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, 38, 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.”
“There are three types of circus folk,” he tells me. “Circus babies, who were born into it; runaways, usually clowns; and opportunists, like me,” Iverson grew up in Harlem during what he described as the “throes of the crack epidemic.” “Death,” he said, “was all around. The circus looks like it is death defying,” he went on, “but I can tell you those acrobats and daredevils know what they’re doing. They’ve practiced it over and over again. Growing up in Harlem, you couldn’t practice.”
Unlike many of his peers, Iverson had a way out. At the age of 11, Mr. Iverson joined the Harlem Boys Choir, traveling to Japan during the summer and receiving special attention from a dedicated cadre of teachers and vocal coaches. “It saved me,” he said. “In my neighborhood, all the messages we were getting were that we were the lowest piece of shit. Our only refuge was the choir room.” Eventually, he ended up attending LaGuardia High School and graduated from the University of Hartford’s Hartt School for music, dance, and theater in 1998. But Iverson, an operatic tenor, wasn’t landing the cushy gigs. He was a broke actor, auditioning for a dinner theatre gig in Wisconsin, trying to save money to study opera in Europe when he got a strange call. “Someone called me up and asked, ‘Do you want to be a ringmaster for the Greatest Show in the World?’” Iverson circled the pool table. “You wanna break?” I asked. “Sure,” he said. Crack, and we were off.
And so began his life in circus. “When I first started, a fellow ringmaster from Peoria, Illinois, told me, ‘Once you get sawdust in your blood, it never gets out,’” he said. Iverson grew addicted to the attention under the big tent and the camaraderie outside of it. Despite taking a five-year break, during which he tried out often and unsuccessfully for a part in Les Misérables and starred in a commercial for Casual Male XL big-and-tall stores, in 2010 Iverson returned to the big top. “There’s nothing else that you can do after this that is going to match it,” he said. “Everything pales in comparison.”
Now Mr. Iverson spends the year traversing America on the circus train, with all the attendant drama and mystique. (It’s not for nothing that everyone from Ted Hoagland to the Runaway Bunny wanted to join one.) He, his wife, Priscilla, and their two children, occupy a custom-built apartment that occupies half a train car. He compared the train to a rolling city. “We live in the Westchester,” he said. Who, I wondered, lived in the ghetto? “The concessions live in the South Bronx,” Iverson said with a laugh.
But what seems to appeal to Iverson isn’t that he’s at the top of the hierarchy but that he, a kid from the ghetto, has finally found a home, albeit an itinerant one. “We may look different and have different beliefs,” he said, “but one thing about circus is I don’t have to apologize for myself, which is a big thing as an African-American.”
Life on the train, said Iverson, demonstrates the amalgamating power of art. It draws together everyone from the Chinese acrobats to elephant-poop scoopers to the wildcat men. “We look out for each other,” said Mr. Iverson. “Once, a couple of idiots followed a wardrobe girl back to the train. They narrowly avoided an international beating. You don’t want to fuck with the circus.” Iverson bent his frame in half, drew back his cue, and viciously sunk his ball into the corner pocket.