Porcelain toilet on road to John Muir’s hometown in Martinez, Ca.
A classic Black barbeque joint in Daly City remembers carnies’ yearly visits.
Petroleum plants are the main skyline of John Muir’s former hometown.
“Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.”
― Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
Our bunkhouse rooms are six-feet-five by five-feet and beds are on the floor or elevated, depending on the bed on the opposite side of the trailer.
In my first bunkhouse, (which was infested with bed bugs), I laid on my floor bed and looked at the plywood ceiling three feet above me.
“Cindy” (hearts) “Knock Out.” So many lonely hearts, graffiti tags and crude porn drawings.
That night too, someone on the other side of the trailer had a ballad come on the radio and a young woman sang gently to the words as I fell asleep.
Other nights I’ve listened to Mexican accordion music, thumping rap, drunken parties and God help me if someone is having sex. The whole trailer sways like a hammock.
I’ve seen carnies who suspect someone is having sex run up to their door, knock loudly and run away laughing.
The unit’s mechanic, San Jose, and almost all the truck drivers sleep in humming trucks. San Jose says his heater sometimes gets too hot, a detail that stings bunkhouse carnies without any overnight heat.
Some carnies live in their R.V.s or cars. “Back in the day,” it wasn’t unusual to sleep under or inside a ride. One new hire heard about that tradition and slept in the Mardi Gras funhouse in Bay Point, in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The recreational vehicles differ widely. The part-owner/manager’s Residential Suites trailer is custom made by Space Craft Manufacturing in Concordia, Missouri and needs to be hauled by a semi-truck.
At the other end of the spectrum is one carny’s ancient two-tone brown camper – a rusting tin heap on wobbly wheels.
Bunkhouse rooms range from tricked-out and immaculate to packed with trash messes. The games supervisor/truck driver, Dot, did all his own carpentry and has a refrigerator, TV, stereo and a custom made bed.
Some wires weave out of the trailers and R.Vs to TV satellite dishes.
As I sneak peeks passing by, I see closet organizers, clean sheets, shoes lined up in rows. Mexican women often can be seen with buckets of soapy water for cleaning the floors and I occasionally hear vacuums.
Rabbit and his wife collect plastic and cans, their room is jammed with trash bags which spill outside their door. Yesterday, Rabbit took the discarded and stained foam from the backs of the gravitron ride’s wall seats and laid it on his bunk bed for extra cushion.
Another carny used the gravitron seat foam for soft flooring.
Bunkhouse trailer doors have cheap locks on the latches and often have bumper stickers slogans. In ancient cultures, signs on the doors had real significance. My neighbor’s door resonates with many of us today.
“This definitely wasn’t my third wish”
Uprooted homes and families
Signs of domestic life include pets, even a python. There are no young children on this leg of my coast-to-coast journey but many carnies have told me they were raised on the road, missing a lot of school.
It isn’t uncommon for multiple family members to be traveling together. One of my unit’s supervisors, Robert E., has his wife and four grown children working in the carnival.
Indeed, many smaller carnivals across the country are family affairs, passed down from generation to generation. My current carnival, Butler Amusements, was started by Bud Butler, expanded by his son Butch Butler and now Butch’s five children are part-owners (but also like many carnivals, the parent company has a web of investors and subcontractors).
A recent jump to Martinez, Ca. got me thinking about what defines a home.
Environmentalist and co-founder of the Sierra Club John Muir married into a landed family and presided over a successful farm there.
Now, most people see Martinez from Route 4 (John Muir Parkway) and see the Shell petroleum plant pumping balloons of smoke into the sky.
Walking from the carnival site into town, I saw an intact porcelain toilet by the side of the road.
Most of Martinez is a quaint town with lots of boutique stores and a county seat but it is nothing like the home Muir lived in.
Even when Muir lived in Martinez he was fond of saying his “real home” was the Sierra Nevadas.
The Mexican carnies leave home for nine months and some bring their spouses. In my unit, they are surrounded by brother-in-laws, neighbors and kids they grew up with playing soccer in Tlapacoyan.
They cook beans, white hominy, corn and a variety of meats from the local Mexican grocery. Tilapia-based soups remind them of the fish-based diets in their homes in the state of Veracruz, along the Gulf of Mexico.
Some of the American carnies have no home but their $50-a-week bunkhouse.
Old carnies are fond of talking about their carnivals being “like family.”
Nevertheless, there is no mailman who knows your name or neighborhood barber or flirty waitress at the diner who calls you “sweetie.”
Many carnies only have post office box addresses. A Mexican woman draped a black, plastic trash bag over my shoulders as a cover to give me a $5 haircut.
And the favorite watering hole or restaurant changes at each jump.
A shout out from the back
Lewis is a tall, thin, Black carnival veteran of 27 years, with strong forearms and a ready mix-up toothy grin. He remembers every jump, from the weather to the screw-ups to his favorite meals.
He worked in a bicycle shop before becoming a carny, a fact one is reminded of when he wears his shiny, clean bicycle chain around his neck and occasionally gets on his bicycle and rides backwards around the carny quarters.
He has his own recreational vehicle, a patch work of rusted parts. His girlfriend Sara is White, wears dark sunglasses and smokes from the side of her mouth when she is setting up a ride.
They have a mixed poodle/Chihuahua but Sara makes sure you know she has a pit bull, an extensive gun and knife collection at home in Oklahoma.
He’s in his 40s, she in her mid-twenties, they are madly in-lust and often joke about it. While setting up in the St. Timothy Church parking lot in San Mateo, the two disappeared below the possum belly tarp of the Ring of Fire ride.
When the Mexicans jeered them for having sex under the tarp, they laughed and swore back at them. But they didn’t deny.
They are a carny couple. She ran away from home at 15, he’s been on the road for longer than she’s been alive.
This is their home, which comes with passing neighbors.
In Daly City, just off I-280, there’s a neighborhood around the closed Serra Bowl that is a kind of throwback.
Town & Country Billiards is in a triangle building with high windows and ceilings, 14 tables, pictures of classic billiard movies on the walls and no booze. Cheap Chinese restaurants dot the streets. Discount barber shops, salons and appliance shops line up tightly side by side.
There also sits The House of Catfish N’ Ribs, with a logo of a catfish and a pink pig disco dancing. It has wood chips for a front door stop, a wood-burning stove, pictures of Bessie Smith, Jack Johnson and Joe Louis on the wall.
It’s renown for its barbeque sauce, fish, cornbread muffins and pies.
During a break from running the carousel, I stepped in one day for the $5 Lunch Special – BBQ chicken, white bread in a plastic bag, homemade potato salad and a drink.
When the tall Black cook sidled up to the counter, next to the worn black bible, I told him the carnies all rave about his barbeque.
The cook was stone-faced.
“You must know Lewis,” a woman shouted from the back of the kitchen. “He comes here every year. Tell him we say hi.”
Note: All names are carny names or aliases.