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You Can’t Hurt Us in the Kingston Circus   2 comments

Victorian-circus-poster-007

Days after returning to Jamaica from a whirlwind two weeks in the states, I had almost forgotten elements of my Jamaican life. I’d spent time having dozens of random conversations with new people, happy to buy me drinks as I roamed the streets either alone or with friends. I’d slept on couches, hopped on planes, and done a book reading in Washington DC, and had a series of fun but crazy meetings in New York. A little airsick and drained the day after I returned back to the sunny island nestled in the bosom of the Caribbean,  I gave a speech at an event, and sometime after that I plodded about through the crowd, snapping photos. At some point I saw a girl I knew, and I instinctively smiled at her, giving her a strong hello. She looked at me, and for a second almost returned the smile with the same energy, but then her body language changed, and we exchanged a bizarre sort of shoulder touch. As if I wasn’t there, she quickly turned away and started speaking to someone else. For three seconds, I almost felt offended, but then I remembered, this is Kingston. We live in a state of being visible and invisible, hiding in glass display cases that protect both our emotions and public personas. There we lay, protected and exposed at the same time, in the roaring, socially stilted continuum that is nighttime Kingston. So she can’t excitedly hug me, this is impossible I remember. Such emotional displays are frowned upon, and my programming starts to kick in, the faux coolness that must ooze from my pores, where everything is passé and Friday nights always feel like a revolving door. The circus is back in town, and the main attraction is an empty cage that held the promise of what used to be. You take a stroll through its expanse, amidst peeling old tents and smelly remnants of aging exhibitions. Dusty signs point towards a main attraction, but all you see there is an empty cage. This cage, you realize, held promise; the promise of what used to be. The thick black bars that were used to trap some magnificent beast (or someone pretending to be one) are still slick with oil. The tattered remains of a 40’s style poster hangs loosely from one corner of the attraction, nothing left but a leering eye and unintelligible yellow text with only the letters “GRE” showing. But standing there, you can feel that promise, rising from the forgotten stink of what was, rushing into the nostrils of the now.

A friend is with you perhaps, and you both find the spectacle amusing. But this isn’t a scenario where you are the scared little girl grabbing Daddy’s knee moments before the “Lizard Man” is set to make his debut. No, you are laughing at the scenes of some party, a party in the Kingston circus. There are the Instagram girls, dressed to the nines with no purpose other than to be digitally immortalized. Their eyes drip with anticipation of the comments they’ll receive on various social networks. Standing in groups, they are mostly steely eyed, laughing only at things they say to themselves, diving headfirst into the ground like Ostriches when people they don’t know say hello. Then, when a camera comes out, fiery personality and fierce ambition fills their eyes, they morph into women with the perfect poses and even more perfect skin, arching their backs to accentuate what they already have or don’t have until they all become little paragons of beauty. The camera man or the friend with the smart phone positions himself at the ready, then with a press of the shutter release or the click of a poorly recorded digital snap, light flashes and the beautiful ghosts of the women are suddenly exorcised. The area becomes dark, and they are the Instagram girls again, clamoring around the photographer to see how they look in the pictures. Nothing else matters, not the guy that was trying to talk to one of the girls moments before, or the friend who waved somewhere in the distance. They are digital gods, and mere mortals don’t know anything about their heaven.

Other people mill about, mumbling to each other amidst the din of the circus like old men in a church house pew. They whisper and talk about the glory days (mostly college) and intermittently say hello to the same faces in the same places. The people are a blur, and there isn’t even a need for names or formalities, just short hellos and a comment about the party is fine. Liquor pours and a few people escape their glass cages and roam freely around the circus. Handlers at the circus are too tired to keep track of these few rogue animals. These roaming beasts knock on the cages and cases of the others in the area they want to speak with. They speak about themselves and their lives and make jokes and tell pickup lines, but the people they talk to can’t hear them or don’t want to. The world behind the glass is nice; they can look out and observe at everything without really being there. He’ll go away, the girl in the glass cage says to herself, looking into the distance at nothing at all. She is right, the man who previously left his cage soon loses interest, picking up the scent of a target nearby.

The newly freed are emboldened by the alcohol coursing through their veins, their eyes bright with the promise of escaping the circus. There, only one hundred feet away, the lights of the circus tents dim and the horizon lies spread-eagled, waiting to be entered. There, they can escape into the unknown, but then, they hear a voice. It is the Ringmaster, and he has a new attraction. He stands resolute on a massive podium, teasing patrons with humorous anecdotes, carefully drawing them in, ever closer, back to the center, near their cages. The roaming beasts laugh and get lost in the display around them. More drinks! The Ringmaster says, as clowns with brightly coloured polo shirts run around with shots, and people drink them freely. The outside world is now a dull memory, out there isn’t important. The dark horizon pales in comparison to the bright lights in the main arena. The Ringmaster brings in a rolling menagerie of distractions : acrobats, dancers and animals, all the while his eyes cold and serious behind his practiced smile. The alcohol is affecting those that were roaming now, and the handlers come back out, with their animal control poles at the ready. The freed put up no fight as the nooses drop back around their necks, and they are happily ushered back into their glass cages, laughing giddily at nothing and everything.

Then the Ringmaster’s voice fades, and the canopy of circus images disappear. I’m in a club somewhere, standing with a drink in my hand. A girl walks past, a girl who probably really likes me, and I probably really like her, but she gives me the perfunctory nod, I nod back and she disappears in a wake of shadows and strobe lights. In a moment, I step back into my glass cage, not really looking at anything, waiting for the night to be over.

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