ABC radio interviewed me about my year working in traveling carnivals and hitchhiking around the USA and Canada. I also talked about going to Carnytown, Mexicana to see the ‘new face’ of American carnivals, the Mexican carny.
“Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere.”
“Twelfth Night or What You Will” by William Shakespeare.
My latest jarring dream involved mixed genders and mistaken identities.
One of my favorite plays is “Twelfth Night” which was known as one of the Bard’s transvestite plays. I thought of that Christmas play about gender bending and wondered if I was really dreaming about my July hitchhiking trip from Washington D.C. to Marco Island, Fl.
Gender confusion drives the plot as a boy actor plays a female twin who disguises herself as a boy. Cross dressing in Shakespeare’s time was common during The Twelfth Night celebrations and the parties surrounding the Lord of Misrule. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelfth_Night.
My 1,100 mile hitch took four days and three nights, all sleeping outside during nights of intense, colorful dreaming.
Outside of Savannah, Ga., a transgender woman picked me up in her “Soul” and told me wild stories of her traditional marriage, prison and sexcapades. At first she said her name was “John” but then said her real name is April Summers. When she performs on stage as a female impersonator, she said, the other performers call her “Satan’s Secretary” because of her promiscuity with audience members.
Outside Tampa, Fl., a tree trimmer picked me up in his shaky compact car, drove 90-miles-per hour and then made an indecent proposal while we careened down I-75. As we were driving dangerously close to death, he said, “How about I give you a h*nd-job!”
Outside of Hilton Head, S.C., a Chilean hotel maid picked me up and, when she offered to drop me off at a truck stop, she made a comment about how the truckers probably want her to stick around for a while. They might want to pay for some female attention.
Mike of God vs. my hat
Four days is too long for a 1,000 trip. My days were marked by many hours of waiting followed by many drivers discussing their lives. Still, one standout of the trip was not a driver.
After the Chilean hotel maid dropped me off outside Hilton Head, I stood on the onramp as the sun was declining. Up the onramp toward me walked a thin man with a white Moses beard.
“Hi, I’m Mike of God,” he said. “If you get a ride out here at this time of day, I’ll take off your hat and shit in it.”
I said, “Hi Mike,” and wanted to add that I don’t want him to shit into my hat.
“Mike of God,” he corrected me. “Mike of God! I’ve got some money here (from bumming on the corner) so you can join me. We can buy some pizza and beer. I have some cardboard in the woods back there to sleep on. You won’t find a ride out here tonight.”
One of my theories about hitchhiking is that people make the riskiest decisions at the beginning and end of the day. So I wasn’t about to stop hitchhiking but I was tempted by Mike of God’s offer because I could witness his madness first hand. I imagined that he was going to tell me he was a prophet. Whatever he said would have made a great story.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a kinder offer,” I said. “Beer. Pizza. A cardboard bed in the woods. Mike of God telling me the truth. But I’m betting on one more ride.”
In the most ragged, Dickensian clothes, he walked away talking to himself and still advising me that I didn’t know this corner of the world.
Stories about long hitchhiking trips are best told when whittled down to a few short stories. This trip had so many interesting drivers I can’t do justice to any.
A moving company dispatcher who moonlights as an amateur pool shark said he intended to win $200 that night by hustling marks at regional pool halls around Richmond, Va. Because he played defensive pool, he nicknamed himself “Kid Safety.” It’s a moniker that no doubt summons fear in opponents and admiration among the female fans.
The first ride out of Fayetteville, North Carolina, John the electrician told me that he doesn’t fear hitchhikers because if I tried to rob him, he would drive his truck off the road and kill us both.
“I don’t care,” he said. “I’ll do it.”
Nothing he said before or after betrayed thoughts of suicide or of a life that meant so little to him.
After John the electrician said that, I remembered that other drivers have told me of similar scenarios. Another driver earlier in the trip had said he too would commit suicide if attacked by a hitchhiker.
I heard two stories of hitchhikers stealing the driver’s vehicles. Once the driver got out to fill the truck with gas but the hitchhiker drove away with an empty tank and was later caught.
In the other, two beer-guzzling sheet metal workers outside of Tampa laughed uproariously as they told how a hitchhiker stole the driver’s truck when he stopped to buy them both a beer. After a few, the driver started dancing with a beautiful woman and the hitchhiker jumped in his truck and drove away. The hitchhiker was caught but the girl got away.
Several drivers had life advice for me. A computer security expert driving a Saab convertible in Virginia told me how his wife left him and took their two daughters to North Carolina. He was depressed and living in a hotel when he picked himself up, married the hotel manager and moved them both to South Carolina to be nearer his daughters.
I told him I’m writing a book about my year working in 10 carnivals around America and going down to Mexico to see the “new face” of American carnies. But publishers have been unimpressed by my first draft and want a complete rewrite.
“I know you’re broke right now but this is a test of your character,” he said. “Publishers aren’t the artist. You are. Don’t compromise on your principles. Write the book you think you should write. This is a test of your character.”
What is my character?
The Walk of Life
The computer security analyst, the tree trimming pervert and April each made me think of character and identity. April lived for a couple decades as a married man and changed jobs like a chameleon changes colors. The tree trimmer had a girlfriend and kids at home. The computer analyst lost his identity as a husband and father and made his comeback in a Saab convertible.
The hitchhikers fooled the drivers out of their vehicles. Some drivers would rather give up the life they are living than be robbed of their truck.
Kid Safety is hustling people who think he’s just a dispatcher. The hotel maid has a fantasy (maybe not just a fantasy) about another sexy life at truck stops.
Mike of God isn’t mentally ill, he’s a prophet offering bummed comfort to the wayward with beer, pizza and a cardboard bed. Even if he is a danger to all hats.
In this season of the Twelfth Night, could this be what my jarring dream meant? I am not what I seem to be either. I am a fool for disguises, disguised to myself. What foolery in a journey of a 1,000 miles.
Coney Island’s rides stood in a dream-like state as I walked the boardwalk that morning. I overheard Russian, Japanese and Hispanic conversations. Seagulls outnumbered the people. Barges powered past. The rides behind the fences reminded me of the 10 traveling carnivals I worked in the last year, as if it was a past life.
The Wonder Wheel reminded me of the “Cheese Wheel,” as they call the Kraft-sponsored Giant Wheel at the Oklahoma State Fair in Oklahoma City.
The Cyclone reminded me of the Windstorm at the State Fair of Texas.
The Wonder Wheel and the Cheese Wheel, the Cyclone and the Windstorm may remind me each other but they are from different sides of the tracks.
The Cyclone is a wooden rollercoaster dating back to 1927. The Windstorm is an iron rollercoaster but even it was replaced at the 2013 Minnesota State Fair by the Rip Tide (which I filmed for “Wild, Wild, West Crew” on YouTube).
The Wonder Wheel dates back to 1918 and is a 150-feet-tall with 24 cars, each seating six people. The Cheese Wheel is 90-feet-tall, with 20 gondolas, seating six-to-eight people.
The 212-foot-high Texas Star which whirled behind me as I worked games at the State Fair of Texas was the tallest “Ferris” wheel in the country. This year the 520-foot High Roller in Las Vegas became the tallest but the New York Wheel is being planned for Staten Island and may be 625-feet-tall, with 1,440 people per ride. The original “Ferris Wheel” was built by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was a monster in its time, at 264-feet-tall and holding a capacity of 2,160 people.
However, those mega-sized permanent, observation wheels at amusement parks are different creatures.
In the traveling carnivals, professional carnies know how to set-up and tear-down rides so fast they seem to vanish in the night. In California, the Butler Amusement carnies setting up the Giant Wheel were Mexicans from the small Veracruz town of Tlapacoyan. They never wanted to work with any locals, claiming locals slowed them down.
In Chicago, Alaska and Georgia the carnivals I worked in each used a mix of traveling carnies and young local men to set up Giant Wheels, Eli Wheels, Century Wheels and combinations of each wheel.
I ran the controls of a Gondola Century Wheel in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska in 2013. My last carnival work was earlier this year.
It’s off-season now for both traveling carnivals and amusement parks. Traveling carnivals moved to what are called “winters quarters” for repairs and new coats of paint. By late winter, early spring, even the old rides will sparkle.
The comparison isn’t all new versus old. Coney Island’s rides may be older and permanent but traveling carnivals have traditions that date back as far.
Comparisons can be made. Be the rides permanent or traveling, old or new, this time of year, they are all beautiful when they sleep.
Michael Sean Comerford spent a year working in carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. He lived on carnival wages and hitchhiked about 20,000 miles between jobs. At this time last year, he visited Tlapacoyan, Mexico, a town that each year empties out of men going to work American carnivals. Having worked both games and rides, he’s now writing a book on the experience.
Texas in October can feel ungodly hot. Last year this time, I was in Dallas at the State Fair of Texas. My dentist cousin Kelly and her family visited as I showed them how I could cheat on the “Impossible Tubs” game. Their dentist’s teeth shined in my sea of carny jack-o-lantern smiles. The “Tub Thug” told me about his pimping and whores. And 28-year-old Patrick White died in his hotel bed, his carny family grieved but we didn’t know anything about his real family. Ungodly might not be the word.
Marquette Magazine ran a cover story on my year in carnivals, along with some of my pictures. Including the one above, I’m featured running the Cliff Hanger in Fairbanks, Alaksa last summer.
“You walk in and you sort of just go, ‘Whoa.’ There’s an immediate sense of sensory overload and chaos.”
British historian Josephine Kane, the author of “The Architecture of Pleasure.”
Religious zealots hate it when scientists explain the earth goes around the sun, not like the bible says. The poet John Keats bemoaned Isaac Newton being able to explain the science behind rainbows. Science demystifies and contradicts some of the beauty and wisdom of the ages but it is still a long way off from explaining the thrill of carnivals.
A classic Grant Synder graphic lays out the classic carnival rides by their function name and equation. The waves of the roller coaster are calculated with the cosine function y = cos (x) and the Tower of Terror function is x = 1, which is more of a constant than a function.
The Synder graphic is funny because math can name a Ferris Wheel a Polar Coordinate Wheel and measure all the angles and speeds but it misses the psychological thrill.
The so-called “soft sciences” have entered the fray too with their own explanations for fun in carnivals. A recent Boston Globe article went viral with academics explaining the psychology of the overall carnival experience, from games and rides, to food, lights and music.
The Globe article cited experts from around the world who boiled the mysteries down to nine psychological hot buttons. Rides create a near-death experience, experts said, making it fun to ride and fun to return to safety. Games are designed to produce near winning experiences, so players want to play more. The music, lights and crowds lend themselves to a contagion of poor self control.
It seems as if amusement parks and carnivals create a feeling of being in a fantasy world, where the unreal is an escape, freedom and sometimes leads to romance.
The seemingly unscientific outcomes from these perfectly explainable phenomena is the result of thousands of years of trial and error in traveling shows.
I worked in 10 traveling carnivals in the last year and I can tell you that everybody knows there must be a scientific explanation for all this but who cares. The main aim of the carnival is the separate the mark from his cash.
Nevertheless, traveling carnivals are adapting to technological realities. The biggest midways in America are cashless and ticketless. At the largest state fair by total attendance, the State Fair of Texas, carnival workers use electronic guns for game and ride payment.
The electronic guns of the State Fair of Texas assure carnival owners can’t skim off the proceeds of their games from the state.
However, other technological advances are aimed at increasing crowds and promoting spending. The Internet is used to pre-pay for tickets and ad another source of ad revenue for the carnivals. Credit cards are being used to play games, which can greatly increase the amount of money a carny might be able to get out of his mark.
Technological advances on rides make them safer but bigger and faster too. Increasing fear and safety is calculated to intensify the experience.
Yet all the calculations and theories have another equation. The carnivals want the sum to be a gain. The function is a matter lurking in the murky world of human feelings, emotions and subconscious desires.
This California Highway Patrol officer drove me to a gas station near an I-580 onramp on my San Francisco-to-New Jersey hitchhike. The trunk is open because my packs were in the trunk. He was friendly but declined to shake my hand or give his name.
“I know the police cause you trouble
They cause trouble everywhere
But when you die and go to Heaven
You’ll find no policemen there.”
Hobo’s Lullaby, Goebel Reeves
In May of last year I quit my carnival job in Westchester, N.Y., in order to hitchhike to Chicago in time for my daughter’s 8th birthday.
I gave myself four days to get there. The nearest highway was the Taconic State Parkway, which is beautiful but an extremely bad highway to hitch. No shoulders on the onramps. Nobody could pull over on the first onramp without stopping traffic behind them.
“This time,” I said. “I’m really screwed.”
My first ride drove me to the Clarence Fahnestock State Park and dropped me off on a feeder ramp with no shoulder. Cars went past far faster than onramps.
A state trooper pulled up and parked in the middle of the feeder ramp, a line of traffic quickly backed-up behind her.
“Don’t you know hitchhiking is dangerous. Don’t you know you could get killed. I ought to run you in.”
I kept quiet but I could have told her the statistics. Freakonomics did a computer search on hitchhiking-related crime and found no significant correlation. Wandrly Magazine found a .0000089 percent of you getting raped or killed while hitchhiking. You’re more likely to stumble and kill yourself than die hitchhiking. There are no widespread injuries to drivers or hitchhikers in America today. I have heard the myths but they are based on exceptions.
As she checked my license on her squad car computer a driver behind her honked his horn. She stopped her license search, exited the squad car, went back to the driver and yelled at him from outside his driver’s side window.
“You got a problem. You got a problem you want to talk about. Then you better stop honking that horn.”
Another local police car maneuvered over the grass and pulled up too. He offered her his assistance. The two of them stood there with their emergency lights whirling, interviewing me as the traffic stood still.
Later, she drove me to the next exit about 20 miles down the road.
“Stop looking out the window, I know you’re looking another spot,” she said. “Hitchhiking is illegal in New York and if I catch you again I’m arresting you.”
At Route 52 there is a small gas station and she dropped me off there with more stern, demeaning warnings. I regrouped for a while and walked to the back of the gas station to its dumpster. I found a box, tore off a lip and wrote I-84.
I began hitchhiking at the front of the gas station, reasoning that it was legal to hitchhike on local roads.
Another local cop pulled up and the routine began again. I told him that according to Hitchwiki, hitchhiking is legal on local New York roads. He was a young policeman who said he still remembered the code number making it illegal. When he left and I began walking down the road, it is 10 miles to the interstate. The rollers on my luggage long ago wore to the bone so I carried my luggage on my chest and my laptop knapsack on my back.
At a side road I decided to put down the luggage and hitch again. This time three police cars pulled up.
Six officers of the law stopped me within two hours. The sheer number of policemen in that short of a period was disorienting. I couldn’t afford the fine or jail time.
“What am I public enemy number #1 fellas?” I said.
I told this group of New York’s finest that I thought hitchhiking on side roads was legal and again I tried the Hitchwiki line. Their lights kept flashing.
After a long conversation, they suggested I return to New York City by train and take a bus to Chicago. I don’t have the money for that, I told them. Then they recommended I walk the 60 miles to the Pennsylvania border but they weren’t sure what the laws are there. I never committed to walking. I did tell them, if necessary, I was willing to walk.
They told the youngest cop to drive me to Fishkill. When he dropped me off, I promptly put my I-84 sign on the back of my computer backpack and began walking alongside the road. I didn’t have my thumb out but drivers from behind could see where I was headed.
A couple miles down the road, up pulled a pick-up truck with a young father, his son and the family dog. Peter told me to hop in the flatbed. The young boy looked at me like a work of fiction, or history. He seemed more confused than the dog.
I threw my packs in the back and jumped in with a ladder and lawn mower. The pick-up truck peeled away from the curb. Down the on-ramp for I-84 we sped past cars on our way to the Hudson River.
It felt like an escape to freedom.
I lifted this state map of hitchhiking laws from wikihitch.org. A full article on cops and legalities of hitchhiking is at http://hitchwiki.org/en/United_States_of_America
Overview of hitchhiking laws by state.
Green: Hitchhiking legal while on the shoulder of the road
Yellow: Hitchhiking legal while off the traveled portion of the road, stay in the grass to be safe.
Red: Hitchhiking is completely illegal.
Gray: Specific laws, check the respective state article(s).
Sleeping with the alligators
A section of Interstate 75 runs through the Florida everglades in Florida and is known as Alligator Alley. High fences line the east-west road to keep panthers, bears and alligators from crossing the road and causing an accident.
A state trooper picked me up at a rest stop. He drove me to a gas station down the road on the Miccosukee Indian Reservation. He said I could get water and food while I wait. It is safer, he said.
After a few hours hitchhiking at the station it grew late. About 9 p.m., I noticed a police car pull up so I left my backpack and “Marco” Island sign out front and ducked into the store. I wasn’t hiding, I didn’t want to flaunt my lawlessness in his face. He took it the other way.
I felt a hard, aggressive tap on my shoulder. When I turned around a short, tattooed, bulked up reservation cop stood close to my chest. I’m about 6 feet 5 inches tall. He used his command voice (a police term for shouting) to order me back onto Alligator Alley.
“Is that your backpack and sign out front,” he said. “I threw your sign in the trash. You better start walking off this reservation. This is federally protected land. You walk yourself down (I-75) two miles and you will be off reservation land. You want me to arrest you? You want me to send you up to Ft. Lauderdale? (he made a vague reference to prison rape there) Who dropped you off here.”
“A state trooper dropped me off here,” I said.
“I don’t care who dropped you off here, get walking,” he said.
It was too late to hitchhike Alligator Alley, I might cause an accident. I dug into the trash can for my sign and left the gas station.
I walked into the everglades on a starry night. The vegetation buffered the sound of the road. It was oddly quiet. Sleeping in the swamp in my sleeping bag, I dreamt about a creature attacking me in the night. I wondered if I was really battling my subconscious.
The next morning, it took a few hours but the next driver drove me to the front doorstep of my parent’s home.
Hitchhiking my way through Canada on my way to Alaska, Canadian border guards x-rayed my backpack and searched my laptop. I spent five hours there and was escorted by a guard everywhere. On the way back, the Canadian border guard reluctantly let me through with a special, limited time certificate. I swear, if I had anything on my record or looked the least bit cracked, he wasn’t going to let me pass.
None of that bothered me because the Canadians were so polite. But it was interesting being treated like such a threat to society.
Good cops, sweet rides
Five cops gave me lifts to better hitchhiking spots. Two cops gave me lifts but warned me not to hitchhike and then faked like they didn’t know I was going to hitchhike the moment they left.
Each ride was sweet and badly needed.
A cop in Deerfield, Fla. stopped his canine unit vehicle in front of me. He exited as the German shepherd barked in the back like he wanted to attack. Only thing that cop did wrong to me was laugh at me.
“You know, you’ll never get a ride around here,” he said.
Then he drove away and I walked down the street and began hitchhiking just outside the sign saying “Welcome to Deerfield.” He knew I would.
After long, frustrating hours hitchhiking on the San Francisco Peninsula, a cop stopped me and explained he just wanted to find out if I was high or a wanted man.
I later thought of the perfect answer.
“Officer, I am neither high nor wanted. Quite the contrary, I feel quite low and unwanted.
Most of the police I met were friendly. Some threatened to arrest me but that’s a big hassle for them too. The typical policeman was stuck between thinking hitchhiking is illegal and knowing he should let this slide.
Hitchwiki says few states outlaw hitchhiking outright. Most states let you get away with hitchhiking in front of the sign banning pedestrians on the interstate. Hitchwiki said even in states where hitchhiking is legal, many police are convinced it is not.
I was ticketed once in the 1980s in Virginia. The cop was stone faced as he wrote out the ticket. I wanted to say I wouldn’t be hitchhiking if I had the money to pay that ticket. He knew I was going to start hitchhiking the minute he left. He knew I was never going to pay that ticket.
In all, more than a dozen cops stopped me during my year hitchhiking and I was never arrested or ticketed. The hitchhiker-cop dance is part of the price of the open road, never let the law stop you from seeing the world and the best way to travel.
This story was about the cops I met during my 15,000 miles hitchhiking in 2013-14. I became the #1 hitchhiker in America, according to all the research I’ve conducted. I hitched to traveling carnivals in 10 states, traveling more than 20,000 miles, across America, Canada and Mexico.
“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”
A circle of carnies stood in the a parking lot of Saint Timothy Catholic Church in San Mateo, California, and began telling “ooh that hurts” stories.
We were setting up the carnival and somehow people started telling stories about how much it hurts to be shot, stabbed and to lose an ear and an eye.
After each story, people chimed in, “ooh that hurts.”
Which as a great man once said is, “both sad and ironic” because the Bible tells us St. Timothy was circumcised as an adult by St. Paul.
I tell this circle of pain story because it reminded me of how traveling carnivals are so violence prone.
More than a dozen times I came within a second of becoming a star in that “ooh that hurts” circle.
In Alaska, a huge 20-something Samoan carny didn’t like it when I said he wasn’t the boss of me.
“How about if I smash all your teeth out,” he said.
I was angry at first but looked at reality, about 300 pounds of angry reality.
“Then I won’t come over to help you,” I said, “I don’t want my teeth smashed out.”
I walked away but for another couple weeks he and his friends kept saying he was going “to eat” me.
A hot Rose Dog
On my first all-night teardown of a traveling carnival, a former Grambling defensive back by the name of Rose Dog threatened to “f*ck” me up if I smashed his finger a third time. When I did, he screamed, danced in pain and turned to me like a bull. I stood ready for an onslaught from a younger, bigger man.
I’m about six-foot-five, 200-plus pounds but I was 53 years old, he was in his 30s. I spent my adult life as a journalist. If I throw a punch my knuckles will snap, crackle, pop. My teeth might too if he ever landed a punch. But that night nobody “ate” anybody.
Once, after an angry exchange, he vowed to “visit me” in my bunkhouse that night. It was a less-than-veiled threat to attack me in my sleep. I slept with a knife under the pillow.
Carnivals have always had trouble finding workers so foremen go down to the homeless shelters or the churches to get the drug addicts and alcoholics.
These poor men on the road to recovery, nevertheless, threatened to fight me at the state fairs of Minnesota, Oklahoma and Texas. In Texas, that group included a 400-pound man.
In Chicago, after a 30-hour “slough,” a carnival term for tear down, I went nose-to-nose with a New Orleans carny over nothing.
Violence is a traditional conflict resolution solution on carnival midways but I never once threw a punch or was hit.
Rose Dog threatened to fight me several times in the two months I worked at Butler Amusements but when I left I believe he was genuinely sad to see me leave.
I was genuinely sad I wasn’t 30 years younger.
I seemed to constantly be walking on to the scene just moments after a violent encounter.
I watched Rose Dog get up after a new hire clobbered him in his left eye, leaving a multi-colored Easter egg-sized shiner. Witnesses said Rose Dog flew backward through the carousel gates like a WWF jobber.
I saw a couple men in Chicago Heights walking their separate ways after one broke a two-by-four over the back of the other.
The most serious injury was to a girl in her teens in New Milford, New Jersey. After a night of arguing with her carnival boyfriend, she showed up to work with a face smashed to a pulp. She and the boyfriend denied his guilt.
The only person who really was in danger that morning was me, who suggested we report the incident to the police.
My idea was greeted with a unanimous New Jersey, “Oooh! Never call the cops. Are you stupid?”
My most vivid carnival fight stories are the ones that involve me, but the most violent stories I heard second and third hand.
There was the story of Ghost who someone said was shot for waving his money around too much on payday in New Jersey. Another Ghost was the dunk clown in Tennessee when he was shot by a local man angry at his taunts.
A souvenir saleswoman in Chicago pointed to the midway we were working on in Gage Park and said she shot her husband four times in the legs on that very spot. She did it in front of cops, she said, and they turned a blind eye to it because they believed he was guilty of child molestation.
“I can prove it,” she said, “He still walks with a limp. But he’s in jail now.”
In one van ride from the hotel to the state fairgrounds in Minnesota, Oz showed us all how “Mexicans” slit his throat from his left ear across his jugular and larynx. Then crew chief Chango showed us the bullet wound on his head and the knife wound on his bulbous stomach that weaved around like a question mark, with a belly button dot.
Of course, everyone is proud of their scars.
Hitchhiking in British Columbia, an old man picked me up and told about the tradition of Cree carnies in that part of Canada. Probably 50 years past between now and when he worked the kiddy rides but he remembers why he was nicknamed Fast Eddie.
He once knocked a man down so fast, nobody remembers seeing him throw a punch. He proved it by showing them the flesh on his knuckles, a townie’s tooth still embedded.
If you want to hear carny fight stories, go to the Annual Trade Show of the International Independent Showmen’s Association in Gibsonton, Florida next year, it’s the national convention of traveling carnivals in Carnytown USA.
When told around the carnival bar in Carnytown USA, carnival fight stories are practically an art form.
As with so many trades, the past glorifies the truth. People say times were tougher in the old days and carnies weren’t just fighting each other.
Carnival games owner Adam West calls it the “pussification” of the midway. West claims there are far fewer fights and acts of violence.
His father’s carnival brought boxing gloves for carnies to fight each other and any comers. (Australian carnivals still often feature boxing sideshows with paying customers.)
Carnies still box. I found this Internet link, you can clearly see a Ring of Fire ride in the background. The fight lacks the “sweet science” aspect I remember when I boxed and accidentally won the heavyweight championship at the University of College Cork, in Ireland. But this is a genuine boxing brawl.
When there’s a knock-out punch, the videographer yells out “Winner, winner, chicken dinner!”
Millionaire Carnie Lee in California loved telling stories about fights with townies. In one fight, a townie was harassing a girl working a game.
He promptly broke the townie’s jaw and later married, impregnated and divorced the girl.
Fighting was the reason Millionaire Carny Lee said he doesn’t like Mexican carnies. He surmises they can’t be counted on in a fight.
There may have been some truth in that, given that a single fight could result in a Mexican carny being deported.
Fast Eddie said if a carny ever fought a townie, the local cops usually locked up the carny. Often that was the end of the line for the carny, the carnival would leave without paying bail.
Tensions between townies and carnies are understandable given most games in the past were rigged, many still are. Sideshows, not as common today, might show burlesque or black magic.
Daniel Pratt Mannix was college educated, as I am, and spent three years in traveling carnival sideshows. He wrote a seminal book on his three years in carnivals, called “Step Right Up,” Harper & Brothers, 1950. (I highly recommend both the book and looking up the life of Mr. Mannix).
He describes a “clem,” a fight with locals in a small rural town. A sage older carny named Captain Billy told him why they occur.
“They (townies who attack carnies) are either saving the country from the jiggs or Jews or something. In this case they’ve got a moral duty to run a lot of foreigners like us out of town,”
In the book, the carnies charge the hostile townies with wood boards, iron tent stakes and a whip, setting the locals to flee in a blind panic.
I love the storyteller Mannix’s description of how the underdog misfits win.
The modern day version of a clem is when a carnival sets up in a big city ghetto and carnies have to fight back against gangs.
I can’t say if things were tougher in the old days but I can vouch that traveling carnivals are still macho zones with landmines for the working man.
I worked at one carnival where I witnessed an owner threaten savage beatings to those of us he thought deserving. At another carnival, I didn’t hear the owner threaten anyone first-hand but we all knew the score. I knew a carny who said he was paid by an owner to gang up on a fellow carny. I met a carny who said his assailant backed out at the last minute but asked him to lie about it so he could keep the carnival owner’s money.
How widely practiced this kind of carny discipline is, I don’t know. I can say, it exists and I believe I will be a target if I step on the wrong midway in the future.
Tempers flare for millions of reasons, because people are too hot or too cold, hungry or thirsty, hung over or just ornery and sometimes because so little means so much.
We all fight for our bit of colored ribbon, for what we want however small or grand. How strange is it then that people who work with their hands, fight with their fists.
I recently completed “my time,” a year in traveling carnivals and hitchhiking around America. I worked in traveling carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. I hitchhiked or drove more than 20,000 miles, across 36 states, Canada and Mexico. I’m seeking a publisher for a book.