The Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey circus is in town.  And they’re finding their way to Acorn.

Yesterday a 50-ish, gray-haired guy came in and asked for books on the circus, then on photography.    After browsing for a few minutes, he came to the counter and said that he wished he had some money.  “You’ve got a lot of good books here,” he noted approvingly. He mentioned being with the circus, which had just come to Columbus, and I asked what he did.

“I’m a prop man,” he replied.  Looking at his stooped posture, I quickly thought that he needed something/one to prop him up.  “I used to be a musician with them for 13 years, and then I left to get married.”

Uh, huh, I thought, that’ll take care of the gypsy-circus life.

But he continued, surprising me with, “After trying to live in the real world for a while, I missed the circus, so we both went back into the circus life.”

I was too stunned to ask him what his wife did under the bigtop.

When I kept showing interest in his work, he informed me – as though I would up and leave the store immediately, “The circus train is parked just down the street,” throwing out his arm to gesture the direction toward the train, but waving his arm vaguely as he realized that he had no idea what direction he needed to point to.

“It’s, …uh,” he fumbled, looking out the front windows to orient himself, “down that street there,” pointing to Grandview Avenue.  “Down where the railroad tracks are?”    I uh-huh’d, and he went on, “Well, the train is just, uh, about two blocks to the left of the crossing.  It’s in two parts.”

Of course I did want to leave and go check it out, a little to my own surprise. But Christine had the day off, so I had to imagine a circus train pulled off onto a siding, sitting there with the lions and tigers and dancing bears and bearded ladies and sword-swallowers adjusting to being in Columbus.

“Well, I’ve got to go,” he said.  “A lot of the others from the circus are over at…” and he squinted out the front window, “… Big Bear, and I’ve got to meet with them before we head back to the train to get ready for the tonight’s show.”

I couldn’t help but think how appropriate the grocery’s name was for circus-people shoppers.  Would they buy up a cart full of animal crackers?

Then today a dark-haired, dark-eyed, short, attractive woman came in and asked Christine if we had any books on crystals and runes.  She mentioned that she was with the circus, and I wondered if she were some kind of psychic, but I was busy with another customer and didn’t get to talk to her.  And if she were a psychic, wouldn’t she have known where we shelved such books?    She browsed in the New Age section for a while, and bought a couple of books, and said that Columbus was their last stop before heading for Mexico. I said “Adios!” to her as she stuffed her books into a cloth bag.    After she left, I told Christine about the circus man yesterday.  She replied with regret, “I should have asked what she did.”

About an hour later, a short, dark man with almond-shaped eyes and a two-day beard came to the counter to check out a copy of Tom Robbin’s “Jitterbug Perfume”.  He was wearing a long-sleeved denim shirt, with the name and logo of the Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey Circus stitched in red on his left chest.

After welcoming him to Columbus – which brought forth a great smile, I said that several other circus people had made their way into the shop.

“Oh, yeah,” he replied with enthusiasm, “we heard that this was a good bookstore, and was right across from the grocery.”

I asked what he did for this world-famous circus.

“I train elephants,” he said with another great smile.

Very cool.  A circus animal trainer.  Lots of questions came to mind, but I inanely asked, “Do you like that work?”

“Yeah!  I like working with th’elephants. And they only bring the calm ones out on tour, because of all the people around them, so it’s enjoyable to spend my time with them.”

“Are they African or Asian elephants?” I asked, remembering being threatened by elephants in Kenya when Linda and I twilight-trespassed on their territory walking across the veldt back to our lodge. And I recalled getting our first ride on a strong-scented elephant in Sri Lanka. I was bemused that an elephant trainer was buying a book with “perfume” in the title.

“Only Asian ones,” he said.  “They’re better to work with than African elephants.

I was about to conclude the transaction for the book, thinking that he was leaving, when he added, “I lived in Thailand for three years working with elephants.”

That opened the conversation all over again, as he talked about life in Thailand. “Americans have six televisions and three cars and are trying to find happiness.  Thais think that all Americans must be very happy having six televisions and three cars.  All they can see is the stuff that Americans have.  And for years the Thais have considered themselves fortunate for being happy people, despite having little in the way of life’s luxuries.”

I jumped in to say that it sounded a lot like what happened in former Iron Curtain countries once Communism fell.  And I added that what we were reading about these first few days of freedom in Iraq seemed to be following the same pattern of reaching for goods rather than good political philosophy.

“I spent some time in Romania,” this world traveler said, “and I noticed exactly the same thing there.”

“Romania?”  and I paused, then added, “Buena zewa!” to him.

He was shocked, but then mumbled, “Multimesc” in reply.    I then had to tell him about living in Iasi, Romania, for a year, while Ceaucescu was still dictating to the country.

He laughed and said he wanted to get up to Iasi, but spent most of his time around Bucharest, including skiing in Brasov, a renowned resort area.  He was there post-communism, and witnessed the drive for Western goods more than Western political democracy.

Finally he said that he had to go and meet a friend, nodding toward Big Bear.  As he headed for the front door, I concluded with “L’erevedere!” to him.  He just laughed and waved and disappeared ’round the corner.  As he left, I watched to make sure that there were no reminders on the carpet that indicated he worked around elephants.


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