Chaos and Exploitation Under the Big Top

Follow the circus procession 1888 public domain books copyright free drawing elephant on bike

by August Harper, GonzoToday Contributor

“Thirteen!” The voice bellowed across the gas station parking lot as if shot from a cannon. “Thuuur-teeeen!” Once more, the ominous number roared into my brain, echoing between my ears. I could almost feel the vibrations rattling around inside my skull and pressing up against the back of my eyes. “Goddammit, boy. Thirteen … pump thirteen! Look at the sign! For God’s sake, son.” 

Standing outside my car I watched this spectacle of dysfunction progressing not more than 15 feet away. Perhaps the music playing at the pump and the fixation of my gaze on the price of gas had thrown me into some hideous gnosis.  I secured the pump handle back in its home and as much as I wanted to stick around to see the debacle play out, I really needed to get back to my home. I had forgotten to turn off my oven and I couldn’t risk a life-altering house fire. Too much to lose, not enough enthusiasm to start over. 

I fumbled with my keys to unlock my car before dropping them. They fell at my feet and landed on a strip of paper. I stood there, blurry eyed, trying to make sense of what I was looking at. I’m not sure why I was so taken by an obvious piece of trash but I couldn’t peel my eyes away. I was leery of picking it up. I’ve always been leery of such things at gas stations ever since I picked up what I think was a piece of chewed gristle. 

The debris greatly disturbed me but my curiosity overcame and compelled me to inspect it. Like a somnambulist, I leaned over and grabbed the wet chunk of paper.

I read the words printed in large, yellow western saloon-style letters, “LOOMIS BROS. CIRCUS. FRI/SAT/SUN. CREEK COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS.” This had to be a divine appointment: the unhinged father figure broadcasting black numerology, the timely and coordinated key dropping, the hideous gnosis.

I thought aloud “Why would anyone go to the circus during a pandemic? All around us they’re dropping like bowling pins, and people want to see tigers and clowns?” 

I needed to know why.

Neither alone nor sober would I be on this journey. A solitary, grown man under the influence of something or another wouldn’t fare well in the miasmic atmosphere of a traveling circus. This isn’t Cirque Du Soleil … this is the damned Loomis Bros. Circus. One could compare it to a playground next to a halfway house; unless parents are deadbeats, they don’t let their children go alone.

A looming question on my mind was how someone gets into the circus business. Are carnies born into it? Do they simply fall into it like a plinko chip, bouncing around from odd job to odd job until they finally hit rock bottom? 

Perhaps they aspire to it. Right now, is there some unfortunate girl in a trailer park practicing her hula hoop routine next to a Pinto on cinder blocks while her pit bull watches expectantly? 

My friend Dick, a drummer, suggested we take mushrooms, but the idea didn’t sit well with me. I could only imagine the scene … a pitiful attempt at climbing over the bleachers, lost in a torrential sea of midgets and kindergarteners with their faces absurdly painted like lions and butterflies, only to discover myself staring into a cracked bathroom mirror, dimly lit by a single flickering light bulb while “Entry of The Gladiators” echoed somewhere in the distance. 

No, it would be too much. Nevertheless, the night before we embarked on our journey I spent some time with preparations. Edibles, two joints, a pinch hitter, a bottle of rum, a flask of whiskey and a fake press badge I had made a week prior.

Dick, my girlfriend Faye and I hit the road at a quarter past six that Saturday night. Summers in Oklahoma are ludicrously hot and we didn’t stop sweating until we had driven for 20 minutes. Halfway to the circus we ate some edibles but we had started drinking firewater at the house and we ran off the road three times. Fuck it. No ditch or mailbox would stop us that night.

The parking lot at the fairgrounds looked something like the surface of the moon. I bottomed out twice just pulling into the damn place. I imagined big gashes sliced into the underbelly of my car. Maybe this is another pathway to becoming a carnie. Some poor bastard’s car breaks down outside the tent and since he has no family or friends to come get him he just hops aboard and sells popcorn for the rest of his life. 

Everywhere you looked cars and trucks faced this way and that. Anxious children hopped up on cotton candy and two cans of Red Bull raced through the parking lot past crushed paper Pepsi cups scattered like confetti. 

Not a Covid mask in sight. Herds of COPD-riddled grandparents were coughing up their lungs while frantically groping for their oxygen tanks. A good ol’ boy in grass-stained overalls erupted in a sneezing fit before wiping snot on his legs. Acne scarred teenagers ripped limp band-aids off in a frenzy before tossing them to the ground. 

The edible slowly wrapped its warm, omnipotent fingers around me, engulfing me in the familiar sensation of taking a corner at an incredible speed and feeling the wheels slide out from beneath you. There’s nothing you can do except throw your hands up and ride it into the gutter.

We cautiously made our way to the ticket booth dodging both children and cars.

With great difficulty we purchased tickets and hiked toward the big top. We had to run the gauntlet of toothless meth-heads pushing cotton candy, towering Cenobites waving multi-colored, flashing neon light sabers inches from our faces and dejected clowns tooting cryptic Morse Code signals into our ears with their horns.

 I heard the voice of a little girl say “If you don’t take them, daddy will kill them. Hey, did you hear me? Daddy will kill them.” 

I kept walking toward my target, and without looking to whom I was speaking I said, “No, we don’t want any.”

“But look” she insisted, “they’re only six weeks old.” I looked down at my feet and saw a little girl no older than seven holding a pit bull puppy as big as her.

“No, what’s the matter with you? Get that beast out of here.” I barked and without breaking a step we continued toward the tent flap opening to the big top. I looked back before we entered and yelled, “I have a cat, that monster will tear it to shreds in seconds.”

Despite the place teeming with all manner of life, the air inside was as still as a swing set in a cemetery. The humidity applied such pressure to the lungs it made breathing difficult.  Polka music blared from the PA like an insane tornado siren, courtesy of the Loomis Bros. house band. The trio was composed of a drummer, a trumpet player and a keyboardist. For some reason the keyboardist stuck with one setting throughout the night, sounding like a cross between a clavier and that high-pitch whine made by vacuum sweepers.

Carnies peddling half-melted concessions and warm drinks wandered amidst the stands. They displayed sno-cones in clear, rectangular storage containers, the kind you use to keep stuff under your bed, crudely modified with a box knife. The sno-cones had lost their battle with the heat, resulting in a motley combination of reds, blues and greens sloshing across the bottom of the containers to create a grotesquely dark liquid.

The troupe face painter Star, only one R, stationed herself next to the center ring. Star told us she was born into the circus. A fifth-generation carnie, she has independently contracted with Loomis Bros. for several years. I found it a tad disturbing that in a tightly-packed environment with very few people wearing masks, she still painted faces. She protected herself with gloves and a mask and on one occasion I witnessed her using hand sanitizer on the gloves. Regarding mask mandates, she told us she doesn’t have an issue with people not using face masks if they don’t want to.

We retreated near the bathrooms to watch the horrible shitshow unleashing in Creek County. Dick went to take a piss and while Faye and I waited for him I spoke to a man named Chris. 

Definitely the most enthusiastic carnie I spoke with, Chris is your typical carnival barker. He paces the aisles screaming “popcorn, get ya popcorn.” Tattoos covered his arms. He smiled, but you could feel the fatigue in his eyes. It was his third show of the day and the temperature hadn’t dropped below 90 degrees since 10 am.  Still, Chris proudly identified himself as a first-generation carnie. I could tell he took his career choice very seriously, as he hoped to make it a family tradition. 

In Tulsa face masks are required. In Creek County they are not. Chris declined to state his opinion on whether masks should or should not be mandatory. Throughout the night when he spotted us he parodied an authoritative persona while yelling across several bleachers “Hey! Where the hell are y’all’s masks?”

Dick returned from the restroom and reported, “Some clown stood right behind me at the urinal and asked me for a cigarette, can you believe that? And some other weirdo was farting and giggling at the same time.” 

photo by Robert Zunkioff

“Well did you give him one?” I asked.

“Give him what?”

 “The cigarette!” 

“No. They’re like wild dogs, dude. If I gave him one he’d just keep coming back for more and more.” 

Dick had made a mistake. Sure, the clown might have kept crawling back but the stories he could tell would have filled this whole article. 

I wanted to hear stories of brutal tiger attacks. A lot of people were sitting in lawn chairs at ground level right next to the goddamn tiger cage and there wasn’t a roof on it.

We found seats near the far end of the bleachers directly in front of the tiger cage. A wizardly voice came across the PA. “Please, no video or pictures are to be taken during the duration of the show. Extreme prejudice will be and has been used before.” 

I wanted to hear some gritty carnie shit. I wanted to hear about how some clown can’t go home because of warrants or because his dad was also a clown, but because his dad performed in Pagliacci he had disowned his son for disgracing the family legacy. 

Near the rafters I thought I saw what looked like a shadowy figure of a sniper coalesce with his bead mercilessly drawn onto a den of cub scouts. 

The lights dimmed and the house band roared into action in their peculiar clavier-vacuum-esque style. It was close to pitch black now, and despite the warning nearly everyone grabbed their phones. 

Two fog machines with red lights on either side of the center ring began to spray their sweet, gray smoke perpendicularly into the air like a locomotive, creating a hellish atmosphere. I half-expected a hollow-eyed ringmaster to make an appearance adorned in red with horns and a bifurcated tail, a pitchfork in one hand and a fat, smoking cigar in the other. 

The familiar “click” of cell phone cameras detonated, sounding like an Oklahoma summer’s eve when the screaming of cicadas swells into a deafening white noise. 

Some Native Americans believe that when a camera takes their photo it also takes the part of them that reaches into the spirit realm. I wondered how many times these wretched reprobates working the circus had their spirits taken. How many times had their dreams been stolen? When was the breaking point? 

The carnies I had encountered thus far were generally friendly, but you could see that they had given themselves up to the hollow-eyed ringmaster. They had laid themselves down, and from the fight against gravity, they had extricated themselves. At rest, there was no muscle tension in their eyelids and mouth. No natural bright eyes or big smiles. Just an absurd inversion.

A spotlight illuminated the ringmaster, Mr. Loomis, as he made his way from behind the main curtain into the center ring. A score of goose-stepping freaks, geeks and general degenerates trailed behind him. They circled the ring and started somersaulting and cartwheeling around the ringmaster. 

As opposed to the great deceiver, Mr. Loomis looked more like Uncle Sam. He had an imposing height and sported a top hat and a fake goatee. His voice came from a used car commercial on the radio or an announcer for a monster truck rally. 

His eyes began to roll back into his head and he let out a horrible wheezing noise which I have translated for you: “Welcome, one and all, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Welcome to the fabulous Loomis Brothers Circus. A place of magical mysteries, exciting entertainment and long-lasting laughter. I am Mr. Loomis and I will be your guide throughout the night. We do hope you enjoy the show. We have worked long and hard to bring you the best we can offer, and with that, let the show begin!”

He and his freaks turned around and goose-stepped back through the big curtain and into darkness. 

A few seconds later, a woman with a long bullwhip and six or seven white ponies trotted into the ring. The ponies stood wide-eyed and confused. One spooked, jarringly jumping backwards. The lady made quick motions with the whip, stirring the ponies into a frenzy. I’m sure her goal was to spur them to prance single file around the ring. Either poorly trained, frightened by the crowd or most likely fearful of the whip, the ponies refused to prance single file and instead they bunched together into two separate groups.

The lady was visibly upset and a grimace flashed on her face as if she had just taken her first hit of meth and was severely disappointed with herself. 

While the uncooperative ponies milled about, the most absurd equestrian act I have ever witnessed ensued. From behind the main curtain out hobbled a brown, miniature pony with a single stuffed horn strapped to its head and a monkey strapped to its back. The monkey’s four limbs were ziptied to the saddle. The monkey on the “unicorn” definitely piqued the crowd’s interest but did little to encourage the white ponies to perform.  A small hand slid from behind the curtain and beckoned the lady with the whip and her ponies. 

In a dark and dusty corner of the tent sat an old, red Ford box truck with large sections of paint missing. The headlights suddenly flared, blinding the crowd. Everyone flung their hands over their eyes and an old man even cried out. The cab shook as the engine turned over, white lights flashing as the gears grinded. It slowly lurched forward and crossed in front of us, shooting a bright beam across the crowd like a searchlight. Then the truck reversed, backing up against the tiger cage.  

What came next truly appalled me.

A solid gray, steel box in the rear of the truck housed the tigers. A dreadful sight. Air holes every four feet or so along the base of the box that could fit a deck of cards without the jokers but that was about it. The box didn’t appear to have an A/C unit and to make matters worse, the truck’s exhaust spewed directly next to one of the air holes. 

A 20-something pregnant Hispanic woman hopped out from the truck’s passenger side. Everyone eagerly awaited the appearance of the tigers, but I could only wonder why a pregnant woman was working on a tiger crew. I could see the headlines: CROWD WATCHES IN HORROR AS TIGER RIPS UNBORN CHILD FROM WOMB BEFORE BEING SHOT DEAD BY THREE MASKED MEN IN A MINIATURE VOLKSWAGEN.

Dragging her feet and holding her stomach with one hand, the woman slowly made her way toward the rear of the truck. The opening scene of Jurassic Park weighed heavily on me at this point as a group of ten men with long, menacing clubs wrapped in leather came out from the darkness like droogs, positioning themselves symmetrically around the cage. The pregnant woman directed the driver to back up closer to the cage. 

Then a short, pudgy man in a suit and bow-tie carrying a whip made his entrance through the curtain before walking into the cage. The small man in the suit and bow-tie unbolted the door on the tiger box, slowly and expertly swinging it to one side. He cautiously backed away.

From the steel box jumped a dirty Siberian tiger, his white fur gray and matted together in spots. The Siberian paced the perimeter, surveying his new territory like a frightened king in exile. Three more tigers lept from the steel container, two Bengals and another Siberian.  The four cellmates sat on their haunches next to each other in a neat but ferocious row, baring their teeth to the pudgy man. 

The man beckoned the dirty white tiger forward with his whip and after a quick strike with his paw, the tiger slowly came forward. The house band executed a polka-rendition of “Africa” by Toto that slashed through my eardrums with a shrillness that defies explanation. 

The pudgy man had erected a low barricade at the opposite end of the cage and to the beat of the music he lashed the whip to and fro over it. The Siberian mimicked the whip and jumped over the barricade back and forth until the song ended. 

The exiled king shuffled back to his place in line and the house band belted out “Disco Inferno” with a few notes changed to avoid a business-busting lawsuit. A small but raucous faction of the crowd began screaming “BURN, BABY BURN” out of sync with the music in cacophonous unrest. A small hula hoop-sized ring on a stick carried to the center of the cage was set ablaze. The pudgy man then outstretched his arms like an evangelist and smirked as he nodded his head to the crowd in a cocky display of his mastery over nature. One by one, the tigers jumped through the blazing loop. The flames reflected in the cats’ ghastly dilated pupils as the heat singed their peripheral hairs, leaving behind nothing but a hint of smoke from their burnt fur.

After their encore, the tigers dove back into the steel box. The door to their cell block slammed shut and the truck retreated to its dark corner.

A 15-minute intermission followed the tiger show. Even though the sun had mostly set, the tent remained extraordinarily hot so we decided to trek back to the parking lot for fresh air and more booze.

I spotted a midget selling bouquets of helium balloons over by the lawn chair and decided to shake him down with some questions.

As soon as I clambered away from our seats, I darted through the mob like a bull with a cowboy on my back. The midget himself was nowhere to be seen but his bobbing balloon bouquet remained easily visible above the crowd.

Dick and Faye hurried close behind, encouraging me to speed up and catch the midget before he lost me. To my left I heard the unmistakable sound of someone vomiting.  Momentarily distracted, I swiftly resumed my hunt but it was too late. I could see no balloons and the tracks left in the dirt were indistinguishable.

The air outside was cool and crisp and the scent of high octane racing fuel from the neighboring speedway clung to our noses like burnt popcorn in a small room. 

A horde of people with hideously disgruntled faces had already congregated outside for a cigarette or two and they were staring at us. It might have been they had seen us swigging from the flask or maybe it was the fake press badge, but either way it gave me an ill feeling that we weren’t necessarily welcome, or that they were all in on some darkly menacing plot that we weren’t. 

The parking lot seemed further away than it did when we arrived.

“There was some kids tryna talk to me in the bathroom.” – An elderly man in a Billabong shirt

“I need a fuggin’ smoke, sugar.” – A raspy, middle aged woman

“I bet those elephants shit up a storm when they get out here.” – Unattributed

The edible was working its dark witchery and what few words I could muster came out at the wrong times as nonsensical madness that left those I was speaking to with a look of confusion and disappointment. I would spiral down, down, down into my thoughts, analyzing every last word spoken to me. I would be taken by a random and profound thought only to have it ripped from my vocabulary as soon as I opened my mouth.

I remember at one point trying to convince Faye that the carnies needed a union. I actually don’t remember what I said but that’s what I meant to say. 

I recall telling Dick how we needed to get the band together and take pictures of us submerged, face down in a kiddy pool while wearing soiled diapers. To my horror, I discovered it wasn’t Dick I was speaking to but a 90-pound wraith of a woman in an oversized Tweety Bird t-shirt sucking on her teeth. 

I resolved to keep silent for the rest of the night.

The remainder of the circus is hazy. I eventually stopped taking notes because of my erratic thought process and my increasingly bad handwriting. I recall snapshots of elephants, motorcycles orbiting each other in the metal death cage, insane child unicyclists and a pair of East Asian twins juggling so perfectly it was as if the North Korean government demanded it. 

 A midget worked the crowd aggressively blowing a kazoo in the faces of elderly members of the audience. The clowns’ faces, originally painted with tears and wide grins using makeup, now became a bizarre display of actual emotion. A piercing odor of vomit prevailed while tiny sand fleas pricked our ankles. All around us, a booming laughter rose and fell like the tide before assuming a spectral quality. 

I’d had enough; I was going to be sick. The circus was a vortex and I was stuck in the center ring. I slowly stood, bracing myself with my hands on the bleacher seats and then proceeded to crash down the bleachers like a bowling ball. I trampled someone’s bag of popcorn and a huge man with a beard down to his naval stood up and then bowed to me.

While escaping I waved a quick, blind motion to Faye and Dick signaling it was time to go. Heading to the exit I saw the midget with the balloons leaning against a guardrail smoking a cigarette. He winked at me and said “Hey big guy.”

 “Go to hell” I said as I pushed him out of the way.

I found exactly what I had come looking for at the Creek County Fairgrounds. I wanted answers as to why people were willing to sign their death warrants in order for a few hours of fun. 

Several years ago, Willie Nelson appeared to me in a dream. With his twangy, West-Texan accent he told me “Son, the only thing you have to pay for in this life is a good time.” At the time, this raised all sorts of troubling questions … such as, is Willie able to communicate telepathically through dreams?

Anyway, his wisdom rings true. People are willing to accept repercussions in the hope that they can have a few, fleeting moments of awe and wonder, and what is life without those? I can only give you hints of what it’s like but in order for you to see for yourself you will need to pay.

editors note: we normally avoid publishing work featuring HSTisms, however this piece reads more like an homage to his style.  

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About August Harper 2 Articles
August Harper is a musician, outdoorsman and an occasional writer living in Tulsa, OK, with his cat, Bobo.