It's about us. It's about a small circus traveling around the country gathering memories, and struggling against 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 three 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 El Cerrito 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.
Gigi. 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.
We're off. 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; 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 eight 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 stopped 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.
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 Circus Chimera, 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.)
Nuts. 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. 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.
Arkansas delights. 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.
Yolanda. 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.
Elisha's bequest. 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."
In bloom. 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.
Two cups. August 20, 2009, Manistee, Michigan (59 miles, Seng's lot.) Shop sign somewhere on highway 31 south: Free coffee for Indians Free coffee for veterans Two cups for Indian veterans.
No soliciting. 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 counseling center (Providence Counseling Center: No Soliciting, No Smoking, No Weapons.)