Thursday, March 22, 2012

OUT OF THE PAST: The Most Unlikely Friendship, Formed in the Church of Sawdust and Spangles

 First posted March 22, 2012

Down there from the window of the train, that old broken down two-story white house looks as stranded and unwanted as ever. The tree in front is crowding out the rickety stairs I once climbed to visit him, up there where he’d appear behind the screen door, half a minute maybe after I'd press the bell.

He’d stand there, austerely, ushering me quietly inside, I’d take a seat in the spare living room, and he’d sit down across from me. A few paintings on the walls. We both waited for the conversation to begin. Always something about circus got us reconnected.

Never, that I recall, was I offered anything to eat. Maybe an apple. Maybe a glass of water, brought to me by his kindly mother, who rarely issued a word.

She stayed back in the kitchen or somewhere else.

Gradually, he’d soften down and let go with his latest scoops — “Hey, did you hear about the big blowup over on Beatty?...” He’d check the expression on my face, waiting, I assumed for me to egg him on. “A prop hand was caught with the wife of the guy who, oh, what is his name? — he runs the concession stand.” He laughed a little, his austerity melting away. “Boy, what a mess over on Ringling. A big beef over the Hannefords. I think they're gone."


"That's what I hear," he said, discretely amused.

After maybe fifteen or twenty minutes of these pre-show intrigues, he’d say, “I got some new stuff downstairs I can show you, if you want.” That was the cue. Onto my feet I sprang, following him through the kitchen, out the back and down another set of stairs for the Big Show. Downstairs in his stolid house felt like a dank bare basement, even though it was on the ground level. In a small room through the usual clutter one finds in basements, there stood a bed to the left as you entered, a large work desk against the far wall to the right. On the desk were the model wagons he was building. He was always working on something. He liked to show me his latest. That's how we had met, when I saw some of his wagon on display in a department store window in Santa Rosa, and a few years later wrote to him.

After examining his wagons in progress, he’d tell me to follow him, out through the clutter into another room, this one filled with boxes of circus magazines.

He’d show me the latest copy of Bandwagon, thumbing dismissively through its pages. “Look, what is there to this? Not much.” I don’t know why he was so negative; maybe he had submitted articles that they had rejected. In his hands, the White Tops got a little more respect; well, they printed his very compact write-ups of circuses that came through, which amounted to a mere listing of the acts. Which in some ways sums up how repressed in other areas of life he may have been.

And then, some years later, he became a publisher himself. We’d spend hours on the phone talking about his desire to start up some kind of a circus magazine or paper. He finally purchased a small printing machine and went to work at it. He’d call me up regularly, or I’d call him. It was fun going back and forth — all the circus stuff on the side, and then we’d sometimes take up current events away from the tents. Surprisingly, he was a pleasure to talk to about politics, because he seemed not to be pinned to any party. As Puritan as he struck me, yet he mind was flexibly open.

He took all sorts of pills. He was plagued with many illnesses; a few times when he was hospitalized, once in ICU, I took the bus out to visit him. He became very emotional, revealing how much his publication meant to him.

He worked tirelessly to build up circulation. I think the highest he went was around 2,400 subscribers — which would have probably topped all the other circus publications at the time. But I don’t think he stayed there for very long. He sent out free copies every week to bring in new subscribers. He fought to sustain his subscription base. He lived in fear of emerging potential competitors.

This became his life. His undying passion. He loved the cycles of publication, loved getting new equipment. During one of my visits, he showed me something I’d never seen – the PC mouse. He had purchased an Apple computer on which to compose pages his Circus Report. Yes, Don Marcks, who lived at 525 Oak Street, El Cerrito, CA.

For maybe a dozen years before his death, we had fallen into a wordless estrangement. No details from me, for he can’t answer back. Maybe we both contributed.

Don and I were about as opposite as you could get. He once told me, as if wanting to validate something I had done, "that book of yours, Behind the Big Top, they never wrote books like that before." I was not sure how correct Don was. But, coming from him, I took it as a great compliment.

Another time, at the end of one of our visits, he pointed to a small blank space on the back page of his Circus Report, large enough for a concise weekly column. “That could be yours,” he said.

I was genuinely touched. But I knew it would not work. Invariably I would say something that would set off a storm of protest (it had already happened once in his pages), making life not any easier for Don. In a thank you note I wrote to him, I expressed both my appreciation and apprehension.

Some years later, I let my subscription lapse, with a short friendly note.

And now, I am returning. Fate is something that has always intrigued me, for I believe in it. Last week, I had made up my mind after a lot of going back and forth -- having seen a copy of Circus Report that Ken Dodd had sent me -- to resubscribe.

And then, a few days later, last Saturday came an envelope in the mail from Ken. In it was a copy of the first review for my new book, Inside the Changing Circus. It had been published in Circus Report.

The next time I ride BART out to El Cerrito to catch the bus up to Santa Rosa, I will be looking out the window as the train passes by that old dilapidated house down there, as I always do, wondering when if ever it will show signs of life. Lately, it appears that somebody is at work trying to do something with it, either to knock part of it down or conduct major repairs. There are piles of lumber here and there. But whomever they are, I don't see evidence of hospitality for anybody anytime soon.

The tree branches crowding out the front steps are only growing more dominant.



Douglas McPherson said...

Thanks for a great post. I've never seen Circus Report and never knew Don, but thanks to your evocative piece of writing I feel that I have. An enjoyable Sunday evening trip to another place another time.

Showbiz David said...

Thanks, Douglas

A person - and friendship - unlike any other I have ever known.

In his own understated way, Don was actually quite fun.