Monthly Archives: March 2018

Child Specter seen Nightly at Traveling Carnival


The view from my carousel in Gage Park, Chicago.

“I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.”
Sigmund Freud

A single child specter follows me in carnivals amid unruly mobs of children.

Each show night I go to work my ride, I see kid legions plus one specter. She stands out on the midway as if in a spotlight and all the other kids are running around in dark stage light.

My daughter turned eight a few days ago. I came hitchhiking back from New York to Chicago to see her after my former mother-in-law e-mailed that my daughter was missing me deeply.

I’m following traveling carnivals from coast to coast for a year, writing essays about America from the road.

I’d say this is a personal haunting, but I think it is another common experience shared by carnival workers with children of their own.

There is a running, bouncing dynamic in a child’s happiness, which takes on an even higher pitch with mobs of children. Its an incalculable, elusive zeitgeist that darts between people in the moments of shared happiness.

It’s inexplicable but something so deeply human. Blind people, having never seen a smile, smile. It’s a contagion that carnival workers all say they feel.

Yet many carnival workers grew up in unhappy families and as adults don’t see their own enough.

They grew up orphans, foster kids, juvenile delinquents or victims of abusive parents.

Seeing happy children every night must be an elixir at times for those once unhappy kids.

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.

My parents are carnies

Carnival workers whip out their cell phones to show you a picture of their child. Or they’ll tell you they often call or text their kids from the road.

Others bring their kids along with them in the carnival. At Butler Amusements in California, Robert E. had two daughters and two sons in different units. At the Chicago carnival I’m at now, several children of the owners say they want to be in the business and travel jump to jump.

Some children of carnival workers are raised on the road, missing key grade school and high school years. As a result, I met several who cannot read, including a carnival supervisor.

Last night, I met a 36-year-old Alabama carnival worker who proudly told me he was texting his three-year-old grandson.

A 40-year-old Chicago carny told me he has seven grandchildren. He became a dad at 12 years old and his daughter a mom at 12 years old.

In California, Mexican migrant carnival workers typically said they were working in America in order to send money home to their wives and children.

One of the older Mexicans at the Butler Amusements, Joshua, was perhaps the most shining example of this child empathy.

When a mother of three could not afford all-ride passes for her kids and began leading them away crying, Joshua left his ride, opened his wallet and paid the $75 for wristbands. That’s almost two days wages.

He never mentioned the gesture to me, I heard it from the ticket woman who said it brought tears to her eyes.

The Englewood neighborhood in Chicago is known as one of the toughest and some of the street kids are true hustlers.

One child, I guessed to be under 10 years old, actually summoned fake tears to try to get a free “Dumbo” ride from me. For fear of being fired, I said no. Even though I knew it was a con, I felt like a crumb.

Later I saw the kid running around the carnival going on rides, his tears worked with the real carnies.

Still, carnival workers aren’t just lonely parents longing to be with their kids.

Numerous workers I’ve met have been working off-the-books at carnivals in order to avoid child payments. They declare themselves homeless, without any income, to avoid detection by authorities.

Some just disappear off the grid.

A Pennsylvania carny I talked to this week said his girlfriend in Florida is pregnant and he can’t wait to get his fiancee pregnant because pregnant girls are sexy. He seemed to have no wish for fatherhood other than that pregnancy period.

Cell phone call from a tree

Grace in her cell phone tree where she wonders if it is hard to be a dolphin trainer.

Before I left New York I was on a nightly cell phone call with my daughter, who loves to play in the dogwood tree outside her apartment.

I asked her what she thinks about when she climbs up into the tree. I used to climb trees and dream all afternoon, I told her.

Her school district emphasizes writing and diary keeping. She recently bought a diary so I told her she should write about what she thinks about when she’s in the tree.

Silly thoughts. Funny thoughts. Pretending what she might be when she grows up. Or just looking out over at the roofs and over the roads.

She came up with the idea of calling me from the tree, I worried she might fall but she assured me “I’m an expert.”

Then came the call.

What are you thinking about, I asked.

Long pause.

“I’m thinking about what I’m thinking about,” she laughed.

It’s not so silly, I said, writers are always watching themselves think. That’s what you are doing, I said.

“I’m thinking about what it would be like to be a dolphin trainer. Would the training be hard?”

Somehow, I’m on the other end of the phone and yet on the ground looking up into the tree at my sparkling, darling girl.

I finally saw her last week after an all-night tear-down of my Chicago carnival. I imagined that I’d show up at her birthday celebration a dirty, smelly mess after hitchhiking 800 miles.

But the carnival tear-down supplied my apparition as a muddy, archetypal absentee father returning from the road.

I gave her presents bought at the carnival, a blow-up pink dolphin for the beach and a plastic necklace with a dolphin that changes colors. She named the necklace dolphin “Colorful.”

My parents said she got better presents but when she got home she raved about her carnival dolphins. Dad’s hat was so dirty. He said I’ve grown.

I already knew it but the haunting goes both ways, another carnival specter follows her.

Carnival Quarters, Pastures to Parks


Playing dominos in the carny quarters on the San Mateo County Fairgrounds in California, these carnies are “cutting up jackpots,” swapping stories and laughing. When I saw Stephen, who is holding his standing girlfriend, at the Minnesota State Fair, his girlfriend asked me if I remembered her and then she popped out her glass eye and said, “Remember me now?”

CHECK OUT THE VIDEO — SOUNDTRACK “La Vie en rose” by Edit Piaf

“Life near the bone is the sweetest.”
Henry David Thoreau

In the ten states, in ten traveling carnivals, 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 that year in carnivals from Route 66 to the Alaska Highway.

One morning, a carny on The 30 pointed at the rising sun as if he was pointing to China.

“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. She was hungry and curious like me, I thought.

As bad as my conditions were, others had it worse. One young 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 Chicago traveling carnival troop had no H2-B visa workers, migrants working from Mexico, South Africa, Jamaica or other countries.

Eventually, I met James Judkins, the biggest migration agent for Mexicans in the country. I asked him why he didn’t send people to Chicago traveling carnival, 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 Chicago 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 at the time, 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 or the open tangle of wires.

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 freezing 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. Around midnight a freight train blew its horn along the Oakland tracks. No other word for it than soulful.

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.

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.


I stole into the Mexican “reefers” to get this photo. Fifteen men live in these bunks, freezing in winter and fall, hot as hell in summers. Showers were fed by garden hoses.

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.

The living spaces were as good as their people, living close and close to the bone, where life can sometimes be the sweetest.

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I spent a 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
www.comerfordmichael@gmail.com