Carnival Marches on its Stomach

Pancakes Eagle RiverCo-owner of Golden Wheel Amusements Jacqueline Leavitt makes pancakes for the crew at the Bear Paw Festival in Eagle River, Alaska last July.

“An army marches on its stomach.”
Napolean Bonaparte

No great carnival exists without great carnival food and showmen cooks.

When Flash was a young man in carnivals he walked by a gypsy woman who looked up and cast a spell on him.

“An old gypsy woman told me, ‘Sell hot dogs and hamburgers you’ll make a lot of money’ and she was right,” Flash said at the Showtown restaurant in Gibsonton, Florida, aka Carnytown USA.

At his peak, Flash said he ran “seven or eight” food wagons. He’s retired these days with property in Gibsonton and in Pennsylvania, where he owns several more businesses.

Flash based his career on those prophetic words. He prospered, raised his kids on the road and named his daughter after the gypsy woman.

However, carnival food is both food for the marks and the carnies.

In some carnivals, food wagons are still be called grab joints, grease joints and choke & pukes.

Traditional carnival wagons sell Elephant Ears, cotton candy, funnel cakes, nachos, pizzas, hot dogs, hamburgers and fried foods like deep-fired Twinkies and Snickers.

Kelly Wilson, the carny philosopher king, works in a Mexican food wagon, of which there are many along the border of Mexico.

Carnies often get a discount from the wagons and word spread up and down the state fairs when a booth has cheap food.

Some carnivals set up commissaries. When I worked for Butler Amusements in California, the food wagon had hot egg and sausage biscuits for breakfast and other microwaveable dishes.

Butler hosted a surprise Easter brunch for us in Martinez, California. On the throwing counter of a balloon-dart game, the buffet featured plates of ham, salami, turkey, American cheeses, potatoes, pasta salads, cookies and Easter eggs.

Easter brunch in Martinez, California.

On training day at Classic Amusements in Hayward, California, owner George D’Olivo grilled steaks, burgers and hot dogs served with pasta salad, deviled eggs, salsas and sodas.

The owners of Golden Wheel in Alaska served an elaborate pancake breakfast in Eagle River before the start of the Bear Paw Festival in July. After a day of river rafting along the Chena River in Fairbanks before the Tenana Valley State Fair, the owners paid for anything you wanted eat a local restaurant.

Golden Wheel employed J-1 visa workers, students from abroad. So foreign workers tended to eat the fare from their home country, Chinese or Eastern European. One night a carny named Breeze bought and cooked his mother’s Irish corned beef and cabbage stew for the whole crew.

Golden Wheel and Classic also had full kitchens in their warehouses.

Mexican carnies, the majority of the workforce in bigger carnivals, tended to eat food bought at the local mercado. The men pooled their money and the women bought the food and cooked it on outdoor grills beside the carnival trailers.

Jesus and the ladies eat lunchMexican workers eat a meal cooked from pooled wages.

People sat on plastic buckets or on the doorstep of their bunkhouse to eat their plates of food. The carny quarters, particularly in the Mexican barrios, can look like a long outdoor restaurant.

When I started in the carnivals, I thought the Jarochos, those from the state of Veracruz, would be eating more fish because their state borders the Gulf of Mexico. But their hometown Tlapocoyan is inland and they ate a meat-based diet, which was also rich in vegetables and beans.

I worked games for Adam West at the state fairs in Minnesota, Oklahoma and Texas and before each fair Adam brought the crew out for a free dinner at a decent restaurant.

In Minnesota, he combined his daughter’s seventh birthday party with a crew party at a St. Paul bowling alley. Beer, whiskey and cupcakes were served.

Birthday mealCarnival games owner Adam West with one daughter in his arms and another looking at her birthday cupcakes at a crew party in a St. Paul bowling alley.

The Oklahoma State Fair had a lunch trailer for workers. The State Fair of Texas had a cafeteria, with Chef Specials which included Beef Stroganoff and Chicken Chow Mein.

All the state fairs had food expos and contests.

Often at the end of a spot, the food wagons would give out the last of their food for free. I was among those scurrying around like a street urchin for soft serve ice cream.

In New York, New Jersey and Chicago there were no special food privileges, other than $1 pizza slices at the end of the night.

In those spots, we were blessed to be near great food neighborhoods. In Chicago, I worked near a Harold’s Chicken Shack and bought food in the Puerto Rican Fest. New Jersey diners were my fare there.

Flash made a handsome living off of carnies and marks eating in carnivals. While none of it can be called health food, carnival food is one of the most profitable facets in carnivals.

Deep fried food and Ferris Wheels are signatures of American carnivals. The food can’t be bland, it has to add to the party.

I was running the Lolly Swing in Martinez, California last March when a man came up to me and told me the smell of cotton candy reminded him of the best days of his boyhood in Alabama.

Marcel Proust wrote about the connection between food and memories. When made along the carnival midway, carnival food is part of the show.

Flash can still belt out a bally to bring in the customers. Fellow carnival owner Freddie Vonderheim, 76, balled out a bally in February at a Showtown breakfast with Flash.

“I got a pickle in the middle and the mustard on top, swimming in the gravy and they’re all red hot.”

Along the midway, carnival food is the show and the cooks are showmen.

Flash’s bally at Showtown was about carefree carnies eating breakfast on the road.

“They were brewing up coffee seconds and thirds,
Those happy go lucky carnival birds.”

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I recently finished a year working in traveling carnivals and hitchhiking around America. I traveled 20,000 miles and crossed 36 states, Canada and Mexico. I believe my hitchhiking 15,000 miles makes me the #1 Hitchhiker in the USA this year. I’m currently seeking an agent and publisher for a book on the year.

Is it Grace on a swing?

Carny pix
Photo by Lori Rivas-Huneke, Alameda County Fair, July 9, 2013.

I could have used a better camera. Still, I was working and photos like this were beyond my ability to get. Here’s a passage from one of my posts, “Child Specter Appears Nightly at Carnival,” posted a month earlier than the photo, June 7, 2013.

“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.”

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Huffington Post this week also published my essay “Death Defying Father Mike talks of Hell Rider Days.” I spent the last year working in traveling carnivals and hitchhiking around the USA. I worked in carnivals in California, New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. I went to Mexico to seek out the new face of American carnivals, the Mexican carny. I’m still seeking a publisher for my book.

Carnival Quarters, Pastures to Parks

Dominos Steve Best
Playing dominos in the carny quarters on the San Mateo County Fairgrounds in California, these carnies are “cutting up jackpots,” swapping stories and laughing.

Chugiak quarters
Workers gather at the end of the day for food and a bit of socializing in Chugiak, Alaska.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIDZ3ubdCEA

“Life near the bone is the sweetest.”
Henry David Thoreau

In the ten states I worked carnivals this last year, 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 this year in carnivals from Route 66 to the Alaska Highway.

One morning a carny on The 30 pointed at the rising sun and said, “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. I half expected him to say, “Good mooo-ning.”

As bad as my conditions were, others had it worse. One 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 carnival troop had no H2-B visa workers, migrants working from Mexico, South Africa, Jamaica or other countries.

Last month I met James Judkins, the biggest migration agent for Mexicans in the country. I asked him why he didn’t send people to that carnival company, 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 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 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.

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 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. No other word for it than pretty.

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 here.

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 at night.

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. They were as good as their people, living close and close to the bone.

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I spent the last 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 www.comerfordmichael@gmail.com

Carny Philosopher King with Buffalo Bill Beard

Kelly Best

“Someday I’ll wish upon a star
Wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where trouble melts like lemon drops
High above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me”

Somewhere Over the Rainbow, music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg

The 30-ish bartender sports a shiny bald head, purple triangle earrings and a Buffalo Bill Cody goatee.

I decide to take a seat where the bartender gets ice, so he can pause to talk once in a while.

I’m on the hunt for carnival stories. My duck blind is the main bar in Carnytown USA, during its annual traveling carnival trade show in February.

Not many people were there yet. It’s a long rectangular bar with flat screen TVs. Brightly lit, real Italian- painted carousel scenery panels above the bar made it carnival chic.

I remembered an encounter the night before, when I walked in with a carny who knew I was looking for stories.

“There are going to be hundreds of people here tonight,” he said, “and each of them will have thousands of stories.”

We chuckled and looked around the room, not at the each other.

“And half of them will be related to each other,” I said. “A lot of them will be slaughtering someone else’s story.”

The bartender’s name is Kelly Wilson and he was born into the carnival business. His parents were in the business, he grew up in games and food wagons.

His eyes are clear and he sports an easy, full smile. Buffalo Bill Cody was the greatest showman of the early 20ths Century and the first to join a the first showmen’s association. Kelly Wilson’s look shows he knows his showmen’s traditions. That, plus he knows it looks cool in a place like this.

I just knew the story safe at a carnival trade show would be at the bar and the key is the bartender with the Buffalo Bill beard.

Wilson’s Laws

Kelly learns from everything he comes across, religion, philosophy, music and art. He’d be a humanities scholar if he ever went to college.

“My college is life,” he said as he poured rum and coke.

Then he began mixing disciplines.

“Love and music are my religion,” he said. “Buddhism and Daoism make sense to me.”

He was careful not to “dis” Christianity either. He’s not ruling out ideas so much as seeking unifying laws for life.

“Kindness,” Gandhi and food service are the disparate concepts he’s been mulling.

“Gandhi said you should be the change you wish to see in the world,” he said. “I want to be kind as much as possible. Even to the meanest people.”

Bartending is Kelly’s off-season gig. He’s tried lots of sucker jobs. He’s trained under some good restaurant chefs, so, “I know how to cook.”

The “season” calls him back, though, like it does migrating birds.

“I tried the normal life,” he said. “Every a April I’d get the itch.”

Maybe it’s because he was raised on the road in a cramped blue trailer, in a family of six.

His childhood was spent running around, free rides, free sweets, playing with the other carnival kids from town to town.

He worked some games coming up but he spent more than half his life on the road making cotton candy, gyros, pizzas and hamburgers.

“My whole life, there wasn’t a year I didn’t go out and do something,” he said pouring whiskey and Coke. “My friends always say I’m like the Allman Brothers song, “Ramblin’ Man.” That’s the way we lived in a blue bus.”

When he reached his teen years the cramped living and maybe his phase in life, led to lots of arguing. Sometimes it was great but somewhere it turned.

Music was his savior. At his first “Rave” he had an epiphany. I don’t have to live like this any more.

“It was like the Bob Marley song, ‘If you are unhappy then travel wide.’”

Nevermind he was already traveling wide, it was a freedom song to him.

Unification theory

From July to October he travels the Midwest and South working a Mexican food trailer.

About five years ago he began selling hula hoops on the side. On breaks he went to the meeting room off the bar area so he could hula with kids.

I videotaped the dance. It started out with a “life’s a playground” feel. Then he kept going, part dervish, part “auana,” a Polynesian hula word for “to wander or drift.”

Kelly hears all the wild carnival stories as he pours drinks but I asked him what’s the weirdest thing he ever saw on the road.

He kept pouring drinks and making change but was stumped for a while.

“For me, weirdness is just normal,” he finally said. “Like people having sex in random spots is normal.”

When I prod him about his future, he says maybe he’ll buy his own trailer some day.

Which tells me, he isn’t like some carnival people I’ve known who envied homes in towns they passed.

He was more like a nester, who sets up home where he migrates.

Once again, he searches for the unifying theory of his life.

“I like cooking. I like people. I like traveling. And this is the best way to do all three.”

What I find disorienting about his unified theory is the backdrop. We’re in a carnival bar, everyone in this bar is a carnival person. He was raised in carnivals and lives in carnivals.

Yet he’s not jaded. His theories are idealistic, at times romanticized and wishful.

Bob Marley, the Allman Brothers, Daoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Gandhi, cooking, traveling and “kindness” even to the mean people.

Such are the truths he lives by – Wilson’s laws – as he dances in hula hoops through life with his beard of Buffalo Bill.

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I recently finished working a year in traveling carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and a Florida freak show. I trekked down into Mexico to see the new face of American carnivals, Mexican carnies. I’ve traveled more than 20,000 miles through 36 states, Canada and Mexico. I’m attempting to sell a book on the America I saw from the carny quarters and the side of the highway.

Mexican reefers

Mexican Faces and Reefer Madness

Video of my Mexican co-workers from San Mateo and Martinez, California to Tlapocoyan, Veracruz, Mexico. I used Son Jarocho music, La Bamba, sung by Los Lobos.

“Don’t shave, don’t shower, don’t care. Be really stinky and wear the same clothes everyday. I think what makes a man sexy is not being self aware. That’s what is really cute to me.”
Gwen Stefani, American singer

Emerging from the shower in the ‘reefer,’ I noticed I was alone and opportunity was at hand.

I quickly put on my clothes and fast-walked to the front of the bunkhouse trailer. Tiny, quick steps so as not to slip.

Wood bunks stacked three high with thin mattresses lined the left wall. Lockers and a table for hotplates and spices lined the other.

Work clothes hung from bunks to ‘air out.’

Carnival workers work extraordinary hours, 60 to 80 hour weeks aren’t unusual. Hundred hour weeks are unusual but happen.

You didn’t want to miss the bus to the local beat-up, coin-laundromat. The bus was always unscheduled and sometimes skipped a week.

Reefers in my San Francisco Bay area carnival smell like work.

Opposite the showers was the refrigerator and sink.

That’s where I went to film the trailer while everyone was outside.

The suspense was crazy high. People in carnivals are always walking around corners. Everyone seems to hear you in the donniker (outdoor toilet).

They know what you’ve been eating because they can smell it. They’ve seen what you’ve been drinking. Everyone is guessing about who might be sleeping with whom.

Nothing is private and not even your dream life, because people speculate about that too.

My camera blurs at the least bit of movement and my ‘gorilla pod,’ which steadies my hold, was broken.

Picture after picture blurred. I cursed and kept taking unusable pictures.

I decided to take a video, I could always take a snapshot off the video.

If someone walked in while I was panning across the ‘reefer’ with my camera, there would be hell to pay.

Bosses would be told. I’d become suspected for the spy I am.

I was spending the year working in carnivals and writing about them.

A colorful carnival owner and ex-pro wrestler, with the stage-name of Bo Paradise, told me he thought the project is stupid.

No owner will allow a writer/reporter in his carnival. Plus, I don’t speak Spanish and the new face of the American carnival is Mexican.

Nobody will hire me. If I’m hired I won’t have access to the dominant work sector.

Yet here I was showering in the reefer, which is the bunkhouse exclusively for Mexicans. They’re called ‘reefers’ because they supposedly have ‘refrigeration’ during the summer but I’ve never seen one that does.

Unlike the bunkhouse I live in, Mexicans live rent-free. I pay $50 a week for a six-foot, by five-foot bunk room. They live shoulder to shoulder and sleep above and below.

I befriended my Mexican coworkers and they were comfortable enough to allow me into the reefer unsupervised.

Being seen with a camera in their quarters would sound alarm bells because we already knew Butler Amusements was being sued by Mexican employees.

My Mexican amigos thought they knew who was suing but their names were deleted from the lawsuit for fear of retribution.

If coworkers knew their identities for sure, they feared for their safety and their ability to ever work again in American carnivals.

Networks of families and friends might blackball them. Agents who recruit workers might take a pass on the trouble makers.

Workers from Mexico are at the mercy of so many forces.

Filed under the name of Doe, the lawsuit alleged substandard living conditions, uncompensated work hours and pay below the minimum wage.

The groups helping with the lawsuit also participated in a study last year called, “Taken for a Ride,” conducted by American University.

The study alleges such abuses are widespread throughout the country.

I eventually worked in carnivals in California, New Jersey, New Mexico, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida.

Nobody worked in more carnivals than I worked.

During my year of immersion journalism, I can’t say abuses are widespread. I can say I’ve witnessed them. I once calculated my hourly wage at roughly $2 an hour.

The lawsuit and the national study were fresh on people’s minds.

Carnivals have a tradition of beating up workers. Sometimes workers are beaten for drinking on the job but sometimes they’ve been beaten up for mouthing off to the owner.

Some carnivals, allegedly one I worked on later, beat people up for leaving before the end of the season.

I wasn’t just in danger of being fired or beaten. My year in carnivals could be defeated by gossip.

Not only do people know everything about you in the carny quarters but carnies talk across carnivals.

I filmed and panned. I tucked the camera in my side-pouch.

Someone walked in as I walked out of the odiferous locker room-like sleeping quarters.

“Was it cold water El Grande?” he said.

We laughed and I walked away into the night.

Grateful for the bracing shower of a cold-hearted spy, smelling of Palmolive and escape.

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Last month was the end of my year working and living in traveling carnivals around the USA. I lived on carnival wages so I also hitchhiked between jumps. I’ve traveled through 36 states, Canada and Mexico, for more than 20,000 miles. My 15,000 miles of hitchhiking makes me the #1 Hitchhiker in America. I worked carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. I worked rides, games and one freak show.

Death Defying Father Mike tells Hell Rider stories

This video is brought to you by HoldtheMayoMedia.

“You must not fear death, my lads; defy him, and you drive him into the enemy’s ranks.”
Napoleon Bonaparte

I’ve heard that scholars believe when Shakespeare wrote “All the world’s a stage” and “one man in his time plays many parts,” it may have already have been a well known saying.

That is because people already noticed life’s stages and that not a single role defined a whole life.

Father Michael Juran’s stage is full of characters and so many are him.

You might know him as the Human Battering Ram, the Flying Padre, stunt man in “Man with the Golden Arm,” Burt Reynolds stunt double in Smokey and the Bandit II and Father Mike.

I met Father Mike in the main bar at the headquarters of the International Independent Showmen’s Association in Gibsonton, Florida.

Bellied up to the bar, having a white wine with pals, he took time out to talk to me about his many roles in life.

DSCN0562
Freak Show owner Chris Christ, left, and Father Michael Juran talk at the IISA Trade Show last month.

His life, he says, is part of a “traveling apostolate,” a mission sanctioned by the pope for itinerant workers.

When asked why he was both a priest and a stuntman in circuses and carnivals, he hints there may have been some “pompous asses” who didn’t understand.

“We have this Argentinian, (Pope) Francis, who says remember what Jesus did,” Father Mike said. “He’s popping the bubble of the pompous asses.”

At 65 years old, he’s retired but he’s been a priest for 40 years and a stuntman for 27 years.

He performed the “Human Battering Ram,” in which he is strapped to the front of a car as it crashed threw a burning wall.

He drove his car on two wheels at state fairs and racetracks. He flew over a bridge in the 1974 James Bond film, “The Man with the Golden Gun.” He drove stunts for Burt Reynolds in the 1980 movie “Smokey and the Bandit II.”

He slept in the trailer for Joie Chitwell Thrill Shows and performed priestly duties in his off hours. He heard confessions, performed baptisms “without the paperwork,” and performed carny weddings.

“Jesus didn’t do paperwork,” he’s fond of saying.

In a carny wedding, couples get on a carousel. Words are spoken. Blessings made. The carousel turns three times to symbolize the union.

When the end of the season comes or the end of the relationship, whichever comes first, the couple gets on the carousel which turns three backward three times signifying the carny divorce.

“None of its official,” Father Mike said, and probably all might get him in trouble in some church sectors.

Father Mike had their trust, he said, because he walked among them.

“They’d say, he’s one of us, he’s a performer too,” he said. “I’d say God loves you. I’m just like you.”

Confessions happened behind rides, walking along the midway, anyplace, he said.

“They’d say I want to talk about God’s forgiveness,” he said. ”

It was barroom banter and couldn’t last long as carnival workers came from every corner to shake his hand and share a story.

Father Mike has more stories to tell. A television company is making a documentary about priests that serve the itinerant people at carnivals, circuses, racetracks, rodeos, cruise lines and airports.

Christianity is a religion where the Messiah came from the common people and so it stresses that it is with the common people where the divine is to be found. It is also a death defying religion, one where the Messiah defies death and says followers can too.

Father Mike drove a fast car down those tracks and defied death, you might say as a Christian and a stuntman.

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Last month I finished a year in carnivals, hitchhiking between shows. I crossed 36 states, Canada and Mexico on my way to racking up 20,000 miles on the road. Many stories were not written as they happened and are now being written as I write a book about the year.

God, if you’re listening: Sexy hitchhikers vs. drivers

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Pinterest and the fantasy hitchhiker

Posing for camera
Grim reality for drivers.

I was miserable tired after spending the night in the Memphis Union Mission. A light April rain for hitchhikers is mucho bad mojo.

Yet I was surrounded by good mojo. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House were around the corner from my hitchhiking spot along Interstate 40. The Ronald McDonald House gives the sick kids a free room and St. Jude’s gives free treatment.

“No one has ever become poor by giving,” I kept thinking, the architecture around me was built by charity.

After a couple hours I thought of trying to look more needy. Then a young man in a grey Toyota Corolla pulled over and I ran down the highway shoulder with my packs dangling on my arm.

IMG_4393
“Oh no, that’s too much to ask from God,” the driver said.

The driver told me that he wants to be an oil man working in the Middle East or an American police officer. His family is from Yemen and he’s the 10th son of a 10th son.

He admires me, he said, because I dropped everything and am hitchhiking and working hard in carnivals in pursuit of my dream.

“Sometimes you just have to go for it,” he said.

He is a serious man in his early twenties, Muslim, devout. I only mention his religion because he doesn’t mention God lightly.

He asked me what kind of people pick up hitchhikers these days and I essentially said ‘all kinds.’ On that hitchhike from California on my way to New Jersey, I’d already been picked up by an inventor, lawyer, two grandmothers, several unemployed men, a painter, a male nurse, a power station worker, hippies, a preacher, retirees and more.

“Do you know one type of person I haven’t been picked up by but I’m still waiting?” I said.

Which?

“A young, beautiful, blonde woman,” I said. “I’ve read about it happening (in Penthouse Forum) but I’ve never been picked up by a young, beautiful, woman.”

Then I acted angry.

Always serious, the driver looked over from his seat.

“Oh no, that’s too much to ask from God!”

Recently, someone posted my main photo art for Eyes Like Carnivals on Pinterest. So I decided to check out the site in general and hit ‘search’ for “hitchhiking.”

Pictures featured scantily clad, beautiful young women.

Fantasy hitchhikers, people you’d pick up in the April Memphis rain.

Ten months after getting that ride, being warned it is too much to ask of God, I realized I wasn’t the only one disappointed by the lack of highway hotties.

I’m not eye candy either but I got rides. On that rainy Memphis morning surrounded by monuments to good will, I got a lesson in charity.

Still, God, if you’re listening …

*The “giving” quote is from Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl.”

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My year working in traveling carnivals and hitchhiking between spots ends this month but I’ll continue to file weekly until I finish the backlogged stories. I’ve hitchhiked from the Pacific to the Atlantic to Lake Michigan to the Gulf of Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico. With 15,000 miles under my belt, I am the #1 hitchhiker in America for 2013-14.

Freak Show Interviews – Short E. Dangerously

The tall, successful-looking man next to me in the elevator was just making small talk when he asked why I carried so many books and notes with me.

I’m writing a book about traveling carnivals. I spent the year working and living in traveling carnivals and now it’s time to write a book. There was lots of hitchhiking involved too, I said.

“I used to work for the freak show every year at the Minnesota State Fair,” he said. “I used to pull the sword out of the sword swallower’s mouth.”

Writer Amy Tan says she wonders if the “universe” is sending her material for her books when she’s writing, because so much comes her way when writing that inspires her work (they are good novels).

It happens to me too but my subject is carnivals, carnies and the ephemeral locus of American communities. With a subject that broad, one is likely to run into people with connections to carnivals.

You never know what you’ll see in a freak show, or who those performers are in real life.

For my last day in my year in traveling carnivals, I asked King of the Sideshows Ward Hall if I could work in his freak show for a token amount and for just a day.

I saw the World of Wonders several times when I was working the billiards game for Adam West’s crew in at the Minnesota State Fair last summer.

The “World” was playing the Florida State Fair in Tampa and I wanted to get a toe into the freak show side of the industry. Hall agreed and I took tickets and was a gopher.

Twenty-two-inch tall Short E. Dangerously is the only classic “freak” in the show, called a “half man” because he was born without legs.

At the World of Wonders show in Florida, people ate fire, swallowed swords and performed magic, including a guillotine routine with a head thrown into the crowd. Illusions, Ward said, are most of the show these days.

Hall blames political correctness for the decline in “human oddities” wanting to perform in sideshows. Hall has worked in the sideshow business for 60 years and knows his freaks.

“I’ve worked with hundreds of human oddities,” he said. “Giants, midgets, alligator skin men, bearded ladies, the monkey girl, pinheads, midgets, dwarfs, the armless girls, the living half men, all worked for me in the past.”

Shorty started touring in sideshows just a couple years ago and now travels the world. He’s knocked out by the fame and travel. Before one performance, (performances run continuously almost all day), he looked back at fellow performer and beautiful assistant Sunshine and said, “I know, sometimes I can’t believe all this myself.”

It’s hard work as you’ll see in his interview.

I found his lack of neuroses compelling. He says he had a happy childhood. He loves music and women. He’s healthy. He makes money and travels the world. He’s a happy man.

Without a hint of self pity for the cards he was dealt, he proclaims himself a lucky half man and a rocker.

I’ve read experts who say otherwise, but I believe a man is happy if he thinks so. I also believe most of what we see, we should question.

You never know what you’ll see in a sideshow, on stage, behind the stage or in an elevator.

You never know the shape of a happy man.

Q & A with Short E. Dangerously

1 – Where did you grow up and what was it like?

“I was born a mile and a half from the Ohio- Michigan border. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio. But my mother’s side is completely from northern Michigan, I spent a lot of my life there with relatives. My childhood was fairly normal. My parents split up when I was 5. My mom raised me as a single mother.”

2 – Do you have medical problems that accompany your disability?

“I have no medical conditions related to my disability. I do have joint problems in my shoulders and arms. But I manage the pain thru over the counter medications and other herbal remedies.”

3 – How did you take your condition, were people cruel?

“I took my condition just fine and so did the people around me. If they didn’t then they didn’t need to be a part of my life.. Plain and simple. There were a few assholes along the way, but it was dealt with accordingly.”

4 – How did you decide to get into the entertainment business?

“My love of music is why I choose the entertainment business. I had a band in High School. I have always liked being on a stage. Things with the band didn’t work out. So while I was in college I knew a DJ and him and I talked a lot and realized that is what I wanted to do.”

5 – Being a DJ at a strip club? Were you a favorite of the dancers? Were there wild nights?

“I was a favorite of most of the dancers. The ones I wasn’t still respected me and didn’t give me any problems. There were plenty of wild nights! But I’m not going to go into details. I think you can figure it out.”

6 – How did make the transition to the carnival shows?

“I made the transition to the sideshow by a phone call form Tommy the manager of WOW. I was tired of DJing and was looking for something different to try. I was offered the chance to tour with them for the 2012 season. It changed my life and the rest as they say is history.”

7 – What is your act?

“The acts that I do are acrobatics, fire breathing, and I also throw knives.”

8 – Where in the world have you traveled with you act?

“I have been to New Zealand, Brazil, Venezuela, Germany, Spain, and Australia.”

9 – Do you feel like you are part of a bigger tradition, a time honored profession? What do you call yourself, “freak,” “carny,” showman, entertainer?

“I do feel like I am part of something. Its becoming a dying art and I only wish I discovered it sooner. I consider myself and entertainer first and foremost, but I’m also a showman. I just happen to be a freak.”

10 – How hard do you work?

“When I’m with WOW between 15-20 1/2 hour shows a day. Sometimes as many as 30. I know that I have done the bowling ball stunt at least 15-1800 times since I debuted it in Minnesota last year.”

11 – What makes you happy, in life?

“Being on the road good friends family. Being on Stage is an incredible rush.”

12 – What makes you happy when on the road?

“On the road is the performing, the fans, but most I love just going down the road to the next gig.”

13 – What’s the future for you. Wife and kids and grandkids? Buy a business and get off the road? Movies, books? More countries and more roads?

“Not so sure about wife, I will never get off the road. I would like to have my own show in the next 2-5 years or so. So yeah, more countries and more roads.”

14 – Are you a happy man?

“I am very happy right now with my life.”

15 – If you could do it all again, who would you be in the next life (Ward Hall told me he’d be a faith healer).

“If I had to pick I would be a rock star!”


16 – What kind of rock star. Any road stories? Any tricks gone wrong? Are you really Dangerously?


“Metal!,,, We were a cover band. Lots of Metallica covers. I was the front man. No nothing super funny on the road… No real problems. We are/were very close. Everyone pretty much got along. I have had knives bounce back at me before.. I was in LA filming a TV show and one bounced back and almost caught me in the chest… and the name is taken from an old wrestling promoter. His name is Paul Heyman but his ring name was Paul E. Dangerously. I took the name and made it Short E. so I could still keep Shorty in my professional name. My real name is Aaron.”

*Answers are in full and unedited.

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This month marks the end of my year working and living in traveling carnivals around the USA. I lived on carnival wages so I also hitchhiked between jumps. I’ve traveled through 36 states, Canada and Mexico, for more than 20,000 miles. My 15,000 miles of hitchhiking makes me the #1 Hitchhiker in America. I worked carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. I worked rides, games and one freak show.

My Last Carny Job at a Freak Show

Chris Christ and crewShort E. DangersouslyBackstage trailerTattoo Lady

First photo is of co-owner of the World of Wonders Chris Christ along with the carnival barker and clown.

Second photo is of Short E. Dangerously, the half man, who also throws knives, eats fire and tells jokes.

Third photo is the crew backstage in the trailer, which is also their sleeping quarters.

The Tattoo Lady also swallows fire and helps with other acts.

This was my last carnival job in my year in carnivals. Thank you to Sideshow King Ward Hall for hiring me as a ticket taker and gopher for the day.
If they only knew what a freak I am on the inside, I’d have been a star.

A full story will come sometime soon, maybe next week.

Elvis the Mark, Carny Kids & the Showtown Allstars

Elizabeth & Original Tommy
Elizabeth, 9, and her dad Original Tommy Arnold at the Showtown USA restaurant/bar in Gibsonton, Fl. seated at the Liar’s Table. She’s literally learning about the business at the knee of her father.

“An unexciting truth may be eclipsed by a thrilling lie.”
Aldous Huxley

Elizabeth is a precocious third-grader on her dad’s lap at the Liar’s Table at Showtown USA, Gibsonton, Fl.

“Original Tommy” Arnold is in his 80s and a living legend in the traveling carnival world. O.T. is a carnival storyteller.

“Elvis won more than we let most people win, he kept throwing the prizes to the crowd,” he said.

In 1957, Elvis scored a hit with “Jailhouse Rock” but hadn’t yet been drafted into the Army.

At a Memphis carnival, he stopped to throw softballs at Original Tommy’s milk bottles game.

If Elvis wasn’t yet the king, he was the crown prince of the midway.

“The girls went crazy,” said the veteran carnival owner. “He drew a big crowd.”

What’s interesting about Original Tommy’s story is he remembers few details other than the line that makes his Elvis story a classic carny story.

“He spent maybe $200 on my game and that was a lot of money in those days.”

He took Elvis for a $200 and drew a crowd to boot.

Elvis may have been the crown prince of the midway but Original Tommy got him to lay out two C-notes.

There’s some irony in their table name because they also talk about the old “flat joints,” games where suckers cannot win. Alibi stores are games carnies must make excuses, “you crossed the line,” to foil a winner.

I didn’t ask how he “gaffed” the game but you can be sure Original Tommy let Elvis win just enough to keep playing and keep throwing toys to the excited fans.

In Original Tommy’s story, crown prince Elvis was just a mark.

Showtown sundown

The Liar’s Table at Showtown bar/restaurant is the liveliest breakfast table. During this month’s Super Trade Show Extravaganza in Gibsonton, old pros sat around the table like a secret hall of fame.

The carnival world is a subculture and the stars of its realm are found in hidden places like the faded Showtown USA.

Showtown is the creation of Bill Browning who painted elaborate stories on the walls of the restaurant, at countless carnivals and at the International Independent Showmen’s Association headquarters in town.

He used to yearly repaint and reframe the story on Showtown’s front facade.

All his art tells stories and often brings nature to the indoors with boardwalk and carnival scenes.

The carnival business inspires many artists, possibly because there is so much painting required.

Browning’s paintings at the IISA headquarters building cover the walls and easily make him the most famous carnival artist.

However, Browning isn’t actively painting these days and many of his Showtown stories are fading on the walls.

A food critic might suggest even the menu is old school. This morning it is chipped beef over toast, two eggs, $5.99.

I hear Showtown is still a vibrant place but the cigarette-smoke walls tell stories of bygone golden eras.

The Liar’s Table is its living time warp.

Dash of Flash

Flash said to me once, “If a carny doesn’t have a nickname, he isn’t interesting.”

Nick the Prick. Luke the Puke. Even Flash’s nickname has a back story.

“That’s what this business is based on, everything the sucker sees out there is flash,” he said.

Flash is cash, is the phrase I heard as a jointee, a game worker.

One morning the ballys started flying and I started taping as guys from different sides of the table urged the marks to buy.

The Mayor of the Liar’s Table is Freddy Vonderheim, 76, former circus and carnival owner (a special breed he calls showman transvestites).

Flash and the Mayor are retired from the business, but they can still bark them out.

When the Mayor pipes up, you know thousands have heard it on thousands of midways.

“I’m Donniker Dan (donniker is a carny toilet),
the candy man,
with circus straaawbery candy,
all you kids who want candy,
please hold up your hand!!!”

Flash came back with his own, ending in a carnival limerick, more than a bally.

“They were brewing up coffee seconds and thirds,
Those happy go lucky carnival birds.”


Born under a ride

Original Tommy bounced Elizabeth on his knee and told me how she wants to be an artist someday too.

Maybe face painting, he said.

Elizabeth is in third grade, just like Grace so I show her my daughter’s picture.

She loves hugging and playing games with the old men and a few younger ones around the table. Some get big hugs around the necks.

“I like it,” she says of her life in carnivals. “I get to go on all the rides for free.”

During the season she lives with Original Tommy and plays with other kids her age, also traveling with the carnival.

Asked about the highlights of his carnival life, Tommy says she’s the highlight of his life.

She loves teasing her old single father.

“My dad burns eggs, burns muffins, he burns everything you want to eat except cake and cereal,” she said.

Later that evening I was editing tape in a room near the main bar at the IISA headquarters.

My favorite bartender came over, Anna May, she’s in her 50s or 60s. She’s proud she raised her kids in carnivals without ever being homeless.

They were raised in the trailer during the season and she’s proud of the job she did, while running games, rides and working the ticket booth.

Then she noticed a picture of Original Tommy and Elizabeth on my computer.

I thought she might say something about their age difference but she had something to say about her age difference.

“That’s my granddaughter and Tommy’s my son-in-law,” she said. “A lot of people in this business are related.”

Kids born in the carnival business are said to be “born under a ride.”

Elizabeth comes from a long line of carnival people and she wants to be an artist, maybe a carnival artist.

“Elizabeth the artist” would make people here at Showtown USA very proud and that’s what passes for the thrilling truth at the Liar’s Table.

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My year working and living in traveling carnivals ends this week. My last carnival job was at a freak show owned by King of the Sideshows Ward Hall. I have numerous stories from the last two weeks and unreported stories during the year. So there’ll be more stories to come on hitchhiking and working American carnivals from Alaska to Florida, from California to New York.