I arrived at the circus a little cranky owing to rush hour traffic -- six a.m. to nine p.m. daily -- but once I stepped into the big top and smelled that mix of candy apples and stable dung, I was the happiest kid in the world.
They didn't say what I'd be doing. Family and friends hoped they might shoot me from a cannon to put right some parts of my brain. I was up for anything except leotards, which don't match my body type ... MALE.
Circus Vargas is run by Katya and Nelson Quiroga, two of the friendliest people you'll ever meet, and by that I mean they laughed at my jokes. They were nothing like the single-toothed syphilitic mutants you hear about.
"You're thinking of the carnival," said Nelson with a chuckle. "This is a family show."
For family, by the family. Katya's father is the tentmaster, her brother-in-law an aerialist, her nephew a trampoline...ist. At one point I was marveling at a high wire dancer and said, "Isn't that the sno-cone girl?"
"Yes," said Katya. "My niece, Nicolette."
Nelson likes knowing that the children are being watched. If they weren't in the circus, they'd be at risk to join a street gang or, worse yet, get hooked on "American Idol."
Whereas I gained weight being downwind from the concession stand, everyone else was fit like gymnasts. Nelson's brother-in-law was, in fact, a gymnast in the 1988 Olympics. Now he dazzles children from the teeter boards and, would you know, runs the concession stand.
"Your whole body has to be in shape," says Nelson. "We train most nights after the show."
Circus Vargas no longer rolls with exotic animals thanks to people like Pamela Anderson, whose cleavage has inspired overzealous activists to spray paint the trailers.
"It happened to us four times," said 24-year-old Matthew Esqueda, a juggler from Florida. "They also slashed our tires."
Katya said it was mostly a permit headache. Since that McDonald's hot coffee ruling, we've come to a point where carousels are made of fiberglass for fear of splinters. Soon we'll just post a sign on the outskirts of town: Society Closed for Liability Reasons.
Circus Vargas does present a cat-and-dog act by Vladimir Kopaev, the kind of free spirit who can get away with two hoop earrings.
"The circus is my life," said Vladimir. "In Moscow I was an acrobat, but now I'm fat and old and train ze animals."
For the record, Vladimir is neither fat nor old, but he did smell of kibble. So it goes.
Katya introduced me to "Nandy," the clown with whom I'd work, and there was much rejoicing. Not only would I be in the circus, but in the most sacred of all performances: The Circus Vargas Clown Act!
My role: Walk into a make-believe rope, maneuver the rope between two clowns, and finally chase them away with a sword. Katya would not give me any back story.
Nandy did a bang-up job on my face and costume. I asked if it were true what they say about the size of a clown's shoes. He didn't speak English, and maybe it's just as well.
As a graduate of twelfth-grade drama, I thought miming would be a snap, but as I waited for my cue -- a kick in the rump -- my dinner got restless and tried to find its way back to The Light.
But the circus doesn't care whether you're "ready," so I wandered trancelike into the ring and, from what they tell me, did what I was told. The nice thing about being a clown is that you can't screw up. The more you bumble, the better it plays. The other nice part is that there are no bad hair days.
For the finale, Vladimir dressed me in the strongman suit and pushed me back into the ring. I was supposed to keep pace with a Brazilian showgirl, but somehow I got trapped outside the curtain and had to fish my way back through. People laughed at my comic brilliance.
Backstage the family danced and applauded, children tugging at my legs, and in that moment I had to sit. Something about the light strobing through the stage mist, organ music swirling beyond, a hula girl winking as she passed...
Toto, we're not in Corporate America anymore.
Then all my friends began to fade despite my wishing against it. Sometimes you don't realize you have a dream until it comes true.
So, Mom, I hate to break it to you this way, but I've decided to join the circus. I know it's not what you expected, but if it makes you feel better, we're already planning to bring back the cannon.