Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Building the Circus

Budget: -$318.43

I bade Amanda good-bye (nearly tearful, but probably only on my end, as I had still very recently eaten all her cereal), and, slipped out into the night. I got to the office, signed in, finally collected my check for moving furniture, and sat down to eat breakfast. I immediately attracted attention, and not just for being the only upbeat person in the room.

"Look at that guy. He has a LOAF of bread and a JAR of peanut butter."

I offered him some, but he didn't take it.

I noticed two guys speaking in Spanish. One of them, I could swear, had a Russian accent, so I jumped in and asked in Spanish where he was from.

"Russia," he said, so I switched to Russian and asked him where in Russia.

His name was Igor, and he had moved, just like my family, to Austria in the late 1980s, then to Italy, and by 1990 was living in the US. However, he had been living on these day jobs the entire time, and had learned Spanish better than English.

He switched to Spanish, saying "Spanish is now the dominant language in this country."

A guy from Honduras jumped in. "What are you talking about? English is."

"Before, it was English. Now, definitely Spanish."

He also asked me if I needed a place to stay.

"There's a pretty nice shelter on Long Island [there's a Long Island in Boston Harbor]. Just don't go to the one on Pine St. They have fights there all the time."

Then we were all called to go to Government Center to help build the Big Apple Circus that was coming to town.


I rode in with Mike. Mike had gotten out of jail two weeks before, after having served four and a half years for armed robbery. He was concerned about my trip.

"It's going to be an awesome time, man. Just watch out for other people. They take advantage of you."

We arrived at Government Center early and sat down to have some food. I continued working on my loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter.

Mike had worked the day before until 10 PM on the circus. He warned me that it was rough work. But it was already looking good.

I had gone to the Big Apple Circus as a kid, so I thought it would be cool to be on this end.

Mike ran ahead to talk to the guard, whom he knew from the day before, so by the time I got there he knew exactly who I was and took my backpack into his booth, saying that was the only place where it would be safe.

I was quickly put to work with another guy, carrying extremely heavy pieces of metal that were basically the skeleton of the circus seating. With a lot of trouble, we would carry them on our shoulders (I quickly learned to ignore my body posture and slouch so that it would rest on muscle rather than bone, which hurt a LOT) to where they'd need to be set up, and then, with the help of two other people, heave them into place, and secure them with pins, chains, and big steel triangles that two yet other people would bring.

At one point, when we had a moment to catch our breath, I decided to make an overture, and said "What's your name, man?"

"Scares, man," he said, and shook my hand. I didn't want to ask again, though it sounded totally off.

Eventually, later, I did say "Dude, I'm so bad with names. What was your name again?" But, with an annoyed expression on his face, he just said "Scares, man," and shook my hand again. "Scares?" I asked. Looking even more annoyed, he said "Yeah."

Later on, I saw a list of our names and learned his real name, but if Scares is what he wants to be called, that's what I'll call him. Back to when we were carrying heavy pieces of metal.

"How long have you been doing this kind of stuff?" asked Scares.

"This is my fourth day," I said. I suppressed the word "nonconsecutive" that would have been in there, for fear of sounding pretentious.

"I've been stuck in this since 2002," he said.

"Wow, that's years now?"


Scares looked away and I snuck a picture of him and the rapidly assembling circus.

We were sent to haul wooden boards and load them onto the metal framework. This was much lighter work than assembling the metal framework, and provided us with a solid floor to walk on, replacing the jungle gym we had been dealing with.

Then we were sent to set in a bit more metal. And suddenly, a tractor trailer was opened up, which contained all the chairs that needed to be assembled.

Now work became hell. The chairs were attached in groups of three, which made them heavy, though much lighter than what we had been assembling into the framework. However, the chairs were SO awkward to carry that this part actually felt worse.

I noticed a man hauling the chairs who looked like he could have been a professor of mine. He also reminded me of my father.

We were ordered to drop our work and go to the white tent in the back for lunch.

The circus was looking better and better.


We went to the white tent and got lunch. Igor sat with me and talked. I was under the impression that he hadn't spoken Russian in a long time and wanted to. Then he went off to wander around the city with Scares and a few other guys.

I thought about joining them but then saw the guy who had looked like a professor and slid into a chair at his table with the words "What's your name?"

His name was Mark (like my father's). Immediately and with no prompting, he started telling me about what a strange place Boston is, and how, because it has so many students whose parents pay their rent and who are willing to work for very little money (or even do unpaid internships), the city, as a result, has astronomical prices and very low wages.

"Did you study econimics?" I asked.

He did, as part of his political science major at Dartmouth.

The rest of my lunch break had been decided. I kicked back, and we talked economics. How he ended up doing this sort of work is a mystery to me. But then again, my story isn't so obvious either.


Lunch ended and we went back to work. Igor and Scares and the rest of the guys came back too.

"Man," said Scares, quietly pointing to Igor. "What's with Old Onion Breath? I can normally handle a little, but I can't be around that guy. It's f___king disgusting. I mean, some people have bad breath, but doesn't he notice? It's f___king ridiculous. I don't ever want to work with that guy again. Someone needs to tell him. He needs to get a box of altoids. Or two."

I tried to interrupt. "What did you guys end up doing?"

He shrugged. "Walking around. Looking at hos."

We went back to work carrying chairs. I tried to position myself so that I carried stuff next to Mark. We were now talking about the differences between UNIX and MVS operating systems.

The light of the cloudy late afternoon became increasingly grayer, making the now-empty metal dumpsters strewn about look even more bland and desolate. I really didn't feel like working anymore.

At one point, I walked by Scares as he was talking to someone else. "It's like, seriously. Get that guy a breath mint. He's all the way across there and I can f___king smell it from here."


We unloaded the entire truck, mounted nearly all the seats, constructed the walkway that leads under the canopy. Then we were all marched outside and sent to a small trailer where we were given signed work tickets. Then all the workers were dismissed.

The circus was definitely starting to remind me of what I'd seen as a kid.

"It's weird, how small the circus is," Scares had said. "When I was a kid, I thought it was much bigger. But that was, like, 20 years ago."

I walked out of the circus tent, putting my camera away, and ended up face to face with an older worker who grinned. "A picture for the kids?"

I didn't want to explain. "Yeah."

"Show 'em the hard work that's REALLY the circus!"


I caught a train back up to Somerville and called Toya, the girl who was behind the desk at the office at the moment. She picked up after one ring.

"Hi, Greg!"

So now even the people who are sending me out to work for a couple of days are storing my number in their phones. WTF? I asked her if she'll be there if I drop by to get my check. She said she won't leave until I've come by.

And so come by I did. I opened the door and she smiled at me. "Hi!"

"Hi!" I said. "Thank you SO much for staying." Then I realized she was on the phone.

"You're welcome!....No, it is NOT nice to talk to you. Would you like it if YOUR own momma were trying to ignore you?"


She printed my check, I thanked her again, and headed for the station. I wasn't planning on coming back. I just walked and smelled the air, already feeling nostalgic, and remembering a line from Alexander Gorodnitsky: "It will become desirable and bitter in the distance, that smell of gasoline and dust...."

Bye-bye, Somerville!

1 comment:

  1. Seems as if you met some interesting characters Greg. Keep us up to date.