There’s a big top across the street, hidden under the trees in a long and narrow patch of land between us and our youngest daughter’s school. The circus, I’ve learned of late, is led by the strong man himself, looking as if he stepped off the pages of a children’s book, a caricature come to life. That’s him on the left. He’s surely related to the strong man in the drawing on the right; he was made from the same mold, that much I know.
Every Friday around noon our neighborhood is treated to the sounds of music, clapping, and cheers from under the big top. I can see the tent from where I sit and work, and on warm days when I open the balcony door, I can even hear the strong man’s booming voice, “Hoop-a! Hoop-a!” as the kids in his charge take flying leaps across the stage.
In recent months I couldn’t have distinguished the voice from the cheers, but now that I’ve been to the circus to see our youngest perform, I can easily pick out his voice. Our youngest daughter recently took part in this youth circus. Once a week for six weeks she walked around the corner from her school with some of her classmates (her classroom windows look into the yard of the circus), and for a few hours at a time they learned to build a human pyramid, balance on top of a ladder, juggle, and do tumbling tricks off a springboard. Nothing too fancy, nothing as involved as the high wire acts at St. Paul’s Circus Juventas, but this is a small European circus, and they operate at a different scale.
Stepping into the red and green tent for her group’s performance last month, I felt like I was transported to another place and time. There’s no door to the tent, exactly; I pulled a heavy blanket aside and stepped in, letting it slump back in place behind me to keep any breezes out, and busy Hohenstaufenstrasse faded away, the sound of its city buses and traffic now muffled and distant. Inside was an eerie world where stripes of red and green-tinted sunlight streamed through the big top, casting shadows on the gathering audience. There were sounds of rustling behind the curtains and hushed, excited children’s voices.
German and Turkish parents of the other students and their youngest children piled into the tent, climbing up the crowded wooden platforms to take a seat on the handmade benches facing the stage, much like a scene from “Curious George Goes to the Circus.” There was chatter all around me, but I understood little of it, as the languages tumbled together and no one spoke directly to me. I recognized some of the parents as having children in my daughter’s class, but I knew none well enough to prod any of them into a conversation in English, so I sat alone and took in the atmosphere, admiring the colorful sequined fabrics hanging from each doorway, each one a different pattern. The curtains hid entrances where children would soon emerge, as well as cubbies to store the long scarves, large balls, hula hoops, ladders, and juggling balls that would soon be put to use.
The music started at full volume, “I’m a Believer,” a song that has reached our balcony a number of times from this place. Then out came the first group of children to perform their first act, our daughter not yet among them, and the strong man followed them out to cheer them on. He planted himself by the springboard and called them each toward him and they ran, sprang off the board in a leap, and his bass voice accompanied every leap—“Hoop-a!” he’d call as they flew through the air to the soft landing mats.
He was the right man for the job—barrel chest, odd white beard that would look ridiculous on anyone else but somehow suited him, booming voice that filled the tent, and such a powerful presence.
He held out a bar and had each child take a leap over it; for the smallest in the group he’d lower it at the last second, winking at the audience as he dropped the bar to a safe height for the tiniest performers. After a botched leap by a less coordinated boy, he shook his head to hide his smile, never letting the child see his grin at his expense, and then he bellowed an encouraging “Huzza!” to the next child who was to attempt the leap.
Our daughter E came out in the next group, and I could see her glowing with excitement to be on stage. When her turn came she laid herself down to form the base of the human pyramid, proud, I knew, to be chosen to take more of the weight; when the strong man held a tall ladder before him she was the first to clamber to the top to take her position at the helm of a tower of children. She trusted this man, and I did too.
The ladder wasn’t bolted down; the strong man just held it steady in front of him as one child after another climbed up the contraption. It swayed before him, but I didn’t fear for the kids. I could picture the ladder toppling too far to one side, but more clearly I could imagine the strong man catching E on his arm, and the next rung of kids as well, should the need arise. He’s the strong man, right out of a children’s book, and no harm can come as long as he’s on stage. The circus has set up its big top across the street with the world’s strongest man at the helm, and I’m a believer.