The Bootleg Circus

circus030The circus was coming to town. Some bootleg circus. I was only seven years old but I could spot a bootleg circus. A bootleg circus tries to fool you with names that sound vaguely like “Ringling Bros.” A bootleg circus sets up in the rocky, swampy field across the street from your future high school, behind the lot where the town kept its busted school buses and surplus road salt.

My dad was excited about the bootleg circus, way more than he was for most anything. He did not often express enthusiasm for anything. Especially not for something as corny as the circus. His default expressions stayed within the narrow range between sputtering anger and sarcasm. Even the things he liked were approached without much visible delight, with an unspoken acknowledgment that said I have seen this a million times before.

However, my dad would periodically latch onto something and decide we must do/see/hear it as a family. Every six months or so he’d declare I feel like having a steak. Whereupon we’d find ourselves at Loughran’s, an Irish pub like every other Irish pub you’ve ever seen except that it had prime rib and it was a 5 minute drive away. Once that desire was sated, he’d revert to his usual smirking ways until another six months had passed and the prime rib bug bit him again.

So it was with this bootleg circus. He proclaimed he wanted to see it, so we would. His level of excitement for such earnest entertainment was remarkable in itself. What made it even crazier was his enthusiasm was inspired by the bootleg circus’s featured performer: Tiny Tim.

I had no idea who Tiny Tim was. Why does dad wanna see him so bad? I asked my mom. Who knows anything with your father? my mom said, eyes strenuously rolling.

And so the family found itself at the bootleg circus in a mosquito-infested field on a hot, choking July night. My middle brother was young enough that the whole stomping spectacle was impressive to him. My youngest brother was still a toddler. But me, I was old enough to know I was at a bootleg circus. It gave me the same awkward feeling of receiving a knock-off toy and finding myself forced to feign enthusiasm. Oh wow, Transmorphers. Thanks?

The air inside the bootleg circus tent was thick with humidity and discomfort. The tent overhead was sweaty and dingy, red stripes broken up by filthy gray bands that were once white. It trapped in the stench of elephant shit and flop sweat and the howling psyches of abused camels. There were no tightrope walkers or lion tamers or flaming hoops, just a lot of sad animals and desperate clowns following each other over and over into oblivion, like a snake eating its tail.

The crowd clapped at the appropriate times, then reverted to sustained grumbling. Perhaps those in attendance truly expected more of a circus in a scraggly field behind the local high school. Perhaps they were fooled by the Ringling-esque name. Perhaps they were unnerved by the rickety metal bleachers that swayed beneath us. Whatever the cause, I could feel disappointment in the air, mixed in with the elephants and the mosquitoes. An unvoiced threat: This better get good quick.

That did not bode well for the musical stylings of Tiny Tim. I’m not sure who the audience for Tiny Tim would have been at this time in history. It surely was not rows of rickety metal bleachers filled with off duty NYPD and FDNY and their wives and kids. Cops and firemen who spent their weekdays running through the stabby, druggy gauntlet that was Bernard Goetz-era New York City. And now, for your fair entertainment on your off day, men who see horrible things every day: Tiny Tim.

Tiny Tim shuffled out to the middle of the bootleg circus in baggy, loud clothes, looking like one of the clowns that had preceded him but with slightly less makeup. He scraped away on his ukelele, plunka-plunka plunka-plunka… and belted out an ancient tune in his high-pitched tent-rattling vibrato.

My dad had one non-comedy album of his own, a creaky doo-wop collection that wasn’t played often on the family turntable. From witnessing him listening to the radio in the car (which he did not do often), I had deduced there were only two songs he was really into: “Runaway” by Del Shannon and the theme from Cheers. Music was not an active part of his life. And yet, here he was, enraptured by the insane warbling of Tiny Tim.

It was difficult to hear Tiny Tim’s tiny guitar, because it was not amplified, and because his bizarre voice drowned the thing out. To my surprise, the Copland crowd, rather than scream at him or start throwing things, quieted their grumbling enough so they could make out faint hints of ukelele. When a tune concluded, the crowd answered with polite applause, much more polite than the applause they spared for the clowns or the elephants or the barking ringmaster. And when it was all over, they extended a generous hand for him. They were grateful that a guy they sorta kinda remembered hearing about once upon a time had made the trip to our town. He showed up. That was good enough.

At the conclusion of Tiny Tim’s performance, my dad bolted upright from his aluminum seat to make sure he could beat the crowd that would shortly be working its way to the exits. He ran track as a young man, and though he no longer had a runner’s physique, I saw a hint of his old form as he bounded down the bleacher stairs toward the circus proper. He didn’t have to hop any hurdles to reach the showfloor because there was absolutely no separation between the stands and the bootleg circus proper.

I tried to keep my eye on my dad as he scampered away, but my view of his path was obscured by the people around us making their way home. I descended the bleachers as soon as I could, and when I came to the bottom step I saw that my dad had cornered Tiny Tim on the far side of the ring. They appeared to be chatting amiably. Laughing out loud, like old friends. They were too far away for me to hear a word, or to attempt any amateur lip reading. I could not bring myself to approach them, either. I just stood and stared, wondering what on earth my father could possibly discussing with Tiny Tim.

This went on for what seemed like days, as me and my brothers and my mom impatiently waited for my dad to break away. Once he did, my mom’s first question to my dad was, “What the hell was that all about?”

“Oh, I used to know him,” my dad said. He said this dismissively, as if he’d explained this many times before and it was hardly worth repeating.

“You knew Tiny Tim?” she asked.

“Yeah.” Again, with a hint of We’ve been over this.

My mom shook her head but asked no more questions. We headed for our station wagon. This would never be discussed again.

I have a very specific feeling that grabs me often. There’s no word for it, as far as I know. It’s the feeling I get when I arrive someplace and everyone seems to be operating on a set of rules I was never issued. There was an orientation I missed and that orientation will never be given and no one can spare any time to clue me in to what is really going on. So I muddle through and make as many observations as I can, hoping that by taking mental notes I can attain a tiny sliver of the understanding everyone else was born with.

I forgot about the bootleg circus for decades, until very recently, when the memory came flooding back at me all at once, vivid as yesterday. I don’t know why I forgot about it for so long, and I don’t know why the memory returned. But I have that bootleg circus feeling every day.

It’s the feeling I get from seeing a crowd of cops and firemen lose its edge in the face of a falsetto voiced weirdo with a ukelele, and the feeling of seeing my dad earnestly talking to that weirdo like they were old friends, because they were old friends I guess, but knowing I would never possibly know what they were talking about, or how they knew each other or why. It’s the feeling of seeing all this happen in front of me while a little voice whispers, I will never understand any of this.