“Tomorrow is an old deceiver, and his cheat never grows stale.”
Patrick White is dead – where is his family.
We were his carnival family but who loved him off carnival roads.
Patrick, 29, collapsed at 4 a.m. last Monday after a long day at the State Fair of Texas working the ‘break-a-plate’ joint, where marks, mooches, aka customers throw balls to break plates.
Patrick and most of the crew left for a carnival south of Houston on Monday night.
“Patrick White is dead,” were the first stunning words I heard on the Dallas fairgrounds as we arrived the next morning.
He died seated on the side of a bed in a cheap motel in a town he didn’t want to play.
Nobody knew how to get hold of his family in Maryland or Brooklyn or anywhere.
That morning I wrote a post about how he seemed so young, dead and alone, a broken carny plate.
Carnies took drags on their cigarettes and said, “life is too short” and “he could have had any number of things wrong with him but not know it.”
I had a work break with Patrick a couple days before he left for Houston. We sat in the picnic area behind the permanent, three-rowed carousel along the Super Midway in Dallas.
“You like working the tubs?” he said, referring to my basket game where marks throw balls into plastic tubs. “I hate this. I want to change my life.”
He talked about getting a commercial drivers license, joining a union, driving a bus, saving money to buy a laundromat someday when he gets off carnival roads. His girlfriend is pregnant and he couldn’t wait to get home to Maryland after Houston.
I talked to him about growing older, using one of my stock lines.
“I can’t eat or drink what I like. I can’t stuff a basketball. I can’t make love to a woman three days straight. But there are advantages that come with growing old (pause) and when you find them out let me know will you because I’m stumped.”
The line made him laugh at the prospect of growing old.
Living with road deaths
There is a forced intimacy working in a traveling carnival. You work and sleep together. Sometimes you find a lover. Sometimes you throw fists. Often you throw jokes.
People began telling stories of carnies dying on the midway, in bunkhouses or in accidents. Haunting the stories was a superstitious fear it might happen to them.
Carnies are so often broke. Might they die on the road and end up in a pauper’s grave beside the road?
At 29, a carny was cheated. One of our road family. Patrick was a salesman and the death of this salesman was invisible to others but mattered to us.
Patrick White is dead, I heard that morning. All day everyone on the crew thought about life and death on the road, far from people who know us, from home and love.
A mortal whisper passed between us.
Not Patrick … Not Me.
Becoming someone else
It’s a cold heart that relishes conning the weak, the infirm, the poor. Yet that is the game of tubs, which spits back balls as its pernicious heart shows no mercy.
It is twice blessed, it blesses those who pay and those who con. Players are plied with promises of money back or flashy prizes that pay for themselves many times over before moving to a mooch’s hand.
The carny is blessed with an animal’s predatory pride.
“Man, if you bring a woman to your room, you f*ck her,” a coworker told me in training.
“I’m robbing people today,” he’d say after running up the score on a mark.
I’ve read – and it sounds true – that a high percentage of casino dealers believe what they do makes “the world a worse place.” Casino dealers seek therapy for their conflicting feelings.
I switched from running rides most of this year to becoming a “jointee,” running games at state fairs in Minnesota, Oklahoma and Texas. I ran both the short range and the tubs game at this year’s state fair in Texas.
I started with the short range, a basketball game with a shoulder-high hoop and a basketball about twice the size of a large fist.
Both the tubs and the short range tested me as a former alter boy, choirboy and Webelo.
Still, I watched as people being trained to run the tubs go from honest, virtuous people and turn into con men within a day. They turned on a switch and were able to lie, manipulate and usurp their golden rule values in favor of the hand-is-quicker-than-the-eye dodge.
I’ve often marveled at the different people within us, a born truth seeker becomes a deceiver with just a scratch below the skin.
My basketball game had three rims, so it looked like the usual one from the shooter’s vantage point.
A coworker and I looked over our shoulders as we placed yellow tennis balls tight under the bottom of the tubs to make the game balls bounce out.
When I wanted a mark to play, I left a “cop ball” in to deaden the throw. When I took out the ball, I used my body as a shield to take the cop ball out and nobody noticed as I walked away with more balls in my hands when I turned around.
Carnies running the tubs brag about their best days. Tim Walker, a former Gangster Disciple and roommate, got a sucker for $1,200 once using “The 10 Point” system (too long to explain here).
Scott White (whose stories I make me wonder) claims to have run up a $10,000 sucker.
To this day Scott regrets not being able to get more than just a few thousand out of a ex-con who was spending his compensation for having served time for a wrongful conviction. The ex-con did 20-some years for a murder he didn’t commit and Scott wanted to rob him of all the money he got for his years in prison.
Scott wouldn’t be cast in “Guys and Dolls,” as a loveable Damon Runyon-esque gambler, known to be successful at real money gambling sites. But Elia Kazan might have pointed a black-and-white camera at him.
Clayton Pape is proud to say he’s a “F*cking Powerhouse Agent.” He says he was trained by “Fast Eddie” on the East Coast who blindfolded him and made him identify coins by their sound on the counter. He says he can take a dart, pin a $100 bill to a wood counter and keep the mark playing until it’s gone.
He and others on the crew say when they play the game, they don’t, “leave a dollar on the Midway.”
Surrounded by all these great carnies, owner Adam West beckoned me to his pick-up truck on Monday and told me I was the top grossing carny of any game for the Allstate 38 crew.
He gave me a fist bump and a wide smile.
West was brimming with I-can-spot-good-ones pride when he flipped crisp $100 bills out of his fist and handed them to me. (Tax free, of course, this will be my stake to get to Mexico to view carnival feeder towns.)
For 24 days I stood next to carnies with 20 and 30 years of experience and beat them.
I wonder if it was the journalism training that helped. The tricks of gaining someone’s confidence in order to interview them are similar to the tricks of getting people to trust me running the tubs.
A dash of the Stanislavski-style method acting helped too. If I believed the “Despicable Me” minions are great prizes and the game is winnable, I could convince others.
I developed what I called “Mike’s Rainbow,” telling people tongue in cheek that it is a fool-proof system patented in the US Patent Office in Washington D.C.. It consisted of throwing with a rainbow arc to me before throwing at my hand on the edge of the tub.
“I’m going to hypnotize you to win,” I’d say, then engage in throws. “Mike’s Rainbow. Mike’s Rainbow. Now, shoot for my hand on the bucket. That’s it, let’s play.”
With the cop ball in the tub, they had a great chance of winning and “Mike’s Rainbow” became a legend up and down the midway. People told their friends and returned to win “Despicable Me” minions.
In the afterglow of the fair, I took the money and the compliments from West, then vowed to never do it again.
I took more money from the mooches than any other tub thug, more than any other gamer on my crew. I am a deceiver, all day long.
I cheated a breast cancer survivor, deaf people, poor kids, Downs syndrome kids, people in wheel chairs with palsy. I didn´t treat them worse but I could have rigged the game so they would win and I did, but despicably few times.
My youth didn’t foreshadow this talent. It’s as if in my 50s I inexplicably picked up a strange violin and started playing virtuoso “Pachelbell’s Canon.”
Like magic, I turned into the top grosser at a game I wanted to master. Yet all I think about, looking back on the State Fair of Texas, is how Patrick was cheated, how Mike’s Rainbow dazzled and deceived, and how I turned into despicable me.
The State Fair of Texas ended Sunday after 24 days. This is my ninth month working in traveling carnivals coast to coast. I’ve been living on carnival wages so I’ve hitchhiked more than 12,000 miles from California, to New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska and back. I finished the state fair season with jumps to Minnesota, Oklahoma and Texas. I posted this from Tlapacoyan, Mexico, a town that empties every year of men as they head north to American carnivals, fodder for a future post.