A Celebration of Desire for Impossibly Perfect Efficiency
May 1st, to those in the circus a celebration of new life. A circus used to leave it’s winter quarters on the First of May to start the new season and this is when new workers would join a show. Throughout the first 7/8ths or 8/9ths of the season they would be referred to as “First of Mays.” It’s a bit humorous, a little derogatory, challenging even; but it is also a term of endearment. A First of May is like having a toddler around wanting to help but getting in the way until they get up to speed on how to independently get the needed work done in an efficient manner.
There is an idea in New Age circles about how you should attach everything you do with the highest degree of importance. The ridiculous notion goes on to explain that even the lowly dinner plate should be washed with the care you’d give to washing the baby Jesus’ (or Buddha’s) dirty bottom.
I was reminded of this a month back when I visited with the Zoppé Family Circus and was invited to help tear down. The sheer novelty of working in a tent combined with the joy of being under canvas and working with one of the very best shows touring just lit a fire under me and I was ready to work and show my mettle. I did wind up showing what I am made of.
My first job was to collect these oval signs that were on just about every pole in the tent and front yard. Giovanni quickly said something during my rapid orientation to this job that I didn’t quite understand until I asked him to say it again, “butt to butt, front to front.” Looking at the signs, it made sense-there was velcro on the back and you wouldn’t want that to scratch the very nice looking fronts which are smooth and ok to put next to each other.
Everything on a circus is like this. There’s a way to do everything and it’s done the same way every time-unless, as often happens, circumstances make it impossible. It always seems like there’s a better way but it’s rare that an improvement gets made in a show that’s on the road. Don’t mess with something that works? It goes beyond that. There is just a right way to do things and not enough time to pick out the error in the infinite number of ways something might still work. But probably won’t.
I finished collecting the signs and getting them to fit in their box-no easy feat. But then I found myself wandering around embarrassed, looking for work to help with. Interrupting a circus hand who’s actually getting something done is a daunting task, and not just because of my own tender sensibilities. The sheer momentum they have is tough to slow down and dangerous to throw yourself in front of.
Eventually I got the call to coil up the electric cords. One of the things I remember from my days on The Royal Lichtenstein Circus is that the cords get twisted from the normal person’s coiling them-every loop gets a little half twist if you don’t adjust for it and then kinks up. This is something I never mastered when I was with the RLC, but thought about a lot in the intervening years.
It’s my classic battle of doing the groundwork to make a future task easier-like washing the dishes before the food gets hardened, or taking the time to tediously put tools back exactly where they go to be easily found for the next job. On the RLC, everyday when uncoiling the cords, I had to deal with the kinks I’d created the day before. In my subsequent life as a Towner I have learned to do what I’ve heard referred to as a musician’s wrap, what I considered the best way of coiling a cord until being tested in the crucible of an actual Circus Teardown.
I thought I was doing so well. Heck, I even thought that I’d show the show this new technique and they’d start using it and remember me fondly for giving them an improvement on a tedious job. It’s so embarrassing now.
In the musician’s wrap, the cord gets wrapped around your elbow and hand, so you need to keep that arm flexed, and hand pointing up. You then wrap alternating directions, which gives the loop twice the diameter of your forearm, and automatically deals with that little half twist. I go into unneeded detail because, well, I still have feelings of protective longing for the musician’s wrap; even after what happened.
One of the cords turned out to be way longer than anything I’d dealt with before, and thicker too. As I was wrapping it, the cord really started piling up in my hand, getting hard to deal with. And there was still quite a bit to go when I got to a pole that had been laid over the cord. When I bent over to pick up the pole, I couldn’t quite move it off the cord because of its weight and length, so then I started trying to get my feet involved and it turned into quite a balancing act while bending over with the cord counterbalancing the rest of my body leaning over and actually winding up being the highest point on my body. Ugh-I’m not even going into the several other issues that came up from this fiasco, but they would further emphasize my general incompetence.
Well, I got that cord wrapped finally and when I went to put it into the box, it wouldn’t fit! The cords needed to be coiled in the normal diameter and laid flat-no wrapping the coil to keep it coiled. It stays in place by virtue of being packed correctly in the box. That’s when the electrician, Dennis, came over, looked at my mess (which I continued to defend) and showed me the preferred method. He stretched the cord out to full length and, while standing in one place, pulled the cord to him, coiling it on the ground, much as was done with long ropes on ships, or how I’ve tried to coil garden hoses. It always works, you don’t have to carry the dirty cord (On a show, “dirt” is quite the euphemism!), and the twist is dealt with naturally while laying the cord down.
Rookie mistake? Worse. Given my previous show experience it couldn’t even be explained as a First of May mistake. I was an April Fool. Again.