CARNIVAL GODS IN LENT

Chicago Bible
A mother and daughter at the Church of St. Gabriel in Marlboro, New Jersey, gave me a bible, prayer books and cards, three rosaries and holy water. They said they wanted me to remember the church where I spent Palm Sunday, after working their annual fundraiser for McDaniel Brothers Amusements. This picture was taken in Chicago, where I set up a prayer table in my bunkhouse, with the Chicago hitchhiking sign and a bag of oranges for my earthy sustenance.

Jesus and Lion
A lion in a circus wagon with trashcan art along the top of the wagon is situated at the back of the auxiliary church next to St. Martha Catholic Church, Sarasota, Florida. It is the traditional church of circus and carnival workers. The lion, long a symbol of Christian martyrdom, is in the back of the church but in front of the “stations of the cross” artwork, which depict the events leading up the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Jesus and Wheel Best 2
The bright, colorful wagon wheels that bookmark the altar at St. Martha Catholic Church could be mistaken for ancient religious iconography.

Jesus and Wheel Best
Two colorful wagon wheels bookmark the altar and organ pipes of St. Martha Catholic Church. The origins of the crucifix with Jesus is uncertain but came from the artwork studios of the Ringling College of Art and Design.

Father John
Father John Vakulskas of Iowa, shown here at the national convention of traveling carnivals in Gibsonton, Florida, is taking up the role as the carny priest from the legendary “Father Mac,” Msgr. Robert McCarthy of New York. They are part of a traveling apostolate appointed by the Pope to minister to the traveling people of carnivals.

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“Carny Preacher” Bill Root gives a sermon to carnies before the opening of the Bear Paw Festival, Eagle River, Alaska. Root was also the head of games at Golden Wheel Amusements, Alaska’s only traveling carnival. Golden Wheel is owned by born-again Christians and holds prayer meetings and services on carnival grounds for carnies.

Hitchhiking 1,000 miles: A Tale for the Season of the Twelfth Night

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“Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere.”
“Twelfth Night or What You Will” by William Shakespeare.

My latest jarring dream involved mixed genders and mistaken identities.

One of my favorite plays is “Twelfth Night” which was known as one of the Bard’s transvestite plays. I thought of that Christmas play about gender bending and wondered if I was really dreaming about my July hitchhiking trip from Washington D.C. to Marco Island, Fl.

Gender confusion drives the plot as a boy actor plays a female twin who disguises herself as a boy. Cross dressing in Shakespeare’s time was common during The Twelfth Night celebrations and the parties surrounding the Lord of Misrule. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelfth_Night.

My 1,100 mile hitch took four days and three nights, all sleeping outside during nights of intense, colorful dreaming.

Outside of Savannah, Ga., a transgender woman picked me up in her “Soul” and told me wild stories of her traditional marriage, prison and sexcapades. At first she said her name was “John” but then said her real name is April Summers. When she performs on stage as a female impersonator, she said, the other performers call her “Satan’s Secretary” because of her promiscuity with audience members.

Hitchhiking April
April Summers drove me from Savannah, Ga. to Ocala, Fl. in her “Soul.”

Outside Tampa, Fl., a tree trimmer picked me up in his shaky compact car, drove 90-miles-per hour and then made an indecent proposal while we careened down I-75. As we were driving dangerously close to death, he said, “How about I give you a h*nd-job!”

Outside of Hilton Head, S.C., a Chilean hotel maid picked me up and, when she offered to drop me off at a truck stop, she made a comment about how the truckers probably want her to stick around for a while. They might want to pay for some female attention.

Mike of God vs. my hat

Four days is too long for a 1,000 trip. My days were marked by many hours of waiting followed by many drivers discussing their lives. Still, one standout of the trip was not a driver.

After the Chilean hotel maid dropped me off outside Hilton Head, I stood on the onramp as the sun was declining. Up the onramp toward me walked a thin man with a white Moses beard.

“Hi, I’m Mike of God,” he said. “If you get a ride out here at this time of day, I’ll take off your hat and shit in it.”

I said, “Hi Mike,” and wanted to add that I don’t want him to shit into my hat.

“Mike of God,” he corrected me. “Mike of God! I’ve got some money here (from bumming on the corner) so you can join me. We can buy some pizza and beer. I have some cardboard in the woods back there to sleep on. You won’t find a ride out here tonight.”

One of my theories about hitchhiking is that people make the riskiest decisions at the beginning and end of the day. So I wasn’t about to stop hitchhiking but I was tempted by Mike of God’s offer because I could witness his madness first hand. I imagined that he was going to tell me he was a prophet. Whatever he said would have made a great story.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a kinder offer,” I said. “Beer. Pizza. A cardboard bed in the woods. Mike of God telling me the truth. But I’m betting on one more ride.”

In the most ragged, Dickensian clothes, he walked away talking to himself and still advising me that I didn’t know this corner of the world.

Stories about long hitchhiking trips are best told when whittled down to a few short stories. This trip had so many interesting drivers I can’t do justice to any.

A moving company dispatcher who moonlights as an amateur pool shark said he intended to win $200 that night by hustling marks at regional pool halls around Richmond, Va. Because he played defensive pool, he nicknamed himself “Kid Safety.” It’s a moniker that no doubt summons fear in opponents and admiration among the female fans.

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He’s a dispatcher by day but Kid Safety at the pool halls at night.

The first ride out of Fayetteville, North Carolina, John the electrician told me that he doesn’t fear hitchhikers because if I tried to rob him, he would drive his truck off the road and kill us both.

“I don’t care,” he said. “I’ll do it.”

Nothing he said before or after betrayed thoughts of suicide or of a life that meant so little to him.

After John the electrician said that, I remembered that other drivers have told me of similar scenarios. Another driver earlier in the trip had said he too would commit suicide if attacked by a hitchhiker.

I heard two stories of hitchhikers stealing the driver’s vehicles. Once the driver got out to fill the truck with gas but the hitchhiker drove away with an empty tank and was later caught.

In the other, two beer-guzzling sheet metal workers outside of Tampa laughed uproariously as they told how a hitchhiker stole the driver’s truck when he stopped to buy them both a beer. After a few, the driver started dancing with a beautiful woman and the hitchhiker jumped in his truck and drove away. The hitchhiker was caught but the girl got away.

Hitchhiking beer
Sheet metal workers drinking beer after a long day in Florida’s July heat.

Several drivers had life advice for me. A computer security expert driving a Saab convertible in Virginia told me how his wife left him and took their two daughters to North Carolina. He was depressed and living in a hotel when he picked himself up, married the hotel manager and moved them both to South Carolina to be nearer his daughters.

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The computer expert gave expert advice on character.

I told him I’m writing a book about my year working in 10 carnivals around America and going down to Mexico to see the “new face” of American carnies. But publishers have been unimpressed by my first draft and want a complete rewrite.

“I know you’re broke right now but this is a test of your character,” he said. “Publishers aren’t the artist. You are. Don’t compromise on your principles. Write the book you think you should write. This is a test of your character.”

What is my character?

The Walk of Life

The computer security analyst, the tree trimming pervert and April each made me think of character and identity. April lived for a couple decades as a married man and changed jobs like a chameleon changes colors. The tree trimmer had a girlfriend and kids at home. The computer analyst lost his identity as a husband and father and made his comeback in a Saab convertible.

The hitchhikers fooled the drivers out of their vehicles. Some drivers would rather give up the life they are living than be robbed of their truck.

Kid Safety is hustling people who think he’s just a dispatcher. The hotel maid has a fantasy (maybe not just a fantasy) about another sexy life at truck stops.

Mike of God isn’t mentally ill, he’s a prophet offering bummed comfort to the wayward with beer, pizza and a cardboard bed. Even if he is a danger to all hats.

In this season of the Twelfth Night, could this be what my jarring dream meant? I am not what I seem to be either. I am a fool for disguises, disguised to myself. What foolery in a journey of a 1,000 miles.

Dreams of Sleeping Beauties

Best Wonder Wheel
The iconic Wonder Wheel as seen through the fence recently along the boardwalk of Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York.

Coney Island’s rides stood in a dream-like state as I walked the boardwalk that morning. I overheard Russian, Japanese and Hispanic conversations. Seagulls outnumbered the people. Barges powered past. The rides behind the fences reminded me of the 10 traveling carnivals I worked in the last year, as if it was a past life.

The Wonder Wheel reminded me of the “Cheese Wheel,” as they call the Kraft-sponsored Giant Wheel at the Oklahoma State Fair in Oklahoma City.

The Cyclone reminded me of the Windstorm at the State Fair of Texas.

The Wonder Wheel and the Cheese Wheel, the Cyclone and the Windstorm may remind me each other but they are from different sides of the tracks.

The Cyclone is a wooden rollercoaster dating back to 1927. The Windstorm is an iron rollercoaster but even it was replaced at the 2013 Minnesota State Fair by the Rip Tide (which I filmed for “Wild, Wild, West Crew” on YouTube).

The Wonder Wheel dates back to 1918 and is a 150-feet-tall with 24 cars, each seating six people. The Cheese Wheel is 90-feet-tall, with 20 gondolas, seating six-to-eight people.

The 212-foot-high Texas Star which whirled behind me as I worked games at the State Fair of Texas was the tallest “Ferris” wheel in the country. This year the 520-foot High Roller in Las Vegas became the tallest but the New York Wheel is being planned for Staten Island and may be 625-feet-tall, with 1,440 people per ride. The original “Ferris Wheel” was built by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was a monster in its time, at 264-feet-tall and holding a capacity of 2,160 people.

However, those mega-sized permanent, observation wheels at amusement parks are different creatures.

In the traveling carnivals, professional carnies know how to set-up and tear-down rides so fast they seem to vanish in the night. In California, the Butler Amusement carnies setting up the Giant Wheel were Mexicans from the small Veracruz town of Tlapacoyan. They never wanted to work with any locals, claiming locals slowed them down.

In Chicago, Alaska and Georgia the carnivals I worked in each used a mix of traveling carnies and young local men to set up Giant Wheels, Eli Wheels, Century Wheels and combinations of each wheel.

I ran the controls of a Gondola Century Wheel in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska in 2013. My last carnival work was earlier this year.

It’s off-season now for both traveling carnivals and amusement parks. Traveling carnivals moved to what are called “winters quarters” for repairs and new coats of paint. By late winter, early spring, even the old rides will sparkle.

The comparison isn’t all new versus old. Coney Island’s rides may be older and permanent but traveling carnivals have traditions that date back as far.

Comparisons can be made. Be the rides permanent or traveling, old or new, this time of year, they are all beautiful when they sleep.

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Michael Sean Comerford spent a year working in carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. He lived on carnival wages and hitchhiked about 20,000 miles between jobs. At this time last year, he visited Tlapacoyan, Mexico, a town that each year empties out of men going to work American carnivals. Having worked both games and rides, he’s now writing a book on the experience.

Looking Back at Texas and Friends

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Texas in October can feel ungodly hot. Last year this time, I was in Dallas at the State Fair of Texas. My cousin Kelly is in and her family visited as I showed them how I could cheat on the “Impossible Tubs” game. Their dentist’s teeth shined in my sea of carny jack-o-lantern smiles. The “Tub Thug” told me about his pimping and whores. And 28-year-old Patrick White died in his hotel bed, his carny family grieved but we didn’t know anything about his real family. Ungodly might not be the word.

My Year as a Carny – Slinging Iron and Pushing Plush across USA

Marquette Main Photo 2Running a crooked basketball game at the State Fair of Texas, Dallas.

Marquette Magazine ran a cover story on my year in carnivals, along with some of my pictures. Including the one above, I’m featured running the Cliff Hanger in Fairbanks, Alaksa last summer.

Here’s the link.
http://www.mu.edu/magazine/recent.php?subaction=showfull&id=1404746041&archive=&start_from=&ucat=6

Marquette Main Photo 1

By Michael Sean Comerford (Class of ’81)

On the Fourth of July weekend of 1981, I was a 22-year-old Marquette graduate riding my bicycle from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean when I pulled off the road to work at a traveling carnival in Cody, Wyo.

On the Fourth of July last summer, at 54 years old, I hitchhiked through the Yukon Territory on my way to a traveling carnival in Chugiak, Alaska.

One Independence Day led to the other and played out in the most astounding ways. Inspired by that Cody carnival and needing to change careers from newspaperman to author a little more than a year ago, I wagered all that I have to write about traveling carnivals and carnival people. Money I borrowed for rent bought a train ticket to San Francisco’s Silicon Valley.

I would live on a concept and little else.

Working in carnivals for a calendar year, I survived on the wages and hitchhiked between jumps. I crossed 36 states, Canada and Mexico and traveled more than 20,000 miles.

I worked carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. I had no idea how difficult it would be or the outrageous reversals of fortune in store.

Traveling carnivals pop up in town squares, malls and church parking lots for annual parties and communal celebrations. Thrills. Games. Prizes. Then they vanish in the night with their traveling secrets. What better way to search for that zeitgeist that makes us Americans if not in our mirth?

I ran rides and games and took tickets but didn’t perform in the freak show. Along the way, I met Cotton Candy Connie, Monster, Cockroach, Chango, Batman, Original Tommy, Breeze, Flash and a 22-inch “half man” named Short E. Dangerously.

Working in carnivals for a calendar year, I survived on the wages and hitchhiked between jumps. I crossed 36 states, Canada and Mexico and traveled more than 20,000 miles.

I worked carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. I had no idea how difficult it would be or the outrageous reversals of fortune in store.

Traveling carnivals pop up in town squares, malls and church parking lots for annual parties and communal celebrations. Thrills. Games. Prizes. Then they vanish in the night with their traveling secrets. What better way to search for that zeitgeist that makes us Americans if not in our mirth?

I ran rides and games and took tickets but didn’t perform in the freak show. Along the way, I met Cotton Candy Connie, Monster, Cockroach, Chango, Batman, Original Tommy, Breeze, Flash and a 22-inch “half man” named Short E. Dangerously.

Who picks up hitchhikers

My direction changed when a colorful carnival owner and former pro wrestler with the stage name Bo Paradise told me the new face of American carnivals is Mexican. About 5,000 Mexicans get H-2B visas to work each year in carnivals, motivated not by the American Dream but by survival. I learned that just as other Mexican towns send men to the grape fields of Napa Valley, Calif., Tlapacoyan empties each year, its men en route to U.S. carnivals. I vowed to go to Tlapacoyan, in Veracruz. There I attended a born-again Christian revival where carnys spoke in tongues and families told of paying protection money to “the bad men” when their own men go to work up north.

My scope gradually expanded to see America as it looks from a Ferris wheel platform and while hitchhiking along U.S. interstate highways. I immersed myself in the life and left my former self behind although I did keep a few of my useful gadgets I had bought from gearhungry.com. Carnival work is a lifestyle. Workers leave home and make another home on the road to do hard, accident-prone work for little pay. You live with your neighbors and your work.

America from interstates and Ferris wheels

My direction changed when a colorful carnival owner and former pro wrestler with the stage name Bo Paradise told me the new face of American carnivals is Mexican. About 5,000 Mexicans get H-2B visas to work each year in carnivals, motivated not by the American Dream but by survival. I learned that just as other Mexican towns send men to the grape fields of Napa Valley, Calif., Tlapacoyan empties each year, its men en route to U.S. carnivals. I vowed to go to Tlapacoyan, in Veracruz. There I attended a born-again Christian revival where carnys spoke in tongues and families told of paying protection money to “the bad men” when their own men go to work up north.

My scope gradually expanded to see America as it looks from a Ferris wheel platform and while hitchhiking along U.S. interstate highways. I immersed myself in the life and left my former self behind. Carnival work is a lifestyle. Workers leave home and make another home on the road to do hard, accident-prone work for little pay. You live with your neighbors and your work.

My muscles bent under the weight of all-night “sloughs,” the carnival slang for tear downs. I lifted beams above my head, scaled poles and hauled electrical lines. I banged, jammed and taped rides together. Rain and wind, low pay, no pay, and heartache morphed me into a carny. It is the physically toughest job I ever worked. I slept in bunkhouses that reminded me of the “worst toilet in Scotland” from the movie Trainspotting.

Most carnival people are the working poor. When I ran rides, I lived on $225 to $325 a week. Jointees, the people who run games, can make less or more based on traffic. I couldn’t say criminally bad conditions are common. I can say I lived with them. The month I started, American University put out a major report called “Taken for a Ride” that alleged systematic problems exist in the industry with housing, work hours, wage theft and unsafe work conditions. I eventually saw it all, including theft of my week’s pay by a New Jersey carnival owner.

Step right up

The beauty of working with so many carnival companies in a single year was seeing both the good and the bad. With my Chicago carnival, I slept in a dirt field with 40 Black Angus cows and a bull. When it rained, the living quarters along Route 30 became “The Dirty 30,” with mud and cow dung clinging to our shins.

Early one morning, I emerged from the clean bunkhouse to watch great white clouds tip Alaska’s Chugiak Mountains. I saw a moose and her calf lope through camp. They stopped to look at me before disappearing into a bank of spruce and white birch trees. Depending on where you stand in the world, the moose and the cow can be considered sacred. I favor the moose, and Alaska in August is carnival heaven and where I became most familiar with the spiritual side of this bruising life.

The owners of Golden Wheel Amusements in Chugiak hired their minister to run games. Bill Root preached on Sundays and held Bible study classes along the Midway.

I found a traveling apostolate of Catholic priests work with carnivals. Father Michael Juran was a carnival stuntman for 27 years, a stunt double for Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit II, and a stunt car driver in the James Bond film Man with the Golden Gun. Father John Vakulskas from Sibley, Iowa, spoke of his friendship with former carnival worker Gordon Henke.

Henke, the son of a carnival worker nicknamed Red, ran a milk bottle game. His customers paid to knock down bottles with balls. He told a newspaper he learned to make money in carnivals. Henke went on to make his fortune in direct marketing of industrial equipment. The Henke Lounge in the Alumni Memorial Union, Marquette University High School’s Gordon Henke Center and scholarships at both institutions bear his name. Red’s kid did alright.

A carny dad I knew in San Francisco said his son is going to Marquette this fall. Carnivals may be a bit retro in the digital era, but their connections live on.

For the past year, I slung iron and pushed plush (carny for prizes). I worked Midways from Alaska to Florida, from California to New York. I thumbed my way, living life close to the bone. In all my writing and thinking about those hard miles, I saw the evil and the good, but I reveled in an epiphany. I expected to see carnys on the make. I suspected hitchhiking was dead — and maybe fatal. What I saw while peering out a wide truck windshield was America in its blazing panoramic beauty. What I heard were stories of Americans seeking meaning and struggling with changes in their lives. Through those vistas and those stories, in these crazy times, ran a river of people who are good at heart.

Carnival Myth, Math and Madness

Ring of Fire Three
The science of carnivals can be cold and calculating but the “Ring of Fire” evokes subconscious “hot buttons.”


“You walk in and you sort of just go, ‘Whoa.’ There’s an immediate sense of sensory overload and chaos.”
British historian Josephine Kane, the author of “The Architecture of Pleasure.”

Religious zealots hate it when scientists explain the earth goes around the sun, not like the bible says. The poet John Keats bemoaned Isaac Newton being able to explain the science behind rainbows. Science demystifies and contradicts some of the beauty and wisdom of the ages but it is still a long way off from explaining the thrill of carnivals.

A classic Grant Synder graphic lays out the classic carnival rides by their function name and equation. The waves of the roller coaster are calculated with the cosine function y = cos (x) and the Tower of Terror function is x = 1, which is more of a constant than a function. The Synder graphic is funny because math reduces a Ferris wheel to a Polar Coordinate Wheel. Where are the screams, the shutter, the kiss at the top of the Polar Coordinate Wheel from your best gal.

Function World

The so-called “soft sciences” have entered the fray too with their own explanations for fun in carnivals. A Boston Globe article last year went viral with academics explaining the psychology of the overall carnival experience, from games and rides, to food, lights and music. Do they generate a mass psychological dysfunction? A type of madness?

The Globe article cited experts from around the world who boiled the mysteries down to nine psychological hot buttons. Rides create a near-death experience, experts said, making it fun to ride and fun to return to safety. Games are designed to produce near winning experiences, so players want to play more. The music, lights and crowds lend themselves to a contagion of poor self control.

It seems as if amusement parks and carnivals create a feeling of being in a fantasy world, where the unreal is an escape, freedom and sometimes leads to romance.

The seemingly unscientific outcomes from these perfectly explainable phenomena is the result of thousands of years of trial and error in traveling shows.

I worked in 10 traveling carnivals in a year and I can tell you that everybody knows there must be a scientific explanation for all this but the carny only cares that it works. The main aim of the carnival is the separate the mark from his cash.

Nevertheless, traveling carnivals are adapting to technological realities. The biggest midways in America are cashless and ticketless. At the largest state fair by total attendance, the State Fair of Texas, carnival workers use electronic guns for game and ride payment.

The electronic guns of the State Fair of Texas assure carnival owners can’t skim off the proceeds of their games from the state.

However, other technological advances are aimed at increasing crowds and promoting spending. The Internet is used to pre-pay for tickets and ad another source of ad revenue for the carnivals. Credit cards are being used to play games, which can greatly increase the amount of money a carny might be able to get out of his mark.

Technological advances on rides make them safer but bigger and faster too. Increasing fear and safety is calculated to intensify the experience.

Yet all the calculations and theories have another equation. Traveling carnivals are public, communal, shared events yet years later people talk about their deeply personal experiences amid the crowds. Usually during childhood, they experienced a zeitgeist they want to repeat like childhood’s happiest moments.

The function of traveling carnivals is a matter lurking in the murky world of human feelings, emotions and subconscious desires. What’s the cotton candy science on my primordial voice, at times whispering, at times raging, “more, I want, more.”