The Odyssey

What is a carnival, English?

Riding in the California Zephyr’s observation car from Chicago toward the Mississippi River, two Amish men in their late 20s or early 30s came up from behind my seat, craned over my shoulder and asked to use my cell phone. Startled, I agreed to also dial their number because they can’t directly use electricity.

They wore broad, wide black rimmed hats and all black suits. They were with a family group of about a dozen ranging from an infant to grandparents, on their way to the sale of a farm in Iowa. Levi and Ruben, the two who needed to call ahead to Iowa for a ride, asked me where I was going.

I explained my Eyes Like Carnivals idea and Levi had a question.

“What is a carnival?”

I said it is a show that travels from town to town, with rides, games, music and foods, like candy and deep fried ‘things.’

Traveling carnivals became more popular after the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which had portions devoted to rides and games of chance. Today’s carnivals don’t usually have freak shows and the dishonest games of chance are less frequent. But they are still traveling shows with midways, Ferris Wheels, carousels, games and sweet and deep-fried foods.

However, traveling shows like circuses and even merry-go-rounds go back centuries.

Coincidentally, about the time the Amish brothers asked me, “What is a carnival,” we passed through Galesburg, Il., the hometown of the inventor of George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., who built the first Ferris Wheel for that exposition. If they used the Internet I would have directed them to Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traveling_carnival.

The Ferris Wheel is pivotal to most carnivals and carries so many themes that run through carnivals. This despite the fact that the original Ferris Wheel was colossal, Ferris wanted it to rival the Eiffel Tower, in Paris.

This from Wikipedia:

“The Ferris Wheel had 36 cars, each fitted with 40 revolving chairs and able to accommodate up to 60 people, giving a total capacity of 2,160. When the fair opened, it carried some 38,000 passengers daily, taking 20 minutes to complete two revolutions, the first involving six stops to allow passengers to exit and enter and the second a nine-minute non-stop rotation, for which the ticket holder paid 50 cents. It carried 2.5 million passengers before it was finally demolished in 1906.”

These days the Ferris Wheel is often placed at the back of carnivals with the other larger rides, to draw people to the back. It’s an attraction and, as with carnivals, it’s about generating money. The Ferris Wheel began its long storied life with a lawsuit filed by Ferris, claiming he was robbed of the profits the wheel drew to the exposition.

Wandering dart, young heart

My interest in carnivals goes back to my childhood but also to a Chicago-Seattle bicycle ride I took after graduating from Marquette University. I rode west from Chicago with books and poems of adventurous writers swirling around in my head like songs.

Kerouac, Hemingway, Rimbaud, Doyle, Bryon, Melville, Basho, Remi, Stevenson and the wandering mystics of the east were hard wired in me. As if I knew I was one of them, if only by throwing myself out on the road in search of inspiration.

On Fourth of July weekend, 1981, I pulled my bicycle and packs into a carnival in Cody, Wyoming and asked for work. (I also rode a bicycle with packs into my current carnival, more than 30 years later, so you can see the impact that weekend had upon me.)

Heading west into Cody was perfect because the Grand Tetons are up the trail. Cody is named after William Fredrick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who had his own traveling show, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

I ran a crooked dart game. By crooked, I mean the darts were plastic and crooked from age and use.

Customers paid a couple bucks a throw to hit colored stars on a board. The stars looked large but the ‘rays’ were thin and almost nobody won the coveted prize mirrors, which included pictures of KISS, Elvis, Jack Daniels and pets.

A reader of Ulysses, I sometimes looked at the mirrored stage and thought of Buck Mulligan at the novel’s opening offering Stephen Dedalus the “cracked looking glass of a servant,” to view himself.

A rotund, mustachioed, middle-aged man with an Alfred Hitchcock stride walked up to my game. I goaded him into playing, saying it was a game of skill and surely an Englishman knows how to throw darts (I spent my junior year at University College Cork, Ireland, so I knew I was appealing to his national pride).

When he missed all three tries, he looked at his wife, and paid for another set. He failed again. This time he complained the darts were crooked. I was cheating him.

He really knew his darts.

“I am the pub dart champion of Burrr-mingham, England,” he said as he held up a ratty dart.

I squirmed and said he can see the kind of condition of the darts but lots of people win.

Then I turned around and threw a dart at the stars.

Just then the sun glared in my eyes from the wall of prize mirrors, my mirror stage.

I was throwing into a glare.

The day before I had met a young girl, about 16 years old. Her hair was natty, brunette and hanging over one eye. She wore faded jeans and a frilly pink blouse. She told me she ran away from home. She wanted to party, she said, as she stood on a hill above me, thumbs in her front pockets, looking bold and fearless.

I also met an American Indian, who said he was from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. My family had been sending money to the reservation since I was a kid, so I was familiar with its poverty, social activism and tragic history. He ran the dart game on the other side of mine. When I talked to him, I got the feeling he was guilty of something, maybe on the run too.

Both of them happened to be standing near and watching when I tossed the dart. They both said the dart took a turn mid-air before hitting the star dead center.

“That dart wandered,” the Indian laughed. He held his belly laughing.

I can still feel that rush. In a mirror’s flash, a wandering dart took a pivot, so too would my life.

Studs Terkel once said he was constantly astonished by the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people. Joyce wrote about God being, “a shout in the street.” Kerouac wrote about the road being a teacher.

I spun around that moment and realized I wanted to know the story of that sweet-sixteen runaway and the wandering Indian. I was desirous, for what I wasn’t certain. I wanted an inner sight to go behind the mirrored stage and see the secrets and lives these carnivals carry town to town – then disappear sometime in the night.

I was 21 years old and my head was filled with books and famous words.

Today is my 54th birthday.

Here I am.

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