Peanuts, Popcorn


Location Lincoln Center (Damrosch Park)

Price $4,000 in 2000

Square feet 168 (1978 Argosy Airstream trailer, beige with maroon)

Occupant Darby Smotherman (sound designer-engineer, Big Apple Circus)

A hundred and fifty people live in a trailer camp next to the Opera House! I never knew! [We take a tour of the grounds behind a white picket fence. A man is talking in French on a cell phone.] Some live in campers, a few in trailers. The riggers, concession workers, ushers stay in dorm-type trucks.

[We look.] Three bunks piled high in a 60-square-foot space, only a cupboard each for their belongings, like submarines. Where do they go to the bathroom? Porta Potties! You have to wear a coat to go. It’s freezing. The truck with the shower stalls has paper boxes opened up on the floors. This is, in essence, migrant worker housing. Oh, here’s the Cookhouse [We go up the tiny metal stairs of another truck. Thin, yellow-flowered cloths are on four tables. Two men are playing a crystal chess set.] Look, jars of pickle slices and Wonder Bread. [The cook, knit hat on her head, slicing canned artichoke hearts: “You want to know what the circus is like—taste the coffee!”] I bought my trailer three years ago when I joined. Then I got a truck, a Ford F350, to haul it.

[We go inside Darby’s trailer.] This is like living inside a Polly Pocket. Do you entertain much—ballerinas, trained schnauzers? Not really, because it’s so small. I’ve crammed in five or six. The past few years, the acrobats and dog acts happen to be Russian and they kind of hang out together. I have the ringmasters over. There are two.

Here’s one now. He just popped through the door with his waxed mustache. [Dinny McGuire] I just had sushi!

The Ringmaster is always seen as so cruel—Lola Montez—cracking his whip. But you don’t seem to be. Then of course, there’s Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel with the rocking wagons, moving slow across the big gray sky, the ringmaster leaving his mistress in tears. She says to another, “I can’t help my dress smelling of manure.” [Darby] It’s not like that at the Big Apple. It’s very friendly. I didn’t live in a trailer before I worked for the circus. I’m from Ft. Worth. I went to college in Austin, University of Texas. I’d been a freelance sound designer for a while before I took this gig. Now I rent a storage space for my things.

How do you drive a truck and a trailer? You get used to it. I’m fortunate in that I have a big truck,a lot more power than I actually need. If you get into a situation where you have to back up—I got into trouble once, pulling off, finding a hotel. For Atlanta, I don’t drive straight through. To set up the trailer for a night—it’s too much. Things get bungeed and taped.

I was reading this trailer “throw away list.” There were 28 things to do like “Put grate clips on stove. Fold and secure lawn chairs.” I always love those photos of people sitting on their lawn chairs in front of their trailer doors. People go through so much to be free from home, but they still have to drag it behind them. Then, they invariably recreate the humdrum. I also read once that when utopias didn’t work, the world turned to mobile homes for a better future. They reached their height during the ’50s, modernism and all. Where else do you travel to? Our last show here is January 11. We’re in New Jersey in March, 10 cities a year. I travel full-time. It was never really my dream to run away and join the circus. When I got here, I did. I like it. It’s like a small town. Everybody watches out for each other.

Oh the nets, the metaphors—that man doing the cha-cha on tightrope, the camels working their darndest to get around the ring, another man trying to reach a trapeze; when he finally does, it falls.