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?”
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“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.
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.
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.
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