Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Traveling Circus

By Emma Page
Honestly, I was having a hard time remembering why I was in Phoenix in the first place. Nothing about my previous travel experiences had prepared me for this. I was used to flying with my family, either to familiar destinations or in possession of an extensive and precise itinerary created months in advance. Yet here I was, traveling alone to a city I’d never seen, with a plane ticket I’d bought just days earlier. Finding cheap direct flights from Seattle to Chicago isn’t difficult, even considering how last-minute my purchase had been. I cursed my blind frugality. I’m sure if I’d scrolled to the second- or third-most-expensive fare when booking my trip I wouldn’t have been standing alone in a line that didn’t seem to going anywhere, contemplating just catching the first flight home rather than dealing with standby seats and an indefinite layover.
Someone behind me turned to his neighbor, commenting: “man, I wish we had some bongos right now. This line could use a drum circle!” I ignored him, turning to twitter while I strained to make out what the news anchor on the holding-room television was saying. Something about a “polar vortex?” That couldn’t be right...
My feet were starting to ache from standing, and my phone battery was looking dangerously low. I contemplated the situation. On the one hand, this would probably make a better story than whatever I would be doing back in Seattle. On the other, I wasn’t going to be in any mood to tell it if I had to spend 24 hours in the Phoenix airport waiting to get a flight.
The bongo guy went on explaining behind me that he “was about to quit his day job to focus full-time on his carbon-fiber fixed-gear bike repair business.”
I checked my phone again. O’Hare International, the second-largest airport in the country and my final destination, was closed entirely. Twitter informed me that the polar vortex had frozen all of their antifreeze fluids. I suppressed a horrified giggle at that improbable piece of information. My amusement turned sour as I pondered the high likelihood that I wouldn’t make it to Chicago at all.
Bongo Man revealed that he was “living in Portland right now, with some rad people.” Of course he fucking was.
When it was my turn at the counter, an extremely frazzled-looking woman informed me curtly that the best she could do was stand-by for an 8am flight tomorrow, and I could have a discount on a hotel room at the nearby Marriott. Having just watched a long line of people spend upwards of an hour berating this helpless employee, I tried not to let my frustration show as I thanked her a little more than was strictly necessary and decided that the $60 for a hotel room sounded more than reasonable.
At the hotel, a friendly concierge set up a 6am wake-up call and handed me a warm “hospitality cookie” in a small paper bag. Cheered slightly, I munched thoughtfully on the cookie as I walked up to my room. The air in the hotel courtyard was warm and still, with moonlight and the glow of an outdoor pool casting eerie shadows on the alien shapes of the cacti. The smell of the desert gave way to the tang of A/C in my room, a surreal contrast considering my rainy origin and my frozen destination. I took a bath and watched a marathon of “Beverly Hills Housewives,” my frustration fading as I drifted into sleep.
The house was wedged between a Whole Foods and a Crossfit gym, an incongruous piece of dull residential architecture in a cheerful, well-lit shopping district. It was clean but bare, with a cramped kitchen, a single bathroom, and institutional-looking couches in the first-floor living room. Upstairs was a single, large room, unfurnished except for a pair of love seats and several stacks of un-inflated air mattresses, blankets, and sheets. I dropped my bags on one of the couches and collapsed, paralyzed with exhaustion. Although the house was empty at the moment I arrived dragging my bags up the front steps, I knew that wouldn’t last. I was something like the twelfth guest out of nineteen staying for the week in a house intended to sleep no more than nine. Aching from the snowy walk from the bus stop, I did my best to claim a corner of the upstairs room, spreading my belongings out across the floor and fading once again into an exhausted sleep.
We stumbled out of the taxi into the dark, wet street, wading through an icy puddle toward the sidewalk. The driver had dropped us in front of a low, unmarked building flanked by a gas station and a freeway onramp. I was frozen, as usual, and hadn’t eaten in far too many hours. Broke and running late, I had taken a deep breath and decided to leave the search for food until after the show. A warm glow spilled out of a small door a few yards away, and we could hear familiar voices as we approached.

Inside the door was a narrow hallway leading to a crowded room with a few cafe tables and a bar to one side. The room was in the same state of dingy, dignified dishevelment as old theaters everywhere, with peeling plaster and faded gilt on the molding around the bar mirror. Through another low door in the back of the room was the theater, a medium-sized black box lit barely well enough for us to find our way to our folding chairs.

Earlier in the day I’d listened to a slender, upright young woman with a tangle of dark hair and bright red lipstick speak at a press conference. In her clipped, neat French accent she had told us about this highly unusual one-woman show which was in fact the product of her Master’s thesis in contortion. “When I would perform my act, people would come up to me after always saying ‘that must hurt you so much!’ and I say, well, no, it doesn’t actually. So I studied, and I trained, and I created this piece to stop those questions.”

As the lights rose slowly I saw that here she was again, contorted unrecognizably. She hung bent in half backwards, her ribs seething towards the ceiling as she panted and swayed slightly. She moved imperceptibly lower until suddenly her hands were on the floor, her face hidden and her hips twisting. Most contortion relies on a combination of grace and shock value, bending the human body cleanly into impossible positions. Nothing about this woman seemed graceful, or even human. Her legs and arms were twisted reptilian limbs, her ribs and shoulder blades heaving scales, her movements agonizing and unlikely. It wasn’t her flexibility that was unusual, but rather the quality of her movement and the stunningly strange shapes she achieved over the course of her 50-minute performance.
48 hours later I sat on a sidewalk half a mile away, cursing Chicago, the Polar Vortex, and my hubristic decision to make the walk to the theater without looking up directions first. An easy 10 minute walk had turned into a 40-minute odyssey, and my odds of survival were looking lower and lower by the second. Although it had warmed up considerably since the vortex had stranded me in Phoenix, the weather was so surreally awful that I was about fifty percent convinced I must be trapped in a nightmare.

My phone said it was twenty degrees outside, and yet somehow it was raining in wet, heavy sheets that immediately worked its way through my layers and froze against my skin. My Seattleite soul was so baffled by the fact that it could be both below freezing and pouring rain at the same time that I kept fighting the urge to indignantly ask someone what exactly this city thought it was doing with the laws of nature. The sidewalks were flanked by foot-tall snowdrifts which melted to create a thick layer of black ice underneath the rainwater. Each time I successfully traversed a block, I was confronted with a ten-foot-wide, six-inch-deep ocean of ice water sitting malevolently in the depression made by the wheelchair ramp. My leather boots were functional in the snow but completely hopeless against this slush-storm. In my frustration I had managed to walk too quickly and slip, landing hard in one of the smaller puddles.

An hour later, I quietly slipped off my soaking boots and tucked my frozen toes up onto the worn velvet seat of the theater. I’d done my best to towel off in the bathroom when I arrived, but the icy stream of water rushing down my spine as my sweater defrosted was still going strong. I had decided several hours before that, as much as I’d liked what I’d seen so far of Chicago, the Midwest mid-Polar Vortex was probably what Hell looked like. The horde of uniformed school children sitting in the section of seats to my right (all looking much drier and better-prepared for the weather than I did) emitted a low, squirming murmur as the lights went down. A couple behind me muttered knowingly to each other. “I hear this troupe is the next 7 Fingers. They’re blowing up.” “I hear Cirque wants to buy the show.”

The aesthetic was upbeat, low-budget urban: bright tshirts, jeans and a 40-foot fake building edifice on which the cast scrawled graffiti during the performance. A cast of five men and one woman milled about the stage, newspapers and umbrellas tucked under their arms. Even at rest, each of them overflowed with the casual grace of an elite athlete. As the first act burst into motion, I felt like apologizing to the city for any weather-related complaint. Chicago had brought me this display of a kind of artistry that is almost impossible to find in the US, and I’d have gone through that icy rain a dozen times to be there.

A few of acrobats crouched in the wide windows of the fake building, and two men sat on top of it with their feet dangling over the edge. “AAAY TIME FOR BREAKFAST!” shrieked one who looked eerily like Cory Monteith, tossing a box of cereal to his friend as he pushed himself off the ledge. He spread his arms at the last second and rebounded off a trampoline twenty feet below, floating effortlessly back up to the top of the wall. He paused for a beat, then twisted and fell again, this time ducking his head and flipping twice on his way down. As my eye followed him up I caught sight of his friend with the cereal passing him on the way down, then suddenly three more bodies flying through the air. For the next ten minutes, the six cast members shared the 9’x15’ rectangle of the trampoline, whipping past each other as they ducked in and out of windows and switched places at the height of their 30-foot trajectories. It was a death-defying display, high-caliber acrobatics disguised as dreamscape playground antics. Plenty of skill without an ounce of self-serious drama. When they tumbled grinning and panting off the stage, the applause was thunderous. I smiled and thanked the ice melting between my toes for bringing me here.

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