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.
“An army marches on its stomach.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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 email@example.com
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.