Carnival the Chicago Way: Welcome to “The 30”

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Who you lookin’ at? A herd of 40 Black Angus cows mix with the carnival quarters and rusted-out rides along US. Route 30 near Chicago Heights, Il.


Video of a carny saying “Hey, I just woke up” and shooing away cows in the carny quarters in The 30.

“What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a Swiss farm, and live entirely surrounded by cows – and china.”
Charles Dickens

I spent my first night in a filthy carnival van, scratching and flicking off bugs when I was woken by the feeling that eyes were watching me.

I looked up from the seat and saw a cow’s big dumb face looking at me, its face practically pressed against the window.

If he had said “Good moo-ning” it would have been perfect.

Crawling out of the van, I walked around the cow and saw a herd milling about between the carny bunkhouses, cars and rusted-out carnival rides.

We arrived in the far-south suburb of Chicago Heights after working a show, so I knew we were parked in a field. I knew the owners had cows. I didn’t know we lived in a field with 40 Black Angus cows.

Then, walking out of nowhere came a carny on his way to the donniker. His name, of course, is “Ham Bone.”

Apparently, my awe of the cows and the widespread decrepitude gave Ham Bone a good laugh at the new guy.

“Welcome to The 30,” he said. “Wait till it rains, then it’ll be “Welcome to The Dirty 30.”

He was referring to US Route 30, the coast-to-coast highway called the Lincoln Highway in these parts. The Lincoln Highway was the first bi-coastal highway in the country. After US Route 66, this is the most fabled road I have traveled. One morning a carny pointed at the rising sun and said, “My house is right on this highway out that way, in Ohio.”

The ‘winter quarters’ of Modern Midways is along Route 30, on the edge of Chicago Heights, a far southern Chicago suburb.

Ham Bone was right, it rained that day as it did much of last month. Each morning and evening, I was greeted by ankle-high, sometimes shin-high recipe of mud and cow manure.

One morning I woke myself up with the greeting, “Mud and cow shit everywhere, honey, what’s for breakfast?”

Anthropomorphizing cows

I spent the first week in the van, suffering innumerable bites. My skin felt like a scratchy, infested overcoat.

When a few carnies quit, I was told there were rooms in the bunkhouses but no rooms had doors that closed or windows with actual windows in the frames. Any sort of mosquito, bug or cow could come in the front door or window.

Still, anywhere was a relief from that van, which I’d compare to an old, trashed Petri dish on wheels.

Coming out of the rancid showers you were likely to be more dirty than going in. At one trailer shower, the door was off the hinges and on the back read, “The girls don’t like seeing your hairy ass so close the door.”

In my weeks there, the showers often didn’t work or were cold. That along with the lack of a nearby laundromat made the human stench in the van rides back and forth from the shows “a kind of hell on earth,” one carny from Florida remarked.

The donnikers were more than 100 yards away through an obstacle course of mud and wood planks. In a hurry, sometimes, your frantic run for the toilet was blocked by a bull.

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.”

The cows were also a great source of humor for us all as they began showing up in stories about cows operating rides while we sleep, or sneaking into bed with us to keep warm.

The cows could have superpowers, they could even outsmart us. Cows had attitudes and were guilty of wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony.

During my final tear down in Chicago last month, Peanut told me that I was going to miss my family, the carnival. Even the cows, he said.

He was right for linking the family with the cows.

I loved The 30, I just didn’t know it when I was shin-high in bullshit.

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