An Army veteran, Wayne was hired to set up rides but took time to photo his dream house, the Mardi Gras house, at the Okefenokee Fair, in Waycross, Ga.
“When the rich, go out and work,
When the rich, go out and work.”
“When the Saints Go Marching In”
Traditional Mardi Gras lyric
Wayne’s dream home appeared as the morning fog lifted at the Okefenokee Fair.
The Iraq/Afghanistan veteran stood grinning and taking pictures of the Mardi Gras house.
“Wouldn’t you love to live in a home like that,” he said.
When he mentioned that preposterous idea, I got out my camera and took pictures of him taking pictures.
Still, he defended his love of the Mardi Gras house and got me thinking of all the places I slept this year in traveling carnivals.
The face of the Mardi Gras house is filled with colorful confetti and crazed partiers at a New Orleans-style bacchanalia.
On the walls are delirious, overstimulated buxom women and laughing musicians beckoning people inside for wild times.
A local hire for set-up, Wayne stopped setting up other rides so he could take picture after picture of his dream castle.
Yet the Mardi Gras was a real-life home to two carnies, who lived in the storage rooms in the back.
While a Mardi Gras house might look bizarre in a normal neighborhood, in this neighborhood the Mardi Gras house fit.
The traveling Mardi Gras ride is a mirror maze on the first floor, with fun-house mirrors on the second floor and an outside swirling exit slide.
It struck me, what greater way to stay reminded of life’s fortunes and illusions than waking each day in a house of mirrors, mazes, stairs and slides.
“Wouldn’t it be great to have people over in a home like that?” Wayne said.
It reminded me that author Tom Wolfe says many of his characters are motivated by the question – what do people think of me?
Wayne thought people would think it was fun. Wouldn’t he always be happy in his picture home.
I wondered if he thought a happy looking home would internalize the party, the way a kid can feel happier if asked to put on a happy face.
Wayne’s Mardi Gras dream home didn’t seem so ridiculous any more.
I wanted to visit, with a happy face for the ‘delirious, overstimulated buxom women.’
When the saints go marching
After the fair left town, one of the two carnies living in the Mardi Gras went to live the off-season in Waycross, Ga.
He found a girl, her family trailer needed fixing. He could be her fix-it man until the season starts again.
The Mardi Gras house was shipped to Lima, Peru, for a winter engagement.
“Fall asleep in there and you might wake up in Peru,” the former resident joked.
Okefenokee was the last carnival of the year for these carnies and they were scattering to homes across the country.
Some were returning to their families. Some would be homeless soon. Some might be headed for jail.
I knew one carny who jumped bail on a drug charge and was returning to serve time during the off-season. I’ve heard stories of carnies who get arrested for the “three hots and a cot.”
Many Mexican carnies headed home to the Mexican state of Veracruz and the carnival feeder town that I visited in October, Tlapacoyan.
In line for the final day of pay in Okefenokee, I heard a woman laughing that she didn’t know where she would be the next day.
“I had all year to plan, crazy right?” she said squinting, a cigarette hanging from her lips.
“Coming back next season?” someone asked.
Half that line could have answered in one loud Greek chorus.
“Don’t know, no plans.”
Oh, I want to be in that number
I had all year to plan too but I still had no place to sleep.
In Okefenokee, I slept in an outdoor barn and, later, in a semi-truck’s cab.
I slept in a van in a Chicago Heights cow field for a week before getting a bunkhouse room with a missing door and window.
In Northern California, I slept in bunkhouses with bed bugs and fought off the creatures for the better part of two months.
During my hitchhiking between carnival shows, I stayed in homeless shelters in Anchorage, Memphis and St. Paul.
I need deposit money and a job for an apartment. Jobs don’t like references from carnivals.
How am I going to find a home after this, I whined to Tyrone, who worked the Mardi Gras house with me during the fair.
Then on that November morn, Tyrone won the award for the kindest and scariest words of my year in traveling carnivals.
“Come back next year,” he said. “There’s a guy in his 80s that works here. You’ll never have to find an apartment. You can be with us.”
You can be with us, he meant, for the rest of your life.
On this New Year’s Day, I can finally reply, maybe when the saints go marching in.
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I’ve spent the year with eight traveling carnival troops, hitchhiking between jumps across America. I’ve traveled 36 states, 20,000 miles crisscrossing the US, Canada and Mexico. My year ends in February.