Cirque du New Jersey

The circus came to New Jersey yesterday. Outside the big top, a camel and three donkeys walked in a circle. The children riding them bounced limply while staring into the middle distance as if anesthetized. They looked like weary cowboys returning to town after a failed stage coach robbery. Maybe the next time Arlo throws a tantrum, we’ll simply hoist him onto a pony and cross our fingers.

We didn’t see the actual circus. People in our town are desperate for things to do, so the line for the 1pm show was ghastly by 12:10. It was also 95 degrees, and since the giant tent appeared to be made of prohibition-era rubber, I could only assume that it would quickly melt and shrink-wrap the audience. Sometimes my mind invents macabre death scenarios, and being vacuum-packed into a circus tent with a hundred sweaty strangers, a contortionist, and a keyboard playing poodle was one I couldn’t resist sharing. You’re welcome, and I’m sorry.

We stood on the periphery of the action, silently enduring the kind of morbid heat that makes lizards jump to their death. We were smart, and never mentioned to the kids that entering the tent for a show was even a possibility. The festivities as they understood them were the animal rides and dunking booth. Oddly, the man in the dunking booth appeared to enjoy plunging awkwardly into his murky prison. Sure, it was hot, but this was excessive, and the water looked anything but refreshing.

I haven’t been to many dunk tank attractions, but those I’ve seen normally require the contestants to hurl baseballs from a reasonable distance as the booth’s ornery tenant heckles the crowd into a rage. That was not the case with this strange man. He was nice and friendly, and encouraged people to come within inches of the button to throw their ball — a gesture for which he was rewarded by being mercilessly dunked every thirty seconds.  It seemed to be self-flagellation, like he’d committed a deadly sin but insisted that instead of ten Hail Marys, his penance would be to sit in a hair-triggered dunking booth. The color of the tank water only furthered this theory. I thought maybe it had been clear in the morning, but after plunging numerous times while eating a chocolate cupcake and wearing muddy hiking boots, it had turned to a disturbingly translucent chestnut brown. It was the type of water in which one might expect to catch a catfish, or watch a swamp creature lay its eggs. Over and over, he fell in and happily climbed back out only to fall again seconds later. Each time he situated himself, I wanted to yell, “Now do you remember where you hid the money?” But he would have smiled and said, “Oh, no, I don’t have any secrets, I just like being violently submerged into a pool of bong water while strangers stare at me and wonder what the hell I’m doing.”

I apologize if this man’s your father, friend, or the mayor of my town. Maybe he’s a normal guy who simply enjoys sacrificing his own comfort for the entertainment of children. An overzealous fun-dad. It’s more likely that he’s a carny weirdo who’s off his meds, but I try to give people the benefit of the doubt sometimes.

I'm a contributing writer to Parents Magazine, GQ, Psychology Today and some others. My book, "This is Ridiculous. This is Amazing: Parenthood in 71 Lists" is available here Look for two more books in 2015: "Must. Push. Buttons (Bloomsbury Kids), and an as-of-yet untitled memoir I’ve appeared on Comedy Central’s “Live at Gotham” and “Nick Mom’s Night Out." I live in New Jersey with my wife and two sons and enjoy making them laugh more than anyone else.

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