-- My Ghetto Circus --
Summer nights in Chicago are like the center ring of an enormous circus masterminded by harlequin barbarians. In the daytime the city might as well
be anywhere else, but when the sun goes down my neighborhood turns on it's own lights. Up starts the merry-go-round with its sparkling bulbs and
dreary horses, the hawkers shout out their wares, while the black night sky becomes the canopy of the tent with stars for lights.
Nobody sees the ringmaster enter, strutting, brandishing his cane at arm's length as if for balance while he takes big steps to a beat that plays
from attendant car stereos just for him. He strides into the spotlight of the always apathetic moon and stops, theatrically cupping and turning an
ear towards me and the thousands of assembled others; we're all spectators and performers both. The cages that contain us are about to open, and
we've waited long enough for the day to end, for the show to start. We all wonder the same thing, what will it be tonight?
When the audience roars the ringmaster smiles. He twirls his mustache which is the same deep black as his immaculate suit; the non-color accentuates
the facelessness of the man, the shifting, ectoplasmic pseudo-shape of a thing that both is and is not. He lacks definition in his eyes and his chin,
even his color is shifting, always one step ahead of our comprehension. The ringmaster is like that, too slick to be human, too evil to be anything
else. I hate the ringmaster, and I would strangle him dead, but he has a million slippery necks and I could never twist them all, so I play in the
circus and bide my time.
I know what a pleasure it is for the people, to watch each other play. The ringmaster enjoys watching us the most, but I don't like to think about
that, it gives me performance anxiety. There's something about this circus that makes up for all the feelings of exposure and vulnerability, of
smallness, and that's the mantra of the dying: At least I'm alive. One day all the performers might strangle the circus master together, break the
locks of our cages and then maybe we could all go be farmers or something.
The crowd roars again and this time the ringmaster concedes to start the show. The fervor of the crowd is apparent without their faces or even their
bodies being present; they hover, all together, in the ephemeral distance, so that only their maddeningly bestial human voices prove their presence.
The ringmaster must always relent for the people, his audience, for they are also the show. I know my shadow lurks somewhere up by the stars,
screaming for blood and chaos he salivates in expectation as the ringmaster opens the creaking doors of our cages. What will it be tonight?
The stampede is instantaneous, people ahead and behind me flood the concrete of the stage, they stream in all directions like frenetic, off-kilter
gyroscopes. Lacking any sense of balance, many fall and are trampled, they're quickly forgotten because events have started. Minor brawls,
disagreements, jealousies spit and hiss angry words, games turn vicious. We steam towards a boil. We are after all, nothing more than people. The
moment we're let out we explode into motion, our brains hum together in the same turbulent frequency, and before long the first blood spills.
Tonight, first blood might be a stabbing, a robbery turned bad, or a dispute that ended in blows that wouldn't stop, and it doesn't matter, because
the ground is always thirsty, and after all, we are just people.
To clarify, my ghetto isn't made up of one color, or one ethnicity, or one religion; we're not individuals, we're all just really, really poor.
We're broke for all kinds of reasons, different vehicles you might say, all travelling to the same destination. There aren't any bums in my
neighborhood, cause there're no people here with money to give away. There are a lot of robberies, and I'll never understand that. There's one
nearly every show, and the spotlight never catches it happening, but the after effects ripple through the players like a shockwave and always, always,
there is retribution. Go ahead and rob him, he's got a shotgun, HAH!
Back and forth we all flow, trading blows or angry looks, all the while wondering what else might happen. A string of gunshots sound like
firecrackers above the crowd, someone probably died, there will be murders tonight, I'm sure of it now, and so is my shadow, smiling and rubbing his
hands together to better pretend that he's alive. He's ready, willing, able, he knows all too well how quickly things can happen, so he never takes
his eyes off the show, not for an instant. Even blinking could take too long, he has to see everything, if he turned away imagine what might be
The dead have more friends than they could have imagined, all seeking revenge with a passion they could not muster for any other purpose. Friends
with bricks and boards, knives and guns. Friends with cars that roll slowly through the shadows, only to kick on the lights and tear at the streets
with their wheels while the hollow black space of the tinted windows reveals nothing about the occupants. Are they your friends or mine? It's hard
to tell at night.
My shadow watches carefully, with blood like smoke dripping from his torn lip where he's been chewing, as two teenagers, definitely angry, probably
violent, pass me on the left -- close enough for either of us to stretch steel from our pockets and drive it into the muscle of our enemy, or is it
our friend, in the dark it's so hard to tell. And the stars, the miserable, gloating stars, won't so much as twinkle on the one closest to me and
reveal his face, his intent, they will never speak out to save me, or warn me off of action. Will I kill these men? The stars only watch, and wait
for the decision, which once strenuously thought over and made, will reappear in a different confrontation a minute or two later, then another, and
another, all night long.
The men pass, too close for comfort. The jacket of the one closest to me brushes against my arm that ends in a long gleam with a hardened point, but
that part of me is buried in my pocket, so he doesn't notice. They are gone into the night in an instant, and I continue to walk. My heart is
giddy, "Still Alive!" it shouts.
I've lost sight of the ringmaster, and all I can see are the multitudinous players. Drugs are exchanged for money and a whore gets slapped by her
minder outside while I buy peanuts and a beer at the liquor store. My blood is electric.
I'm back on the street, people are all around me, they're running in one direction. That is very, very bad. I plant my shoes to the ground to
avoid being washed over by the dozen or so bodies rushing past, and attempt to identify what they're running from. They're scared, they're alive,
it shines off of their faces like sweat under bright, invisible lights. Living in my ghetto is like dancing on the rooftops in the rain during a
thunderstorm, it's an affirmation of life that lets you laugh at Death; he stands so close you can smell the rot on his breath but you can always
give him the finger.
I'm dancing down the street, and I'm drinking my beer and tossing peanuts into my mouth, while society implodes around me. The cops are setting up
some kind of roadblock at the intersection. They use their cars because they're afraid to get out of them. My shadow yells for me to run the
opposite way, to follow the others, but he just doesn't get it, and I can't really hear him anyway, the audience is too loud. They're wide eyed
and cheerful, watching a riot in progress, the same one the police are deploying for. High school kids attack each other with boards and bats and
bricks, metal pipes and electric fans. There are a dozen on each side, but one tall boy stands out. He's probably only a sophmore in high school,
but gigantic for his age. He's thin, but he swings his crowbar with blinding speed, clearing a path through the opposing side.
Such a wonderful tingle in my tendons, and my heart sounds like an African drum beaten by a man in a Voodoo trance, a zombie who would slam his wrists
into the stretched hide three times a second until his death.
The momentum of the battle shifts as the tall kid gets hit with a flying brick. He crumples, and the line of his comrades that had formed like the
body of an arrow behind him, begin to retreat. The other side sweeps past me, and I just know my shadow has his rifle-sight eyes open, with his
sights on the street around me, hovering over one head after another as they pass me in close proximity. I walk across the street as the cops start
up their sirens and drive towards the defeated, fleeing combatants. The pigs are my least favorite players, they might as well be the ringmaster's
gold ringed fingers. I flip them off, bastards, and walk down the block toward an alley festooned with dumpsters that belch fetid garbage. A dark
and mildewed doorway between two dumpsters offers shelter from the patrol car spotlights, and I wait for several minutes, allowing my heart to slow,
standing still until my breath comes evenly.
One of the cops, still in his car with his shotgun and his riot helmet and his porno magazines, gets on a loudspeaker and addresses the horde of
children fleeing from the red and blue lights like cockroaches, "You can either go home, or you can go to jail. It's your choice."
"# you pig," I think, and we all slink back to the cages. The show almost got out of control, the audience must have been genuinely frightened!
Ooh.. my shadow grins wickedly and wonders, what will happen tommorow? Whatever it is, it will be much, much better. It always is.