Sunday, May 28, 2006

The circus family.

May 28, Novato.
Fuji, who suffered a stroke on Thursday, is still in intensive care in the hospital, but out of critical condition. He'll stay in the hospital at least another week then go into rehabilitation for several weeks more. "He will never be 100%, it is just a matter of time, and effort and seeing what happens," said Jim. But he's lucky in more than one way: he would have died had they failed to transport him right away to the hospital, and he's in one of the best neurological unit around. "And most of the nurses here and doctors have taken their familes to Circus Chimera over the years so they are being especially attentive to Fuji," Jim added.
The circus family is bigger than we think.
"He is sleeping around the clock, and they have to come in every 30 minutes to check his vision, his movement, his motor skills, etc," said Jim, who wants to stay at Fuji's bedside until he's out of the intensive care unit, and is working straight from the hospital room. Most of his work is being done on the computer so this is not an inconvenience, he said, adding, "it is probably a benefit, because it gives me some quiet time to reflect and work without additional pressures."
Fuji will be able to stay in the U.S. thanks to Jim, who is bringing his wife here from Mexico, and is also looking into ways to provide a trailer for them so he can come back and travel with the circus once he's ready and relearn to do the work.
The circus family is bigger than you think.

Fuji, whose real name is Higinio Alvarez Salazar (last one on the right, March 8.) A hard worker, Fuji works in the lights department but was helping out with raising the tent that day.

Stealing the show.

May 27, Novato, California.

Jim came back to be at Fuji's bedside. No matter what I find unpalatable about the work conditions at this circus, I know that he cares, and there is a feeling of belonging to a family when you work here, the circus family. I know he'll take care of Fuji, just as he took care of Saul and Arturo and Agustin and taught them how to sign and read and write.
Because he did not want to leave Fuji's bedside, Jim asked me to go attend a gallery opening of a photo show by a Bay Area woman who's been working on Circus Chimera. She's called Norma Quintana and the show is called "Circus: A Traveling Life" and is at the Smith Andersen North gallery in San Rafael. I liked some of the images, especially the photograph of Fridman (and not just because he's my man,) even though the work is very Mary Ellen Markish, an American photographer famous for her pictures of the circus.
Norma Quintana seemed genuinely delighted to learn that Fridman had a baby, and kept picking him up, and telling each of her friends that "This is Fridman's son!," pointing at the picture and Dylan simultaneously, beaming.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Sad smiles.

May 25, Scotts Valley.

Under the bright lights Ekaterina is in the ring performing her contortion and the audience is loudly applauding - there's a full house tonight, topping yesterday's strong showing. Meanwhile one of the tent workers, a Mexican nicknamed Fuji, suffered what appears to be a stroke; he was taken to the nearest hospital.
Fuji has been with Circus Chimera since it started. He works setting up the tent, drives a circus tractor-trailer and greets people at the door. He was walking there when he collapsed at the beginning of the show.
This is the reality of the circus, that of all performing arts: the above-all iron rule of the show, where reality and its trail of tragedy, sweat and tears have no place.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Traveling fools (excluding Rome.)

May 24, Scotts Valley.

I can hear the crowd scream from the trailer.
The circus did good business tonight, if one is to trust the decibels. Business was down in the Monterey area, due to late booking and a consequent lack of proper advertising, but since San Jose a week ago things have picked up and gone back to where they have been since the beginning of the season, which is perched modestly but steadily half-way on the top part of the success ladder.
For small-size American circuses such as Circus Chimera profit is usually hard to come by. They live by the buck and have to play hard to make it. Hence the seven days a week, ten months a year deal, the doubling, tripling, quadrupling of duties, or in Fridman's case wearing so many hats the days seem to dissolve into an endless blur.
According to Roy, Circus Chimera's manager, there are fewer than 15 such circuses traveling in the U.S. today. Most if not all of them overwhelmingly employ Mexican labor, and some Mexican performers as well, and one at least is Mexican-owned, the Circo Hermanos Vazquez. Most are a one-ring operation, with the exception of Carson and Barnes.
The circus as we know it began not in Ancient Rome as is commonly thought but in England in the late eighteenth century with Philip Astley and the Astley's Amphiteatre. Clowns can trace their roots farther as since the Middle Ages jesters and fools played a big role in Western societies. They also acquired their brightly colored attire during that time (for a good, detailed history of the circus see The U.S. circus followed shortly after its British debut and was soon made famous by P.T. Barnum, who added two rings to create the three-ring circus in 1881. The circus had its heydays in the late nineteenth century, with tented shows reaching a peak in Europe during World War II. But according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica "today circuses usually perform in permanent buildings, though small troupes still travel with tents in some regions."
That would be us.

Sasha, Ekaterina, Vasily and Fridman (from left, in good newspaper fashion) on the boardwalk in Santa Cruz this morning.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Making your bed.

May 24, Scotts Valley, California.

The bed is almost done.
Dylan touches both ends of his cradle and has started turning around in his sleep so we decided to take action: in the past few days Fridman has been building a crib for him that will fit in the closet (not much choice in the trailer and a store crib wouldn't fit of course.) We'll buy foam and make a mattress and side pads, cut up a sheet to make his, cover the pads with some left-over material used for decorating the trailer. As simple as one, two, three, here's the bed, complete with folding door for picking up the baby easily. It just needs to be polished and varnished and voila!, a custom-made crib for Mister Dylan, Made in Daddy.
Some days I just love that man.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Gustavo Ramos Rivera, the eternity of a discovery.

May 20, San Jose.

Dylan had swallowed an Energizer it seemed today, so I went out for a stroll to the San Jose Museum of Art a few blocks away and stumbled upon a surprise discovery, the ensuing love-at-first-sight illuminating my day : the Mexican-American abstract painter Gustavo Ramos Rivera.
His colors left me enchanted, the blues especially - glowing turquoises and pale blues, gorgeous blues, my heaven's blues.
The name of the show is Gustavo Ramos Rivera: Eternidades del instante," or eternities of the moment. Not much information on the artist in the introductory panels, only that he grew up in Mexico and in 1969 settled in San Francisco, that he reads poetry and loves jazz, all of which inspires his work (there's more on the web site for the museum.) Rivera's connection to Miro and Diebenkorn is mentioned and the reminiscences are evident in his work - probably why I loved his paintings so much. The color! The color!

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Odds and ends.

May 20, San Jose.

Berta Canyon Road north of Salinas on highway 101 (for those who know.)
Electronic bulletin board in front of Hollister High School: Prom 2006, Sober Grads needs volunteers.

There are not three but four shows today, the one at 10:30 in the morning a private show.

To Do List for the project to take off - finally: at length interviews of Ekaterina, the Russians, el tio Tito (on vacation in Mexico right now,) Chago, Oscar, Jim; wait for Dylan to be able to sit up by himself to start seriously shooting (I'll carry him on my back with a new baby carrier I got last week in the Mecca of baby shopping, Baby'R'Us.)

Friday, May 19, 2006


May 18, San Jose.

The circus is in the heart of downtown San Jose, next to the Children's Discovery Museum, an annual rendez-vous. Right across the street from where we are are the headquarters of the Adobe corporation. Now for any photographer, Adobe Photoshop is akin to the Bible. We bow down to Photoshop, use and abuse Photoshop, Photoshop is like our brain, used only to five percent of its capacity but central to our existence - we simply wouldn't exist without Photoshop. The invisible masters of our universe are right here, within reach, in San Jose. I wish they could somehow enable me to use those other 95 percent.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Growing up in the circus, part two.

May 17, San Jose (Children's Discovery Museum,) California.
Most of the people Fridman grew up with in the small South American circus world are now in the United States, like the Gonzales and the Rodriguez, Angelo, his sister, Shirly, and younger brother, Jericho (I'll have to investigate the names.)
Fridman has known Angelo since he was six years old, and the Gonzales family for even longer. He worked for many years, in Perú, Chile and Ecuador, for the Gonzales family, which has now grown to include Martin and his wife, Roxanna, Martin's two teenage children from another marriage, Martincito (little Martin) and Estefani, Roxanna's teenage son from a previous relationship, Tito (short for Robertito, little Roberto,) Martin and Roxanna's son together, Vicente, who is four, and Martin's mother, Señora Ines. All except the baby and the grandmother work an act together in the circus. They have a little French poodles act and an acrobatics one. Martin is an only son. His mother raised his two children, Martincito and Estefani, until all three of them came to the U.S. to join their father.
Angelo and his siblings all to work in the circus as well, although not together anymore.
Like a lot of South American circus performers Angelo first came to this country to work for the Carson and Barnes circus. The circus is owned by a family from Hugo, Oklahoma, the Millers and now Byrds, and its performers were until recently dominated by a Peruvian circus family, the Cavallinis. They brought Fridman to the U.S. to work with the Gonzales' family, who was then also at Carson and Barnes. Martin Gonzales' wife, Roxanna, is a Cavallini. The patriarch of the Cavallini clan, Don Roberto, as they call him, lives in Lima, but all his children are in the U.S., some with Carson and Barnes, where some have married the owners' daughters, and others now in other occupations around the country.
Carson and Barnes, like Circus Chimera and many other small circuses, brings the majority of its manual workers from Mexico and other Latin American countries, and its performers from around the world. Many come from Russia, its circus and gymnastics schools among the best in the world. Eugene Baranov, an animal tamer, was a friend of Fridman's at Carson and Barnes. Over ritual Sunday buffets in Paris Texas, near Hugo, Oklahoma, where Carson and Barnes winters and where we were all together the year before last, we got to know him better. For me it was a lesson in understanding and accepting, as I'm usually appalled by the keeping and taming of wild animals in the circus (I can't say that I was convinced, but it is always good to get to know the face of the other; and when this other is someone like Eugene, it's hard to stay entirely hostile.)
(To be continued.)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


May 16, Hollister, California.
(Floating in space without internet connection for a while.)

Dylan turned six months on Sunday so we had a little feliz cumplemeses celebration for him, with cake and candle.
Happy birthday in Spanish is feliz cumplenaños, which literally means happy birthyears. So it was a feliz cumplemeses, or happy birthmonths, for Dylan. Ekaterina and Vasily were there, and so was Angelo, all singing feliz cumplemeses. But I took pictures instead of filming the performance (professional deformation) so we did it again yesterday, without Angelo but with Edith and her baby, Jose Ivan, and the Chinese girls. And with half a cake, ta-da!, for half a year.
We had to do it before the appointment for Dylan's immunizations in the afternoon. Fridman went with this time and he looked as if he felt more pain than the baby, his contorted face a study in agony. The six-month checkup went fine, this is a healthy circus baby. We went to a place called the Health Foundation, a clinic I had found, as always, by looking on the internet. It turned out to be committed, among other things, to "provide health care to under-served populations," and we ended up not having to pay anything. Since none of us has any health insurance, health care costs are always adding to the stress of the visits so I was grateful for the alignment of the stars that made it so that Dylan's six month checkup would bring us just here to this wonderful little clinic. As I went to sleep last night I thought this must be pretty damn close to what they say is happiness. If I had one fiber of religious material in me I would say that we are blessed.
We moved back south to Hollister for a couple of days and arrived to a field which hadn't been cleaned and was hard to maneuver, all hard bumps left by the combines and unharvested hay. A last remnant of agriculture sandwiched between a KMart and a housing development, probably gone and turned into another development by the time the circus comes back to this town in a couple of years, the way these things go all around the country.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Growing up in the circus, part one.

May 13, San Jose, California.

Last night we saw Angelo Rodriguez, an old friend of Fridman from Perú who occasionally works private shows for the Cirque du Soleil. We spent the evening at his sister's apartment in San Bruno, south of San Francisco, catching up on la gente.
Angelo, like Fridman, grew up in the circus in Perú. He came to the United States first to work for the Carson and Barnes circus. He went back home after fighting with the head of the group he worked with, Martin Gonzales. Angelo later came back to the U.S. to work for Circus Chimera. He left the traveling circus life when he got married and settled in the Bay area. He was once offered to work for the Cirque du Soleil, only to turn them down, a newly-wed not wanting to be away from his wife. He does a strap act and now works for private shows.
The Gonzales are another circus family Fridman grew up around. He also worked with and for them on a number of occasion, up to last year at the Tarzan Zerbini circus when it also ended with a fight. The world of the circus, like all others, is a close-knit one, with paths, friendships and romances endlessly intertwined. Most of them try at one point or another to come work in the U.S. and crisscross each other here again, extending the net that binds them over the span of another country, bringing with them old quarrels and debts and sometimes finding their world turned just as upside down as the walk Fridman does in the circus.
A good example is Sami Rojas Stefano, a performer from a Romani family whom Fridman grew up with. Sami's father owned a circus in Peru and after having to leave his family and go earn a living by himself at 12 Fridman worked for them for a while. Sami was the owner's son, a millionaire and a prince in the boy Fridman's eyes. They met again, about a month ago when we were in the Riverside area, after more than ten years without seeing each other. Sami and his sister, Maritza, who was Fridman's sweetheart when they were kids, work for a circus called Circo Caballero . Maritza still does her act in the show but Sami, who has found religion and seems to have aged beyond his years, now works as prop help. Funny how things work out, Fridman commented when he came back from the visit: the owner's son, the all important one, and I just a poor kid, a nobody, and look where we are now.
(To be continued.)

Shirly, Angelo's sister, holding Dylan.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


May 10, Salinas.

Attempt to shoot some of the backstage area ambiance today, without much luck: shooting with the new professional camera I've bought, the Nikon D70s, has proved to be impossible while carrying the baby in the BabyBjorn, my arms bump against him, and shooting with the little pocket Canon yields out-of-focus pictures in such low-light situations.
The only photograph I could salvage is that of Genia getting a back massage from Shu Ma, one of the Chinese girls.
We have no idea what her real name is, and call her and all the others by the nearest approximation of the way they say their name sounds like for us barbarians. We're learning little bits of Chinese along the way, basic words and expressions like hello, good, bad, thank you and you're welcome, and they've learnt some English. Only they pronounce everything with an 'ah" sound at the end, the way I remember hearing it in Hong Kong. So "good" becomes "good-ah," with a strong emphasis on the "ah," for example. The name of that Dutch cheese is all you hear around the Ekaterina, Sasha and Fridman gang now. Needless to say it gets old.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Remembrance of things read.

May 9, Salinas, California.

Might well be another world. We're only a few miles from the coast and it's as if we were in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley. Flat, definitely warmer, endless fields of strawberries, cabbage, more strawberries.
Discovering Monterey and now Salinas brings to mind discovering Steinbeck as a college student, the joy of reading something so alive and real after the drudgery of plowing through the French classics in high school, all the images Of Mice and Men that are still with me, the straightforwardness of the writing yet the impact of the images in my mind, reading all the American classics as a freshman in college studying English, and loving it.
College in France is different than in the States in that you specialize from the first year on. You get in an English program, say, or a psychology one, to study that subject exclusively. All the basics that are covered in the first two years of a U.S. college have been covered in high school, and when I was going to high school that was still true, although it is probably not so much anymore.
So I read Melville and Steinbeck and Hawthorne and Ralph Ellison and DH Lawrence, and Shakespeare of course, struggling through the books and loving every minute of it, with few exceptions. Loving the language, loving learning the language, its richness and subtleties not obvious right away but revealed only after studying for a while, each writer's style appreciated yet later. Later still, well out of college, the phases, reading but Faulkner, having to have one of his books after another, a junky. And the images stayed, like Steinbeck and his Cannery Row.
It was better in my mind.

Old eggs.

May 7, Monterey.

The eggs came by this morning, and returned to see the early show with some friends.
Pat and Bill Eggleston, or Mr. and Mrs. Egg," as Pat likes to joke, are old friends of my parents who live in Carmel-by-the-sea. They call me their French daughter; I hadn't seen them in a long time. We went to the Little Swiss Cafe in Carmel for breakfast, where there is an interesting multi-panel mural in the main room with among other scenes a painting of the owner smoking marijuana in a field and a sign with a smiley face and I Hate You written on it. The mural is by André Balyon and is called "Dutch Treat."
The Egglestons saw the early show, the first time they'd been to the circus in forty-some years. They went to see the Barnum Brothers Circus in New York City when their kids were small. David is now 47 and Nancy 45.

Ocean resolutions.

May 6, Monterey.

Visit to the Monterey Aquarium in the morning before the shows, with Ekaterina, Vasily and the three Chinese girls in tow, all piled up in the back of the truck cab-and-a-half. Free entry and no lines thanks to a Peruvian "guest ambassador" Fridman had met. I walked around with Dylan off my breast for the best part of the visit, the baby blissfully oblivious to the amazing other world we were (re)discovering. I decided to stop eating fish upon reading one more time about the over-fishing and overall destruction of the oceans we're all happily conducting, then ate a bowl of clam chowder at the cafeteria. Sort of like the last cigarette, is the idea.

Cinco de mayo revisited.

May 5, Monterey.

Today is Cinco de Mayo, a national holiday for Mexicans and an unfortunate reminder of the national embarrassment called Napoleon and his sires for my fellow Frenchmen and women (OK, so he did establish a uniform metric system and code of law, the Code Napoleon, which is still in use to this day, but on the whole, as a friend said, the only thing really intelligent he did in his life was die.)

It just got better (variation on Ocean View on the Go.)

May 4, Monterey, California.

Today was a "travel day" in the circus, from Solvang, north of Santa Barbara, to Monterey, south of San Francisco, a four-hour drive. Had we moved at night after the shows as usual we would have missed the gorgeous views the highway afforded onto the central California coast. What a beautiful part of the country. It was an easy trip too, nobody on the road past the beach town of Pismo Beach, and I just drank it up. There were also fields after fields sprinkled with migrant laborers picking produce, reminding me of the current immigration debate gripping the nation.
The wake-up call was at 6:30 AM so that there would be time to set up the tent upon arriving and then some. In our case it was 5:30 AM, baby oblige. The baby globe-trotter didn't utter a peep during the 250 mile drive but started stirring right on cue on highway 68 approaching Monterey. A real road pro.
As if the postcard-perfect drive was not enough we then were treated with an afternoon off, no show. This circus works seven days a week. Why the sudden outburst of generosity of the day off remains a mystery. Well, half a day, really, since a lot of people drive for the circus on top of other jobs.
Among other things we spent ours going to see the ocean one more time.
The time was just right, the light was just right, it had just gotten better. There was nobody there, the water was a transparent pale green-blue, just beautiful, the misty beach stretching for miles north.
I grew up on the French Riviera, by the Mediterranean sea, and had the privilege to open my window every day as a little girl and see the sea in the distance. My Dad had a passion for sailing and sailboats (unfortunately not shared by my Mom, who is also very seasick) and we had a succession of sailboats. I spent a week sailing the coast from Antibes to Saint-Tropez with my Dad once, as a teenager, and loved having him all by myself. I also remember being back on terra firma afterwards and feeling as if the earth were moving under my feet, as if I were on a boat instead of on land, my world reversed. Somehow I don't feel complete when I'm not by the water.
Fridman loved the ocean visit too. He told me stories about the circus setting up in small coastal villages in Peru when he was a teen and they all going down to the beach, spying on lovers nested in the nooks of the dunes.

The shore at Seaside, north of Monterey, with Pacific grove in the distance.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Advertising 102.

May 3, Solvang.

Sometime last year Jim Judkins, the owner of Circus Chimera started experimenting with mass mailings as an advertising tactic, and this year the sight of stacks upon stacks of United States Post Office crates filling with envelopes has become a familiar one around the circus.
On days when they don't set up or take down the tent, up to 35 workers sit in the cookhouse tent and fill envelopes with $3 coupons and passes. The envelopes are mailed to every business in town for every given town. The system is fine-tuned so that for a small town like Solvang the circus covers not only the town itself but others around, and in turn in a big city like San Jose only specific businesses are targeted.
There is also not the same amount of advertising for two days of playing a town than there is for one where the circus will stay a week. "There is no cookie-cutter way to do it," says Jim, who analyzes every town to determine what is the best way to cover it. "We look at the market and try to decide what the intelligent way to promote it is," he says.
In all it costs Circus Chimera about two thousand dollars a show to advertise through mass mailing, at a rate of one dollar per envelope to businesses and forty cents per postcard sent to residences. Other, older ways of advertising are still being used but it seems that the strategy has worked. "We are seeing the difference," says Jim.

I had a dream.

May 2, Solvang.

"Day without immigrants" across the country and it just so happens I'm stuck without news today of all days, as the wireless connection is being erratic.
But suddenly as Fridman is working outside on painting his rolla bolas we hear chants coming from up the road behind the circus and the trailers and turn to see a ribbon of high-school students marching down, waiving American and Mexican flags, adding their voice to the national chorus. Even in tiny Solvang, California, they were out, so I'm tempted to think the action will be successful.
"A Day without Mexicans," the movie, becoming reality: in my wildest dreams I couldn't have imagined it.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Salvage job.

May 1, Solvang, California.

Yesterday there were only two shows and Fridman and I left for the next town at 8 instead of 11 PM or more when we have the usual three shows. The trip was short, only about 73 miles from Los Osos down to Solvang, so we arrived at only 9:30 PM.
It felt wonderfully early, as we usually don't arrive until one AM or later the next day. It felt as if we had been granted an extra night to enjoy. The luxury: after Fridman was done helping Jim park the circus we watched another episode of The Sopranos, our addiction of the moment.

I noticed when I parked the trailer a bunch of bright orange wild flowers jutting out like a proud wedding bouquet a few feet away, incongruous and lonely among the field of weeds. Before long the flowers were trampled by the next trailer arriving on the lot so I grabbed a pair of scissors and went out to cut a few strands, trying to arrange the others in the hope they would survive this motorized assault and prop themselves back up in the morning to proclaim their fiery glory once again. Then the next trailer arrived, and the next, and the next. Suddenly realizing the imminence of the flowery annihilation, I ran out to salvage what could be, dashing out between the looming trailers, a woman with a mission.
This morning the flowers were wide open and seemed even brighter.
In Los Osos I made transplants of the big pink flowers covering the hill behind us, griffes de la reine as they are called in French.
My circus treats.