When I was five, I wanted to join the circus. When I turned seven, I actually did it. Or, at least I tell myself that I did.
Unfortunately, the circus had no use for a small girl-child whose own previous claim to fame was a photo in a New York newspaper, taken at a Santa event at the local post office. Still, no one could pull a present out of a Santa sack as well as I could. I still have the clipping and may show it to you someday. There I am with badly cut homemade bangs, my mouth gaping open seemingly in wonder at the magic gifts in Santa’s sack, when in reality the gifts felt hollow, too light, too soft, to actually have anything inside.
That is okay. There was magic elsewhere.
I grew up in an industrial area of Queens. For $64 a month, you could get an apartment with a million dollar view of the Manhattan skyline. It wasn’t until decades later, when urban development encroached and the corner bodega was turned into artsy six-dollar-a-cup cafe, and the sooty wild weed fields were turned into man-made sandy beaches fronted by high-rise apartments (with view), that I realized that we had lived in the slums. I still can’t wrap my head around that one. It is just something that is assumed. By others. I am not resentful.
One of the benefits of living nowhere anyone wanted to be is that all sorts of outlier things would come into the neighborhood with hardly any ripple effect to the outside world. Oh sure, that broken-down apartment building that we lived in just might find its way into a bad but popular 70s movie, but for the most part, the neighborhood just didn’t exist unless you really went looking for it.
One of those things that did come looking was the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Baily Circus train. It pulled in to the mostly abandoned railroad tracks, where the city kept mountains of salt so high that they easily dwarfed our fifth floor apartment building. On non-windy days, the kids in the neighborhood would use the giant salt mountain as a slide, burning skin and corroding tears into the bottoms of brown corduroy bell bottoms.
The circus had a gig at Madison Square Garden, but its home base in New York was less than a block away from the building. Years of penny-candy-money saved wouldn’t afford a ticket, but we had something better anyway. The night before the first performance, when dusk turned toward night, the circus people would march themselves, their props and their animals out of the train yard, down the block and right past the building on their way through the Midtown Tunnel. The elephants were bigger than anything we could have imagined, and Michael Gomez dared me to touch the tiger’s cage.
The next day, I packed a bag and headed down into the train tracks, hoping to stowaway on one of the train cars, maybe the one where the acrobats lived, or maybe the dancers. Not the clowns, though. Never the clowns. But, the cars were all quiet in the middle of the day. Passing over a discarded snake of rope, I made my way around and behind the first car that caught my eye, a blue one. The door was closed, and I turned some metal that was sticking out of the undercarriage into a step-ladder, my head dizzy from looking up at the blue sky and my nostrils picking up a slight scent of rust.
I remember the smell, because it reminded me of scraped knees and the time I cut my head open on that traffic sign at the entrance to the Long Island Expressway. My father had them cut the corner off of the sign. The sign has since been replaced.
I yanked, I kicked and the door never moved. I wandered around the train yard, looking for treasures that might have been dropped, a spangle from a costume, something to take the glamour back to my second floor apartment. All I found was a penny, which I carefully placed on a section of the tracks where the train would pull back out. I would return later, hoping that the train wheels would stretch the copper into something beautiful.
–Mary Ann Carrado Romans