The Day I Ran Away to Join the Circus

I was a dish juggler with Cirque du Soleil—in layman's terms, a dishwasher—and it was the most magical time of my life

I was laid off from my job last summer. After 26 years. My boss, the latest in a long line of bosses who had come and gone while I had survived, called me into his office. He told me I was being let go as of that day. He said my job as a reporter/writer for a national magazine was being eliminated. I guess that from then on, those stories I had sweated blood over for several decades were now going to report and write themselves.

To be honest, it wasn't completely unexpected. At age 60, I'd been the oldest person there for a while. This was not a good thing. A month before, I'd gone out of my way to introduce myself in the elevator to the new corporate head, the latest in a long line of corporate heads who had come and gone. He looked me up and down and asked how long I'd been with the company. When he heard my answer he grimly nodded his head and remained silent for the rest of the ride. I suppose I saw the writing on the elevator wall.

Still, the news of my "termination" stunned me. As I left my boss's office that afternoon, he stopped me when I got to the door, grinned, and said, "Oh, by the way, thank you for your service." Like a clown, all I could think of was to say, "You're welcome." That was it. I was done. I was humiliated. I was shamed. I had failed in life. My daughter was about to enter college. What was I going to do now? Join the circus?

It wouldn't be the first time. For a few short months, I was a dish juggler with the Cirque du Soleil—in layman's terms, a dishwasher. It was the most magical time of my life.

It was the summer of 1988 and I was 34 years old. I hadn't yet entered journalism and was recently divorced. My second marriage and the birth of my daughter were still several years in the future. I'd left my job as an elementary school teacher and had taken up acting in Chicago's storefront theater world. It was fun but non-remunerative. Like most Chicago actors, I also held down a day job in a downtown office, filing, answering phones, opening mail—the usual mind-numbing stuff.

One morning, I arrived at the office early. I looked out the window through the fog of the morning and was shocked to see that, over night, the empty lot below me had been transformed from a desolate few acres of dirt that bordered the Chicago lakefront into a kaleidoscope of color. Now it was filled with brightly painted trucks and trailers.

Rubbing my eyes, I saw trapeze artists, tumblers, jugglers, dancers and clowns practicing their art in the open air. Then, suddenly, in the center of this dream-like community, a rough and tumble group of roustabouts raised a shout that could be heard through my 23rd-story window. Chapiteau!!! Chapiteau!!! Everyone in the lot stopped and turned to look, watching in reverent silence as, with a single effort, the roustabouts raised an enormous blue and yellow tent with a bright sun on it towards the sky. It was the circus big top. It was the chapiteau!

I was captivated. The circus! The circus had come to town! I immediately walked out of the office, took the elevator down to the lobby, left the building and crossed the street into the bustling lot, never to return.

Cirque du Soleil was just a baby then, its transformation into a cash cow Vegas show biz juggernaut still years ahead. In 1988, the cirque was still the fledgling product of a dream concocted by several Montreal street buskers to "reinvent the circus." Really, though, this was a dream to return the circus to its origins with a focus on the artistry and gypsy-like lifestyle of caravans and music, magic, color and light.

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The first person I met after walking onto the lot was Laurent. He was the circus chef. I asked him for a job and he hired me on the spot. To "dish juggle." To wash dishes. I was to work in the circus trailer cafe that catered to the artists, from four in the afternoon until the café closed at one a.m.

For the next three months, I lived in a circus dream of acrobats and clowns—young, physically beautiful artists full of all the vibrancy of life. In the café, I worked alongside a tall, solemn fellow Chicagoan named Richard. For 15 years, he'd been a principal clown for the Ringling Bros. circus. Richard was the saddest man I'd ever met. Never cracked a smile. He had quit clowning upon marrying, had two kids and had worked since as a caretaker for another family's paraplegic child.

When the Cirque du Soleil came to town, like myself, Richard left his employment and joined the cirque café. For nine hours each night, we toiled side by side, Richard never saying a word. Unless you mentioned "Frosty," which I'd do once in a while just to hear Richard speak. Frosty had been the lead clown alongside Richard at Ringling Bros. His face was on every Ringling poster. According to Richard, Frosty was also the company fink, keeping a clown's eye on the goings on in Clown Alley and reporting back to Ringling owner Irvin Feld. Richard hated Frosty. And if you dared to mention Frosty's name, Richard would do a slow burn until he was red in the face and then explode: "&!!@#*!!" That bastard Frosty!"

In those three months, I fell in love with Pasqualina, the Cirque's French tightrope walker. The Cirque's clown had a nervous breakdown and was replaced. The Cirque acrobats used to get drunk after the evening's final performance. A drunken acrobat is a sight to see.

I lived in a trailer on the lot with Monique, 20 years older than I, and a new friend. I've recently tried to find Pasqualina the tightrope walker on Facebook. She has disappeared. Perhaps fallen. On the Cirque's last night in Chicago, the performers held a party in the café for all the workers. Guitars, mandolins, accordions, pot and pan drums all made an appearance and the music lasted until daylight. Incredible music. I told Philippe the juggler that I did not want to return to the real world. Philippe gave me an odd look and shook his head, responding: "This is the real world."

The chapiteau came down. I got married again. I had a child. I became a journalist. I worked at the same job for the next 26 years.

It's been a year since I was laid off. Every night I have a recurring dream about the loss of my job. The circumstances change, but the theme is always the same—I'm trying to get my job back. I wake up every morning depressed and in a sweat. But last night the dream was different.

It was just before dawn and I went to make coffee. I was in a trailer. I looked down and a little dark-haired girl sleeping on a mat woke up and looked at me. A huge smile came onto her face. A smile of complete love. It was my daughter. She went back to sleep. I walked outside the trailer and we were camped on a high cliff at the ocean. I stood at the edge of the cliff and watched the sun rise. Soon, people in other trailers around us came out and sat on their steps and started to play this beautiful, Peruvian-sounding music on these strange instruments. I stood there watching the ocean and the waves crashing against the cliff as the sun rose listening to the music. Then, this woman, it was my wife, came to join me as I drank my coffee. She had a baby in her arms. At the edge of the cliff my dark-haired daughter practiced on the trapeze. The music still played.

I woke up happy.

Tags: memoirs