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MTT News's picture
Matt Geiger

I was devoutly unenthusiastic when we arrived at the circus. 

The diminutive red and white candy-striped tent stood there, underwhelming me in the forlorn Midwestern parking lot of an out-of-business Toys-R-Us store, with portable bathrooms resting atop weed-dotted and crumbling asphalt. This was the kind of place where the R on the sign, which was always backward before the company became insolvent and shuttered its doors, would inevitably look rusty and sad, as if it were about to fall down and face the correct way. A more depressing, less playful, more down-to-earth letter than it was before the harsh realities of online shopping sunk in.

The atmosphere, there in the wreckage of what had been like a holy shrine to me in my childhood, was decidedly post-apocalyptic. All that had once been was gone; a big, dazzling temple of bright new toys reduced to a collection of gray detritus. I got out of the car and stepped into an apt graveyard for my youth.

What was the point of it all, anyway, if even a toy store could end up like this? What had happened to Geoffrey the Giraffe? Had he been euthanized when the company could no longer care for him, or did they merely swing open the door to his cage and set him free in an apathetic world? 

Only 50 yards away, cars whizzed along the highway, their incessant noise a reminder of the reckless futility of our day-to-day lives. People driving dangerously fast, imperiling their own lives and the lives of others, to get to meetings that didn’t really matter, to make money with which to buy things that won’t make them happy. They were hurtling toward people, places and ideas that would all inevitably die, someday. They would die someday, too.

As we entered the tent, a tattooed woman who was nearly my height scanned our tickets. Inside, we spent all of our cash on candy and popcorn, despite the fact that I thought I had brought enough money to pay for snacks, a hot air balloon, and a railroad empire.

This circus was billed as “cruelty free,” which I took to mean free of fun and danger, as well. There would be only one species of animal performing in the ring: homo sapiens. The most dangerous species, I think, and the least adept at doing tricks. 

As the opening act began, my daughter - who we had offered to take to the bathroom five seconds before show began - started to squirm. “I have to go to pee,” she said, as if a new and novel idea–some new religion or perhaps the details of cold fusion–were just dawning on her. 

“Really?” I said with the genuine surprise of an imbecile.

I had to lift up a corner of the tent to get her out, then warn her emphatically, as always, “Don’t touch anything!” as she went into the little plastic bathroom booth. “Don’t fall in.”

Back in the tent, we shuffled into our row, annoying several people along the way. We sat down and watched. 

It was beautiful. Men, women and children plunged and flew, flipped and twirled, each showing some trick that must have taken years to master. For an hour, the parking lot went away, and so did the shuttered toy store. For an hour, there was only the inside of the tent, where people flew through the air in defiance of everything I have ever been told about the limits of human ability. Unlike prior circuses I’d seen, this one wasn’t a work in progress. Each act was carefully honed. The people who performed in front of us–who shot crossbows, who flung their bodies through the atmosphere above us, and who juggled and brought audience members into the act–were the same ones who had scanned our tickets. They were the same people who had sold us our candy. The same people who had posted the event to Facebook, which led us to buy tickets and drive there. 

When it was over, the ringmaster gave a little speech.

“If you wouldn’t mind looking up from your phones for just a minute,” he began. “If you look at each other, and at the people here…”

He told us about each performer. They came from Cuba, from Eastern Europe, from Texas and from New Jersey. The ringmaster said he had dreamed of being in the circus, so he had taken on credit card debt and started one. He recruited people from all over the world, people who also dreamed of performing under a tent. From humble beginnings, they grew, and now they were in Wisconsin as part of a 42-state tour. 

He told us that they were America–all of them–and so were we. He told the audience, filled with children, that if they had something they wanted to do, or somewhere they wanted to go, they should. He didn’t shame or scold anyone, regardless of their origin story or political beliefs. He simply reminded everyone that we were all alive, all at the same time, in a world where each person gets to choose whether or not to pursue the things that will give their lives meaning, and fate and luck will decide whether it works out in the end. 

After the speech, he told all the children  in the audience they could line up to have their pictures taken with the performers in the ring, free of charge. 

As we waited in line, I looked around and noticed a couple people dabbing tears from the corners of their eyes. A weight, the weight of so much anger and anxiety, seemed to have lifted, and the mood grew comically buoyant. 

The line was a mess, and between the clumps of people and the assortment of folding chairs, a woman in a wheelchair was having difficulty leaving the tent. Without a word, a large group of people parted and made a path. Not the minimalistic, mildly annoyed path people usually make, but a wide boulevard of compassion. Those who stood near the back bent down and lifted up the tent, rolling it up so she could ride directly out and into the mid-afternoon sunlight. 

When the line reassembled, it was clear no one could remember the order. Instead of being angry, families simply ushered other families in front of them. “You go ahead,” they said. “We don’t mind.”

The song “Happy” began playing on the loudspeaker, and the family in front of us started dancing. The woman was black, the man was white, and their daughter was blissfully too young to know that such things still matter in 2019. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have even noticed their family, but after reading 1,000 internet posts about how much people of different skin tones hate each other, I was genuinely surprised. “Oh, right,” I thought. “People generally like each other. Love, even…”

When we left, the feeling quickly faded, like that burst of joy on Christmas morning it simply couldn’t last. We negotiated traffic on the way home and started to wonder where to get dinner. People honked and cut each other off on the road. “They must not have gone to the circus today,” I thought as we passed them.

But the thing in the tent really did happen. I’ve written it is as precisely as I can remember it, without embellishment or addendum. It is possible. 

In the end, everything will fall apart. The law of entropy reminds us that everything in the universe, and even the universe itself, will someday collapse into dilapidated chaos. The rundown Toys-R-Us parking lot is not the exception; it is the rule. The tent was packed up and hauled away by the hands of the weary performers. Everything I just described has ended. 

But none of that matters. What matters, when it’s the end of the world, is that you could stand in an abandoned toy store or walk the broken concrete of a vacant parking lot, and know that one time, people were happy there, and that is the entire point. 


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