Cirque du Chariot


Michael McGuire

Even though it’s in the heart of Florida, Gibtown U.S.A. can be a cold place when a carny’s love is left wanting. She was never meant for me anyway, and I was never meant for life on the road – I realize that now. Millie’s heart is in transit, and mine is broken back in Norwich, my career as a carnival worker headed for the by-and-by.

With no grand illusions for my return home, and with no hopes for new opportunities, I was shocked to find a blossoming and fresh cultural climate in my hometown. I knew then and I know now, this will be my second chance to make it in the bigtime.

This gig is a new twist on an old phenomenon, which involves some familiar faces. Admittedly, they are ones I never thought could escape the plight I had last witnessed them in.

They’ve captured lightning-in-a-bottle, and the heart and soul of Cortland Street has become all the rage. “Barry! Barry!” I called out when I first saw them, with no response from my old friend. He was tangled at the bottom of a glorious, yet delicate formation of carts, tumbled on top of each other, balancing an earthy yet vibrant mix of autumn colors, spinning wheels and torn plastic bags.
“Barry! Hey it’s me, remember? What are you doing? What is all this – it is amazing.”
“It’s not amazing,” Barry replied in a French accent as I approached. “It’s more than amazing. It’s ‘Cirque du Chariot.”
“Cirque du Chariot?, like Cirque du Soleil?”
“The name isn’t Barry either, not anymore” he said with disgust, as if I’d insulted him. “Je m’appelle Berét.”
“Like the funny French hat?”
“No! It’s like…nevermind, you wouldn’t understand,” he said.

How cruel could he be, this Berét? This wasn’t the old Barry I knew and loved, the cart who so poignantly told me his gut-wrenching tale – describing so well the story of so many sad and lonely steel-wheeled slaves. Had he really forgotten that I was the one who brought his problems to the forefront, the one who told the truth, the only one who cared? I was filled with sadness. An unusual amount of wetness began to build up on my face – I assumed it was from the tears and runny nose. It was when I went to wipe it off, that I realized he hadn’t forgotten me, he just didn’t recognize me.

It totally slipped my mind that I was wearing a bright orange ski mask, not an uncommon practice year round on Cortland Street, especially in the dead of fall. In the midst of the artistic wonderment I had completely forgotten that I was on my way to remove some loose change from nearby car (the requisition of an earlier debt still owed to me, but I don’t care to name names).

Berét’s elation upon my unveiling was a great relief, and his colleagues one-by-one uncoiled themselves and gathered to meet the man they said they had heard so much about.

“You inspired us,” they chimed. “We saw your stories about Barry, and..”
“Barry? I thought your name was Berét now?”
“Naw,” he said, with that broken cart smile I knew so well. “That’s just my stage name, I figured it was a fun and sensible play on words.”

Barry had never been so right. The carts explained how my article about their lifestyle gave them and other carts the courage to come out of hiding, to not be alone. All over the city carts popped up everywhere, and together they sang their songs on street corners and brought out fans where ever they were. With the new surge of confidence, critical acclaim for their talent, the carts decided to test the limits of their abilities. Their initial efforts did not go so well. They wrote a musical that was closed only one week after it opened, and their head shots were not catching the eye of local talent scouts.

After watching a PBS special on “Cirque du Soleil,” the extremely popular French performing arts company that travels the world, Barry saw how successful they were worldwide, performing tricks, singing songs, and tapping into the pulse of urban society. The same thing he and his friends were doing. And like the carts, Soleil was born on street corners, squares, and sidewalks, and Barry decided from now on the concrete would be the stage, studio, and inspiration of the starving shopping cart, and they would do it all on their own.

People congregated on porches and lawns morning, noon, and night, seemingly avoiding life’s day-to-day responsibilities to watch the carts perform. Acrobatics, dance numbers, sketch comedy, hypnotism, audience participation and circus acts brought the streets alive with laughter and shouting, calling for more and more. The show had gotten so big, that by the time I arrived, the only thing they lacked was a manager. And I must say, who better to “push” them over the top than me?

Oxford to Afton, Brussels to Beirut, we will see the world, and the pain and suffering that made them strong will now bring the happiness to audiences that so many carts never had, until now.