My life has always been something of a traveling circus. In middle and high school, I was pegged as the class clown—although I preferred to think of myself as a jester because I loved Shakespeare—which got me into trouble a lot, even when I wasn’t actually sassing around. My best friend has always been deathly afraid of clowns, so I used to torment her with pictures of Stephen King‘s It whenever the opportunity arose. And when I went to Burning Man in 2015, the theme was “carnival of mirrors,” prompting people to dress in the wildest circus attire I’ve ever seen.
But that bizarre spectacle was actually the closest I’d ever been to a real circus until Circus Vargas posted up in San Pedro last month. My parents never took me to the big top while I was growing up, probably because they knew I’d try to run away with the trapeze team.
The largest traveling circus in America now that the Ringling Bros. left the business, Circus Vargas doesn’t use any animals in its acts! HOORAY! Wild animals just aren’t meant to parade around a ring for the sake of human entertainment—just ask Roy Horn (from Siegfried and Roy), who was attacked in 2003 by white tiger Mantecore, or Oleksiy Pinko, the circus trainer who was brutally attacked by lions during a live performance in Kiev earlier this year. If I were a lion in a traveling circus, I’d probably attack my trainer, too. Who likes being bossed around?
A white-faced, red-nosed clown with poofy red hair who’s likely a relative of Ronald McDonald greeted Circus Vargas attendees with balloons and a teeth-y ear-to-ear grin. A little boy with a magnificent bowl cut who looked no older than 4 stood right in front of him and poked him in the belly. The clown looked at him and said, “Well, hi there!”
The little boy’s face went blank. Unsure of how to respond, he looked back at his mom, who was standing 3 feet behind him. “Say, ‘Hi,’ Eric!” she suggested.
Little Eric turned toward the clown again. “Can I has a balloon?” he asked, his finger in his mouth. The clown enthusiastically handed over a balloon, which sent little Eric pogo-ing back to his mom.
A child’s electricity is unlike any other type of energy: It’s genuine and pure—angelic, even—but also intense, rowdy and in-your-face. And the collective combustible energy of all the youth under the big top felt like a bubbling volcano. It reminded me what it was like to bounce off the walls. But it also made me feel old.
I felt pretty damn cool when I realized my seat was in the front row, the VIP section. A mother and her two children sat behind me. As soon as the lights went down, the girl screamed at an octave Mariah Carey probably couldn’t hit, but in a screech that I previously thought only Courtney Love could produce. Her brother told her to stop, which prompted her to scream even more—and even louder. With his hands over his ears, he begged his mother to tell his sister to shut up, but she ignored them and shoveled popcorn into her mouth, which is what I would’ve done.
Hosting the steampunk-themed evening was Steve Caveagna, his hair spiked and bedazzled with glittery hair spray. His over-the-top, comedic charm caused the young girl behind me to resume screeching. I had to see what type of facial expression accompanied that noise: It was like the emoji with the heart eyes. Despite her spine-snapping shriek, she also resembled a unicorn, as she clasped a rainbow-flashing LED lightsaber.
Caveagna made the show interactive by going into the crowd, patting attendees on the head as he passed them and tapping people’s opposite shoulders as he walked by, causing them to look the other way. He captivated the souls of the kids in the tent, and I’m serious when I say that every child (including myself) present wanted to be in the circus.
About 20 minutes into the show, Patrick Marinelli and Josue Tabares Marinelli were performing with three others a trampoline act that was similar to something you’d stumble upon out in Deep Playa at Burning Man. They were flipping and twisting and flopping and diving and doing tricks that made you question what we think we know about gravity and physics. Watching them not only made me dizzy, but it also quickly made me realize how much really fucking hard work there is in the circus.
As this was happening, a waft of alcohol assaulted my olfactory nerves. A girl sat down next to me; she was sipping from a water bottle filled with whiskey. I was sending her psychic messages to pass the bottle my way, but she was too wasted to receive them.
Imediately after the trampoline segment was done, one of the performers put on a jester hat and walked around the audience, offering glow-in-the-dark toys for people to purchase. You must literally wear many hats in order to be in the circus.
The other Caveagna brother, Jones, then came out and performed a sweet saxophone diddy while wearing a galactic orange blazer that glistened in a way that’d make a disco ball jealous. As he played, a group of steampunk queens, including Mariella Quiroga and Celeste Fernandez Rivera, demonstrated an amazing amount of strength and flexibility that would floor even the most seasoned yogi. As soon as Nicolette Fornasari started flying on the trapeze like a fairy princess, she broke an emotional threshold in me, activating my water works.
As I was leaving, I saw little Eric standing by the exit with his mom. “I DON’T WANT IT TO BE OVER!” he said, sobbing, his balloon tied around his wrist.
His mother hugged him. “It’s okay,” she said. “We’ll come back!”
I’m with you, Eric. I’m changing careers and joining the circus.