My Life in the Circus

(This column first appeared in the September 28, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    The circus is coming this weekend.

    I've always wished that I could include among my credentials my very first job, because it was working for this same Barnum and Bailey.

    I was nine years old.

    Children today don't have the wonderful opportunity that we had in the 1930s. At dawn on the day the circus came to town, teenagers would gather at the fields where the tents were to be set up. They sought employment. Each roustabout would select one or two strong youngsters to assist with tasks like pulling the heavy lines tug-of-war style to hoist the big top. Their workday: five hours. Their pay: a ticket. It was the best job in town.

    I was too young to expect to be hired. However, despite the fact that my dad remained nearby waiting for me, my hopes were high as I accompanied my older brother Vernon to the circus grounds.

    Vern, a high school athlete, was among the first selected to work and I was left behind standing disconsolately in the tall grass. But then I watched him point back to me. His boss huddled with a colleague and the second man called me over. I galloped ahead, proudly waving to my father that I had a job.

    My leader introduced himself as "Coast-to-Coast Charlie" and I never heard anyone call him anything but that. Everyone knew and greeted him, always using that four word mouthful.

    That morning I was assigned two tasks. The first was the most interesting. Coast-to-Coast Charlie set me to guard the animal tent. I had to keep away outsiders. "We insiders have work to do," he explained before he drifted off, I assume now, to spend the next hour with his pals.

    So I guarded -- proudly refusing entry to perhaps a half dozen people over that hour. But mostly I gawked, thunderstruck at this opportunity to spend time in this big tent full of parade cages containing wild animals. My favorites were, of course, the lions and tigers, some of them alternating yawns with roars. I recall the elephant keeper warning me to watch out when his elephants drank, as they loved to squirt water on any nearby boys and girls. And I watched spellbound as painters with big brooms whitewashed their main attraction, the "great white" elephant.

    When my boss returned, I reluctantly gave up my post and together we set up the canvas walls connecting the animal tent to the big top. The routine was straightforward: I carried poles to push up the tent sections. Coast-to-Coast Charlie stood by and occasionally commented -- usually favorably -- on my work ethic.

    The morning having sped by, I was dismissed and told to return in the evening to be admitted to the show. Delighted, I raced off to find my brother.

    Vern appeared with a ticket in his hand. "Where's yours?" he asked. And that was the theme for the remainder of the day. He and my parents were certain that I had been hoodwinked.

    But evening finally arrived and my brother and I set off for the circus grounds, Vern with his ticket, I to find my sometime boss. We wandered around back of the tents where beautiful women in scanty costumes mixed with scruffy roustabouts at commissary tables and where you had to step carefully to avoid tripping over the heavy tent lines.

    It took a while but find him we did. He was seated at a campfire with his cronies. When we appeared, he hopped up immediately and led the way to the big top. There he raised the edge of the canvas and under we went. We continued to the front of the stands where he had Vern and me sit on straw a yard away from one of the performance rings. They were the best seats in the house.

    I ask for Coast-to-Coast Charlie each year when the circus comes to town. No one remembers him any more, but I'll attend again this week as always.

    After all, those're my people.