Brunswick—Brunswick, Maine: approximate pop. 23,000. Every college town needs a watering hole where the fanciful bond between enlightened manners and democracy diminishes in drink. These are places we go to live vicariously, speak crassly and porch-philosophize about how life is absurd. This week, I learned it's best to do it with a clown.

A personality—I'm not at liberty to say if he is a person or a composite (he might represent a thousand clowns)—can be found at Joshua's Tavern, packing no less than three harmonicas and willing to acquaint us with the circus life.

He followed a troop back and forth from Maine to Florida for seven years, a juggler and a hooligan; for as the Big Top closes, the insanity just begins. And it gets X-rated. For instance, one night spent in Murphysboro, Tenn., at a quarter laundry: "We clowns made our ways there, somehow, beer in tow, dirty socks and worse all bundled up, nearly rolling down the hill to the laundry joint. It was mid-season for us, toward the final leg of the trek. We got to the laundry; we all had beer and quarters for the friggin' machines. We had nude clowns dancing in the laundromat. Luckily, there were no locals there.

"Eventually, Little Dave got the brave idea to wager dryer races. He won, given his size I suppose. One of the most pitiful things I have ever seen. Imagine: A dazed dwarf sacked out in a dryer, the winner of dryer races."

When I asked him how a young man commits to the circus, he responded with a description of what it was like growing up in Maine 30-some years ago, in a seaside town not far from Brunswick: "A lot of people then had oily stains on their clothes. They couldn't help it, it was the way it was. Everyone accepted the fact that fish heads and chicken guts would wash ashore. Sad, but true. I grew up there."

"Chicken guts?" I asked.

"Ya, chicken guts. The real funk was just around the corner where I lived, as it was the chicken factory backyard, cheap feathers everywhere. Boys would often scramble to catch runaway chickens for a dime each, only to have to give it up to the bully who took them there in the first place to catch the chickens. I stuck to the blackberry racket, scared of the older bullies who commandeered over the chicken rescue boys." His knack for dodging danger and plying a trade in outlier markets, along with a need for escape, led him to hitchhike, play the blues and finally don the face-paint.

Behind the scenes, he confided in me, the worst enemies of clowns are baboons: "Because of the face paint we wear, the baboons sometimes mistake us for baboons. And when a baboon mistakes a clown for a baboon, he tries to rape the clown. And when the baboon realizes the clown isn't a baboon, it kills the clown."

Talking to this clown reminded me of a time when the fantastic exhibition of human oddities drew a crowd. Curiosity for freak phenomena acted as springboard for scientific experiments and religious awakenings alike.

Now, the circus is not a parade of exceptions, but a demonstration of the rule. In an absurd world, the circus provides a sense of orientation for those who would dedicate their lives to her, for those either brave or cowardly or disillusioned enough to keep an illusion alive.