Incident at the Circus

One Friday night I rode over the Williamsberg bridge to relatively tranquil Brooklyn, expecting to bear the dark and hazardous walkway overpass as usual, but there was bridge construction underway and the entire southmost lane was closed to cars but open to me on my bike who rode over no hands all the way clapping beats in countertime to my pedaling and occasionally shouting out loud when the joy bubbled over. Then I rode through Williamsberg which was haltingly peaceful as always, and I pushed deep into the warehouse regions up around North 15th until I arrove at the Brooklyn Brewery, Bindlestiff Family Circus, circa 1 a.m. It was a packed house, people spilling onto the otherwise dead warehouse street, all with farm fresh beers in hand. And their Williamsberg faces were smiling smart and engaged, exactly like San Franciscan faces. Nice to be back in Williamsberg. I went in.

The brewery is a massive old warehouse with big wooden support beams holding up a ceiling maybe 30 feet high, which arches higher at the point where a very makeshift wall was created from circusy patchwork blankets to cordon off the party area. The place was packed with whooping Billybergers standing rapt around a stage which featured a nominally effeminate and decisively overweight guy wearing a silver sequined dress, and gyrating to Donna Summer's "I Feel Love", which was cranked loud through a blissedly adequate sound system. As he stripped he poured several dramatic fluids over himself -- pitchers of darker and darker beers, milk (of course), and he'd pause to throw clusters of grapes into the audience.... onward and onward with the crowd outrageously loving it, hooting, clapping, being generally colorful.

The crowd... it struck me how Williamsberg is like a Little San Francisco, where the creative cyber folk dwell, where the sanctity of fixed culture is occasionally challenged, and where people of Active and Smiling natures reside. All these people would be right at home in S.F., and it looked like many split their time between the two places. From my perch at extreme stage right I could see not only the stage antics but also the crowd reactions, and both were beautiful.

Keith and Stephanie (the chief Bindlestiffs) came on the stage with a beyond commanding cartoonish presence, Keith wearing a red dress, hair pulled in a bob with a sort of wig to add girlish body to the bun, and with white eyeliner and eyelash extensions. He pranced around, circus transvestite girlish, swinging his Devil's tail with the swiveling hips and come hither flourish of a Mae West maneuver.

Stephenie then emerged in leather thong, bikini and S&M face mask. Each finger had a Freddy Kreuger extension a foot long and peaked with a cotton swab which was set afire and it wasn't long before the stage was ablaze in pyrotechnical ballet, and the music transitioned to the perfectly ironical "I'm Burning For Your Love".

So there they were, two modern incarnations of the ancient circus dictum that ye shall work amazingly hard to achieve showmanship, dancing with each other, exchanging flames, spitting it out, swallowing it, mesmerizing, making it all look so easy and beautiful. I was stage right loving them, the audience, the Abbey Ale, life.

Now came the first little hint of the direction the evening would go. Picture me, at my extreme stage right, ecstatic in watching both a gorgeous performance and a gorgeous audience, and then there's a tiny bit of side drama: some guy who is semi yelling at some woman, pushing her just slightly backwards into my view with that quick disjointed tempo that marks all violence. They're an interesting couple: his hair is close cropped, his clothes are stylishly minimal (black t-shirt, sweats, but it works) in a way that suggests he's British, and he's slurring hard, but I can hear what he's saying and it's intelligent, which suggests to me that it's not alcohol causing his slur but something more advanced. The woman he's slurring at has her hair shaved below her ears all around her head, and above the shave line are red punk-girl dreadlocks, and her face is either violently tattooed or just painted elaborately for the night. Both have the same distinct slur, and I catch some snatches.... Her: "what were you doing with her anyway, she's fat", at which pint he pushed her some more but she didn't seem to care at all. "You know, I give you a place to live, a place to fuckin do drugs, and this is how you go about things." He was right smack in her face the whole time, inching her backwards, but they were clearly communicating, smiling at each other voluptuously. This was not some dumb jock relying on dumb violence to make his point to his dumb chick: this was a smart guy on some serious drug talking to what was probably a smart girl. It was hard to get a bead on his personality and soul behind the veil of the drugs, but his big smile and playful eye contact seemed natural enough, maybe not caused by the drugs alone.

Anyway, the choice for me was either to watch these two boobs or watch Keith and Stephanie who were increasingly exquisite. I watched K & S for a while, easily forgetting that other little bit of drama, when I once again heard a fight rhythm. Sure enough, it was the Brit rolling on the concrete floor with some other guy. For a second or two it became the main attraction, but soon people ignored them in favor of the stage. One or two people went over to break it up, no big deal.

The fire show was at its climax, and it was so good I couldn't clap enough. And at exactly the conclusion, while Keith and Stephanie were taking their bows, flashing red police lights shone through the big wall of warehouse windows, and while everybody was clapping the guy who'd earlier stripped pointed at the lights and said, "Hey look, there's the next show". It was the perfect ending: the fire department had arrived en masse with at least 5 trucks, busting in and rushing around with this and that high tech probe like a comically inept SWAT team, looking pissed off about the fire show. No one took it at all seriously, it just seemed like the inevitable encounter with Big Dumb Brother, and we were all internally big enough to pay it no damn mind. I sat there bemusedly sipping my Abbey Ale (mmm).

I saw a fireman shining his light around the foundation of one of the wooden support beams, and I was wondering if he was seriously looking for non-visual signs of a fire. I had to get a closer look, so I walked over... He wasn't examining the beam: he was shining his light over the bloody bare chest of the previously slurring Brit, who'd been stabbed, and was gasping for breath like a beached fish and bleeding outrageously all over himself and the filthy floor and another fireman, who was pressing on his chest to stop the blood. He was sprawled and utterly helpless, eyes looking at nothing and probably very much, and the firemen were holding him hard, pressing on him, and trying to get everybody away. I stared at the guy shocked, and with my whole face tingling I pulled my beer up instinctively to cover my mouth.

People were leaving at their own pace, laughing and acting like Williamsbergian/San Franciscan people will (half smiling, half thinking), but gradually the word of the stabbing spread and the mood of course changed. Those faces which seemed so smart and active earlier were now pale and dumbstruck, mouths agape, not talking much at all. I heard one woman say "I'm going to try and forget I just saw that."

Soon it wasn't just firemen on the scene, but cops too, lots of cops, with their cars parked outside in cop drama fashion, front wheels up on the curb, flashing lights left on, etc. Some were detectives looking plain clothes enough (they all looked like Jets fans) and they had their badges showing authoritatively. We were all kicked out by circus staff speaking in panicked tones and cops speaking in monotones; I stood just beyond the door horrified, sipping my Abbey Ale (mmmm) as the cops milled in and out.

I was numbly watching the crowd disperse when a sweat-shirted cop with badge blazing came on the scene dragging a dreadlocked punker guy into the building. The punk kid later emerged dramatically handcuffed and escorted on both arms. The kid's expression was a hodge podge of proud and puzzled dread as he was stuffed into the police car. One of the cops was telling him that he probably killed the guy, and asked why he kept kicking him even after the guy was on the ground bleeding.

It's hard to describe the feeling of seeing someone mortally hurt. Kurt Vonnegut talked about how whenever he sees a car accident "the thin veil of civilization drop away", and he feels that old bloodlust and exhilaration. The Germans even have a word for it, "Shadenfreude" (sp?), which is traditionally translated as "shameful joy", but is specifically used to describe that primal excitement we as humans unwillingly feel at the site of blood or extreme suffering.

What I felt was more simply a stun, a halting of my usual runaway train of thought, and I was suddenly wrenched outside myself and able to watch the world without concern or distraction from my own self.

Strangest of all was that even though I had an incredibly profound feeling of revulsion all through my stomach and insides and a sort of flushing through my face, it all felt so damn insignificant. Not that the stabbed man lying gasping and pleading into the firemen's eyes for his life was insignificant -- he was so significant he made me and my life into nothing. What was insignificant was its cause. The guy was clearly into the scene of hard drugs and was probably attacked by someone in the same scene. I imagine the attack was something like the climax of a book I read, where a dehydrated and sun-fatigued man is walking down a beach on a blazing August afternoon, and his thoughts are a dizzy mush, and he's clutching a gun for no reason at all, and in my recollection of the story he had a hard-on, and he stumbles on some guy, and he shoots him. No reason, just bad biology, a mind gone blah. Shoots him.

That guy on the stone floor of the Brooklyn Brewery was a victim of the same thing, which is nothing, just Bad Biology and Blah, humanity gone awry, utterly insignificant but awesome in its power.

And now here I sit cross-legged and writing by the side of some ultra-deserted and menacingly dark Williamsberg warehouse stretch of road, and people occasionally drive by and slow down just a bit when they pass and sometimes yell either at me or the night, and I think I'm going to get the hell out of here before I become the victim of some utterly insignificant brutal act.

Hugh Mann
-April 1, 1998



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