Monthly Archives: September 2015

THIS IS THE VERY PICTURE OF HUSTLE

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.

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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 https://www.facebook.com/eyeslikecarnivals
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.”

Judkins
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.

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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 www.EyesLikeCarnivals.com 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 comerfordmichael@gmail.com