When I was a young and disaffected teenager there was a recurring meme that offered a chance of escape from the dull and rigidly conformist world of my parents: run away and join circus.
Back then, there were lots of novels and movies about this peculiar institution that embraced society’s outcasts and better yet, there were still circuses that moved about the country on trains, drove elephants through the city streets, and erected enormous striped tents.
A conscientious researcher even then, I studied the odds of being accepted. I discovered that life with a travelling circus was pretty rustic compared to my middle class comforts. Nor was I very coordinated. Trapeze, acrobatics, juggling, and tightrope really weren’t my thing and clowns not only had to master stilt-walking but buy their own costumes and make-up. As much as I was aching to bolt, I had to shift my dreams of escape to college, albeit one very far away. This summer, though, I had glimpse of the dazzling life I had imagined back then. It was right here in Provincetown and called Carnival.
The term circus is often be used to mean a madhouse or a chaotic scene, and since this description fit the rumors I had heard about Carnival I signed up for a very minimal obligation, decorating a truck. But was told I was needed as a marshal, someone whose job it was to shoo away drunks and make sure no one was run over. Moreover I was told to arrive four hours before the parade and that getting home might involve hours of traffic.
Pictures I’d seen of previous years Carnival hadn’t made me any more enthusiastic. I was a straight, kind of quiet intellectual guy and didn’t really see myself marching beside two body builders who spray-painted themselves gold or a guy wearing white BVD’s and a pink cone brassiere. Which goes to show how wrong you can be.
It wasn’t long after I got to the staging ground, the Harbor Hotel parking lot, that I felt right at home. It didn’t hurt to be a given a t-shirt that clearly identified my role as marshal, but within minutes I was also festooned with sparkly bead necklaces—I don’t even remember where they came from—except that I was now decorated like a lampshade and made noise as I walked past a long row of Elvis imitators and a spot-on Barbra Streisand look-alike and a guy dressed as Liberace playing the piano on the hood of a Cadillac Fleetwood. I fell into a conversation with a gang of very buff Asian men wearing gold g-strings and feathered head-bands. I think they called themselves Mister Phillipino Universes, but I know something was lost in translation.
I bumped into the infamous gold spray-painted body builders who were happily posing for pictures which I quickly uploaded to Facebook. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten so many likes in so short a time and suddenly friends from all over the world were commenting and begging for more.
Apparently Provincetown Carnival is not only well-known but satisfies a very human curiosity to see beautiful bodies in silly costumes. Who knew? All of a sudden I felt like the twitter feed of People Magazine sending exotic photographs to people stuck in offices all over the country.
But there weren’t only muscular naked bodies there were a lot of ordinary bodies as well, hairy and flabby and wearing high heels, ball gowns and wigs, and in a kind of antipodean unreality that settled over the parking lot with the afternoon fog, they were equally resplendent. I thought of Joel Gray playing the puckish German emcee in the movie Cabaret, who said, “Here, life is beautiful. Zee girls are beautiful. Even Zee orchestra is beautiful!”
And…I swear this happened…I began to tear up…in the middle of this bizarre and whimsical parking lot, when I realized that this was not just some offbeat show but the place I had chosen to live my life, a place where being different is not only tolerated but celebrated. A place where normal has its own definition, a place where we actually do try to judge people by their character instead of who they love, how they dress, or think.
And as the dazzling parade of lunatics queued up for the long march down Commercial Street, I understood that I as straight as I looked, which was decidedly in the minority, I was accepted in this scene, these were my people and I had realized a childhood dream…I had run away and joined the circus.
I’m Ira Wood…and that’s my opinion.
Matters of Opinion are Ira Wood’s short, personal, often rather odd takes on current events. They wrap up the WOMR News on most Fridays at 12:30 PM and are available as podcasts HERE. Feel free to email Irato tell him what you think.