I WANTED TO SEE a Russian dwarf climb a ladder and dive headfirst into a barrel of borscht. It was Christmas Eve. It didn’t seem like too much to ask.
There was reason to be hopeful. I was going to a circus of Russian dwarves at the Millennium Theater in Brighton Beach. It was the dwarves’ first-ever performance in the United States and the first stop on their 14-city American tour.
When I first heard about the show, I was troubled. I did not want to support the exploitation of Russian dwarves. But all my life I had stood silently by as dwarves in elf attire had enchanted gentile children on Christmas. It was my turn to be enchanted. Besides, a brief write-up in Time Out New York noted that not even Little People of America, an advocacy group for the short of stature, had objected to the circus. And tickets were 40 bucks apiece. If anything, the dwarves would be exploiting me.
My wife and I made our way down Brighton Beach Avenue to the Millennium, past Russian grocery stores selling various meat products I was unable to identify. One hour to curtain. Would a muscular dwarf in Soviet military attire choose me from the audience, lift me over his head, and do a traditional folk dance? It seemed possible.
But then nothing as good as a circus of Russian dwarves is ever certain. Time Out had also reported that the dwarves were having visa problems—no doubt the work of some Cold War-era immigration official bitter that America had not produced her own circus of dwarves.
I feared the show would be cancelled, but the Millennium was open for business. In the lobby, little Russian boys lined up to buy glow sticks. A clearly unhappy Santa Claus mumbled in Russian and posed for photos. Across from Santa, a face painter added blue butterflies to the pale cheeks of Russian girls. Fur-coated mothers gathered at the concession stand, where they could choose between candy bars and lox on a piece of white bread. The anticipation was palpable.
We took our seats. An MC strolled onto the stage with a few flips of his top hat. He spoke a mix of Russian and English. The children waved their glowsticks. I waited for the MC to introduce the dwarves. Instead he began to juggle and sing along to a Russian version of the Chipmunks.
Next came a pair of jugglers in sparkly red jumpsuits who dropped their bowling pins three times. I told myself that this was merely the warm-up for the dwarves. I told myself that I did not know what was going on because I did not speak Russian.
“Yez yez that vas very good,” the MC declared as the jugglers took their bows.
I turned to the Russian woman next to me. “The dwarves are coming, right?” She looked at me like I was crazy. Had I walked into the wrong Russian circus? “The dwarves,” I said. “The little people. Are they coming?”
“Yez they should,” she said. “They should.”
I felt better, but the MC was already instructing us to welcome “Edvard Yazlovsky and his wheels.” Edvard Yazlovsky rode around in circles on a wheel with pedals—a unicycle with no seat. And then, was it possible? Out came a short… It was Edvard Yazlovsky’s four-year-old son Daniel. Daniel rode a wheel between orange cones and as I watched him, I knew in my heart that there would be no dwarves. I sat patiently while two men played catch with a fluffy white cat sitting atop a red ball. At the intermission, I went out to get lox on white bread and my refund.
“So, no dwarves,” I said to an usher.
“There vas problem vith visa,” he said. “They come next time.”
The usher told me that I would have to speak to the cashier outside about a refund. I went back to tell my wife. She seemed less distraught than I by the news.
We decided to stay for the second half. The two men who had played catch with the cat brought out a dog that walked on two legs wearing a handsome sport coat. Enough was enough.
On the way out, I demanded a refund from the cashier.
She shook her head.
“But I paid for dwarves,” I said.
“You come back tomorrow, 11 o’clock. You muzt ask my bozz.”
We took the Q train home. I looked out over Brooklyn and thought about the dwarves stranded in Moscow, probably throwing down vodka shots in some dingy airport bar. “There’s no justice in this world,” I thought.
Sam Apple is the author of Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past with Its Last Wandering Shepherd, due out in March from Ballantine.