Five Asian elephants standing on a ball stand vigil at Showmen’s Rest, it marks the mass grave for about 61 people in Woodlawn Cemetery outside Chicago. People put plush out on the main monument, a clown, a whale, a raccoon and pink plush.
“The one thing I miss is hitchhiking. Now there’s no more of that. When’s the last time you saw a hitchhiker.”
Edward Ruscha, American pop artist
“Hitchhiking to Carnivals” a music video on my Kick-Ass Year hitchhiking between 10 traveling carnivals Alaska to Florida, California to New York.
STEP RIGHT UP and read all about it at www.EyesLikeCarnivals.com and on Huffington Post.
Pump up the volume on this Music Video. Read the stories later!
As America’s #1 Hitchhiker 2013-14, I hitched 36 states and 5 Canadian provinces.for 15,000 miles (buses and friends took me another 5,000 miles & Mexico).
I was slinging iron and pushing plush in San Francisco, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida – where I worked a freak show but I wasn’t on stage because they didn’t see the inner freak in me.
Friends tell literary agents and publishers. Publishers contact me about as-yet-unpublished Eyes Like Carnivals.
Michael Sean Comerford
“I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.”
A single child specter follows me in carnivals amid unruly mobs of children.
Each show night I go to work my ride, I see kid legions plus one specter. She stands out on the midway as if in a spotlight and all the other kids are running around in dark stage light.
My daughter turned eight a few days ago. I came hitchhiking back from New York to Chicago to see her after my former mother-in-law e-mailed that my daughter was missing me deeply.
I’m following traveling carnivals from coast to coast for a year, writing essays about America from the road.
I’d say this is a personal haunting, but I think it is another common experience shared by carnival workers with children of their own.
There is a running, bouncing dynamic in a child’s happiness, which takes on an even higher pitch with mobs of children. Its an incalculable, elusive zeitgeist that darts between people in the moments of shared happiness.
It’s inexplicable but something so deeply human. Blind people, having never seen a smile, smile. It’s a contagion that carnival workers all say they feel.
Yet many carnival workers grew up in unhappy families and as adults don’t see their own enough.
They grew up orphans, foster kids, juvenile delinquents or victims of abusive parents.
Seeing happy children every night must be an elixir at times for those once unhappy kids.
As for me, every running, laughing, bright-eyed child I see reminds me of my newly-minted eight-year-old daughter in far-away Chicago.
I feel simultaneous twinges.
Sometimes I look at kids about her age, I see her in them, and it hurts.
Other times, I think – I love one of these too.
My parents are carnies
Carnival workers whip out their cell phones to show you a picture of their child. Or they’ll tell you they often call or text their kids from the road.
Others bring their kids along with them in the carnival. At Butler Amusements in California, Robert E. had two daughters and two sons in different units. At the Chicago carnival I’m at now, several children of the owners say they want to be in the business and travel jump to jump.
Some children of carnival workers are raised on the road, missing key grade school and high school years. As a result, I met several who cannot read, including a carnival supervisor.
Last night, I met a 36-year-old Alabama carnival worker who proudly told me he was texting his three-year-old grandson.
A 40-year-old Chicago carny told me he has seven grandchildren. He became a dad at 12 years old and his daughter a mom at 12 years old.
In California, Mexican migrant carnival workers typically said they were working in America in order to send money home to their wives and children.
One of the older Mexicans at the Butler Amusements, Joshua, was perhaps the most shining example of this child empathy.
When a mother of three could not afford all-ride passes for her kids and began leading them away crying, Joshua left his ride, opened his wallet and paid the $75 for wristbands. That’s almost two days wages.
He never mentioned the gesture to me, I heard it from the ticket woman who said it brought tears to her eyes.
The Englewood neighborhood in Chicago is known as one of the toughest and some of the street kids are true hustlers.
One child, I guessed to be under 10 years old, actually summoned fake tears to try to get a free “Dumbo” ride from me. For fear of being fired, I said no. Even though I knew it was a con, I felt like a crumb.
Later I saw the kid running around the carnival going on rides, his tears worked with the real carnies.
Still, carnival workers aren’t just lonely parents longing to be with their kids.
Numerous workers I’ve met have been working off-the-books at carnivals in order to avoid child payments. They declare themselves homeless, without any income, to avoid detection by authorities.
Some just disappear off the grid.
A Pennsylvania carny I talked to this week said his girlfriend in Florida is pregnant and he can’t wait to get his fiancee pregnant because pregnant girls are sexy. He seemed to have no wish for fatherhood other than that pregnancy period.
Before I left New York I was on a nightly cell phone call with my daughter, who loves to play in the dogwood tree outside her apartment.
I asked her what she thinks about when she climbs up into the tree. I used to climb trees and dream all afternoon, I told her.
Her school district emphasizes writing and diary keeping. She recently bought a diary so I told her she should write about what she thinks about when she’s in the tree.
Silly thoughts. Funny thoughts. Pretending what she might be when she grows up. Or just looking out over at the roofs and over the roads.
She came up with the idea of calling me from the tree, I worried she might fall but she assured me “I’m an expert.”
Then came the call.
What are you thinking about, I asked.
“I’m thinking about what I’m thinking about,” she laughed.
It’s not so silly, I said, writers are always watching themselves think. That’s what you are doing, I said.
“I’m thinking about what it would be like to be a dolphin trainer. Would the training be hard?”
Somehow, I’m on the other end of the phone and yet on the ground looking up into the tree at my sparkling, darling girl.
I finally saw her last week after an all-night tear-down of my Chicago carnival. I imagined that I’d show up at her birthday celebration a dirty, smelly mess after hitchhiking 800 miles.
But the carnival tear-down supplied my apparition as a muddy, archetypal absentee father returning from the road.
I gave her presents bought at the carnival, a blow-up pink dolphin for the beach and a plastic necklace with a dolphin that changes colors. She named the necklace dolphin “Colorful.”
My parents said she got better presents but when she got home she raved about her carnival dolphins. Dad’s hat was so dirty. He said I’ve grown.
I already knew it but the haunting goes both ways, another carnival specter follows her.
Playing dominos in the carny quarters on the San Mateo County Fairgrounds in California, these carnies are “cutting up jackpots,” swapping stories and laughing. When I saw Stephen, who is holding his standing girlfriend, at the Minnesota State Fair, his girlfriend asked me if I remembered her and then she popped out her glass eye and said, “Remember me now?”
CHECK OUT THE VIDEO — SOUNDTRACK “La Vie en rose” by Edit Piaf
“Life near the bone is the sweetest.”
Henry David Thoreau
In the ten states, in ten traveling carnivals, I lived on the border of Chugach National Forest in Alaska and in a cow pasture outside Chicago with 40 Black Angus cows and a big, dirty bull.
The carnival quarters exist in sharp contrasts, in part because of the ownership but also due to the people in the bunkhouses.
In Chicago Heights, a town with high unemployment on the rural edge of the Chicago south suburbs, I met a short “jointee” the first morning named Pork Chop. A “jointee” runs games. I was running the carousel for the Chicago carnival, so I was known as a “ride jockey.”
It was one of the few dry nights of June last year but I was still negotiating my way through mud puddles that morning.
Apparently, my awe of the cows and the widespread decrepitude gave Pork Chop a good laugh at the new guy.
“Welcome to The 30,” Pork Chop said. “Wait till it rains, then it’ll be “Welcome to The Dirty 30.”
It’s called The 30 because US Route 30, the legendary Lincoln Highway, runs along the border of the cow pasture. The Lincoln Highway was the first bi-coastal highway in the country. It was one of many fabled highways I traveled that year in carnivals from Route 66 to the Alaska Highway.
One morning, a carny on The 30 pointed at the rising sun as if he was pointing to China.
“My house is right on this highway out that way, in Ohio.”
When it became the Dirty 30, my shoes would sink and disappear in the mud and cow shit. The “donnikers,” which is a carnival term for outhouses, were a football field away.
That concept prompted Marine Eric to object.
“If you have diarrhea, you’ll never make it. You’ll have to do it next to the cows. Say, move over cow.”
My room had no window and the door hung by a single latch, like a child’s loose front tooth. I had no heat in the cold, no air in the heat. Much of the time I had no electricity.
The first 10 days I was on The 30, I slept in a decrepit van, crawling with bugs and mites. One morning I woke and saw a cow pushing his head up to the partially opened window. She was hungry and curious like me, I thought.
As bad as my conditions were, others had it worse. One young couple lived in the underbelly of a trailer, that looked something like an animal transport trailer.
Trash overflowed from trash cans all around. The pasture was a dumping ground for old rides and a storage grounds for rides in need of repair.
That Chicago traveling carnival troop had no H2-B visa workers, migrants working from Mexico, South Africa, Jamaica or other countries.
Eventually, I met James Judkins, the biggest migration agent for Mexicans in the country. I asked him why he didn’t send people to Chicago traveling carnival, he said because the living conditions were too raw for the Mexicans.
I felt so surrounded by sewage and infestations, one morning I woke myself up with the greeting, “Mud and cow shit everywhere, honey, what’s for breakfast?”
During my final tear down in Chicago, Peanut told me that I was going to miss my family, the Chicago carnival. I’ll even miss the cows, he said. He was right to link the carnival family with the cows.
I loved The 30, I just didn’t know it at the time, when I was shin-high in bullshit.
Bugs to Weber grills
My California bunkhouse was infested with bed bugs. I endured the bites when I slept. I scratched all day for weeks. Not only was I miserable but if I ever mentioned it, I became a pariah, so I suffered in silence.
That bunkhouse’s filthy showers featured shower curtains blackened by grease and dirt. The floors were torn up and caked with mud and grime. The joke was, you came out of the shower dirtier than you went in.
In New Jersey, an electrical short caused sparks and smoke. It drove us out of the bunkhouses. When the smoke cleared, we went back to bed. The owners the next day said it was our fault for leaving on the water heater. No apologies for the fire hazard or the open tangle of wires.
Single-room carnival bunkhouses are about six feet long, about five feet wide. Bunks on one side of the trailer are on the floor, on the other they are chest high. In most bunkhouses, I could touch all four walls.
In Alaska, along with my Native Alaskan roommates, we slept three in a room. Two bunks on one side and a chest-high bunk at the entrance. A small sink and closet fit snuggly.
Across the country, Mexican “reefers” fit 15 or more Mexican men to a trailer. Showers are on one side and a kitchen is on the other. Lockers face the bunks, where men slept on three-leveled bunks.
Workers didn’t want to take frequent freezing cold showers. The Laundromat van sometimes skipped a week. I never saw a reefer with circulating air. So those trailers smelled of working men.
Mexican men pool their money for food and the few women who come up from Mexico are responsible for shopping and cooking.
Small outside kitchens line most carnival bunkhouses. Mexican meals are common meals. The “Jarochos” from Veracruz eat more fish than the city slickers from Mexico City.
American carnies put out their portable Weber grills and sit around on fold-out chairs or industrial sized buckets eating hotdogs and hamburgers.
In Alaska, Golden Wheel had a souped-up modern grill and tent for common meals. It also had a kitchen in its warehouse.
Chugiak was such a carnival paradise, I imagine only E.K. Fernandez Shows in Hawaii to be a match. Grocery stores and fresh fruits and vegetables are just down the road. Across the road is street is a park, for playing basketball and baseball. Behind the quarters is Chugach National Park, for hiking.
In Chicago, I saw 40 cows in the carny quarters, in Alaska I witnessed a moose and her cub walk majestically through camp.
Barrios to “love shacks”
In my Oakland carnival, I slept on the floor bunk and looked at the pornographic graffiti on the pressed wood a couple feet above.
Somebody loves Knockout and someone else wishes me a future filled with great sex. Good to know.
I remember stressing out about the viability of my year in carnivals when the rap music turned down and I heard a young woman singing softly to a ballad. The noisy night became quiet. Around midnight a freight train blew its horn along the Oakland tracks. No other word for it than soulful.
Other nights, frisky couples rocked the bunkhouse like a hammock. In Minnesota, the couple across from me were a new couple, really new.
The rocking went on most of the night but I was happy to hear the man once in a while say, “quiet Mike will hear you.” Every little bit of courtesy is appreciated.
In the bigger carnivals the Mexican reefers are filled with men who don’t want to stay inside so they hang outside. The Mexican music and tequila on pay day can give it a barrio feel.
Living next to Jamaicans in New Jersey and New York, I got a contact high from the pot smoke wafting through the vents.
The closeness of the quarters meant nothing is private. Who is sleeping with whom. Who is abusing drugs, alcohol or their wife.
Whispers can be heard through the walls and farts smelled. We knew each others secrets and what we had for dinner last night.
The closeness led to bickering and to closeness. When carnival people talk about the carnival family, it’s because they work all day together and sleep side-by-side.
In off hours, carnies usually hang around the bunkhouses. Younger workers played hacky sack and basketball in Alaska. In most traveling carnivals, pay days were for drinking, drugs, music, video games, dominos and “cutting up jackpots” … gossip or storytelling.
We shared so much. We shared the weather, food, cigarettes, booze, drugs, shoes and the constant state of being broke. Working constantly and yet being poor is the life of the carnival worker.
The old-time carnies talk about sleeping under rides, which I did on several occasions. They bemoan how soft the new carnies have it compared to the days when boats were made of wood and men made of iron.
After a year working and living in those bunkhouses, I can say carnival workers aren’t that spoiled and some have it every bit as tough as the old days.
Yet I also saw bunkhouses and ‘barrios’ filled with all the human foibles, passions, vices and fun of traveling small towns.
The living spaces were as good as their people, living close and close to the bone, where life can sometimes be the sweetest.
I spent a year working and living in carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. Because I lived on carnival wages, I hitchhiked between jumps for about 15,000 miles, making me America’s #1 hitchhiker for 2013-14.
I’m writing a book. If interested or you want to comment, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
― Leonardo da Vinci
That first afternoon in Chicago I helped with setting up the swing ride the YoYo and went over to work on Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Parents like to comment on Dumbo’s glassy eyes and half-witted smile, which makes Dumbo look very high. Or as they say on the midway, ‘Dumbo looks like he’s flying twisted.’ A look that isn’t unfamiliar in these neighborhoods.
On the Gage Park lot, the Dumbos didn’t fly because we were too close to the Fire Ball’s swinging arm. It was close enough for stray cell phones to come flying at the kiddy ride. The kids, almost all under 10-years-old and some in kindergarten, were living in neighborhoods where flying cell phones were less a danger than flying bullets.
In California, my routine on the Lolly Swing was, “Up I say, up I say and awaaay I say.” In New Jersey my routine on the twirling Apples ride was the magic word, “Applesauce.” In Chicago, I went with a magic words, “ Mumbo Jumbo.”
I put kids in the cars and whispered in each one’s ear. I told them when I ask, they must shout out the magic words and then see what magic happens. After the third and final “Mumbo Jumbo” call-back, I switched on the ride and they lurched forward.
“What are the magic words kids?”
“I can’t hear you.”
The kids loved the Mumbo Jumbo routine so much they shouted it to me as they passed by all ten turns. “Mumbo Jumbo” “Mumbo Jumbo” “Mumbo Jumbo” All night long. They came back for repeated rides breathlessly saying, “I already know the magic words!”
Little Black girls wore braided hair that bounced like popcorn strings. Little Black boys ran in groups of best friends. Hispanic kids stuck close to their mothers but broke away when they saw a ride they liked. Single moms, couples, gangbangers and West Side preachers all came by my Dumbos. In the middle of their hard Chicago neighborhood, the carnival landed like a space ship and kids were flying away from it all.
It was wildly popular. I remembered the workers in California admiring my energy at the Lollys, so I wanted to be known for my energy in Chicago at the Dumbos. I ran from car to car all night long treating every child like a superstar. I ran like nobody in that carnival ever saw. I created a kid frenzy for a flying elephant ride that didn’t fly.
Children spinning, laughing, screaming in flightless circles, as if going fast enough or screaming loud enough, might change something forever. The next day all the smiling, happy kids woke up right back in their shoot-em-up neighborhood looking both ways on the way to school.
In my own childish imagination, those innocent, tiny people walked to school carrying backpacks with something new inside.
I am still searching for an agent, editors or a publisher for “Eyes Like Carnivals.” I can also be read on Huffington Post. Several YouTube videos can be found under my name. I can be reached at email@example.com
One May in 1689, having sold everything he owned, the aging haiku poet Basho began walking a five-month haiku pilgramage across Japan and wrote, “The Narrow Road to the Interior.”
In my 50s, inspired by the legends, stories and people of traveling carnivals, I too hit the road. I didn’t have Basho in mind but later I understood his belief in the road as inspiration for imagination and art.
On a February in 2013, I boarded the legendary Chicago-to-San Francisco train The Zephyr heading into a punishing snow storm for a carnival year both reckless and hard wired into me.
I played traveling carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. I followed carnival people to their homes in Showtown USA and to the mountains of Mexico.
A ride jockey in Alaska, I ran a golden Ferris wheel. A jointee in Texas, I ran the crooked Tubs of Fun game.
A ticket taker at the Florida State Fair, I listened to the freaks talking about themselves in Wade Hall’s World of Wonders freak show. No, I don’t get up on stage because they don’t see the inner freak in me.
This cardboard carnie made pilgramages to carnival holy grounds in Gibtown, St. Martha’s Catholic Church and Midway Plaisance.
Hitchhiking between carnival jobs, I traveled the Alaska Highway to US Interstates 5, 10, 25, 30, 35, 40, and 95 — and parts of storied Route 66.
I took videos, wrote blogs and took notes. West to east, north to south, I crisscrossed 36 United States and crossed Canada down to the tip of Mexico.
Back home in Chicago, high-up in her favorite tree, my eight-year-old daughter Grace called her carny father from her cell phone. Separation from family is part of the life in carnivals. Through the phone I could feel I was hurting most, the person I loved the most.
Beatings. Gaffs. Bed bugs. Stolen wages. Near broke. Near homeless. A donniker nicknamed Bowels of Hell. Sleeping in the middle of a cow herd. Cold showers from a garden hose.
I worked atop a carousel pole in a lightning storm. A big, smiley, laughing friend sat on the end of his motel bed one night and laid back to die.
One woman stood outside her bunkhouse one swampy, foggy morning and felt like screaming.
“What is wrong with us anyway. Who in their right mind wants to be a carny!”
Sex, beer and corn dogs. Sublime 4 a.m. walks back to the bunkhouses. Singing in the van ride after the show. Chruch Calls. Cutting up jackpots. Tornadoes of happy, excited children. Carnival workers with huge broken-tooth smiles. An Alaskan summer sun staying late just for us and a homemade stew of peace.
Seasonal workers from Mexico, South Africa and other countries mixing up with the Americans. Work. Fun. Flirting.
So many people in their youth, living out the beginning of their life stories in traveling carnivals. The veterans living their whole lives in carnivals didn’t want any other life. If they won the lottery they’d come back and buy a ride.
Crowds of people so excited along the carnival midway. It took me a long time to learn this trick but you can hear their inner voices if you wish it. There’s a sweet science to it.
A whisper spreads across a person’s neurons somewhere deep inside. Come close. You can hear it.
… thrill me …
I can be gloriously unmoored in the hard wonder of traveling carnivals.
Word Key: Ride Jockey=Runs Rides: Jointee=Runs Games: Donnikers=Port-a-Potty: Church Call=Sunday crew meeting: Gaffs=tricks or cons: Slough=Teardown of carnival; Cutting up Jackpots=telling stories with other show people
“Eyes Like Carnivals” is about running away to carnivals, the hidden lives of carnival people, adventure, America and a wild-ride-and-return story. Sex, drugs, rock-n-roll and unbelievable characters. Traveling fun, hard work and living life behind the midway and on the American road!
It’s my goal this year to publish “Eyes Like Carnivals,” my spectacular year writing while working in 10 carnivals in 10 states, from California to New York, Alaska to Florida. I hitchhiked 15,000 miles between jumps – even going down to Mexico to see the “new face of American carnivals” in a Mexican feeder town for US carnivals.
If you know an agent, let them know. Watch me do this thing this year, perhaps the hardest part of the journey will be the publishing. Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
FIRST VIEW THE VIDEO, THEN READ THE BRIEF BLOG
This is the way I tell stories.
I know this song, it’s well know but a bit old-fashioned. It’s called “Moose Turd Pie.”
It’s about a guy who’s working out in the wild with a railroad gang and when it comes time for supper, the singer objects to the putrid cooking. The rule on the railroad gang was that you are the cook if you complain. So the next day the singer searches the fields and collects the softest, hottest, smelly moose shit, makes a pie crust and fills it to the heaping, steaming brim.
At the end of the song, the biggest, toughest, ear-bitting-est bastard on the railroad gang is the first to eat the pie and is outraged.
“THIS TASTES LIKE MOOSE TURD PIE,” he yells. “GOOD THOUGH.”
This video is aging, it’s from last year, “GOOD THOUGH.” or make your own video. Whichever ending you like. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIBvzwAbXsc
I worried about my daughter Grace, at the time just 8 years old, would be traumatized by my absence while working in traveling carnivals and hitchhiking across the country for a year.
That concern was well founded, carnivals and hitchhiking can be dangerous and separation is reality. We had weeks when there were nightly calls but others when calls were less frequent. I wrote one story about her calling me from her secret hiding place in a tree outside her home near Chicago.
My ex-mother-in-law wrote me on Facebook that Grace was missing me terribly. I was working in Westchester, New York with the McDaniel Brothers at the time. Grace’s birthday was just a week away. So I went on the Internet, found the names of Chicago-area carnivals and began frantically calling and begging for work.
The Briggs family and Modern Midways agreed, sight unseen, to hire me and so I quit on a Tuesday and hitchhiked from New York to Chicago to be there by the time Grace turned 8 years old. Whether I made it or not, you’ll have to read the book.
My parents also could see the problem as I spent time with Grace in Chicago, during my off-time from the carnival. My carnival played neighborhoods I was a bit afraid to bring Grace to, at least at night.
When I landed a job at the Minnesota State Fair, my parents brought Grace up via Amtrak to see me as I worked the pool tables on the Mighty Midway, in the land of Minnesota Fats. It is the biggest state fair in America, by daily attendance, and this year USAToday readers voted it the Best State Fair in the USA.
Grace was in kid heaven.
When I returned from the year in carnivals, we spent time together at Christmas and she eventually moved down to Florida with her mom to be near her other grandparents. I moved near them and now work odd jobs until I get back on my feet, or sell “Eyes Like Carnivals.” (getting into carnivals is easy, getting out is tougher)
Then Grace told me she wanted to write a book. I was sure my year of being away would be the topic. After all, seemingly every time she wanted something she would say, “but you were away for a year and now this is our time.”
We went to the library and I began helping her write about a Purple Ninja who lives in the woods, half normal girl, half the greatest super hero who ever lived. She doesn’t use violence so much as she problem solves, anticipates, forms friendships and uses her “jumpiness” to get out of the way of lightning bolts from villains.
The book wasn’t about me. The trauma there was but not enough for a book. Instead, “Power of Purple” is the first in a series of books by a powerful new storyteller, Grace A. Comerford.
It’s an amazing, awesome book for middle grade readers and available now at http://www.amazon.com/Power-Purple-Jackies-Ninja-Stories-ebook/dp/B016P2D86O/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1449158693&sr=1-1&keywords=%22power+of+purple%22
Michael Sean Comerford spent 2013-14 working in 10 traveling carnivals in 10 states, hitchhiking through 36 states between jobs and crossing into Mexico to see the “new face of the American carny.” It became a quest story, Americana on a full-throttled wild ride.
He was slinging iron and pushing plush across California, New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida, where he worked a freak show. He wasn’t allowed on stage because they couldn’t see the inner freak in him.
In the meantime, he blogged along the way on this site and Huffington Post (at Michael Sean Comerford). He wrote essays for Northwestern Magazine (Northwestern University alumni mag) and Marquette Magazine (Marquette University alumni mag). He wrote a piece for Wand’rly on hitchhiking.
Eyes Like Carnivals is now being shopped by agent Tim Hays in New York City, please contact him with any offers at Tim@haysmedia.net
The State Fair of Texas in Dallas runs for 24 days and is the largest state fair in the United States. A newbie showman in games, I somehow surpassed my whole crew and maybe all crews for sales that year by making up my own routines and sticking to my shtick.
The Texas State Fair is in full swing right now and it brings back thoughts of my amazing year in carnivals. I ran games and rides at 10 traveling carnivals, in 10 states, hitchhiked 36 states between jobs and crossed Canada and Mexico along the way.
When I reached the biggest of the big time in Dallas, I was working with the West Crew, headed by Adam “Batman” West and a veteran group of showmen (carnival workers who run games don’t like to be called carnies).
I began on the “short-range,” a basketball game with a cantaloupe-sized basketball and a lower hoop. The hoop had two inner rims but the ball went through and there were winners. As is true of all the games, you could win but it was far harder than you think. I juggled the basketballs. I told every male walking by, “You are a basketball man, show us what you got.” I did well but I changed my game and my routine and the money started flowing in.
I threatened to quit and Batman sent me to the “tubs.” They are plastic tubs the size of fruit baskets. People throw softballs into the tilted tubs, if the balls stay in, the customer wins. On practice tries a ‘cop’ ball is left in to deaden the bounce. On the money throws, the ‘cop’ ball is palmed and the ball almost never stays in the basket.
I told every customer that I was going to hypnotize them into winning by using “Mike’s Rainbow,” an arc throw. When it worked. I told them they were hypnotized and they should play.
I never changed the routine for the hundreds of thousands of people who passed by my booth. I out-earned everyone, every day after that. At the end of the three weeks, after about half of them spent treading water at the ‘short ball,’ I earned more than $3,000. All by sticking to the routine that worked.
I used the money to take a bus down to Mexico to see the “new face of the American carny.” In bigger carnivals, Mexicans are the majority of the crew.
At the end of my amazing year in carnivals, I worked in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida, where I worked in a freak show. I racked up more than 15,000 miles hitchhiking, which might have made me the #1 hitchhiker in North America for 2013-14.
I kept a blog at www.EyesLikeCarnivals.com and on Huffington Post. I wrote a couple magazine pieces and now I am attempting to find a publisher for the book, which I finished earlier this year.
You can help me find a publisher for my unpublished book “Eyes Like Carnivals” by hitting “LIKE” on my book page https://www.facebook.com/eyeslikecarnivals