When she was seven years old I surprised my daughter with a trip to the circus. The late, lamented Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey at Madison Square Garden – long known as “The Greatest Show On Earth!”
Before it began we went out to dinner.
“Are there lions it the circus?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “There are lions in the circus.”
“Are they controlled?” She looked worried.
“Yes, Dylan,” I assured her. “They’re controlled.”
A few minutes later she said, “Are there tigers in the circus?”
“Yes, there are tigers in the circus.”
“Are they controlled?”
“Yes, Dylan. The tigers are controlled.”
Finally she asked, “Are there alligators the circus?”
“No,” I said. “There are no alligators in the circus,” and she seemed satisfied with that.
That night we had great seats: second row, dead center, right next to the performers entrance. You could smell the sawdust and hear the shouts from the center ring. There were twenty thousand people at that sold-out show. During the first half, the guard on the steps kept looking at me with a wary eye, and I thought, What are you looking at? I turned away and tried to watch the trapeze artists for a few moments, but when I glanced back Madison Square Garden’s Finest was still scowling my way. I was stoned in my seat with a baggie full of weed in my pocket, and my thoughts tacked towards guilt: Did I did something wrong? Oh, shit! Did I drop the weed and he found it?!! OhshitOhshitOhshit!!…
But he just kept looking at me with a steady unsmiling gaze. Finally, he took a few steps towards us…
He leaned towards me and said, “Excuse me, sir. Would you and your daughter like to participate in tonight’s performance?”
“Wh – What?!!”
Now he smiles. “Would you two like to participate in tonight’s performance?”
“Are you kidding?” I turned to my daughter and asked her if she wanted to be in the circus. Eyes widenening, she nodded her head vigorously; and I turned to the guard and nodded my head vigorously; and the guard wrote down our names and told me he would give me a nod when it was time.
After the intermission, at the start of the show, the guard nodded and we were led beyond the barriers into the pit with the jugglers and the clowns. They all smiled at her, and my daughter was simply enchanted. After a few moments we were to told to stand by the ringside with the Ringmaster. The Ringmaster smiled and asked me how to pronounce my last name and then went on the microphone and said, “Ladies and Gentleman! To help us with tonight’s show we would like to introduce Mr. Rick Cusick and his lovely daughter, Miss Dylan Cusick!” We were led out to the center of a three-ring circus with 20,000 people cheering. Walking towards the center ring I truthfully told myself that I was having one of the best moments of my life. Drink this in and remember it forever! I said. I looked down and Dylan was beaming!
We were told to sit down on a box in the center ring and then the Ringmaster announced, “Ladies & Gentlemen! Please welcome… T.M. the Gator Guy! and his Six Ferocious Alligators!”
She looked at me astonished, and I must have looked the same. She was still smiling, but her cheek muscles had suddenly tightened and her eyebrows were stitching down. Then…
T.M (which actually stood for “Thumb Missing”) pulled the canvas off six great cages containing six 400-pound alligators to start his reptilian review, but first… He came up to us and smiled and asked us to get up off the box we were sitting on. He opened the box and pulled out a baby alligator! Closing the box he motioned for us to sit back down, and then with a flourish put the baby on a drum right next to us, close to our heads. With a resonant voice amplified for the crowd, he ordered the best to “Watch them!” The little ‘gator sat three feet from our faces, mouth wide open like a cave of sharp teeth, breathing, heaving, watching us, waiting… while the Gator Guy continued to release the big boys from their cages.
As if on cue, Dylan jumped into my arms and held me so tight I thought she would crawl into my skin. The crowd got a good laugh out of our anxiety, and whatever T.M. did with the big gators – we didn’t see it. Our eyes were locked the baby’s cold-blooded glare, waiting for something to go wrong. Dylan’s tiny terror was, of course, the whole point of the bit, and she played her part with wonderful discomfort. T.M. thanked us, the Ringmaster thanked us and the crowd gave us a big round of applause as we were escorted back to our seats. My heartbeat returned to normal by the time the clown car came in.
Owing to dwindling ticket sales stemming from shameful evidence of animal abuse, Ringling Bros & Barnum & Bailey Circus closed its operation forever after 180 years in 2017. I loved the circus when I was a kid, and I was oblivious to the controversy when I took Dylan to The Big Top in 2004. Maybe I had blinders on. No matter. That circus is a dinosaur now. Although I’m glad I took her to see it – and that we got a chance to be in it – I’m also glad it no longer exists.