Hard Act to Follow

The circus has come a long way since Roman times, when up to 5,000 animals were killed in a single day in an arena. Roman emperors decreed more than half the days of the year public holidays, so that people could go to the circus and forget their discontents. Events included tying a bull and a bear together for a fight to the death or letting a dwarf square off against a woman. Gladiators, who were often criminals or prisoners of war, were pitted against starved beasts or each other.

Things are much tamer these days, and perhaps a little more skillful. The Cirque du Soleil (Circle of the Sun), with seven troupes around the world and $300 million in revenue last year, uses no animals at all – just highly trained acrobats, jugglers and trapeze artists. The things they do with their bodies boggle the mind.

A young girl stands on one hand on a post while swiveling her legs around into graceful slow splits. A team of men jumps through intersecting hoops, somehow without touching the rings or colliding with each other. A column of five female acrobats stand on each other’s shoulders, barely trembling.

When that fifth woman is standing up there on top of her four friends, she is probably not thinking of how the stage that is holding them up got delivered to New York City. Let’s hope she’s not.

Still, if Mike Rizer and his fellow 42 truckers had not brought the equipment, the show could not go on.

“Doing the circus is a break,” says Rizer, of Bad Axe, Mich. “It gives you a different routine. It pays well, the people are nice and it isn’t like I’m out there 12, 14 hours a day killing myself.” He has worked harder in other jobs pulling gas, produce, auto parts, milk and boats, he says. “We never load or unload, so it’s easier than other trucking jobs.”

When there are empty seats, Rizer gets to watch the show. The part that impresses him is the people popping out of the floor and dropping from the ceiling. “I defy you to figure out how they do it,” he says. “I couldn’t figure it out for a while. But I have the inside view, so I know how the stage and tent are built. There are crawl spaces under the floor.”

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Cirque du Soleil (pronounced “sirk doo solay”) started in Montreal, in 1984 as a bunch of street performers, and now it employs 2,100 people. Though the company is French Canadian, performers are from all over the world. “Dralion,” the show now in New York, has 37 Chinese acrobats, a Brazilian aerialist and a dancer from the Ivory Coast in Africa. The circus also has two permanent shows in Las Vegas and one in Orlando, Fla., as well as three shows overseas.

“Dralion” (a combination of “dragon” and “lion”) opened a two-month run April 4 at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, N.J., under the shadow of the World Trade Center across the Hudson River. The show will head to Chicago for the summer.

Even though Cirque du Soleil uses no animals, there’s still a lot of equipment to haul. Maybe the most impressive act the truckers pull off is hauling the gigantic blue-and-yellow canvas tent under which 2,500 people watch the circus. “That’s a lot of canvas,” Rizer says. “The local guys were amazed that it all fits on one flatbed, and that it’s not overweight.”

Rizer hauled one of the heating/air conditioning units for a performer’s tent. “The units never come off the truck,” he explains. “I back the trailers up to tent, and actors use them for dressing rooms. The circus has a double use for everything.” The kitchen is also made up of a trailer and a flatbed, he adds.

Three trailers were needed for the toilets alone, Rizer says. The little wooden fences surrounding the tents filled a trailer, and the heating/air conditioning units took two.
Rizer was the lucky one from the team of 43 drivers to be chosen for shuttle service for the two weeks the show is setting up. “All the drivers do is bring it in, drop it and leave,” he says. “I bring the trailers on-site. They empty them, and they tell me where they want them.”

“It’s kind of like a normal job,” he says. “Nine hours a day. I even get an hour for lunch.”

He gets to eat from the same kitchen as the performers, and he says the food is delicious.
“The work is totally different from normal driving,” he says. “When I fill out my log book for miles, I put nothing.” When he’s shuttling the trailers around, he gets to borrow a truck that is small enough to fit around the circus’s tight spaces. That saves him on fuel, since he’s an owner-operator.

“It’s a nice break from the normal driving routine,” he says. “There’s no stress here, no demand that you’ve got to be somewhere.”

Rizer leases his truck to Trailer Transit Inc., of Porter, Ind., for whom he has worked for four and a half years. Trailer Transit pays drivers by percentage. For this circus, drivers made $1,726 for each loaded trailer, which they hauled from Miami to New York. That’s 71 percent of the load. All drivers are owner-operators. “That’s good pay,” Rizer says. Rizer even got $1,099 for hauling an empty from Carney, N.J., to Miami. “I get $.83/mile guaranteed every time I pull an empty,” he says. The shuttle work he’s doing is by the hour.

In addition to the good money, Rizer loves the people he works with. “These are really nice people to be doing business with,” he says. “They all speak English and French, and even the ones who don’t speak English very well are very nice.” After he finishes the shuttling, he’ll haul three rented flatbeds to Carlisle, Pa. After that he’ll return to hauling any of the other wide variety of loads Trailer Transit might give him, such as logging equipment or propane tankers. Then in a couple of months he’ll return to pick up the circus freight and take it to Chicago.

“I used to hate coming to New York when I was delivering produce, because the people you worked with were just terrible,” Rizer says. “Now, the people are great, and I don’t mind going to New York at all. When the people you work with are so nice, you don’t mind all the traffic.”