The Circus Is in Town: Playing Pool With the Ringling Bros. Ringmaster
by By Joshua David Stein
March 01, 2014
On a recent Thursday afternoon, a group of taciturn middle-aged locals in Jets T-shirts were quietly drinking themselves into a stupor at a West Village tavern. Life bobbled as if floating on the head of a half drunk beer, getting warmer and less appealing every moment. Then the circus came to town.
It came in the form of Johnathan Lee Iverson, 41, its 6’3” powerfully built ringmaster, who burst through the door like Yosemite Sam, asking for sarsaparilla. Iverson rode into the city aboard the Ringling Brothers & Barnum Bailey train, the longest private train in the country. That afternoon it was parked in the Garden City-Mitchel Field Secondary yard, a seldom-used rail yard in Long Island, having arrived from Philadelphia two nights before. The circus, a show called “Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Presents: Legends,” to be exact, was like the Knicks and Jay Z before it, playing the Barclay’s center for a ten-day run, ending Sunday. Then the train would pack up the elephants, stow the big tent, and set off again. For Iverson, it was something of a homecoming.
The first black ringleader — also the youngest ever and the first New Yorker when he was first tapped in 1999 at age 22 — Iverson was born and raised in Harlem. But he seldom gets back. “I perform 400 shows a year,” said Iverson, wearing a cream shawl-collared sweater and dad jeans (he has two children, ages 5 and 8). “So I’m never in one place long.” He strode over to the pool table and surveyed the rack. As a ringleader, he’s adept at reading cues. He picked the longest one. “In other crafts you’re making art,” he said, chalking the tip. “Circus is the only one where you’re living it. As a clown once told me: ‘Clowns are funny guys trying to be normal; comedians are normal people trying to be funny.’ Really, in circus, your craft is just an embodiment of you. You don’t play an acrobat. You don’t play a daredevil. It’s who you are.” Like in government, when one works in circus, one generally elides the “the.”
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