Thursday, June 24, 2010
My Excellent Adventure on the Circus Train
About four years ago my youngest daughter Anna was turning18. At the time a lot of things in our world were turned upside down, and I wanted to do something completely different for her birthday. It just so happened that my dear friend Michele has a Russian friend named Zhenya, who is tight with a bunch of Russian circus acrobats (top THAT, Kevin Bacon!) So when we learned that the circus was coming to Austin, Michele called Zhenya, who contacted the performers, and they arranged for us to get free tickets to the circus. (To my animal-loving friends: I in no way condone how circuses treat animals, but I needed to wipe the celebration slate clean and was out of tricks!) Knowing what a difficult time we were all going through, Michele's friend also had the acrobats somehow fix it to where Anna would "win" a picture painted by an elephant during the pre-show. In other words they bent over backwards for us. Mega generous. The seats were great and we laughed a lot (which we desperately needed.) The whole experience was a mini-oasis in a season of personal drought.
The day after the performance Michele called and asked if I could swing by and pick up one of the acrobats named Sergi; he wanted to go shopping. And I jumped at the chance. Yes, I wanted to return the favor because Sergi and his friends had done some really nice things for me. But if I'm keepin' it real, I've got to admit that that wasn't my only motivation. Did I want to spend a few hours hanging out with a Russian acrobat who lives on a circus train? Heck yeah! Who wouldn't? (Well, I can think of several people, but my adventurous spirit nearly always trumps caution and rationale. Besides, I had heard lots of stories about Zhenya's friendship with the Russian acrobats, and I knew in my heart that they were good people.)
So at the prearranged time I drove up to the Frank Erwin Center, and sure enough there was Sergi, standing on the corner waiting for me. When I waved he raised his hand and smiled, as though hailing a cab. As he opened the car door and got in I realized that he was a lot bigger than I thought he would be (aren't acrobats supposed to be small?) He also had really huge biceps. I found out later that he is the one who hangs upside down on the trapeze and catches the little people who do tricks in the air. Anyway, you might say that Sergi had a stereotypical Russian look about him. A generous head of blond hair framed his square face, and his features were chiseled, which made him look distinctly eastern European. I'm guessing he was around 40.
Being the extrovert that I am, I started in on the small talk right away.
"Hi! How are you?"
"Hey, thank you for the tickets last night. My daughter loved it."
He nodded once, firmly, like I Dream of Jeannie when she's granting a wish. He wore a hint of a smile.
"Are you having a good time in Austin?"
Sergi nodded his head affirmatively (I later found out that circus performers see little more than the train and the venue in any given city.)
We sat in silence at a very long stoplight. Or was it the silence that was long?
I asked him where he wanted to go, and with a very thick Russian accent he told me that he needed food and some alcoholic beverages. I mentioned a few places we might go, and his eyes lit up when he heard "Wal-Mart." So even though I am morally opposed to Wal-Mart on a number of levels, I figured I didn't have the right to deny someone else the choice to shop there. So off we went, into the wild, blue yonder my friend Michele calls the seventh level of hell. Wal-Hell.
As we drove to the Supercenter I continued to make small talk, because he clearly wasn't going to initiate any conversation. I also made small talk because I am the type of person who fills awkward silences with babble. Don't get me wrong: Sergi was nice and was clearly grateful that I agreed to shuttle him on some errands. But he wasn't as interested as I was in cross examination: What's it like to ride with the circus? Did you go to trapeze school? What do you think of the United States? How is it different than where you live? Do you have a family? Do you have circus friends? Do you ever get to hang out with the animals? Are the clowns as nice and fun as they appear to be on stage? These are just a few of the things I wanted to ask him. Instead I turned on the radio, reminding myself that I'd have other opportunities to chat with him later. He seemed a bit relieved to hear the background noise.
When we arrived at Wal-Mart I followed him in, though his stride was brisk. Once we were standing in front of all the checkout lines he very carefully and politely told me that he'd meet me at this exact spot in about 20 minutes. I was disappointed. What? He doesn't want a nosy American woman following him around and talking his ear off while he buys snacks and toiletries and whatever else Russian circus people buy? Clearly, the answer was no. As he walked off I weighed my options. Theoretically I could've browsed and shopped, but I wouldn't because I don't buy things at Wal-Mart. I could've wandered around and pretended to shop, so that maybe I'd run into him and see if he needed help finding anything (yeah, right. Like I know where anything is in Wal-Mart.) Or, I could've done some people watching while I sat on the bench in front of the checkout lines. Reluctantly I decided on the third option and plunked myself down on the hard metal bench. I was a little irritated that I was watching greeters and cashiers and coupon hoarders while there was a real live circus acrobat walking around the store.
About 20 minutes later I spotted him at the checkout. He was buying quite a lot, maybe six or seven plastic grocery bags full. When his transaction was complete I strolled up to him and casually asked him how it went. How it went? How does grocery shopping usually go, Laura? When we got in the car he told me that the one thing he couldn't find at Wal-Mart were alcoholic beverages. I quickly got the drift that he wanted hard liquor, not beer or wine. (Duh! Perhaps it's a myth, but almost every time I hear of Russians drinking, it involves Vodka or some other equally potent spirit.) I told him that in Texas you have to buy such things at a liquor store. He stared at me in disbelief. A store that only sells liquor? I started thinking about where I could take him because I figured we didn't have a lot of time. At some point he had to get back to the train in time to leave for the show, and I probably should've been getting back to work. Costco, I thought. They're cheap, they have everything, and it's not too far from where we are. So I told him where we were going and he seemed pleased that he'd be able to get what he needed.
As we fought our way through traffic Sergi opened up a little more. As it turns out, he has only a few friends in the circus. Mostly the performers just keep to themselves (or at least those in his unit do.) I also found out that he had a wife and a twelve year-old daughter, though he and his wife were currently separated. I could tell he missed them both, which is understandable given that he travels with the circus 42 weeks per year. The crazy thing about it all is that he only gets to perform 10 minutes per show. Now I've never been good with numbers, but I just had to do the math: if he performs seven times per week (which takes into account travel days and matinee performances) he is away from home 294 days per year so that he can "work" just over two full days (49 hours.) Wow! What would motivate someone to do that? Without thinking I snapped into journalist mode and asked him if it was worth it to be away from his country and his family for that long. He told me that the money is better than what most people can generally earn in Russia, and then added that the trapeze something he's good at.
After circling the lot we finally found a parking spot and headed in to Costco's liquor store. It's a smallish building so Sergi was stuck with me. He walked up to the only clerk in the store and asked him where they kept the cognac. Cognac? I wondered. Isn’t cognac what men in smoking jackets drink out of a brandy snifter? Though I'd heard of it many times I couldn't think of what it was. (It's like when someone mentions Kyrgyzstan, you know it's a country but have no idea where it's located.) The clerk walked toward a shelf that was stocked with quart-sized bottles of liquor and picked up the cognac. He handed it to Sergi, who studied the bottle as though he were Sherlock Holmes and the velvety amber liquid was a prime suspect. I imagined that made me Dr. Watson. I stood with the clerk and waited for a response. After a few moments, Sergi tucked the bottle under his arm and asked for something else, signaling that the only cognac Costco carried would suffice.
We didn't stay long. Within 10 minutes Sergi had made his selections and we were back in the car. As I turned on to the Highway 183 frontage road I casually mentioned that I had never tasted cognac. You might've thought I had just confessed to having twelve toes. He looked at me as though he expected Ashton Kutcher to come out of nowhere and say he had been Punked. Never tasted cognac? He reached for his bag in the back seat and started pulling out the bottle. "You must taste it," he said. I told him that I'd love to. As he started to open the cognac I suddenly realized that he was going to try and give me a swig right there on 183. "No!" I said, anxiously. "That's illegal here. You can't have an open liquor container in a moving car, much less drink it." He seemed surprised. He gave me his best ambivalent shrug and put it back in the bag.
I suddenly realized that I had no idea where to take him. I was hoping he'd want to go back to the Erwin Center because I could probably drive there in my sleep. But no. He wanted to go back to the circus train. "Alright," I said. "Where is it?" It dawned on me that I was about to let a Russian who spoke very broken English tell me how to get somewhere in a city he had never been to. What are the odds we'll end up anywhere near that train? I wondered. While I was having visions of a wild goose chase, he was racking his brain for a street name. Finally he blurted out, "Seventh Street."
"Do you mean east Seventh?"
"Seventh Street," he reiterated.
So I headed downtown. When we got to Seventh Street I turned east, because I couldn't imagine a circus train being anywhere west of the highway. As we drove slowly down the road it appeared that he was looking for anything that might seem familiar. I could tell by the look on his face that so far there was nothing. As is almost always the case on east Seventh Street there was lots of construction going on, so the ride was bumpy and slow. We must've traveled a mile or so before coming to a bridge. Sergi's face lit up. "There!" he said. "Right there." As we drove over the bridge I looked to my left, and sure enough there was the circus train, stretched out like a massive silver snake. Once we crossed the bridge I turned on a side street, which took us to a dead end ― a stone's throw from the middle of the train. I couldn't believe we had found it. I pulled up and started to help him get his groceries out before I left. As I picked up the bags he motioned to the train and said, "You come try cognac?" Is he inviting me to get on the train? My heart started beating faster as I realized I'd have to make a split-second decision. "Yes," I said casually, as though I often visited people who lived on circus trains. Being the no-nonsense Russian that he was, he grabbed about 2/3 of the bags and started walking toward the train. I juggled the ones I had in my hands so I could lock the car, and then started out after him. There was no path, only rocks. He deftly maneuvered the terrain while I took it more like an obstacle course. I probably looked something like Bugs Bunny when he was walking over hot coals.
We passed about five long cars before Sergi jumped aboard. I followed him down a corridor that felt somewhat like a midget's hotel. Inside the train there was a hallway of separate doors, which were not much bigger than the door of an airplane bathroom. Each one led to someone's living quarters. When we got to his unit he turned the key and invited me in. I'm not sure what I expected, but when I stepped in I was taken aback by how small and cramped it was. There was a built-in bunk bed high up on the wall across from the window, and a little hot plate "kitchen" below it. I can't remember every detail (and I'm horrible with size calculations) but I'd guess the entire footprint of the room was less than 100 square feet.
Sergi motioned for me to sit down on a little one-person bench across from a miniature table that jutted out of the opposite wall. He opened the door of a tiny refrigerator and pulled out a lemon. A very small built-in TV was on in the background, though the volume was turned all the way down. The reception was horrible. Sergi began slicing the lemons and then laid them out on a bright white paper towel. He opened the cognac and poured us each a shot. The time had come, and he was ready to explain the process. He started out trying to tell me what to do, and because he was at a loss for words he decided pantomime it. He picked up a slice of lemon and gestured as though he were popping it in his mouth, and then grabbed his shot and pretended to down it. I don't know why he didn't just do his first, though maybe he was just trying to be polite by letting his guest partake before he did. Anyway, I was ready to get on with it. I took my lemon, popped it in my mouth and bit down. As lemons tend to be it was super pungent, and I involuntarily screwed my face up. It probably left me looking something like a subject in one of Picasso's paintings. Sergi became alarmed. "No, no!" he cried. I spit out the lemon and both of us started laughing.
"That's what you told me to do!" I said incredulously.
"No," he said, shaking his head, smiling. "I don't know how to say it in English."
I grabbed the shot and tossed it down. The tangy acid taste in my mouth and throat turned to fire. I'm not much of a shot person, and I don't even really like hard alcohol. But I wasn't going to pass up a chance to get on the circus train, and the cognac was my ticket in. Though it burned going in, the cognac went down smooth. Sergi licked his lemon and downed his shot, and all that was left of my first cognac experience was two empty glasses on a table that might have fit in Barbie's Dream House. He picked up the bottle and motioned to my glass, as if to ask if I wanted more. I nodded my head no, but thanked him graciously for the offer.
I would've loved to ask Sergi a lot more questions about life on the circus train. It was a culture I'd never encountered, and probably never will again. But he wasn't the chatty type. Though the journalist in me wanted to hang out and observe circus life from the inside, I knew it was time to go. The space was so small it would’ve been uncomfortable if we weren't drinking cognac or playing cards or something. I thanked him for introducing me to his favorite alcoholic beverage, and he thanked me for taking him to run his errands. In order for me to leave he actually had to step out into the hallway. I waved goodbye as I walked down the tiny corridor, toward the afternoon light at the end of the tunnel. I stepped off the train and onto the rocky ground. I wasn't drunk or even tipsy by any means, but the trip back to the car seemed easier than on the way in. I walked past car after car of circus performers, but never once saw anyone other than Sergi. I guess they really do keep to themselves. For that reason I count myself lucky to have been able to get a glimpse of what I consider to be an alternate universe. It never ceases to amaze me how many different facets there are to the human experience. Who knows? If Sergi had come back to the office with me, perhaps he would've felt the same way.