Miss Trudy holds her granddaughter at a carnival crew party/birthday party at Cosmic Bowl in St. Paul, Mn. Her son and carnival unit owner Adam West is on the far left.
“A merry life and a short one shall be my motto.”
Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts
This morning at the Super 8 continental breakfast, Roger came in with a stripper from last night’s “titty bar.”
I was eating Raisin Bran and reading an online New York Times story on Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat Pray Love,” when he and Candace sat down with me and talked about a wild night.
Roger was tossed from the bar for asking strippers to come on the road with us. Yet here he was with a stripper from that bar, who said she loved the movie, “Eat Pray Love” adding lots of people say she looks like Julia Roberts.
“I don’t have her big lips, do I?” she said with an ear-to-ear smile.
She does, if Julia Roberts had greenish tattoo crosses on her fingers and tattoo flowers on her chest, and was still drunk from the night before.
Roger later regaled the carnival crew about convincing Candace to get into bed with his carny roommate to wake him up with a fake story of a menage a trois last night involving him.
Breakfast talk then turned to the drunken brawl last night in my room, which resulted in a broken lamp and a flying TV set.
The Super 8 is filled with carnies working at the Oklahoma State Fair and there are many stories like these told by the legion of the hungover this Friday morning.
I’ve changed sides in the carnival world, I’ve gone from “ride jockey” running rides to “jointee,” working games.
Jointees like Roger, a tall thin army veteran of Somalia and Kuwait with a less than honorable discharge, strike me as the closest thing modern American men get to buccaneers.
He’s got closely clipped hair, thin rectangular glasses making him look a bit like Buddy Holly but his prison record and life tell the story of man constantly in and out of trouble while in pursuit of money and women.
At 54 years old, I’m about the age that the Welsh pirate Captain Henry Morgan was when he died. Captain Morgan and the pirates of the Spanish Main captured a lot of loot, women and imaginations.
Minus the murder and the Jolly Roger flag, jointees are a subculture of mostly men in and out of trouble in pursuit of money and women, mixed with copious servings of drugs and booze.
All these pursuits they again and again mistake for happiness long after Captain Morgan’s crew sailed off to toward mayhem on a flagship named “Satisfaction.”
Batman’s two crew parties
Carnival unit owner Adam West’s six-month-old daughter was passed carny to carny around the table at On The Border until she made it back to her mother’s lap.
It was the free crew dinner before the opening of the Oklahoma State Fair in Oklahoma City. About a dozen carnies feasted on beer, margaritas and fajitas.
Some of the carnies held the baby in front of them at arms length like she was going to shit on them.
Others mustered their rusty fathering skills and bounced her like she was in a dryer.
“It’s like that line from Armageddon, ‘I was raised around roughnecks, what did you expect,’” said West, paraphrasing the biggest grossing film of 1998.
This is my second jump with West’s crew. In Oklahoma we have nine joints. One of the features of the “Adam West” unit are the black Batman logos, in a nod to the actor who played Batman in the TV series.
The Oklahoma crew party reminded me of another crew party at Cosmic Bowl before the opening of the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul.
“Roughneck” carnies stood around West’s other blonde daughter and sang happy birthday for her sixth birthday party, an event usually filled with squealing first-grade girls.
The carnies cheered when she threw gift wrapping in the air and her dad pushed a dab of cake on her nose.
They towered over her with cigarettes behind their ears. Chango stood with a pitcher of beer in his right hand and a double shot in the left hand. Slamming shots with one hand, he’d hoist the pitcher to his wide-open gullet with the other to the sound of “glug, glug, glug.”
Why doesn’t he just sing “Yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum.”
It might have brought back flashbacks for Adam’s mother, who raised him in carnivals from infancy. Miss Trudy was there laughing with the crew.
I told West and Miss Trudy (who was there to help run the booths) it reminded me of Shirley Temple in “Little Miss Marker.”
In that 1938 film, Shirley Temple’s father uses her as his marker in a card game and loses. She spends the movie growing up with the gangsters and gamblers who “won” her.
It’s a departure for Temple because she swears and steals salt shakers, albeit adorably swearing and stealing.
In real life, Shirley Temple grew up in show business, which traveling carnivals consider themselves to be. She always said she loved her childhood in show business.
Adam is just 28 years old. He’s going through a divorce. He’s gaining weight and loves to drink, much like Captain Morgan did.
Still, he’s owner of this carnival unit, which is large and has reputation for earning money.
If he is a happy man, he’s likely to think of his childhood as happy too.
At both crew parties, I wondered if West worries about his daughters growing up with “roughnecks” or if he sees them as lucky.
“Welcome to growing up in a carnival,” West said, as if to his daughter but out of ear-shot for her. “I grew up this way, now my best friends are carnies.”
Life in pursuit
Our crew know all the carny tricks.
They know how to “juice a game,” spring the baskets, bend the darts. They know how to confuse the mark with fast talk and faster math, called “tipping up” a booth.
At parties they talk about towns they’ve played like Morgan’s men might have talked about Jamaica, Panama City or more sacked cities drained of their loot.
On the ride down from St. Paul to Oklahoma City Roger told me, “We don’t leave a dollar on the midway.”
When I interviewed for a job at the Golden Wheel in Alaska, I mentioned to the owner I ran a dart game when I was 22 years old in South Dakota.
“Don’t tell that to my husband, he won’t hire you,” she said. “We don’t want anything agents learned in the lower 48 to come back here.”
This crew is the crew type she feared but West runs honest games (just overpriced like all carnival games).
Still, as a crew, they’ve worked hundreds of carnivals, maybe in thousands of towns.
Their machismo is outsized. Fighting is fun. Hookers are friends (sometimes employees) and so are strippers. Drugs, hootch, cigarettes and huge deep fried meals are their fare.
Most of the time I talk to them they talk about how much money they can make by being a “F*cking Power Agent.” How different are they from the Caribbean “roughneck” sailors desirous of drinking from the gold cup.
They are part of a larger fleet of buccaneers going from carnival to carnival across America partying like there is no tomorrow.
Living like today is their last, in pursuit of satisfaction.
This is my eighth month of working in traveling carnivals, hitchhiking about 12,000 miles between jumps. I’ve worked in and hitchhiked between California, New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota and Oklahoma.