I was miserable tired after spending the night in the Memphis Union Mission. A light April rain for hitchhikers is mucho bad mojo.
Yet I was surrounded by good mojo. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House were around the corner from my hitchhiking spot along Interstate 40. The Ronald McDonald House gives the sick kids a free room and St. Jude’s gives free treatment.
“No one has ever become poor by giving,” I kept thinking, the architecture around me was built by charity.
After a couple hours I thought of trying to look more needy. Then a young man in a grey Toyota Corolla pulled over and I ran down the highway shoulder with my packs dangling on my arm.
“Oh no, that’s too much to ask from God,” the driver said.
The driver told me that he wants to be an oil man working in the Middle East or an American police officer. His family is from Yemen and he’s the 10th son of a 10th son.
He admires me, he said, because I dropped everything and am hitchhiking and working hard in carnivals in pursuit of my dream.
“Sometimes you just have to go for it,” he said.
He is a serious man in his early twenties, Muslim, devout. I only mention his religion because he doesn’t mention God lightly.
He asked me what kind of people pick up hitchhikers these days and I essentially said ‘all kinds.’ On that hitchhike from California on my way to New Jersey, I’d already been picked up by an inventor, lawyer, two grandmothers, several unemployed men, a painter, a male nurse, a power station worker, hippies, a preacher, retirees and more.
“Do you know one type of person I haven’t been picked up by but I’m still waiting?” I said.
“A young, beautiful, blonde woman,” I said. “I’ve read about it happening (in Penthouse Forum) but I’ve never been picked up by a young, beautiful, woman.”
Then I acted angry.
Always serious, the driver looked over from his seat.
“Oh no, that’s too much to ask from God!”
Recently, someone posted my main photo art for Eyes Like Carnivals on Pinterest. So I decided to check out the site in general and hit ‘search’ for “hitchhiking.”
Pictures featured scantily clad, beautiful young women.
Fantasy hitchhikers, people you’d pick up in the April Memphis rain.
Ten months after getting that ride, being warned it is too much to ask of God, I realized I wasn’t the only one disappointed by the lack of highway hotties.
I’m not eye candy either but I got rides. On that rainy Memphis morning surrounded by monuments to good will, I got a lesson in charity.
Still, God, if you’re listening …
*The “giving” quote is from Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl.”
————————————————— My year working in traveling carnivals and hitchhiking between spots ends this month but I’ll continue to file weekly until I finish the backlogged stories. I’ve hitchhiked from the Pacific to the Atlantic to Lake Michigan to the Gulf of Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico. With 15,000 miles under my belt, I am the #1 hitchhiker in America for 2013-14.
The tall, successful-looking man next to me in the elevator was just making small talk when he asked why I carried so many books and notes with me.
I’m writing a book about traveling carnivals. I spent the year working and living in traveling carnivals and now it’s time to write a book. There was lots of hitchhiking involved too, I said.
“I used to work for the freak show every year at the Minnesota State Fair,” he said. “I used to pull the sword out of the sword swallower’s mouth.”
Writer Amy Tan says she wonders if the “universe” is sending her material for her books when she’s writing, because so much comes her way when writing that inspires her work (they are good novels).
It happens to me too but my subject is carnivals, carnies and the ephemeral locus of American communities. With a subject that broad, one is likely to run into people with connections to carnivals.
You never know what you’ll see in a freak show, or who those performers are in real life.
For my last day in my year in traveling carnivals, I asked King of the Sideshows Ward Hall if I could work in his freak show for a token amount and for just a day.
I saw the World of Wonders several times when I was working the billiards game for Adam West’s crew in at the Minnesota State Fair last summer.
The “World” was playing the Florida State Fair in Tampa and I wanted to get a toe into the freak show side of the industry. Hall agreed and I took tickets and was a gopher.
Twenty-two-inch tall Short E. Dangerously is the only classic “freak” in the show, called a “half man” because he was born without legs.
At the World of Wonders show in Florida, people ate fire, swallowed swords and performed magic, including a guillotine routine with a head thrown into the crowd. Illusions, Ward said, are most of the show these days.
Hall blames political correctness for the decline in “human oddities” wanting to perform in sideshows. Hall has worked in the sideshow business for 60 years and knows his freaks.
“I’ve worked with hundreds of human oddities,” he said. “Giants, midgets, alligator skin men, bearded ladies, the monkey girl, pinheads, midgets, dwarfs, the armless girls, the living half men, all worked for me in the past.”
Shorty started touring in sideshows just a couple years ago and now travels the world. He’s knocked out by the fame and travel. Before one performance, (performances run continuously almost all day), he looked back at fellow performer and beautiful assistant Sunshine and said, “I know, sometimes I can’t believe all this myself.”
It’s hard work as you’ll see in his interview.
I found his lack of neuroses compelling. He says he had a happy childhood. He loves music and women. He’s healthy. He makes money and travels the world. He’s a happy man.
Without a hint of self pity for the cards he was dealt, he proclaims himself a lucky half man and a rocker.
I’ve read experts who say otherwise, but I believe a man is happy if he thinks so. I also believe most of what we see, we should question.
You never know what you’ll see in a sideshow, on stage, behind the stage or in an elevator.
You never know the shape of a happy man.
Q & A with Short E. Dangerously
1 – Where did you grow up and what was it like?
“I was born a mile and a half from the Ohio- Michigan border. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio. But my mother’s side is completely from northern Michigan, I spent a lot of my life there with relatives. My childhood was fairly normal. My parents split up when I was 5. My mom raised me as a single mother.”
2 – Do you have medical problems that accompany your disability?
“I have no medical conditions related to my disability. I do have joint problems in my shoulders and arms. But I manage the pain thru over the counter medications and other herbal remedies.”
3 – How did you take your condition, were people cruel?
“I took my condition just fine and so did the people around me. If they didn’t then they didn’t need to be a part of my life.. Plain and simple. There were a few assholes along the way, but it was dealt with accordingly.”
4 – How did you decide to get into the entertainment business?
“My love of music is why I choose the entertainment business. I had a band in High School. I have always liked being on a stage. Things with the band didn’t work out. So while I was in college I knew a DJ and him and I talked a lot and realized that is what I wanted to do.”
5 – Being a DJ at a strip club? Were you a favorite of the dancers? Were there wild nights?
“I was a favorite of most of the dancers. The ones I wasn’t still respected me and didn’t give me any problems. There were plenty of wild nights! But I’m not going to go into details. I think you can figure it out.”
6 – How did make the transition to the carnival shows?
“I made the transition to the sideshow by a phone call form Tommy the manager of WOW. I was tired of DJing and was looking for something different to try. I was offered the chance to tour with them for the 2012 season. It changed my life and the rest as they say is history.”
7 – What is your act?
“The acts that I do are acrobatics, fire breathing, and I also throw knives.”
8 – Where in the world have you traveled with you act?
“I have been to New Zealand, Brazil, Venezuela, Germany, Spain, and Australia.”
9 – Do you feel like you are part of a bigger tradition, a time honored profession? What do you call yourself, “freak,” “carny,” showman, entertainer?
“I do feel like I am part of something. Its becoming a dying art and I only wish I discovered it sooner. I consider myself and entertainer first and foremost, but I’m also a showman. I just happen to be a freak.”
10 – How hard do you work?
“When I’m with WOW between 15-20 1/2 hour shows a day. Sometimes as many as 30. I know that I have done the bowling ball stunt at least 15-1800 times since I debuted it in Minnesota last year.”
11 – What makes you happy, in life?
“Being on the road good friends family. Being on Stage is an incredible rush.”
12 – What makes you happy when on the road?
“On the road is the performing, the fans, but most I love just going down the road to the next gig.”
13 – What’s the future for you. Wife and kids and grandkids? Buy a business and get off the road? Movies, books? More countries and more roads?
“Not so sure about wife, I will never get off the road. I would like to have my own show in the next 2-5 years or so. So yeah, more countries and more roads.”
14 – Are you a happy man?
“I am very happy right now with my life.”
15 – If you could do it all again, who would you be in the next life (Ward Hall told me he’d be a faith healer).
“If I had to pick I would be a rock star!”
16 – What kind of rock star. Any road stories? Any tricks gone wrong? Are you really Dangerously?
“Metal!,,, We were a cover band. Lots of Metallica covers. I was the front man. No nothing super funny on the road… No real problems. We are/were very close. Everyone pretty much got along. I have had knives bounce back at me before.. I was in LA filming a TV show and one bounced back and almost caught me in the chest… and the name is taken from an old wrestling promoter. His name is Paul Heyman but his ring name was Paul E. Dangerously. I took the name and made it Short E. so I could still keep Shorty in my professional name. My real name is Aaron.”
*Answers are in full and unedited.
This month marks the end of my year working and living in traveling carnivals around the USA. I lived on carnival wages so I also hitchhiked between jumps. I’ve traveled through 36 states, Canada and Mexico, for more than 20,000 miles. My 15,000 miles of hitchhiking makes me the #1 Hitchhiker in America. I worked carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. I worked rides, games and one freak show.
First photo is of co-owner of the World of Wonders Chris Christ along with the carnival barker and clown.
Second photo is of Short E. Dangerously, the half man, who also throws knives, eats fire and tells jokes.
Third photo is the crew backstage in the trailer, which is also their sleeping quarters.
The Tattoo Lady also swallows fire and helps with other acts.
This was my last carnival job in my year in carnivals. Thank you to Sideshow King Ward Hall for hiring me as a ticket taker and gopher for the day.
If they only knew what a freak I am on the inside, I’d have been a star.
A full story will come sometime soon, maybe next week.
Elizabeth, 9, and her dad Original Tommy Arnold at the Showtown USA restaurant/bar in Gibsonton, Fl. seated at the Liar’s Table. She’s literally learning about the business at the knee of her father.
“An unexciting truth may be eclipsed by a thrilling lie.” Aldous Huxley
Elizabeth is a precocious third-grader on her dad’s lap at the Liar’s Table at Showtown USA, Gibsonton, Fl.
“Original Tommy” Arnold is in his 80s and a living legend in the traveling carnival world. O.T. is a carnival storyteller.
“Elvis won more than we let most people win, he kept throwing the prizes to the crowd,” he said.
In 1957, Elvis scored a hit with “Jailhouse Rock” but hadn’t yet been drafted into the Army.
At a Memphis carnival, he stopped to throw softballs at Original Tommy’s milk bottles game.
If Elvis wasn’t yet the king, he was the crown prince of the midway.
“The girls went crazy,” said the veteran carnival owner. “He drew a big crowd.”
What’s interesting about Original Tommy’s story is he remembers few details other than the line that makes his Elvis story a classic carny story.
“He spent maybe $200 on my game and that was a lot of money in those days.”
He took Elvis for a $200 and drew a crowd to boot.
Elvis may have been the crown prince of the midway but Original Tommy got him to lay out two C-notes.
There’s some irony in their table name because they also talk about the old “flat joints,” games where suckers cannot win. Alibi stores are games carnies must make excuses, “you crossed the line,” to foil a winner.
I didn’t ask how he “gaffed” the game but you can be sure Original Tommy let Elvis win just enough to keep playing and keep throwing toys to the excited fans.
In Original Tommy’s story, crown prince Elvis was just a mark.
The Liar’s Table at Showtown bar/restaurant is the liveliest breakfast table. During this month’s Super Trade Show Extravaganza in Gibsonton, old pros sat around the table like a secret hall of fame.
The carnival world is a subculture and the stars of its realm are found in hidden places like the faded Showtown USA.
Showtown is the creation of Bill Browning who painted elaborate stories on the walls of the restaurant, at countless carnivals and at the International Independent Showmen’s Association headquarters in town.
He used to yearly repaint and reframe the story on Showtown’s front facade.
All his art tells stories and often brings nature to the indoors with boardwalk and carnival scenes.
The carnival business inspires many artists, possibly because there is so much painting required.
Browning’s paintings at the IISA headquarters building cover the walls and easily make him the most famous carnival artist.
However, Browning isn’t actively painting these days and many of his Showtown stories are fading on the walls.
A food critic might suggest even the menu is old school. This morning it is chipped beef over toast, two eggs, $5.99.
I hear Showtown is still a vibrant place but the cigarette-smoke walls tell stories of bygone golden eras.
The Liar’s Table is its living time warp.
Dash of Flash
Flash said to me once, “If a carny doesn’t have a nickname, he isn’t interesting.”
Nick the Prick. Luke the Puke. Even Flash’s nickname has a back story.
“That’s what this business is based on, everything the sucker sees out there is flash,” he said.
Flash is cash, is the phrase I heard as a jointee, a game worker.
One morning the ballys started flying and I started taping as guys from different sides of the table urged the marks to buy.
The Mayor of the Liar’s Table is Freddy Vonderheim, 76, former circus and carnival owner (a special breed he calls showman transvestites).
Flash and the Mayor are retired from the business, but they can still bark them out.
When the Mayor pipes up, you know thousands have heard it on thousands of midways.
“I’m Donniker Dan (donniker is a carny toilet),
the candy man,
with circus straaawbery candy,
all you kids who want candy,
please hold up your hand!!!”
Flash came back with his own, ending in a carnival limerick, more than a bally.
“They were brewing up coffee seconds and thirds,
Those happy go lucky carnival birds.”
Born under a ride
Original Tommy bounced Elizabeth on his knee and told me how she wants to be an artist someday too.
Maybe face painting, he said.
Elizabeth is in third grade, just like Grace so I show her my daughter’s picture.
She loves hugging and playing games with the old men and a few younger ones around the table. Some get big hugs around the necks.
“I like it,” she says of her life in carnivals. “I get to go on all the rides for free.”
During the season she lives with Original Tommy and plays with other kids her age, also traveling with the carnival.
Asked about the highlights of his carnival life, Tommy says she’s the highlight of his life.
She loves teasing her old single father.
“My dad burns eggs, burns muffins, he burns everything you want to eat except cake and cereal,” she said.
Later that evening I was editing tape in a room near the main bar at the IISA headquarters.
My favorite bartender came over, Anna May, she’s in her 50s or 60s. She’s proud she raised her kids in carnivals without ever being homeless.
They were raised in the trailer during the season and she’s proud of the job she did, while running games, rides and working the ticket booth.
Then she noticed a picture of Original Tommy and Elizabeth on my computer.
I thought she might say something about their age difference but she had something to say about her age difference.
“That’s my granddaughter and Tommy’s my son-in-law,” she said. “A lot of people in this business are related.”
Kids born in the carnival business are said to be “born under a ride.”
Elizabeth comes from a long line of carnival people and she wants to be an artist, maybe a carnival artist.
“Elizabeth the artist” would make people here at Showtown USA very proud and that’s what passes for the thrilling truth at the Liar’s Table.
————————————————– My year working and living in traveling carnivals ends this week. My last carnival job was at a freak show owned by King of the Sideshows Ward Hall. I have numerous stories from the last two weeks and unreported stories during the year. So there’ll be more stories to come on hitchhiking and working American carnivals from Alaska to Florida, from California to New York.
Like any other subculture, you have to know where to find the legends. In the carnival business, they gather mornings at Showtown in Gibsonton, Florida.
This is during the “Super Trade Show Extravaganza” in Gibsonton, Florida. It’s called Showtown USA because so many carnival workers still come here for winters quarters, to work and to retire.
“If life isn’t seeking for the grail it may be a damned amusing game.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
I’m currently homeless and had to edit this video in a packed carny bar, so please forgive the flaws.
This is my video of this week at the national carny gathering in Carnytown USA, narrated by the World’s Most Famous Carny and King of the Sideshows Ward Hall. The eighty-four-year-old talks about the freaks and oddities he employed and their search for meaning in their lives.
Hall says they often turn to works of charity and to religion, thus the presence of “carny priests” and “carny preachers.”
The video shows how homes, rides, games, trucks all share the same yards in Gibsonton, Fla.. The “Super” Trade Show “Extravaganza” is appropriately overhyped. The headline for this article is also written in that click fishing style.
This is nearly the end of my year in carnivals for EyesLikeCarnivals.com. Hall says he’ll hire me tomorrow for his World of Wonders freak show at the Florida State Fair, Tampa, Fla. I think I’ll be paid in snacks but I’ll be adding another state fair to my year’s total and a freak show.
I now will have worked in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minneapolis, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. I will have worked five state fairs with nine carnival companies.
I am the #1 hitchhiker in America in 2014, with nearly 15,000 miles and 26 states and Canada under my belt. In total, I traveled well in excess of 20,000 miles through 36 states.
I wrote www.EyesLikeCarnivals.com all the way. I wrote almost weekly for The Huffington Post’s blog section.
The Chicago Tribune Magazine wrote a full-page essay on me. Northwestern Magazine and the Northwestern University main Web site carried an essay by me on the year. Marquette University’ magazine has contracted for an upcoming 2,000 word essay.
Now the hard work begins, writing and publishing. I’m thinking of going to New York next month to visit with publishers.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that in the real dark soul of man it is always 3 a.m. It is also closing time at the carny bar, night folks!