It is hard to imagine now why, when I called my mother to announce I’d be giving up my day job at Children’s Television Workshop to go on the road with the Cirque du Soleil in the summer of 1993, I thought this news would be received with the same enthusiasm with which it was delivered. Her icy tone brought me back to the year before, the last time I had failed to accurately gauge her reaction to what I considered to be exciting news. Two of my brothers and I had torn up photos of the Pope in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in support of Sinead O’Connor’s similar action on Saturday Night Live, and photos of us and a handful of friends wearing masks of Sinead’s face had been splashed across the national news.
In both cases my mother simply repeated back what I had told her in a contemptuous tone, relying on the facts themselves to condemn me.
“So you and your brothers tore up pictures of the Pope,” she has said in the first instance, “in front of the media.”
“So you’re quitting your job,” she said in the second, “to join the circus.”
I don’t want to overstate the adventurousness of my decision. I wasn’t traveling from Tahiti to New Zealand armed only with my ability to read the night sky and my plucky determination. I didn’t require a series of painful vaccination shots for my journey or need to master a new language. What was most notable about my decision was something I could take no credit for: my timing. It was before cell phones, before the internet, and well ahead of social media. My departure meant a true untethering from friends and family, a disappearance into the culture of traveling show-people. I didn’t know it then, but it was the end of the era when you could still run away with the circus.
Even the way I found out about the job harkened back to an earlier time. It was the result of a chance meeting with a stranger on a form of cross-country travel that would have seemed quite modern to forward-thinking citizens of the nineteenth century: the train.
I was headed to Illinois from New York on Amtrak to attend a film festival when my seatmate and I fell into conversation. I can’t say what it was that made me suspect we were alumni of the same school, Antioch College, a liberal arts schools in Ohio that has long been a bastion for hippies and radicals, which I’d graduated from a few years prior. Maybe I smelled a telltale hint of patchouli, or maybe there was an anarchist button on his backpack. Maybe I could picture him running around naked in an organic garden while someone nearby played an acoustic guitar.
“Where are you going?” I asked him, once we’d established our connection.
“San Francisco,” he said. Classic Antioch city. “To work for the Pickle Family Circus.”
“Wow!” I said. “I’ve always wanted to work for the circus.”
“Cirque du Soleil’s hiring ushers in New York.”
I’m not the sort of person who is fated to be discovered at a drugstore and propelled into superstardom. Stadiums of people will never chant my name. Fan mail will never flood my mailbox. For me, a chance to work in a slightly demeaning low-wage job in a novel environment represented opportunity knocking, and I wasn’t about to sneeze at it.
When I returned to New York I lined up an interview. All I remember from my initial meeting with Lance, the head usher, was that he asked me how I liked dealing with the public.
“The public?” I asked. “I love them!”
He laughed and gave me the job.
Unlike earlier forms of live entertainment, like vaudeville and freak shows, circuses, in their modern incarnation, continue to attract huge crowds. The Cirque du Soleil, once composed of a small band of French Canadian street performers, now boasts a handful of permanent shows at Las Vegas hotels and has toured on every continent but Antarctica. While the public chafes at the idea of animals forced to perform tricks for their amusement under cruel conditions in traditional circuses, there is no similar objection to humans performing dangerous feats, as acrobats do every night in the full view of thousands of people.
Decked out in my orange vest and yellow bandana, leading members of the fortunate public to the magic ahead with the beam from my humble Maglite, I was exactly where I wanted to be. I tore tickets under the iconic blue and yellow tent, directing people to their sections, and watched that show every night and twice on weekdays for the ten-week New York run. I winced as the tightrope walker took tentative steps, never falling, but looking shakier on some nights than others. I feared for the trapeze artists, twin sisters who, after flinging each other around in the air every night, reportedly wept backstage, overcome with emotion. I suppressed a snicker as the father of the Russian contortionist family bowed elaborately after each performance, drawing attention away from his young son, the obvious star of the act.
I wasn’t the only one for whom the circus was more than just a crummy job. I chatted up one of my fellow ushers during the mime act, the most widely disliked act of that year’s show, and thus the most coveted slot for usher breaks. “Do you live near here?” I asked him. I always wondered how the other ushers made a go of it on their $6.50/hour.
“I have a squat in Brooklyn.”
“What do you do during the day?” Having daylight hours free, as well as a solid night’s sleep every night, seemed an unimaginable luxury.
“I do a lot of contortion,” he said. “I do rings, mostly. I practice six hours a day.”
Certainly for many, the circus was just another job. But for people like us—and the pastry chef, who I’d seen secured in the acrobat harness under the big top, hours before the show, taking lessons under the direction of one of the performers—it was something more.
At my secretarial position, coworkers seemed to regard my thirty-five hours of paid work at the circus as more of a hobby than a job, as if I were spending every day at a citywide Scrabble competition or a series of comedy open mic nights. If I’d taken an additional job as a telemarketer or bartender, my boss might have been concerned that my second shift would affect my ability to perform my day job instead of simply being mildly amused at my questionable life choices. Though it didn’t affect my performance, my circus job did highlight the extreme pointlessness and joylessness of my “real” job.
When the assistant head usher, Craig, mentioned he’d be going on the road with the show to Chicago, Boston, and finally L.A., it piqued my interest immediately.
“You should come,” said Craig.
He didn’t have to ask me twice.
While my mother may have had her misgivings about my career trajectory, my coworkers had a very different reaction to my abrupt departure. They supported me completely, showering me with luggage tags and pens featuring Elmo and the Cookie Monster, urging me to keep in touch.
“Do it while you’re young,” said one executive. “I wish I could go.”
The secretary who worked across from me clipped a Roz Chast cartoon from The New Yorker for me in which a kid tells another kid he wants to run away and join the circus. “Not one of those big, tacky ones—something more European and intimate.” I photocopied it and used it as my moving announcement.
The modern age has stolen from us the chance to leave our old lives behind; you can’t run away because there is no away. Those who wish to flee the world temporarily—hiking the Appalachian trail on their own, or joining a band of Tibetan monks for a religious retreat—will almost certainly still post updates on their personal journeys using whatever technology currently enjoys prominence. Christopher Thomas Knight, known as the North Pond hermit in Maine, disappeared into the woods for twenty-seven years in pursuit of a solitary life. He might have remained undetected were it not for the forty or so burglaries a year he committed, stealing mostly food, basic necessities, and reading material, before his apprehension for these crimes in 2013. “I had no plans,” he said in a e GQ articl where he talked about parking his car near the woods and abandoning it there in 1986. “I just walked away.”
It’s not only the participants whose experiences change from lack of total immersion. It’s the audience that follows along from a distance, armed with the misguided sense that they have the tiniest sense of what it’s like to be there.
As soon as I hit Chicago, the concerns of my former life evaporated. I was free from the shackles of buying the cheapest possible black pumps and stretching my coffee breaks to the absolute limit. My hands no longer stung from the strain of clinging to the lowest rung of the corporate ladder I was unwilling or unable to climb. With the free housing provided in the form of my friend Marga’s pullout couch, my paltry paychecks from the Cirque, and a mere handful of payments left on my student loans, I was a walking middle finger to the mainstream job world. Tying my jaunty yellow bandana around my neck with a knot that would have shamed every Boy Scout in America, I felt free.
Numerous short-term relocations courtesy of my alma mater’s co-op program had taught me that moving to a new city was typically more alienating than invigorating, but this was different. In those instances I was left to my own devices, lucky to know one or two people in whatever metropolitan area I was plunked down in. This time I was part of a self-contained traveling social scene that made the transition from my old life to my new one seamless.
While in New York I was an outsider looking in, by Chicago I’d moved up a rung on the circus hierarchy, detailed by Craig during an afternoon lull. “You’ve got performers with their own act,” he said, ticking the categories off on his fingers, “performers who share an act, permanent crew members, temporary crew members who’ve traveled to more than one city, and temporary crew members from the current city.”
While the difference in status would have been imperceptible to outsiders, like a middle school girl who’d been lunching with outcasts and suddenly found herself accepted by the marching band nerds, I felt this change immediately and keenly. After the first show in Chicago, I exited the tent to find two members of the temp crew from New York, Aidan and Bruce, waiting for me. Bruce stood patiently while Aidan balanced on the bike between his legs. “Let’s go,” said Aidan.
“Where?” I asked. I barely knew them, and we didn’t have plans. Aidan pointed to the bar across the street. This would be our home base for the entire Chicago run.
We were often joined by other members of the crew, our guest list reflecting the hierarchy Craig had explained to me. Sometimes we invited members of the temp Chicago crew to join us, if we deemed them acceptable. Sometimes members of the permanent crew—including Aidan’s girlfriend, whose association with Aidan provided him with housing in Chicago—joined us if they deemed us acceptable.
Though we had hours to talk every night, we covered few subjects. The permanent crew, who had all of their basic needs provided for them, sang the praises of the circus lifestyle.
“No rent,” Stewart, the head usher, said.
“No gas bill, no electric bill,” Aidan’s girlfriend chimed in.
None of us spoke much about the past, which may have been less a willful decision to move on from it than a testament to the compelling present. Though I spent many hours with Bruce and Aidan, I knew only their sketchiest biographies. Bruce had recently ended a five-year relationship which, I suspected, had prompted his exit from New York. Aidan, a more brooding and mysterious figure, occasionally threw out a juicy tidbit about his previous life, dropping the subject as soon as he’d raised it. As a kid he’d learned how to chemically freeze payphones so they’d shatter and release their change. He also claimed to have worked as a private investigator right before joining the circus. “I worked sixteen hours a day, and never had time to buy a bed,” he said. “I slept in a pile of clothes on the floor.”
He wasn’t the only person in the circus with a past they hinted at but never fully revealed. It was understood you didn’t press too hard for details. Whatever we were trying to escape—an unhappy childhood, unsatisfying work, or a broken heart—we’d done it, at least for now. If it wasn’t perfect, or it couldn’t last, then at least we’d have fewer regrets than those who had never joined the circus.
Those of us smitten by the Cirque couldn’t maintain boundless enthusiasm for our actual jobs and the people who made them possible: the audience. While most ticket-holders accepted our few rules and limitations without question, a small minority of the public could not suppress their outrage that the poles that made the tent a viable structure occasionally obstructed their view of the stage, or that a traveling show was not equipped with its own indoor plumbing, providing only Porta Potties to answer nature’s call. The rules prohibiting flash photography and exiting and entering the tent during acts—meant to prevent distractions for performers during dangerous stunts—were occasionally regarded as personal affronts. One particularly outraged circus-goer pulled a knife on one of my coworkers while detained at the exit. Such is some people’s ingrained sense of self-importance that they feel a possible performer injury is a fair price to pay to avoid waiting seven minutes to purchase a large soda.
Our relocation from New York to Chicago resulted in a measurable improvement in audience behavior, presumably because of the region’s tendency, reflected in even its biggest city, toward friendliness and cooperation. This came at an excellent time for me. The public that I claimed to love? They were starting to get on my nerves.
It wasn’t long before I encountered a notable exception to the local custom of good manners. During a matinee show, a young man handed me four tickets for himself and his three compatriots, all of whom looked to be around legal drinking age. All four tickets were stamped “child.”
Child tickets cost significantly less than adults ones, yet the seats were identical. I was familiar with this loophole and even recommended to friends that they exploit it when buying their tickets, since almost none of the ushers bothered to check for this designation. I did.
“You kids want to go to the circus, huh?” I asked the towheaded ringleader with a sly smile.
The guy responded in the toughest voice he could muster, “Don’t be a bitch about it, okay?”
When you work at a slightly-above-minimum-wage job, your employer’s bottom line is pretty low on your list of concerns. The injustices meted out by your boss, your inability to live off your wages, the polyester uniform and/or hairnet requirements that accompany your chosen profession: These are your issues. The affection I had for the circus did not extend to caring about whether or not some college kids chose to shortchange ethics to save seven dollars apiece on their bleacher seats. However, that did not mean I was prepared to endure the bullying that accompanied their obvious scam.
Until the b-word was unleashed, I’d been fully prepared to let them in after a moment of gentle ribbing. Now the situation had escalated, and I had to reconsider my course of action. I had no sympathy for the main perpetrator, but I pitied his companions, who stood in a perfect line, their eyes downcast, visibly uncomfortable, their body language telegraphing the knowledge of their bad decision to throw in their lot with this lout. My eyes flicked over to the bouncer and back to them. “Go back to the ticket counter and upgrade these to adult,” I said handing the tickets back to him. The four of them returned to the ticket booth, handed over money for the upgrade, and returned to me, utterly chastened. It was neither the first or the last time I’d be insulted while on the clock. It was unpleasant to be reminded, however, that my role at the circus was so insignificant, my status so low, that someone could call me a bitch and still get to see the show.
There is a point at which your escape from life is simply your new life, to be judged based solely on its own merits. Sometimes during the Chicago run, the circus lost its magic for me. Even the afterparties, in some circus-provided hotel room, lost their luster. I remember sitting crammed next to Bruce and Aidan on a couch in an acrobat’s room. It was too loud to talk at normal levels, but Aidan would occasionally say something to Bruce and then Bruce would cup his hands over my ear to repeat it to me, in our weird game of circus Telephone. “You know he embezzled over a million dollars,” he said.
“Come on,” I said. By then, I didn’t know what to believe from those two. I couldn’t tell if I was being naïve for my skepticism or for the fact that I half-believed them.
“You should see his closet,” Bruce said. “It’s full of Armani suits.” He held up his hand like he was being sworn in in court. “I swear.”
On the chair across from us sat one of the performers. I watched as a temp usher who I knew only slightly plunked herself down in his lap, a move he barely reacted to. In a flash it came to me that this was a perfectly ordinary day for him. Hers was a face he would not remember, a nose and a mouth and lips that he would conflate with a dozen others by the end of the U.S. run through a combination of attrition, disinterest, and alcohol. She leaned forward to me confessionally, protected by the din around us. “My boyfriend’s waiting for me in the car downstairs,” she said. “I don’t have much time.” The acrobat drank his beer with no discernible expression on his face, shifting to adjust to her weight.
I had originally planned on traveling with the circus to Boston and then to L.A., but by then I’d reconsidered. Chicago would be my final stop. I wasn’t yet completely bored with it, but I was getting there, and I didn’t want the circus to turn into just another job I resented.
Aidan, meanwhile, looked wistful talking about his previous life. “I’d walk into a restaurant and give them five hundred dollars to stay open for me,” he said. Maybe not everything he told me was true, but that I believed. His wistfulness, his longing, was real. It was the very way I used to feel about the circus.
I still believe in the power of the circus to transform, to wow, to inject wonder into an ordinary life. It was silly to think I could hang on to the feeling. It’s meant to be fleeting, like magic. The circus is best experienced for a few hours at a time, a thing that wafts and is then suddenly gone, impossible to explain. That’s why my favorite thing to do as an usher was give away free tickets, sometimes handed to us by audience members whose friends had cancelled at the last minute.
My friend and fellow usher from New York, Robin, enjoyed this part of the job as much as I did, so we’d band together to pass along the tickets when we got them, no easy task. There were few people walking around the low pedestrian zone in Manhattan where the circus pitched its tent, and of those only a small minority would acknowledge us when we tried to flag them down and/or have the next three hours free to see the show. Most people ignored us when we tried to get their attention, since a suspicion of strangers runs deeper in the five boroughs of New York City than it does anywhere else in the continental United States. I don’t think it’s by chance that our most successful ticket handoff was to a man of obvious foreign extraction.
“Sir!” yelled Robin when we spotted him walking toward the water at a leisurely pace. He looked around at the empty sidewalk, realized he was being addressed, and walked over to us as we encouraged him with hand gestures.
She held up the ticket as he approached. “Do you want a free ticket to the circus?” I asked him.
There was clearly a communication barrier, so we tried to bridge it with the bits of language we knew between us—French, Spanish, Flemish—to no avail. We pointed to the brightly-colored tent, hoping it was an iconic enough symbol to communicate what we could not.
“The circus,” said Robin. And here’s where I think she hit the perfect note, putting the onus on him instead of us. “Hurry up! It already started!” We tore the ticket and handed him the stub. Obediently, he accepted it and entered the grounds, walking in the direction we pointed.
We had no way of knowing if he’d made it until he came out at intermission, overwhelmed. “Thank you,” he said, struggling to string together a few words in English to express his amazement, shaking both our hands. “Incredible. Thank you.”
I wondered what he’d tell people later about the strong men who balanced on each other in homoerotic poses, the Chinese acrobats who could hold themselves parallel to the floor using only the strength of their arms, the clowns who spoke in a language that no one understood. How could he explain the free ticket, the show, any of it? I imagined him starting and stopping, unable to convey his experience even in his native language, shrugging his shoulders and saying the most honest thing you can ever say about something strange and wonderful and indescribable: You had to be there.