, seeing it for the first time, barely eighteen, and not getting it at all; seeing it again, two years later, stepping out of the theater and into the blinding daytime street bustle of Paris, France, and bursting into tears, swept by an emotion I still cannot understand some twenty years later but felt then raw and overpowering.
My mother and I stayed at the Holiday Inn in Paris, Texas, when I was pregnant with Dylan and relocating to Savannah, Georgia. I've never had the opportunity to take a good picture of the place, one that imagine would be banal and would remind me forever of that buried sorrow.
March 18, Rhoyse City, Texas (50 miles, Rhoyse City Middle School parking lot.)
Shows were cancelled today as it didn't take very long for nature to catch up with the circus, exactly two days. Strong winds, torrential rains prevented the crew from putting up the tent; they halted after only a few attempts. It was doubtful anyone would have showed up in this weather anyway, as flooding and the occasional tornado warning would have kept most people in.
Almost all circus vehicles got bogged down in mud last night following severe storms, the atmosphere turning muggy and unseasonably warm. The circus was parked in a grassy field outside an elementary school, and everybody knew what was coming, just not how messy it would turn out. As for us we felt so snug in our confidence that the truck's four-wheel-drive abilities would get us out without so much as a thought that we didn't see it coming at all.
But the trailer's front jacks broke, and when Fridman was finished with the business of raising the trailer with the help of Sarah and others, he realized that the four-wheel drive on the truck didn't work anymore, and we got stuck, too. We fell asleep too, Fridman on the couch and I on top of the bed with my clothes on, waiting for the crew to pull us out.
When the crew was finally ready to pull us, the scene outside was eerie, with trailers on the field like beached whales, the beams of the flashlights and of the forklift in the engulfing darkness, the voices of the men shouting, and the deep gouges in the black earth, like battle scars. As our trailer began to move, slowly, lurching forward only to slow down and become still again, the structure of it creaking and swaying like an old house, it reminded me of a famous poem by Arthur Rimbaud, the quintessential rebel French poet, my house like a drunk boat, "Le Bateau Ivre," indignant in its sudden infirmity.
March 25, White Settlement, Texas (27 miles, Central Park.)
I am loving driving in the morning, and it's infinitely better for the kids' sleep pattern than jumping at night like the Circus Chimera: the lesson of our first week of traveling with the Kelly Miller Circus. They already know the routine, the kids, waking up when I pick them up from their crib but soon falling back asleep if we get on the road (Nicolas is always the first one out, and sometimes Dylan, distracted by Fridman and I talking on the CB radio, doesn't fall asleep until we're almost there.) Nicolas is just getting into the habit of learning how to fall asleep on his own (and not waking up at night, which was achieved early last week as we started the season,) and with Dylan I'm trying to establish a regular sleep time, with more or less success depending on the days, so I am grateful not to have to wake them up right after they have finally have reached their goal of the night.
Up in arms.
August 13, 2008, Cass City, Michigan (70 miles, Village park.)
At the 135 mile marker on I-75 North, an enormous black machine gun on a billboard for "SheridanArms.com," right up there with Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and Dan Dan the Furniture Man.
I'd just listened to an National Public Radio story on what they called the fastest growing minority in the United States: the prison population.
Mr. Perfect Picture is here to help, and other news.
August 28, 2008, Watseka, Illinois (23 miles, behind Walmart.)
The route said: Arrows to lot BEHIND WALMART! You'd think we had parked behind the White House.
The lot reminded me of those from our Circus Chimera days, rough and ugly. As it happens, Jim Judkins, Chimera's founder and owner, was visiting today on business.
In other news we picked up somebody to help in the kitchen when we left Goodland this morning. I'll call him the Perfect Picture guy for when I was coming back from the playground with the kids yesterday afternoon he was outside the circus smoking and told me we made a perfect picture, all three of us in our sun hats.
I liked his toothy smile and easy demeanor even though he looked like he could use a long shower (admittedly not a good sign for kitchen help.)
December 12, 2008, Ft Myers, Florida (wintering at our new home.)
To me the face of the U.S. financial meltdown is that of Sherri.
Sherri is probably in her forties and still very beautiful. I answered her online ad for used furniture and walked into the living story of the real estate meltdown and the economic disaster it has unfolded.
Sherri and her husband started out with nothing twenty years ago, and ended up building a successful business, a cabinet-making business that kicked ass, she said, during the boom of the real estate market in Florida. Then the crisis hit and they lost everything: their business went bankrupt, their home is in foreclosure, they are selling pretty much all they own and moving to Georgia where her husband found a lesser-paying job.
When we started out we had nothing, I used to wonder how I would pay for formula, she said, and now here we are and I have to think of how to pay for milk.
Day after day as I call to find this and that for the house I run into the same story, people living in motels while their home is being foreclosed, Dave in room 154 at the Wonderland Motel selling a new fridge, selling their belongings before the bank gets them, Chris at another motel selling a stove, that's all I've left in there. Sherri said there was a story in the news this morning about southwest Florida having the highest unemployment rate in the country. She's trying to keep her two teenage sons in school, waiting to be reunited with her husband, and it's like we're dating again, she said, laughing. We need a drastic change, she said, and Obama has so much on his plate, but he'll do something good, this is nuts.
I had called about her ceiling fans, white with no lights.
They'll keep my home nice and cool.
My home was a foreclosure.
Here we go again.
February 12, 2009, Brownsville, Texas (666 miles.)
The 2009 season started today with the premiere show at six o'clock. Lines of people, both shows packed, the same way it was with Circus Chimera's premieres here. Everybody is ecstatic, there is electricity in the air.
Still, no lights after ten PM, five o'clock wake-up calls, a new town every day, from now on our nights belong to the circus.
How quickly you forget when you're living on the outside.
The Fusco family.
February 22, 2009, McAllen, Texas (54 miles, next to Convention Center.)
The Fusco family arrived late Wednesday. They'll be working with us for two months.
The patriarch of the family was once one of the best malambo performers in Argentina (malambo is a traditional dance there,) according to tio Tito, another Argentinian, who has known him all their circus lives. Tito has been staying nearby in Rio Hondo since Chimera closed; we've been seeing him.
The Fuscos were with Kelly Miller for a few days last year, I'd seen them at Chimera before that. They do two acts: a malambo act where they're all together, and a juggling act with only the twin brothers and the two younger sisters as sidekicks. We've worked with yet other siblings over the years.
They come in and out of the picture of our traveling life with a kind of erratic regularity, a reflection of the offbeat small-world character of the circus.
March 30, 2009, Musfreeboro, Arkansas (86 miles, RD plant construction site.)
We're in Arkansas, somewhere between the towns of Sweet Home and Delight.
There is no water on this lot, a glaring gravel expanse with pools of murky water, old drums and machinery left to rust, out in the middle of spring-green pastures and woods, down a lovely country road.
April 20, 2009, Clinton, Indiana (59 miles, Sportland park.)
Yolanda Luna turned thirteen a few days ago and there was a birthday party under the big top today. She's Manuel Luna's daughter from a previous relationship; her mother, Marixa, who is Romani and part of a Peruvian circus family, is a childhood friend of Fridman's, and so is Manuel; they all practically grew up together.
I remember Yolanda from the first year I went to visit Fridman on the road with Carson and Barnes. Manuel and Marixa were performers there as well and Yolanda worked in the show the way children of performers most often do.
I remember a little girl perched on a pony, looking like a porcelain doll in her frilly costume. I remember a little girl holding on to the reins with a fierce determination in her eyes as elephants, camels, horses and a slew of performers swirled around.
That was seven years ago.
Blow, blow your candles.
She danced to Hannah Montana on the ring with eleven-year-old Channing, Josie's daughter, who looks like she's seventeen, Jessica Perez, twelve, Tavo's youngest, and the other teens on the show.
June 27, 2009, Sandwich, Massachusetts (38 miles, Oak Crest Grove.)
Slowly the little circus from Hugo, Oklahoma has made its way to the cradle of America.
We stopped to get gas right by the wooden sign that says "Welcome to Plymouth, the Hometown of America, founded 1620."
So it's back along memory lane again, taking frantic notes in U.S. history classes at the Charles V English Institute in the old Marais neighborhood in Paris with a captivating professor by the unfortunate name of Mrs. Coit. The Mayflower, Cotton Mather and the Puritans, the first Thanksgiving, the beginning of the end for Native Americans, the blossoming of my fascination with America.
By all measures it hasn't waned.
By our trailer there is a small wooded cemetery by the side of the field called Tobey Cemetery. I went there as soon as we arrived, Dylan and Nicolas in tow. There are about twenty graves, the oldest dated 1789, and then one that stopped me: "In memory of Elisha son of Mr Peleg & Mrs. Elizabeth Lawrance he died Oct. 24 1810 aged 5 years 3 mons. 7 days."
June 28, 2009, Plainville, Massachusetts (63 miles, town park.)
T'is the season of long lost friends.
My friend Mary Beth and her family visited today from Providence. We last saw each other fifteen years ago in graduate school at the University of Missouri in Columbia. She was a mentor, an inspiration, she still is. That, and something rare just happened after all these years, the burgeoning of a kinship only hinted at, envisioned maybe but never fulfilled, a kinship of vision, and heart, something unexpected, and all the more beautiful for it.
The way we are.
July 23, 2009, Cochoranton, Pennsylvania (45 miles, Lions park.)
It has become part of life on the road by now, as far as we can remember this year, the incessant rain, pouring like last night and into the morning drive, storming like the day before, drizzling sometimes, but always there it seems since we left the Rio Grande valley back in March, always there for a fact since the beginning of June, following us like a faithful fan, in truth working to the circus' advantage most of the time for kids out of school for the summer don't have much else to do but come to the show when it rains and rains and rains in those small towns.
No complaints then, not even with the pan on the bed to collect water from the leaks, no complaints, just the raindrops on the roof, the way everything shines so, even with the mud, towing the trucks over and over again, the discomfort, the extra work. During our audio interview Casey said how he gets wishing he were doing some other work when he's stuck on the side of the road in the rain, only to love it all over again the next day, mud and all.
Circus people are like that, this is their life, it's tougher than most but they don't wish it could be any different.
It makes them stubbornly endearing.
August 20, 2009, Manistee, Michigan (59 miles, Seng's lot.)
Sign above a shop somewhere on highway 31 south:
Free coffee for Indians
Free coffee for veterans
Two cups for Indian veterans.
Play misty for me.
August 21, 2009, Scottville, Michigan (23 miles, McPhail field.)
The first movie ever directed by Clint Eastwood has absolutely nothing to do with it, but I can't think of mist, engulfing the circus road this morning, without remembering that movie, and I a young woman sitting transfixed in a musty arts theater in Paris on an afternoon otherwise long since forgotten.
September 18, 2009, Rolling Meadows, Illinois (30 miles, Park Central.)
Father Jerry Hogan flew in from Chicago today to celebrate Tavana's communion and confirmation into the Catholic Church and her and Danny's marriage blessing. The ceremony was held under the cookhouse tent. Afterward Tavana cried, holding her head in her hands.
I'd been waiting for ten years for this, she said.
Fifty-three and counting.
September 20, 2009, Vernon Hills, Illinois (27 miles, Hawthorn mall.)
Rebecca Ostroff, a friend of Tavana's and the Cainans' who has been us for a while to work the web act to replace Courtney, was called upon to fill in for the Fernandes family as well today, as Adilson didn't feel well enough to perform. She did her signature single trapeze act.
Rebecca is fifty-three years old and still working her aerial act full time; she has no intention of stopping any time soon. She joined the circus by accident when she was in her thirties and a dancer in New York, she told me, swept by magic of the big top off the stages of Broadway, a whirlwind for another, never to look back. She is all movement, svelte and blond and appropriately theatrical.
Musings on futility.
September 23, 2009, Downers Grove, Illinois (22 miles, middle school.)
The only real problem with living with two small kids in a travel trailer the size of your closet is that once they've strewn the toys all over the floor there is no space left to walk, or sit. My days are filled with pushing toys around in a futile attempt to clear a passage for the rest of the dwellers.
I don't know why I keep doing it, other than to prove a point lost on anyone but me, a sort of Mom's Maginot line. It would be much easier to just skip and dodge - a principle that also applies to life in general, come to think of it.
September 27, 2009, Lisle, Illinois (24 miles, community park.)
Dinner is served between the shows at the Kelly Miller circus, so on Sunday that means eating dinner at four o'clock.
The custom comes from having to take down the cook-house tent and clean the kitchen in time for taking down the big top after the second show. For those who don't have a private kitchen, like the crew, that means depending on what is called the pie car, one of the families on the show serving home-made meals in a sort of after-hours restaurant. Josie used to do it, then Reyna took it up when Josie left, but for a while now there hasn't been a pie car and the guys have to make do with gas station fare, if they're lucky and there is one around the corner.
February 1, 2010, Hugo, Oklahoma (1,100 miles and a few.)
I withstood life in a house, and we made it safe back to Hugo.
We drove back from Florida over the week end, the trip went fast and easy with two ride-perfect kids, but a sore neck (Fridman called me Terminator because I couldn't turn my head and had to twist my whole bust instead,) the result of a bad chiropractic move that woke up an old injury, kept me on the verge of tears until I remembered the wonders of Advil. That and a food poisoning whose effects lingered for weeks, and a persistent, wrenching dry cough that keeps me up at night made for a somewhat difficult winter, even if we were spared the extreme cold that gripped the rest of the nation.
Now we're back home, and I can eat again, not to mention turn my head, but the cough is still here.
February 5, 2010, Hugo, Oklahoma.
Hugo is a sore sight in the winter, a study in shades of unkempt gray and brown and mud.
The poor economy has not helped. The Main Shopping plaza is a ghost, a derelict patch of potholed asphalt with a hairdresser clutching to life next to an abandoned store front and a women's counseling center: "Providence Counseling Center: No Soliciting, No Smoking, No Weapons."
February 11, 2010, Brownsville (803 miles, lot across from H.E.B. on Paredes Line Avenue.)
Yesterday was non-stop, last minute rehearsals from eight in the morning til midnight. I missed it all.
I spent the day in bed, unable to move, feeling as run over by a truck, getting up, wobbly, to take my medicine, landing into bed again. It wasn't all that unpleasant, like a dead-weight body but without any sharp pain. The sweet old doctor from England (I'm here for the weather) who saw me at the clinic took one look at me and declared that I was "very sick." I was running a fever; funny enough since it's the first thing I check in the kids, I would have never thought of it in myself. Whatever the diagnosis I haven't felt that sick in a long time, even though I was able to get up this morning and feed the kids.
I wish I could lay in bed forever with somebody bringing me hot tea and putting their hand on my forehead, the way mothers do.
February 21, 2010, Brownsville.
What remains is the sour smell of sickness and mud.
I didn't see much of the circus in Brownsville, I didn't see much of anything. I haven't even met Carolyn yet, or the Australian twin girls who arrived on Friday; it is as if I lived on a parallel planet, in my orbit of unrelenting pain and discomfort. I am nauseous of my own skin, the sour taste taints the air in the trailer. Working on the program is at a standstill.
For anybody else it isn't much better. It rained and rained two days ago and the lot turned into a disastrous mud pit, worse than anything we've seen last year. It is an exact replica of what we went through with Circus Chimera three years ago, an ugly memory of there ever was one.
What remains is the sour smell of sickness and mud.
March 13, 2010, Falfurias, Texas (76 miles, VFW grounds.)
There was nobody watching the show but there were lots of wild flowers and I picked some and made a bouquet and it always makes me think of Priscilla and Jo, of the Little Sisters of Jesus, how they revel in finding beauty in small things, and peace, and how the mere thought of them reminds me of that simple truth without a word.
March 13, 2010, Pleasanton, Texas (130 miles, River park.)
It's eleven o clock at night; we arrived a little while ago at the end of the circus caravan of trucks and trailers.
Seventy-five miles this morning, two shows and a hundred and thirty miles tonight.
On Monday we make a three hundred and plus mile jump.
The Kelly Miller Circus season has begun.
March 21, 2010, Frisco, Texas (66 miles, Frisco Square.)
And it snowed.
How could it snow when it was balmy just yesterday?
By this morning three inches had accumulated. The tent could break and was taken down, the crew starting at three in the morning shoving snow off in an attempt to save the shows. They were cancelled and we got the day off. I had gotten up at seven to take pictures of what I thought would be moody shots of the solitary tent and ended up documenting the crew taking it down and struggling in the bitter wind, the material sticking to the mud underneath the snow, heavy with moisture. I got cold too, shooting with no gloves or warm boots.
April 7, 2010, Heber Springs, Arkansas (139 miles, fairgrounds.)
Yesterday I finally joined the zumba class Carolyn has been giving since the start of the season.
We're parked at the fairgrounds again, just like last year, so we all danced to Lady Gaga in the Beef Barn.
Morning drive ups and downs.
April 9, 2010, Mountain Home, Arkansas (50 miles, rodeo grounds.)
We crossed the Ozark National Forest this morning. Dressed in budding spring it would be beautiful, in the early morning sunlight it was more striking than all the Expressionists in the world.
I would have had a big smile on my face had it not been for the nagging worry of going up and down a mountain with a bad transmission and a ton of trailer (and two kids) in the back.
Road mishap (smells like candy.)
April 17, 2010, exit 135 on I-55 North, somewhere near Brewer, Missouri (68 miles out of 90 or so.)
One of the trailer's rear wheels took a little road trip of its own this morning.
On interstate I-55 North, some forty miles short of our destination, I happened to be glancing at my rear-view mirror when I saw a wheel shoot out from the trailer across the highway. Off it flew, and then back across the road again, nearly hitting Buckner, who was right behind me driving Armando's horse trailer, although I did not see that part because by that time I was mostly intent on getting off the road safely. Buckner stopped and hit the runaway wheel so that it would not continue on its seesaw journey down the highway.
Miraculously it didn't hit anyone. It was on fire when Buckner got to it and he could not find anything better to do than pour his soda on it to extinguish the flames, so that later as he joined us on the shoulder to give us the wheel back it smelled like candy.
The news about Dylan.
May 5, 2010, Pittsboro, Indiana (69 miles, Scamahorn park.)
There is always something. I spent most of the day in the ER with Dylan.
In the end we found out he has asthma, and was having an acute attack. We had taken him to a clinic in the morning to check on this ongoing cough he's had, and the cold he had just caught yesterday playing outside with Flaco until late, and as we got home he started having difficulty breathing. Now he's set with a vaporizer and treatment for the lung infection that triggered the attack, and I'm learning of people who turn out to have asthma too, like Fridman's mother, and Sheyla's daughter, and other kids around the circus, so I don't feel as bad about the condition.
It was a stressful day on the road, but the staff at the ER was caring, especially the attending physician, a woman who exulted such joy and trust.
And Dylan got to watch cartoons on TV all afternoon.
May 16, 2010, Coldwater, Ohio (32 miles, school grounds.)
Fridman made a swing for Dylan out of an unused piece of wood and some rope he had laying around: our front yard playground for the day.
May 18, 2010, Mechanicsburg, Ohio (83 miles, church grounds.)
Maximiliano, one of the Fusco twins, who was visiting for a few days, left at call time today.
In the foggy rainy darkness of morning, as she was getting the trailer ready for the day's journey, I asked Susana, the doña of the Fusco family, whether one ever got used to the farewells.
She said no; she was whispering.
In her eyes I saw a reflection of my anguish.
May 29, 2010, Hancock, Maryland (56 miles, Widmeyer park.)
Same lot and even same day as last year, the circus has played here all three years we've been traveling with it, and again the river wash and splash of the elephants. But there was something much more important than the elephant bath, something no circus Mom would miss: a laundromat within walking distance of the lot.
Seeing the world one laundromat at a time, as Carolyn mockingly remarked.
June 4, 2010, Leola, Pennsylvania (10 miles, flea market.)
The Amish farm country in front of us was lit by an army of fireflies last night and Dylan rushed in from the Poemas's trailer to tell me, then went gamboling around, trying to catch them (he did, lots.) He looked like a lamb first out in the field.
Fireflies, butterflies, ladybugs and stars, Dylan and Nicolas like to point them out, and the other night Nicolas pointed to a lone star and asked: What does it eat?
The two of them also like to find the moon in the approaching dusk. Dylan says it's following him.
Historical tour on the house and the infinity of our circus days.
June 25, 2010, Pembroke, Massachusetts (39 miles, Community Center park.)
One of the sponsors here, Bob Lessard, took the four of us on a tour of the area this morning.
We stopped at Plymouth Rock, joked about it being really installed in 1954 for tourists' sake, walked around a replica of the Mayflower, had Dylan make a scene because he wanted to go on it, drove on to the Winslow House for a visit of this 1699 and rather gentry pilgrims' home.
Today, the second of a two-day stand, I had gotten up early to sit outside and read, the woods opening up in front of the trailer, the vines brushing up against my flowers - the loveliness of it all. It is afternoon now and I am finishing this morning's cold tea. Two days of infinity. Or as Carolyn said, life reinvented every day.
On the road with the circus we get up and reinvent ourselves every day, day after new day, the challenges, the beauty, the chaos, the routine, all unfolding as if for the first time.
"I'm on my way with a doctor."
June 27, 2010, North Andover, Massachusetts (58 miles, middle school.)
I've been sick for more than two weeks with some sort of intestinal bug and it got a lot worse yesterday. Priscilla and Jo, the Little Sisters of my heart, who've been with us since Olney, moved last night to North Andover to attend mass with Father Jerry Hogan, circus people's chaplain for North America, and as they came to say goodbye they volunteered to ask him whether he would know a physician so I could make an appointment more easily than by looking blindly up the yellow pages.
This morning as we pulled into the lot Jo called saying they were on their way with a doctor. Standing by their van he listened to me then wrote a prescription on a piece of paper Priscilla handed him (he thinks I have an e-coli infection.)
That's the little sisters, that's the the circus.
June 30, 2010, Lancaster, Massachusetts (49 miles, behind flea market.)
Same lot as last year, but we came from the opposite direction.
All is still when I wake up, half an hour ahead of call time, back in Merrimac, but the sound of the horses Armando is loading up into a trailer. Then little by little the tractor trailers' engines break into a roar as Castro goes around starting them, and the first voices can be heard. John is parked next to us and he comes out to start his generator. Soon Mike's truck is leaving the lot, followed by Carolyn in their pickup truck, and Raul is leaving too, always the first private to go with the Cainans. But this morning the Cainans linger on, and I see them drive off as I sit down in our truck after Fridman has put the kids in their seat.
It is daylight, one of the privileges of summer morning traveling. The drawback is that mosquitoes are out, for otherwise it is an easy time with the circus, when the days are long and the BBQs plenty, the kiddie pools are out and town people bring an air of unencumbered childhood delight to the show.
The drive is of average length, an hour and a half or so, but early on Fridman stops for the generator truck. It's on the shoulder of I-495, the interstate loop around the Boston area. I go on because chances are they'll be there a while, with traffic hurtling by at high speed not more than a few feet away. Fridman and I say goodbye and take good care on the CB radio. It will be mid-morning before they arrive on the lot.
Traffic is heavy with the morning rush, the road is full of potholes, but I make it without incident, reaching John Moss in the Marathon at the end. He is a careful driver, as painstakingly meticulous in this task as in everything else he does.
It was cool this morning, and when I get to sit down outside with a cup of tea while watching the kids play on a mount of dirt at the end of the field, it is cool still, and breezy, reminding me of an early autumn day.
The circus day has just begun.
Circus beach party.
July 24, Conneaut, Ohio (57 miles, Lakeview park.)
Today we owned the best piece of real estate in town, right on the lake.
It was hot and it was humid and then we all went down for a swim. The scene was miraculous, the water and the sunset glow falling on our faces, all of us down at the beach, and then the sky immense and aflame, and so nobody else existed and nothing else mattered.
August 3, Kelley's Island, Ohio (33 miles, ball diamond.)
Another visit to the ER, and this time having to take the ferry back to the mainland and spend the night on a Walmart parking lot.
The good thing is Nicolas is fine, and the Little Sisters came with us, making this yet-another healthcare ordeal not only lighter for me but in the end an adventure for the kids. We all slept in their van after stopping for the promised French fries, which arrived to much jumping around, despite the late hour, endless wait and bitter medicine. In the end we also got to take the ferry by day, not only once but twice, in the sunset light and foggy morning. Goodness!
It turns out it was only a bug and Nicolas got a really expensive double dose of Tylenol. But better safe than sorry is the motto on an island with no doctors, and no ferry service during the night.
Department of road signs.
August 9, Wixom, Michigan (42 miles, Gilbert Willis park.)
Leaving Stockbridge this morning, under the sign for the local park on the main square, another sign with an arrow pointing to "HELL."
Further on outside of town: Hooker Road.
August 11, Redford, Michigan (10 miles, Bell Creek park.)
My brother Patrick died last night sixteen years ago on the tail of a shooting star.
He was 29 years young.
The wisdom of babes.
September 12, Harvard, Illinois (28 miles, Milky Way park.)
To my comment that he could watch a movie later, Nicolas answered: "There is no later, Mom."
October 12, Ellsberry, Missouri (46 miles, Page Brant park.)
A by-product of reading The New Yorker this morning was remembering my friend Jo.
Jo Kaufmann was a simple copy editor but I always thought there was much more to her, without seizing the chance to find out. I was a kid, really, and she was my family on this side of the Atlantic, my new home. I was looking for a room to rent in New York one summer when someone, I forget who, put us in contact. She lived in a u-shaped apartment on the Upper West Side, on 93th Street and Central Park West, and sublet two bedrooms to foreign students, whom she sometimes befriended to the point where they became like her children, much to her own children's disapproval, as I learned later (there might have been understandable jealousy.) I became one of these; the liking was mutual and instantaneous.
A few years later I think it was her daughter who called to say she had died. I felt cheated, the world lonelier without her intelligence and wit (which could be biting: the first and only time he spoke to her on the phone he told her a joke she did not appreciate and was hence relegated to the forbidden place of people Jo did not like and were therefore never mentioned in her presence; my poor father never understood what had happened.)
It was the summer of 1988 and I had found work in a Washington Square coffee shop on a temporary student working visa. It was my second visit to New York, the one when I fell in love with the city, and Jo had a lot to do with it. Don't you love it here, she would say, not a question but an affirmation, as if there was no other possible way to feel about her adopted home.
Jo was related to the Freud family, the founder of psychoanalysis, and cousin to Lucian Freud, the famous British painter. She was born and raised in Germany and emigrated shortly before World War II, first to England and ultimately to the United States. Some time during this exile route she was married, but by the time I met her her husband was not around.
I write this struggling to patch together the few fragments of what she told me I still remember, and wishing the kid that I was would have taken the time to sit down with her and learn so much more. In truth I did think about interviewing her even back then; my mentor and the grandfather I never had, Paul Lambert, a painter, had committed suicide a few years earlier, leaving me with the bitter regret of not having asked him to tell me his life in his own words - all the way back then the pull to try and preserve a person through their words, to archive the details of experience, to delve into the lives of the ones I loved as if it might help stave off the inevitable void into which I felt they were bound to disappear too soon, too suddenly, leaving no trace but in my memory, ephemeral, unreliable.
Paul's partner, Helene, died of breast cancer; Paul killed himself a few years later; Jo died of heart failure. Their story died with them.
I remember sitting in Jo's kitchen drinking tea and eating Pepperidge Farm bread, which she introduced me to as if it were a delicacy. The kitchen was painted entirely bright yellow and its window gave onto a narrow back court full of rusty fire escapes. I don't remember the color of the other rooms, but in my memory they are an invisible cream white. What I remember is Jo sitting at the tiny kitchen table with me, peppering me with questions about my day, always taking the opportunity to celebrate the city with me, an exile's zeal. What I remember is Jo sitting at the big table in the living room right off the kitchen, working on a manuscript, surrounded by dictionaries and books and pages and pages, and the coffee table at the other end of the room, where I would sit, with a pile of New Yorker magazines on it, and the window sills with meager plants trying to survive the scorching summer heat, and the shelf full of books on the end wall.
The process of writing sometimes brings back memories, like seeing people walking slowly out the shadows.
There was a Chinese restaurant she liked to go to, at the end of the block on Columbus Avenue, and sometimes we would go there together, as the time, on a short visit to the city in later years, when I had gone to meet her in her apartment just to walk to the restaurant together. She walked with difficulty, being overweight and riddled with health problems (of which I never dared to ask.) One night on that first stay with her, the first of what would be many, she invited me to her bedroom, a tiny room immediately by the front door, at the beginning of the long hall running the length of the apartment like a spine, to watch opera on television. Her bedroom was forbidden territory, by an unspoken rule, as boarders were expected to respect each other's privacy above anything else.
She loved opera, and dance, and theater, she was passionate about literature and the English language (how I wish she could read over my shoulder now,) she was to me the ultimate New Yorker, the embodiment of the many East European Jews who came to flourish in this country and enrich it after fleeing Hitler's crimes.
Every visit to New York after she died has left me with a disappointing feeling. It took me a long time to recognize she was missing from the city, and that the city she inhabited would never be returned to me. It has disappeared just as entirely as she has.
A quiet town.
October 19, Lawson, Missouri (25 miles, large grassy field.)
It only takes a few steps, most of the time.
Yesterday I felt irritated, for reasons I cannot remember now, so I went walking. I felt restless, futile and wrong in my discontentment, but as I walked to the center of town, a few hilly blocks away, I soon fell into a trance, and a trove. I started taking pictures without looking for them, because walking opens my eyes and quiets my rambling mind, it just makes me feel good, even when the scenery is bleak, or worse, common, especially when the scenery is bleak and common, as in so many small towns we play.
There was an unlikely boarded-up laundromat, a house with the shadow of a portico around a crumbling door, a cement wall that looked like a monochrome Miro canvas, a flower garden clinging to life in the autumn coming, an old gas station for sale, many homes with repossession notices on their door. I walked slowly, marveling at what each step revealed, and without trying the irritation was gone, and a joyful sensation took its place.
It was a rather desolate town in northwestern Missouri.
No more of all that circus.
October 29, 2010, Hugo, Oklahoma (108 miles, Kelly Miller Circus winter quarters.)
It feels sad, as things ending will.
"Home run to Hugo" said the route slip, like every year. Everybody made it to base safe. Some had left straight for home last night, like Brian, who took off so fast I didn't get a chance to say goodbye; some left this morning; and then the rest of us, who park their trailer on the Kelly Miller winter quarters lot here in Hugo, all drove here.
On the way Fridman and I stopped at a gas station on highway 70 to wait as Teto filled his truck. The sign said: "Pierce's Country Stop: Feed/Beer."
We're in Oklahoma.
So it feels like our circus home, still, and not so sad yet, seeing Lucky Eddie, Delena, Susana walking around with Argio around the trailers, Tavana and Danny still at the office, the tent crew guys cleaning their stuff to get ready to leave for Mexico on Sunday. And there are no more waking up at five thirty every morning, no more driving the truck every morning, tired and awake or not, no more losing power every night, cold or not, no more gathering the pieces of what fell during the trip, no more wishing we would stay put, just one day, just one more day.
Now there's the rest of the year without the circus.
And it feels unhinged, as things ending will, or maybe just circus people when they leave their wandering soul behind.
March 23, 2011, Van, Texas (70 miles, high school.)
We flew back yesterday.
It was a good trip, if a ten-hour flight with two kids and a twenty-four-hour traveling day can be called a good trip. But it was good, for the kids were angels. I woke them up at six for the taxi call after we all went to bed around midnight, and they were fine, fell asleep shortly after take-off, leaving me to browse magazines by my quiet self, and watched cartoons for the rest of the flight.
Dylan fell asleep again on the way back to the circus and didn't wake up til this morning. Then he went chirping around to anybody that would listen - in French. Both he and Nicolas ran wild with Flaco and Gigi and the gang of Kelly Miller Circus kids, all the familiar faces fro; last year and years back, Nathan and Gordo and Renzo and Luis and more.
A day, and we're back at the circus, a language and a world away.
That, and we went straight from winter to summer.
I want my trailer back.
March 24, 2011, Royse City, Texas (70 miles, Red Line Racetrack.)
Tavana and John Moss and Nikki and Carolyn and Mike all have new digs, and so do we. We've got a new home and I can't stand it.
It's feeling adrift and missing my home, more exactly, missing the trailer and all the nooks and crannies that have made my life for almost ten years. Fridman wanted a motor home for the kids so that we wouldn't have to take them out in the cold in the morning to accommodate them in the truck. We had seen one of don Sandro's used ones and liked it, and so here we are, it's home now.
It is a small class B motor home (it's much smaller than the trailer) that Fridman has been spicing up while we were in France, building custom beds for the kids, painting, taking carpet out and putting curtains in, but all the goodies in the world won't make it home unless I want to and so far I don't, it's too new, too soon, I need time, time and maybe a lot of Dylan's art on the walls to anchor me in.
There isn't any counter space in the kitchen, none but a triangle the size of a handkerchief. Not to mention the Trailer with a view series: "Motor home with a view"?
I want my trailer back.
March 30, 2011, Wynnewood, Oklahoma (56 miles, city park.)
Dylan had another asthma attack today, or maybe it wasn't but I treated it as such, just in case. Feeling cold then a fever and the heavy breathing, the wheezing, and the nebulizer is in the old trailer but Sara lets me borrow Gigi's, and thank heavens I have all the medicine and instructions I brought from France.
But I'll never get used to this.
The fear is overwhelming, it spins everything in its wake and leaves me bloodless, the world stops and I am just a raging heart of anguish.
Nicolas is four.
March 31, 2011, Tishomingo, Oklahoma (50 miles, Pennington Creek park.)
We had a party for Nicolas' birthday today, rushing, as always, to get everything ready. Argio shares the same birthday but they'll have a party in Hugo on Saturday with all the family.
Mingo turned four in Tishomingo.
A frog in the road.
April 11, 2011, Salem, Missouri (81 miles, The Commons.)
it was Armando's truck to have some problem at the start of the drive and so we stopped along the highway coming out of town. There in the stormy darkness of dawn I cheered giddily.
As the wait dragged on and I was getting impatient I looked up and there was a frog, half-way across the four-lane highway. It jumped along in bursts and soon made it to the other side, by some grace of nature escaping the morning traffic.
In those moments that little frog was all I cared about, it was the wonder of a Michaelangelo's painting, of a Leonard Cohen's song, of the universe in its awesome mystery and the why and the how, it was getting through the day, unharmed and giddy with the happiness of life's intricate miracles.
It is, still, and I can take it with me through my journey.
April 12, 2011, Redford, Missouri (56 miles, fairgrounds.)
Things of no particular interest I forgot to record along the way.
For the first week or so I was back I couldn't drive because my license had expired some time when I was in France. Radar drove, and be careful what you wish for: I used to fantasize about having a chauffeur for the morning drives, how perfect it would make my circus life, and I realized that it was driving by myself that I enjoyed the most, not watching the scenery. Sometimes you just need to be in the driver's seat.
And I am getting reconciled with the motor home, little by little, its bathroom the size of a makeup cabinet (if you close the door you can't get up from the toilet seat,) its office space competing for kitchen table in inch footage, when it's not floor space, its bedroom (but I should say bed, as there is no bedroom, much to the point) rivaling a sideshow for privacy - especially on days when it's pouring rain outside just in time for the morning routine.
But I must stay positive.
Down the road.
April 15, 2011, De Soto, Missouri (38 miles, Knights of Columbus parking lot.)
Sometimes you don't have water; sometimes you don't have light. Today some of us have neither.
We are parked at the Knights of Columbus building and the circus is on another lot, half a mile down the road. There was a big storm this morning, the same storm that killed at least nine people in Oklahoma and Arkansas overnight and is now wrecking havoc in the south, and the grassy part of the lot, the same lot we were on last year, is unaccessible, so there isn't enough room for all of us. When we first got into town we parked at Walmart and waited two hours for the crew to figure things out.
So here we are, exiled up the road, the Mosses, the Fuscos, Lucky and Vickie and some of the office crew. For us it turned out good, for there was an outside faucet where we filled our water tank and we even found a plug - but it feels a bit lonely.
Running for your life.
April 19, 2011, Pana, Illinois (39 miles, Kitchell park.)
At six o'clock tonight a severe storm hit, then it was clear a tornado was coming.
The storm came so fast the siren was on before I realized what was happening, all of a sudden a wall of darkness approaching and the tornado warning siren, and I rushed home and it went on and on, we stayed in the trailer because by that time the lightning and hail were bad and walking through the storm would have been dangerous, but the siren went on and as I was looking out the window listening to the radio for news there was a fireball behind the house across the street and then huge flames shooting up, we learned later that it was a transformer that had blown up, and Fridman was calling John, then Sara, to try to see what they were doing and if they were safe. Sara had run to the hospital, one block away, and so when the hail stopped a little we decided to run there too, because the car was too far away, running and holding the kids, running for our lives and I couldn't run so I walked, couldn't carry the kids now that they're bigger, even to save their lives, the panic of it all, and then here they were, the Fuscos and the Poemas, and town people too, in the hospital basement, there were all the familiar faces and they were safe, and soon the worst of the storm was tampering off but the fear will stay a long time I know.
The rest of the circus had gathered under a giant gazebo, by the cookhouse, apparently because there was a tornado shelter under it, but it was locked. It would have been the worst place to be in had a tornado touched down.
Before the storm I had let the kids play in the mud and it was joy itself to watch them.
Right after we made it safe to the hospital and it appeared that the storm had lightened a little, Fridman called John to see if he was safe. He was told there would now be an hour-long show in no time. And so there was, and there she was, the same woman who had served juice and cookies to the kids in the hospital basement while waiting the tornado warning out; she had been stuck at her workplace on her way to the circus when the storm hit.
Running for your life one minute and getting into your costume the next, that's circus life for you, folks.
May 7, 2011, Huntington, Indiana (57 miles, fairgrounds.)
Mother's Day passed as usual - a day off for the show and Fridman deciding to improvise himself assistant mechanic, helping Castro and running errands, leaving me by myself with the kids. It was Casey who saved the day, by coming by to offer a bar of the most delicious dark chocolate and say happy Mother's Day.
But the day, the day was Dylan riding a bike for the first time in his life. A day to remember, after al
June 2, 2011, Havre de Grace, Maryland (63 miles, Legends of the Fog field.)
The Poema family is its own little Noah's ark.
Four kids, four dogs, a bunny rabbit, a big horse, a row of overflowing p