Author Archives: admin

About admin

I'm a veteran, award-winning journalist who's "Eyes Like Carnivals" project is seeking the best possible publisher and then a much more lenient standard for the readers. I know a bit about the road. I've hitchhiked much of The United States, Canada, Eastern/Western Europe, Middle East and North Africa. I lived or stayed nights in shelters, under bridges, jail cells, churches and in waste dumps while on these shoe-string travels. Among other jobs, I worked fields with migrant workers, farms, kitchens, cattle round-ups and truck loading docks. One Fourth of July week, I worked a 'crooked dart game' in carnival in Cody, Wy. The "Pub Dart Champion of Birmingham England" story is a favorite. My time in that carnival spurred my longtime fascination with these traveling, kinda-retro, shows and what the world must look like from this American-bred way of life. I've been on three cross-country bicycle trips from Chicago to Washington D.C., New Orleans (in winter) and Seattle. In Seattle, I threw my bicycle and packs onto a freight train and rode back with hobos and farm workers. I've been to more than 90 countries. I swam the headwaters of the Nile, survived a hippo attack, studied Buddhism in the Himalayas and danced an Irish jig in the Amazon with an upraised jug of local White Lightning. Perhaps most importantly, I'm the former heavyweight champion of University College Cork, circa. 1980. I've attended The Poynter Institute, University of Maryland - College Park, Northwestern University's Medill Graduate School of Journalism, Marquette University and University of College Cork, Ireland. Before that I had the great fortune of a Catholic education from the Jesuits, Viatorians, School Sisters of St. Francis, Bernadine Sisters of St. Francis and Mother Elizabeth Seton's Sisters of Charity. I've worked with the Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Herald, Moscow Times, Budapest Sun, Budapest Business Journal, Elgin Courier-News, Naperville Star, Copley News Service and several Internet publications. I've been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for "Philippines: Arc of the Islanders," telling the stories of Chicago area Filipino immigrants and their lives back home. That series took me and photographer Mark Welsh to the Philippines for three weeks. (an unintended aside, I interviewed and later accidentally danced with Imelda Marcos). Other series included sub-Saharan economies; Russia during the Reagan-Gorbachev summit; McDonald's in China; 'Race to Tame AIDS' (about Abbott scientists); and investigations that led to changes in state law and, sometimes, convictions. I'm also a proud father of a happy, creative, grade school-aged daughter.


Two guys on our crew at the Oklahoma State Fair on set-up took a nap behind the games counter. These guys knew how to work hard and hustle, but you know you’re tired when you have to nap on the floor mats behind the games counter. Without scheduled breaks, we ate when he could and we napped IF we could during long, hot days. Some people might say this is a picture of napping, I say it shows how hard showmen work.

OK 2 napping men

Carnival Crazy Money when the Plush is Flush

Minnesota State Fair pool hall
At night, in my corner of the Minnesota State Fair that year, lighting, pool and plush mixed with Springsteen, high spirits and beer.

Minnesota State Fair pool hall best

In my year working rides and games at 10 carnivals in 10 states, I worked the pool tables at the Minnesota State Fair. Customers were given three balls. You had to sink them in order, without missing after the break.

I told everyone the break was the money-maker shot because if you get a ball or two in then you’re likely to win. That was true.

However, if they lost, I told them, “That’s because you’re on The Mighty Midway in St. Paul, at the biggest state fair in the country. The music is blaring. People are shouting. You’re a better pool player than that. People who play two or more times are way more likely to win a prize and these are the best prizes on the Mighty.”

I believed every word. I made sure the tables were level every day. I smoothed the felt. I chalked and kept the best cue sticks by my table.

I also believed words I didn’t speak, which were that the game is harder than it looks. You weren’t allowed to use combinations and often your ball would end up directly behind another.

Most people didn’t win but enough won so winners walked The Mighty Midway with a huge Scooby Doo or a black Rottweiler or a bright yellow “Despicable Me” minion. That was advertising for our four-table tent at the very end of the midway, the least profitable side of the carnival side of the Minnesota State Fair.

Scooby pool

Many people had been coming to the pool tent for years and remembered how they fared.

“Don’t end it this way, not this year,” I’d tell the losers. “This isn’t the memory you want for this year.”

The Mighty Midway is an “independent” midway, run by the state fair. Individual carnivals bid to put their rides and games along the fabled Mighty Midway. The closer to the front and the main action, the more profitable your game or ride was likely to be.

It was also a cashless midway, with rides and games being paid for by tickets. We stashed the tickets in iron boxes about the size of bread boxes. Each night we stacked them in little red wagons and rolled them to a central tent where fair officials emptied them and later counted them.

In the land of the fictional Minnesota Fats, enough people won prizes that we had to “flash” every morning. That meant replacing the winnings of the last day with new plush, brought in from storage in semi-trailer trucks.

I worked with Oz. In my book about the year “Eyes Like Carnivals,” I describe Oz as being in his 40s, bald and sometimes coughing like a lung was going to fall out of his mouth. He and I were the only regular crew members to work the tent. Workers from a drug and alcohol treatment center also worked with us. They worked on an hourly wage, which went to their facility. Oz and I worked for a percentage of the take. No guaranteed wages and we slept in trailers behind the midway.

If I stayed the whole fair and went with the crew headed by Adam “Batman” West to the Oklahoma State Fair then I’d get 20 percent of the winnings. If I left earlier, I’d get 15 percent. If you helped set up and take down, you got 25 percent. The owner of Allstate 38, Adam “Batman” West counted out my final take so I don’t know if I received the full 25 percent like the regular traveling crew. I was glad to get more than a grand, minus bunkhouse, uniform, hat and jacket expenses.

Minnesota OZ
Oz talking to a local hire as he holds on to the steel ticket box.

Oz complained about everyone around him, including me. He didn’t like it when I became the biggest earner at the tent but Oz was the boss. He directed shift changes, he timed our breaks and he supervised both the set-up and tear-down of the pool tent.

Several of the showmen in Batman’s crew liked to brag about their scars. The crew chief, Chango had a bullet wound and a separate knife wound that swerved around like a question mark along his bulbous belly.

Oz was the winner though because his scars were the freshest and most visible. A traveling scar track weaved its way from behind his right ear, across his jugular and run up to his Adam’s apple. His throat, he said, was slit just a month and a half before. It looked like an attempted beheading.

Once, he joked, “I’d forget my head if it wasn’t glued on.” He looked at me, anticipating my joke, and said “Some people tried to help me with that not long ago.”

If you weren’t looking closely or hadn’t heard the back story, you’d have thought little of Oz, his healing and his traveling scars.


Michael Sean Comerford worked in 10 carnivals in 10 states, hitchhiked 36 states between jobs and ventured down to Mexico to see the “new face” of the American carnival worker.

He worked three straight state fairs in Minnesota, Oklahoma and Texas. Minnesota is the largest by daily attendance, 12 days and 1.78 million people this year. Oklahoma comes next week. Texas is the largest by total number of attendees, by contrast 24 days long and can draw more than 2.6 million people.

He also worked carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Georgia and Florida.

Mexican Carny Union Expose, Behind the Rides

Link to Expose
Mexican worker smiles

The New York Times this week published a terrific expose on a union accused of representing both Mexican carnies and carnival owners.

This was rumored when I spent my year working in 10 carnivals, in 10 states in 2013-14. I interviewed James Judkins several times, but he declined to be interviewed by the newspaper. Judkins is most certainly the most prolific recruiter of Mexican workers to America and now is alleged to be the force behind Mexican carnival worker unionization.

A former circus owner himself, Judkins has funneled thousands of workers north to keep traveling carnivals running as the pool of American workers thins. He is paid by owners to find good workers and arrange visas, transportation and jobs.

However, but worker advocates allege he is the man behind the Association of Mobile Entertainment Workers, which represents Mexican workers rights in carnivals.

“This was a fraud on the system,” said Art Read, a lawyer with Friends of Farmworkers, one of the groups that filed a complaint last year about the union with the National Labor Relations Board, The New York Times article quote states.

At the end of my year working rides and games, I took a bus south from the State Fair of Texas in Dallas to the tiny hamlet of Tlapacoyan, in the eastern Mexican state of Veracruz. I found my former boss at Butler Amusements in California. He took me on a two-day tour of the town, visiting other workers I’d worked with outside San Francisco that spring.

Tlapacoyan is an ancient settlement in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental and empties of men each year as they go north work to erect Ferris wheels and tighten the bolts on the roller coasters at hundreds of carnivals across America.

When the men leave Tlapacoyan, the carnival “feeder town” is vulnerable to a variety of social ills. The economically struggling families of the men who go north often have to pay local gangs for “protection.”

The former employee of Judkins’ carnival, Victor Apolinar Barrios, had just been elected mayor of Tlapacoyan when I arrived. Apolinair Barrios is widely understood to run the local operations for Judkins. Here’s what I heard and the NYT confirmed.

“Some workers have testified that they had to pay Mr. Apolinar Barrios $350 to $500 a year to secure a carnival job, money they often borrowed at very high interest rates. Such recruiter payments are illegal in the United States.

Mr. Judkins and Mr. Apolinar Barrios are not listed on any public documents filed by the union. But people close to them, like Mr. Judkins’s sister and two brothers of Mr. Apolinar Barrios, are. According to the complaint by labor advocates, the Mexican politician’s brothers took over his recruitment business after he was elected last year.”

Jim Judkins is easily the biggest purveyor of Mexican seasonal help to carnivals in America and yet is alleged to be the force behind its workers union too.

A telling anecdote is my interview with Judkins last year, at the annual trade show for traveling carnivals held in Gibsonton, FL., sponsored by the International Independent Association of Showmen.

Judkins held seminars for owners telling them how to handle H2B visa regulations, the temporary work visas carnival workers attain to work in the United States.

He advised compliance and the services of his firm in avoiding government interference. At the conferences, he introduced an attorney and a lobbyist he works with on Capitol Hill in favor of the industry and owners.

He told me that his JKJ Workforce Agency arranges for about half of all Mexican migration to US carnivals. Of the estimated 50,000 Mexicans who come north for seasonal work on H2B non-farm workforce visas, Judkins said about 5,000 come to work in carnivals. Judkins arranges for about half of those carnival jobs to come from Tlapacoyan and surrounding towns. In my carnival at Butler, which is typical of large traveling carnivals, two-thirds of the workers were Mexicans on H2B visas.

During the Florida conferences, owners complained of red tape and labor laws. Judkins reminded them they are not covered by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, but other rules apply. In April, the Labor Department proposed new rules to protect seasonal workers such as carnival workers but the industry has filed suits against the rules, according to the NYT.

My carnival in San Francisco at the time, Butler, was the subject of a lawsuit alleging abuses such as long, uncompensated work hours. I often worked through the night and Mexican workers sometimes were sent home before us, perhaps in order to comply with the regulations.

Mexicans at Butler fell into several groups. “Jointees,” who ran games, often had more English language skills. They made more money and lived in better trailers. Many of them were city folk from Mexico City. “Ride jockies,” who ran rides, could live in more expensive trailers with US workers for $50 a week or for free in the Mexican “reefers.” These men were almost all from Tlapacoyan.

The “reefers” – supposedly ‘refrigerated’ in summers – are single trailers fit with wooden bunks for Mexicans. Bunks are stacked three beds high. About 15 men fit into the Butler trailer I traveled with, which included a small kitchen and two showers.

The reefers are generally considered the worst neighborhood in the carny quarters, maybe the closest thing we have in the United States to third world poor. The ventilation is poor and conditions are crowded. The showers, I can say from experience, always seemed muddy.

Judkins advised owners to tell workers not to talk to anyone about their conditions, to let ownership and lawyers do the talking.

With conditions, pay, immigration rules and government oversight at issue, Judkins never sounded like an advocate for higher worker pay, better conditions, stricter oversight or unionization.

However, as a personal insight, Judkins seemed genuinely concerned with all those issues for workers. He was a passionate advocate for Mexican workers ability to work in the United States and against restrictions on employment. At one point, he told me the Chicago carnival I worked for was not one of his clients because of the poor living conditions provided for workers, conditions American workers and I lived in.

That I know of, there is no union for American carnies.


For a fuller picture of the legal ramifications and possible conflicts of interest, please read the New York Times piece. Another upcoming investigative piece is being worked on by a wire service. View my YouTube video “Mexico: New Faces of American Carnivals.” Links are at the top of the article

Michael Sean Comerford spent a year working in 10 carnivals in 10 states, hitchhiking 36 states between jobs and venturing down to Mexico. He blogged along the way at and for Huffington Post (search Michael Sean Comerford). He’s written about the year for Northwestern Magazine, Marquette Magazine and Wand’rly. The Chicago Tribune called his blogs, “By turns emotional, erudite, enlightening and ever engaging.”

Literary agent Tim Hayes is representing efforts to publish a book “Eyes Like Carnivals. Michael Sean Comerford can be reached at




“Eyes Like Carnivals” will be literary non-fiction, Americana, a quest story and a full-throttle fun ride across the USA.

When it is published, that is. In the meantime, it needs it’s own platform, it’s own following before a publishing house is interested.

“Eyes Like Carnivals” is my blog, a Huffington Post blog, a YouTube video series (at Michael Sean Comerford) and I’ve written about it for Northwestern Magazine, Marquette Magazine and Wand’rly magazine.

The Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine called upon its Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame columnist Rick Kogan to do a “Sidewalks” column on the Web site.

“(Michael Sean Comerford) is 54 years old, and his writing now, on his blog and occasionally for The Huffington Post, is captivating. Filled with quotations from a wide and wild variety of people — including Proust, Kerouac, Mother Teresa, Picasso, Marcus Aurelius — and peppered with philosophical observations and colorful portraits of people and places, his blog is by turns emotional, erudite, enlightening and ever engaging.”

It needs a Facebook page of it’s own, for when it is finally sold to a big New York City publishing house! (hear that Lit Agent Tim Hays?).

I’ll post carnival and hitchhiking and Eyes Like Carnival news here and gather like-minded readers.

For newbies, I worked a year in rides and games in 10 traveling carnivals in 10 states, ending 2014. I hitched 15,000 miles across 36 states. I toured Mexico and Veracruz to find the “new face” of American carnies.

Specifically, I worked in carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida, where I worked a freak show.

I hitchhiked 15,000 miles across 36 states and ventured down into the mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental in Veracruz to a small hamlet of a village that empties of men every year as they head north to traveling carnivals in the Unites States. They are the “new face” of the American carny and I wrote about them and have posted videos on YouTube.


Secrets of Batman’s Dark Knights

A Batman Dark Knights
Adam “Batman” West, his family and the Dark Knights at a pre-state fair party in St. Paul. He is second from the left, in the grey t-shirt.


Adam West’s favorite carnival moniker and icon was chosen for him when he was born, given to him by his carnival games owning parents.

Named after the actor portraying the 1960’s TV hero Batman, Adam grew up in carnivals. Now that he was a young games owner, he put the iconic black bat on his Batmobile golf cart and on his Batcave, a carnival supply/office trailer. He gave Batman rings and Batman shirts to his crew.

At 28 years old, the former high school football star was divorced and remarrying when I met him and his crew, Batman’s Dark Knights.

Batman joked about his wild days and nights in Mexico. He soaked in the lore of the wild nights of his father’s generation of carnival owners. He waxed lyrical about his childhood with carnies and growing to be a tough teenager who could beat-up other carnies, even the South African migrants, in traveling boxing matches.

With his ex-jock frame, he was a dynamic, fast-taking, fast-counting success on the traveling carnival circuit. His plush were the latest, hottest items. His games were old world stingy, tight. His crew was the strongest.

On the Super Midway at the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul, I asked for a job and he wanted to know if I had the right stuff. The exchange was typical of the speed and carnival justice of the American carnival Batman.

“Can you pass a piss test,” he asked. “Do you have drug or alcohol problems? (long pause) Are you honest?”

I laughed and said, yes, no and yes.

“Why are you laughing,” he said, “something funny to you?”

“If I was a liar,” I said, “I’d say the same thing.”

In that short exchange, I was hired to work games the two biggest state fairs in America, Minnesota State Fair and the State Fair of Texas. We worked the Oklahoma State Fair in between, which claimed to be the World’s Biggest Carnival. I ran pool tables, a shark pool, a basketball game and the Tubs of Fun for more than two months in Batman’s crew.

I called the crew Batman’s Dark Knights because every man and woman was admirable to me and every one carried dark secrets. The knights of the round table, this carnival crew was not. They were knights of the open road. They were so good, one boasted, “we don’t leave a dime on the midway.” They were avarice knights, greedy for a money, wild nights and life.

When Batman’s Dark Knights walked the midway, mammon walked the midway.

On Freaky Friday Videos, my video shows clips of the three state fairs and crew members. At the end is a tribute to Patrick White, who died of a heart attack in Texas. We were all thunderstruck when the 29-year-old who ran the Break-a-Plate suddenly shattered and died himself.

You’ll see parties, games, high times and hints of the secrets of the Dark Knights are all there. Walk the midway with Batman’s Dark Knights.


From 2013-2014, I worked rides and games in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida, where he worked in a freak show but didn’t get on stage because they didn’t see the inner freak in him. He rode a bus into the mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental to a Mexican village that empties of men each year, going north to US carnivals. Living on carnival wages, I hitchhiked 15,000 miles across 36 states. My blogs appear in Huffington Post and at Agent Tim Hayes is seeking a publisher for the book.

Traveling Inspirations: Disney, Oz and Grace

Minnesota State Fair me and Grace
Grace and me at the Minnesota State Fair

I wrote about my hope that my separation from my daughter Grace, 8, would be somehow mitigated by the inspiration she gets from traveling to the Minnesota State Fair with my parents.

I made lots of connections between the inspirations Walt Disney and L. Frank Baum may have drawn from traveling shows and carnivals. Grace, ironically, brought presents that included a hand painted picture of a dog, a postcard lion and a rainbow. I introduced her to my boss “Oz.” She saw a freak show tent and a house of horrors, all in a fantasyland that a state fair strives to be.

The story is based on my blog from the road and updated slightly for Publishers Marketplace. The picture was never run on “Eyes Like Carnivals.”

SPECTACULAR VIDEO! New Face of American Carnivals week

Mexico Me 2

I shall be the envy of all my actor friends as I star in this video filmed on my 3,000 mile trip across Mexico, as I tracked down my fellow carnival workers in their native habitat.

A Brown University Graduate student in anthropology wrote me this week saying he is working on Mexican migration to US carnivals and wants to see what I found in Mexico and in 10 US carnivals.

So this is “New Face of American Carnivals” week on Publishers Marketplace, starting with my debut as a FILM STAR IN A SPECTACULAR VIDEO!

YouTube Link to Video

Monday is lead with “Spy in the Mexican Reefers” with probably my BEST VIDEO OF MY YEAR IN TRAVELING CARNIVALS
Publishers Marketplace site until it expires this summer
From 2013-2014, Michael Sean Comerford worked in carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida, where he worked in a freak show but didn’t get on stage because they didn’t see the inner freak in him. He rode a bus into the mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental to a Mexican village that empties of men each year, going north to US carnivals. Living on carnival wages, he hitchhiked 15,000 miles across 36 states. His blogs appear in Huffington Post and at Agent Tim Hayes is seeking a publisher for the book.

Carnivals the Chicago Way

Boogie Man sells Dog
Chicago Southsider sells Rottweiler pups along the Midway Plaisance, Chicago, the site of the original midway.


“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” ― Studs Terkel

Boogie ran a spinning Century, near the first Ferris Wheel at the birthplace of American traveling carnivals.

Standing high on the launching ramp, he watched neighborhood crowds lining up below. He was proud to be part of it all – Chicago, history and living in these days.

Boogie ran the Century Wheel, a premium Ferris wheel in use in the bigger traveling carnivals. A Black man in his 30s and strong-looking, Boogie wore a flashy, baggy jacket. He had a way of attracting other carnies to the wheel to talk to him. Something about Boogie, people liked talking with him.

During a rain break I took time to talk to Boogie. I mentioned that I was woken by a cow face looking at me that morning at The Dirty 30, the carny quarters along U.S. Route 30, in Chicago Heights, on Chicago’s far Southside. The owners kept 40 Black Angus cows on the same lot as the carny quarters.

Boogie laughed but he wanted me to know that cows are part of Chicago’s history.

“Remember, a cow is responsible for all the good shit we have around over there,” he said pointing to downtown Chicago, the focus of Chicago tourists and photographers.

Boogie was referring to the legend of “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” which was blamed for knocking over a lamp and starting the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. After the fire, Chicago rebuilt and has been reinventing itself ever since.

Boogie was hazy on the details but he knew about the Union Stockyards, which operated near our site.

Dirty 30s Cows 4
Cow herd on the “Dirty 30” along US 30, the Lincoln Highway, through Chicago Heights, on Chicago’s far Southside.

He also knew the first Ferris Wheel, a elephantine version of his wheel, operated just a few blocks away, “a long time ago.”

However, I was up on my Chicago history because I’d recently been rereading “Devil in the White City,” which featured the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. I also spent years as a journalist in the area and drank in the Chicago history and lore. Where Boogie was hazy, I stepped in with the background. After that night, he consistently would ask, “Why you know so much about Chicago?”

I was glad he knew what he knew, it meant some inner city kids in Chicago still grow up knowing something about its past. Chicago kids like Boogie still see how it spins through their lives.

EyesLikeCarnivals traditions

The 1893 World’s Fair was called “the fair that changed America” and it still lives on in names and traditions in Chicago. The concept of a midway with games and shows down a main street of entertainment was a centerpiece of the fair. These days, Chicago has Midway Airport, Midway Airlines and the Monsters of the Midway, the Chicago Bears. Restaurants, bars and even churches have Midway in their names.

“Modern Midways” was the name of the carnival I worked for in Chicago, in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. We also played hollowed ground for carnivals, the Midway Plaisance, the exact 1 mile site of the original midway.

Midway Plaisance was the site of the original Ferris Wheel. Galesburg, Il.-born George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. built the Chicago wheel with 36 cars, holding a capacity of more than 2,000 people. It took 20 minutes to turn twice. Some cars featured waiters.

The World’s Fair played for six months and drew crowds of 27.5 million at a time when the entire country totalled just 65 million people. (btw, we now number about 312 million).The fair made such a national splash that waves of smaller traveling carnivals followed with rides, games, freak shows, burlesque, carousels and Ferris wheels.

They spread out from Illinois and, as one carnival manager recently told me, Illinois is still “a busy state for carnivals.”

Traveling shows or circuses, even smaller versions of the Ferris wheel have existed for centuries but the North American carnival traces back to that Chicago World’s Fair, with its Ferris wheel and midway.

The Big Eli made in Jacksonville, Il. on the first midway along Midway Plaisance, with the University of Chicago Hospital in the background.

At that Washington Park jump, we put up a Big Eli, made by Eli Bridge Co. of Jacksonville, Il., which traces its roots back a century. Known as a “wheelman,” Boogie ran both the Century in Gage Park and the Big Eli along Midway Plaisance.

We were just blocks away from the union stockyards, at one time the largest meat producing square mile in the world. Meatpacking names from that era like Swift and Amour still thrive.

It’s squalid conditions became the subject of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” Also a journalist, Sinclair worked in the stockyards before writing the book, as I’m working in traveling carnivals hoping to write a book.

Another writer Bertoldt Brecht wrote a play about downtrodden labor in “Saint Joan of the Stockyards.”

Brecht was a favorite of Chicago author Studs Terkel, who I interviewed a few times. Terkel quoted a Brecht poem in his autobiography “Touch and Go.”

“Caesar beat the Gauls. Was there not even a cook in his army?”
“Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?”

Studs wrote “Working” about the people not included in history’s narrative. I also wrote a five-section special edition of the Elgin Courier-News in the 1980s called “Working,” citing Terkel. It included nearly 100 profiles of Fox Valley area people from a struggling car washer to rags-to-riches entrepreneurs.

Studs called the newsroom to compliment me. I was out at the time but the compliment made it to the whole office as our loud secretary yelled his words across the newsroom to me later.

“Studs Terkel called and said he loved your series, whatever the name of it was,” she yelled.

“EyeLikeCarnivals” isn’t “The Jungle” or “Working” or “Saint Joan of the Stockyards,” yet it is in that tradition of living, working and writing about the lives inside history’s big narrative outline.

Standing outside that story timeline, on the western edge of Midway Plaisance, is Father Time watching the Fountain of Time. The 126-foot fountain shows the passage of time, with people parading past Father Time in what appears to be the sands of time. The fountain added a historic feel to our Midway Plaisance shows. The fountain is a landmark but on hot days local kids flock to the fountain, jumping and playing as if part of a living work of art.

I chose carnivals to write about because they operate in town centers across the country. The focus of the community often is an annual event and each has workers with lives as colorful as the carnivals they work.

Along the way, so many people I met related how they once worked with a carnival, loved carnivals, or always wondered what kind of life carnies live. Let them wonder away. Let them come ride and play. They are important, they are the show.

And near the Fountain of Time, Boogie shifted the lever back and forth on the spinning Century, watching today’s crowds thrill on the ‘modern’ midway.

Boogie Fish
Nemo’s kiddy ride in front of the Fountain of Time on Midway Plaisance, Chicago, site of the original carnival midway.


From 2013-2014, Michael Sean Comerford worked in carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida, where he worked in a freak show but didn’t get on stage because they didn’t see the inner freak in him. He rode a bus into the mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental to a Mexican village that empties of men each year, going north to US carnivals. Living on carnival wages, he hitchhiked 15,000 miles across 36 states. His blogs appear in Huffington Post and at Agent Tim Hayes is seeking a publisher for the book.

Hitchhiking to Carnivals: Video of Wind and Speed

Hitchhiking to Carnivals this Freaky Friday Video Day is about the posts I went with this week. I hitchhiked more than 15,000 miles across 36 states and Canada to get to carnivals so I could work and write. I felt like the mutt in the backpack and the old man with the hippies. I was harassed and helped by cops and I was warned about sleeping beside the road, bears might feast on my hitchhiker bones.

I included tiny videos of riding in the back of a pickup truck to Okefenokee and the Hudson River, in the hope someone might feel that get the feel of the pickup flatbed and the freedom created by the wind and the speed

Kid Gypsy does Screwdriver Gaff

Hitchhikers are Bear Food
“Happiness in a Yellow School Bus: Postmark Pink Mountain”

Alaska Bound

Hitchhiking in back of pick-up truck to the Hudson River

Hitchhiking in back of pick-up truck to Okefenokee Fair

How to Ride the Magic Ribbon


Hitchhiking in the new age of wanderlust comes with cell phones, social media and adventure blogs.

It’s different than other decades because hitchhikers and drivers are different. What hasn’t changed is that it is still the getaway for poets, artists and dreamers hungry for inspiration on the open road. Runaways and the restless go to the highways, often not knowing where they are going or what compels them. Not always lost but driven. The hitchhiking world is still a subculture onto itself and it’s time for you to join. It’s a free ride that will blow your mind.

Another side that hasn’t changed: hitchhiking is dangerous and people do pick you up. Every statistical, computer generated model says the chances of violence on the road are infinitesimal, but not impossible. Danger adds a sting to every ride. You and the driver will think about it every time. As for getting rides in the 2010s, I’m versed on the subject.

In the past I hitchhiked all the US states but Hawaii. Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa have all seen my thumb. In 2013, I decided to write a book about traveling carnivals and hitchhiked to ten, working games and rides from California to New Jersey, Alaska to Florida. I worked a freak show, though I didn’t get on stage because they didn’t see the inner freak in me.

I lived on carnival wages so I hitchhiked between gigs, racking up more than 15,000 miles. That many miles in North America is unusual. I checked on the internet and I believe that made me the #1 hitchhiker in America that year. Last year I hitched Washington D.C. to southwest Florida, about 1,100 miles.

I wrote a personal blog and had another on Huffington Post. My Facebook posts were fast and furious. In that way, I was a hitchhiker of the 2010s, keeping the social media up on my hitchhiking. I now read other hitchhiking blogs for fun, unsure how much more hitchhiking I’ll be doing at age 56.

Yet I didn’t take full advantage of the technology. People search for places to stay the night at and Craigslist operates a ride sharing site. Counterculture gatherings, communities and hitchhiking races are all over the Web.

Word of mouth is still the best way to find gatherings and places to party. You won’t be alone. The #1 hitchhiking site on the Web is Hitchwiki, which says it gets 3,000 visitors a day and is growing by 20 percent a year. Hitchwiki’s top users come from Germany, USA, France, Poland and the UK. So if you’re thinking about hitchhiking in Europe for your vacation, it is even more common on that continent.

Nevertheless, hitchhiking changes with the decades. In the 40s, fewer people had cars and WWII veterans needed rides too. It was a patriotic duty (in Israel, a man in uniform, armed or not, will get a ride before you still). In the 50s, beatniks and writer Jack Kerouac romanticized the experience. The anti-­war and hippie cultures of the 60s did the same. I started hitchhiking in the 70s and predicted at the time, people in the future will say it was easier back in the 70s. Except for the tech, it’s similar.

I relied on a Rand McNally atlas to show me towns and national parks. For sleeping, I reverted to my old ways, sleeping outside, shelters and hostels. I slept under bridges, in a baseball park’s scorer’s box and in an outdoor horse palladium. When evening light faded I searched the horizon for a bank of trees or bushes to call home for the night.

Hitchhiking isn’t easy. Expect long waits but have faith they will come. On my 2013 trip, I spent more than two days beside the road rideless in New Mexico, Texas and Canada. Even those days were cool. I met other hitchhikers and when a ride finally came, the clouds opened up, angels began singing and I was baptized in glory. Hallelujah.

A hitchhiker spirit inhabits American roads and it changes with the generations because the young own the road. Older people like myself are like former ­pro athletes who still play but are not at that level. Still, hitchhiking is for everybody. British comedian Tony Hawks a few years ago hitchhiked around Ireland with a refrigerator. In Canada, a driver told me about his blind cousin who hitches all around Canada with his cane. A New Mexico driver told me of picking wheelchair hitchhikers in the deserts of the Southwest. Nothing should stop you, not fear, not change, not anything.

You must get a ride to the nearest interstate and feel a truck’s tailwind blow back your hair. Be fearless. Be adventurous. Create a new life or don’t, many hitchhikers do it on vacations or work breaks. Return home with a backpack of road stories then go online. Live a bold life for a while on the open road.

When packing your backpack, light is right. Shed things as you go. A water bottle is perhaps the most important item on the trip along with a map and sleeping bag. A GPS on your phone is great for spotting the next exit but maps anticipate upcoming junctions. My cheap phone in 2013 didn’t even have GPS. I don’t leave home without a Rand McNally atlas.

Don’t be a stinker. Bring toilet paper. Yes, you might have to shit in the woods like those notorious bears people talk about. Truck stops have showers and cheap cologne or perfume is easy to find. “Hobo showers” are a good way to stay clean, washing your hair and pits in a truck stop, visitor center or fast food restaurant bathroom.

My gear was stolen in Amarillo, Texas when I went to sleep under a tree for an ­afternoon nap. The pack was too far from my sleeping spot and a car drove up and whisked it away. When I woke I cursed my stupidity and was forced to buy a red airline luggage bag at a local Target. I carried that bag in my arms from Texas to New Jersey. On my back was my laptop, which I used to blog about the carnivals and at Wifi hotspots along the way. So you don’t even need a backpack. Nevertheless, a good backpack is by far the best option because hitchhiking requires lots of walking between spots and to the edge of towns where the rides are the best.

My tent was stolen too by that Texas scoundrel so I reverted to my urban and wilderness camping skills. I looked for banks of trees and bushes away from walkers and cops. I must have been pretty good too because I often found large, flattened cardboard boxes where previous travelers had made their bed. When it was rainy or cold, I spent the night in truck stops or in diners like Denny’s with their $4 all-­you-­can-­eat pancake specials. I spent the time typing notes and stories from recent days. When that wasn’t available, I searched for dark areas with overhangs of stores or bridges. Longtime hitchhikers reduce the weight of their packs by carrying a tarp; it protects against the rain but not the bugs.

Don’t forget a marker or pen for your hitchhiking sign. A can opener and a spoon are handy for cheap eats. I still remember the hot Texas sun beating me like a stray dog one afternoon when I pulled out a can of mixed fruit in its juices. Nothing makes drink so good as thirst, or mixed fruit so good as hunger.

Still, many people pack for every circumstance and my packs were too heavy too. I carried a laptop and notebooks. An atlas, water, sleeping bag, change of clothes, poncho, cell phone and guile are the basics.

Most times, you don’t need dat. Just pack a golden thumb.

Anticipate then Participate

My first long hitchhike, similar to other early hitchhikes, came after an argument with someone close to me. I was so angry. I had to split. The best way to hitchhike is to plan and then improvise. Once, I started out for New Orleans and ended in Dallas, started for Paris and ended in Rome. Last summer, I hitched 1,100 miles and the last ride dropped me off on my door step. Hitchhiking will surprise you every time.

It’s still about walking to a good spot with a long sight line so drivers can see you. Dress so you don’t scare them. Smile like you’re a friendly chum not the Joker’s smile from Batman. A big cardboard sign should say the name of the next big city or the next junction.

Joke signs are highly effective. In Florida last summer, a transgender woman named April Summers picked me up and told me about having spent 15 years hitchhiking. She guessed she hitched more than a million miles (on the road, enjoy the story, most are as true as people can tell them). April’s favorite signs were, “Twilight Zone,” and “Normal.” When picked up and asked about her “Normal” sign, she’d say, “Do you know where normal is? Take me there.”

I saw a hitchhiker online with a sign, “Freshly Showered.” A traveler by the name of the Expert Vagabond uses, “Rabies Free (since June),” “Free Cookies,” and “I won’t kill you.”

Every hitchhiker is a bit neurotic about the way they appear beside the road. I change my stance once in a while so people see movement on the horizon. Some people move their sign a bit. I’ve seen sites suggesting bright clothes, no hats and no bizarre haircuts. That’s all bullshit to me, make eye contact and smile.

However, don’t be like me and go hitchhiking in a huff. Plan. Be what hitchhikers and hobos call a, “Summer Bunny.” Leave during good weather. Winter in Key West or play house and stay inside. Visit people you like. See places you’ve always wanted to see. Remember, hitchhiking is international and free. You can go anywhere.

The cops can be hassles or give you a ride to the next exit. You can’t walk across borders, you need a ride and border guards often make it harder on hitchhikers. And all hitchhikers know about “rocking,” which is a hobo term for kids throwing rocks. I’ve never seen rocks but I’ve had near misses with soda cans, fruit, trash and firecrackers flying out of speeding cars full of teenagers.

Lastly, your driver is the wild card. I’ve ridden with mentally unstable people and my dodge is always to listen politely and then tell them I have to go to the rest room at the next exit. Then I say I think I’ll stay a while. Another is the drunk or high driver. That car door opens up and a blast of Budweiser breath overwhelms you. Or the door opens up and pot smoke comes pouring out and surrounds you like a London fog. You have to choose. I got in every time and have never regretted it. Once I got in and the beer guzzling driver was a nuclear safety engineer. Another driver smoking pot from a deer antler talked all night about the counterculture scene. I took chances and I’m here to tell the tale.

For safety, I’ve read some people bring pepper spray and reflective gear for night hitchhiking. I never hitched at night unless at a truck stop. I brought a pocket knife with me in the 80’s but it takes too long to open, so in this decade I decided to “go naked,” without a weapon.

On that note, solo hitchhiking for women is also safe as far as I can tell. I’ve never heard of a hitchhiking woman being raped. Most women hitch with their men but I’ve seen solo female hitchhikers too. The adage on the road is that the fastest way to get a ride is to “bring your vagina.”

Alaska Bound
Best and Worst States
Rainbow Eric, right, Apocalypse Julie and the Electric Leprechaun saying goodbye to me at a McDonald’s in Butte, Montana. From Burlington, Vermont, they were sharing their expenses on their way to a Rainbow Gathering in Big Sky country. In the 1,451 miles from Chicago, we dumpster dove together, slept outside and counterculture kvetched.

I was setting up rides for a carnival in Jefferson Valley, New York on a Tuesday when I received a call from a Chicago carnival owner saying if I showed up by Friday I had a job. I’d also be in time for my 8 year ­old daughter’s birthday in Chicago. I quit that minute.

This violates a hitchhiker maxim to never hitch with a deadline, but I’ve yet to see any “hitchhiking cops”, so…

I was worried about real cops, this time rightly. The Taconic Parkway was my only option, it has the high volume of traffic hitchhikers seek but being a parkway it had no place for cars to pull over safely to pick me up. I hitched anyway.

Soon, a New York State trooper pulled up and she lit into me.

“Don’t you know hitchhiking is dangerous,” she said. “Don’t you know you could get killed. I ought to run you in.”

I could have told her I’ve been hitchhiking for three decades and thousands of miles that year but another hitchhiker rule is to be extra deferential to law enforcement. All hell can break loose. Freakonomics used their best computer hacks to calculate the risks of hitchhiking and found a .0000089 percent chance of you getting raped or killed while hitching.

As she checked out my license, she backed up traffic and a driver honked. She went back to yell at the driver, too. Another patrolman stopped to help, concerned about the 6’5″ inch vagabond. She told me to get in the back of her squad, behind the steel gate separating the officer from the passenger. She drove me to the next exit and yelled at me again.

“Stop looking out the window, I know you’re looking at another spot,” she said. “Hitchhiking is illegal in New York. If I catch you again I’m arresting you.”

I unloaded my airline luggage from the squad car, walked to the back of a local gas station, ripped a cardboard lip off a box and wrote “To I-­84.”

It was about 10 miles down the road.

Soon, a local cop came up and told me the same thing. I showed him my Hitchwiki map that claimed New York as a hitchhiker friendly state. He said he was young enough to remember the code number that outlaws hitchhiking. Then I said I would back up and hitch from the gas station private property. He said he was going to recommend the owner not allow me to loiter. He left and I walked to a side street and started hitchhiking again.

Soon, three squad cars pulled up and surrounded me, cherry lights spinning.

“What am I boys,” I said, “public enemy #1?”

I told them about Hitchwiki and said local side streets are under local ordinances so I’m okay. They said my lawyer skills were full of crap.

When I told them I couldn’t afford a train to New York or a bus to Chicago, I asked how far to the Pennsylvania border. They said 50 miles or more. I said I’ll walk. The rookie in the group drove me to the next city and I promptly put my sign on the back of my laptop backpack, picked up my luggage and started walking.

After several miles of walking, without my thumb out, just the sign on my back, a pick­up truck pulled up. A father, his son and the family dog were in the cab. To the son, I was a work of fiction, or history. He appeared more confused than the dog. Dad said I could hop back in the flatbed. They peeled away from the curb and we whorled down the road passing commuter after stunned commuter. The wind, the noise, the feeling isn’t matched by anything.

And I’ve been skydiving.

After six cops in two hours I was headed toward the America’s Rhine, the Hudson River. Here’s what I wrote for my blog.

“I wanted to scream, whoop and sing ‘Good morning America how are ya? Don’t you know me? I’m your native son.’ Light up the sky, kiss the girls, jig till I trip and laugh. It was swear­-at-­the-sky happiness.”

The cops of New York were inhospitable but not terribly abusive. I hitched 36 states in 2013 and another five last year. Long-­time hitchhikers I met in Arkansas, Bear and Ru, told me they never could get through New Jersey. The Hitchwiki map says it’s clearly outlawed in Delaware, Idaho, Nevada and Utah. I caught my best rides in the Western states and some of my craziest rides in Florida.

Road Booty

Money, meals and sex await the hitchhiker these days.

Many drivers will stop to buy themselves and you a meal. A Chinese cook in New Mexico pulled off for an all-­you-­can­eat Golden Coral dinner for me. Many will end their ride by offering you a $10 or a $20. Hitchhiker etiquette says you must take anything offered, needed or not.

I’ve had a trucker throw a one dollar bill out his window for me. People in cars filled with all their life’s possessions came up to me at gas stations and gave me as little as 50 cents.

A veteran of hitchhiking for the last eight months, Eli Steinberg, 20, of Rome, New York, said he hitchhikes with almost no money and relies on money from drivers and dumpster diving.

“I dumpster ­dived for most of my food on the road,” says Eli, claiming he’s hitched 10,000 miles.

“It is by far the easiest, cheapest method of getting a bite.”

Ways to make money are busking and odd jobs. Having no musical skills, I sought hostels to tell me where day labor work could be found. Nevertheless, Eli is right, you don’t need money to hitchhike. You need money to stay put.

When I was younger, I was hit on many times but everyone was respectful when I declined. During my ride in Florida, April Summers talked at length about her 15 years of hitchhiking sexploits.

On my trip through the Yukon Territory, a pretty, French-­speaking outpost nurse pulled over and offered me a meal at her home. I stayed the night. She gave me a lift to Destruction Bay in the morning, with a long kiss goodbye. Differently I still think of the Yukon Territory.

Before I exaggerate too much, this hetero didn’t experience much sex on the road. Just lots of fantasies. It may be different for women.

In the state where I tend to get the most exotic rides, Florida, I was picked up by a tree trimmer. All was going normally as he talked about his girlfriend, his kids, his love of tree trimming because he felt like an artist shaping trees. Then I noticed he was driving his shaking wreck at more than 80 mph and he mentioned he had a few beers after work. He looked over and blurted out, “How about if I give you a hand job?”

That moment has to rank among the top awkward moments in my life of changing topics.

Write Like the Wind

Jack Kerouac famously wrote a fictional hitchhiking account in, On the Road and so did John Steinbeck in, Grapes of Wrath. Real lives resonate deeper.

Bring a small notebook to carry in your back pocket. Write the best jokes. Use your smart phone to film their best story. Take pictures, you’ll forget the color of their eyes or their expressions.

I love asking people their best horror or ghost story. Mostly, I ask about their youth. Keep away from expressing your own religious or political beliefs. You don’t want to argue with the person giving you a free ride.

MacArthur Fellowship-­winning writer Colson Whitehead wrote a “How to Write” essay a couple years back with 11 rules, that didn’t include hitchhiking but should have.

Rule #9 ­Have adventures … Keep ahead of the curve. Get out and see the world. It’s not going to kill you to butch it up a tad. Book passage on a tramp steamer. Rustle up some dysentery; it’s worth it for the fever dreams alone. Lose a kidney in a knife fight. You’ll be glad you did.

You’re damn right hitchhiking increases the number of adventures in your life and yet you don’t have to write a book about it all. I recommend writing because it makes you aware of life. You pay attention closer if you are writing something. Who gives a damn if the writing sees the light of day, you’ll know. It will intensify your experience.

Best Time of Your Life

Elijah Wald’s book, “Riding with Strangers: A Hitchhiker’s Journey,” is full of great quotes and reminiscences of famous people who hitchhiked in their youth, from Ronald Reagan to Eminem.

Most of them neglected to mention the wind and rain, you’d think every hitchhiking day was a sunny day. Yet that is what they remember, the exceptional days on the open road.

If you want to go on a long trip, lose yourself. Find yourself. Remake yourself. Beat a path.

Hitch to Burning Man or the Grand Canyon. If time is short, hitchhike to a friend’s place on the coast and surprise her.

The prime directive is to travel and experience life, hitchhiking ups the ante fast. So get off your ass and go see the world. Conquer. Fail. Win. Lose. Live. The road is calling.