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Two guys on our crew at the Oklahoma State Fair on set-up took a nap behind the games counter. These guys knew how to work hard and hustle, but you know you’re tired when you have to nap on the floor mats behind the games counter. Without scheduled breaks, we ate when he could and we napped IF we could during long, hot days. Some people might say this is a picture of napping, I say it shows how hard showmen work.

OK 2 napping men

Carnival Crazy Money when the Plush is Flush

Minnesota State Fair pool hall
At night, in my corner of the Minnesota State Fair that year, lighting, pool and plush mixed with Springsteen, high spirits and beer.

Minnesota State Fair pool hall best

In my year working rides and games at 10 carnivals in 10 states, I worked the pool tables at the Minnesota State Fair. Customers were given three balls. You had to sink them in order, without missing after the break.

I told everyone the break was the money-maker shot because if you get a ball or two in then you’re likely to win. That was true.

However, if they lost, I told them, “That’s because you’re on The Mighty Midway in St. Paul, at the biggest state fair in the country. The music is blaring. People are shouting. You’re a better pool player than that. People who play two or more times are way more likely to win a prize and these are the best prizes on the Mighty.”

I believed every word. I made sure the tables were level every day. I smoothed the felt. I chalked and kept the best cue sticks by my table.

I also believed words I didn’t speak, which were that the game is harder than it looks. You weren’t allowed to use combinations and often your ball would end up directly behind another.

Most people didn’t win but enough won so winners walked The Mighty Midway with a huge Scooby Doo or a black Rottweiler or a bright yellow “Despicable Me” minion. That was advertising for our four-table tent at the very end of the midway, the least profitable side of the carnival side of the Minnesota State Fair.

Scooby pool

Many people had been coming to the pool tent for years and remembered how they fared.

“Don’t end it this way, not this year,” I’d tell the losers. “This isn’t the memory you want for this year.”

The Mighty Midway is an “independent” midway, run by the state fair. Individual carnivals bid to put their rides and games along the fabled Mighty Midway. The closer to the front and the main action, the more profitable your game or ride was likely to be.

It was also a cashless midway, with rides and games being paid for by tickets. We stashed the tickets in iron boxes about the size of bread boxes. Each night we stacked them in little red wagons and rolled them to a central tent where fair officials emptied them and later counted them.

In the land of the fictional Minnesota Fats, enough people won prizes that we had to “flash” every morning. That meant replacing the winnings of the last day with new plush, brought in from storage in semi-trailer trucks.

I worked with Oz. In my book about the year “Eyes Like Carnivals,” I describe Oz as being in his 40s, bald and sometimes coughing like a lung was going to fall out of his mouth. He and I were the only regular crew members to work the tent. Workers from a drug and alcohol treatment center also worked with us. They worked on an hourly wage, which went to their facility. Oz and I worked for a percentage of the take. No guaranteed wages and we slept in trailers behind the midway.

If I stayed the whole fair and went with the crew headed by Adam “Batman” West to the Oklahoma State Fair then I’d get 20 percent of the winnings. If I left earlier, I’d get 15 percent. If you helped set up and take down, you got 25 percent. The owner of Allstate 38, Adam “Batman” West counted out my final take so I don’t know if I received the full 25 percent like the regular traveling crew. I was glad to get more than a grand, minus bunkhouse, uniform, hat and jacket expenses.

Minnesota OZ
Oz talking to a local hire as he holds on to the steel ticket box.

Oz complained about everyone around him, including me. He didn’t like it when I became the biggest earner at the tent but Oz was the boss. He directed shift changes, he timed our breaks and he supervised both the set-up and tear-down of the pool tent.

Several of the showmen in Batman’s crew liked to brag about their scars. The crew chief, Chango had a bullet wound and a separate knife wound that swerved around like a question mark along his bulbous belly.

Oz was the winner though because his scars were the freshest and most visible. A traveling scar track weaved its way from behind his right ear, across his jugular and run up to his Adam’s apple. His throat, he said, was slit just a month and a half before. It looked like an attempted beheading.

Once, he joked, “I’d forget my head if it wasn’t glued on.” He looked at me, anticipating my joke, and said “Some people tried to help me with that not long ago.”

If you weren’t looking closely or hadn’t heard the back story, you’d have thought little of Oz, his healing and his traveling scars.


Michael Sean Comerford worked in 10 carnivals in 10 states, hitchhiked 36 states between jobs and ventured down to Mexico to see the “new face” of the American carnival worker.

He worked three straight state fairs in Minnesota, Oklahoma and Texas. Minnesota is the largest by daily attendance, 12 days and 1.78 million people this year. Oklahoma comes next week. Texas is the largest by total number of attendees, by contrast 24 days long and can draw more than 2.6 million people.

He also worked carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Georgia and Florida.

Mexican Carny Union Expose, Behind the Rides

Link to Expose
Mexican worker smiles

The New York Times this week published a terrific expose on a union accused of representing both Mexican carnies and carnival owners.

This was rumored when I spent my year working in 10 carnivals, in 10 states in 2013-14. I interviewed James Judkins several times, but he declined to be interviewed by the newspaper. Judkins is most certainly the most prolific recruiter of Mexican workers to America and now is alleged to be the force behind Mexican carnival worker unionization.

A former circus owner himself, Judkins has funneled thousands of workers north to keep traveling carnivals running as the pool of American workers thins. He is paid by owners to find good workers and arrange visas, transportation and jobs.

However, but worker advocates allege he is the man behind the Association of Mobile Entertainment Workers, which represents Mexican workers rights in carnivals.

“This was a fraud on the system,” said Art Read, a lawyer with Friends of Farmworkers, one of the groups that filed a complaint last year about the union with the National Labor Relations Board, The New York Times article quote states.

At the end of my year working rides and games, I took a bus south from the State Fair of Texas in Dallas to the tiny hamlet of Tlapacoyan, in the eastern Mexican state of Veracruz. I found my former boss at Butler Amusements in California. He took me on a two-day tour of the town, visiting other workers I’d worked with outside San Francisco that spring.

Tlapacoyan is an ancient settlement in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental and empties of men each year as they go north work to erect Ferris wheels and tighten the bolts on the roller coasters at hundreds of carnivals across America.

When the men leave Tlapacoyan, the carnival “feeder town” is vulnerable to a variety of social ills. The economically struggling families of the men who go north often have to pay local gangs for “protection.”

The former employee of Judkins’ carnival, Victor Apolinar Barrios, had just been elected mayor of Tlapacoyan when I arrived. Apolinair Barrios is widely understood to run the local operations for Judkins. Here’s what I heard and the NYT confirmed.

“Some workers have testified that they had to pay Mr. Apolinar Barrios $350 to $500 a year to secure a carnival job, money they often borrowed at very high interest rates. Such recruiter payments are illegal in the United States.

Mr. Judkins and Mr. Apolinar Barrios are not listed on any public documents filed by the union. But people close to them, like Mr. Judkins’s sister and two brothers of Mr. Apolinar Barrios, are. According to the complaint by labor advocates, the Mexican politician’s brothers took over his recruitment business after he was elected last year.”

Jim Judkins is easily the biggest purveyor of Mexican seasonal help to carnivals in America and yet is alleged to be the force behind its workers union too.

A telling anecdote is my interview with Judkins last year, at the annual trade show for traveling carnivals held in Gibsonton, FL., sponsored by the International Independent Association of Showmen.

Judkins held seminars for owners telling them how to handle H2B visa regulations, the temporary work visas carnival workers attain to work in the United States.

He advised compliance and the services of his firm in avoiding government interference. At the conferences, he introduced an attorney and a lobbyist he works with on Capitol Hill in favor of the industry and owners.

He told me that his JKJ Workforce Agency arranges for about half of all Mexican migration to US carnivals. Of the estimated 50,000 Mexicans who come north for seasonal work on H2B non-farm workforce visas, Judkins said about 5,000 come to work in carnivals. Judkins arranges for about half of those carnival jobs to come from Tlapacoyan and surrounding towns. In my carnival at Butler, which is typical of large traveling carnivals, two-thirds of the workers were Mexicans on H2B visas.

During the Florida conferences, owners complained of red tape and labor laws. Judkins reminded them they are not covered by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, but other rules apply. In April, the Labor Department proposed new rules to protect seasonal workers such as carnival workers but the industry has filed suits against the rules, according to the NYT.

My carnival in San Francisco at the time, Butler, was the subject of a lawsuit alleging abuses such as long, uncompensated work hours. I often worked through the night and Mexican workers sometimes were sent home before us, perhaps in order to comply with the regulations.

Mexicans at Butler fell into several groups. “Jointees,” who ran games, often had more English language skills. They made more money and lived in better trailers. Many of them were city folk from Mexico City. “Ride jockies,” who ran rides, could live in more expensive trailers with US workers for $50 a week or for free in the Mexican “reefers.” These men were almost all from Tlapacoyan.

The “reefers” – supposedly ‘refrigerated’ in summers – are single trailers fit with wooden bunks for Mexicans. Bunks are stacked three beds high. About 15 men fit into the Butler trailer I traveled with, which included a small kitchen and two showers.

The reefers are generally considered the worst neighborhood in the carny quarters, maybe the closest thing we have in the United States to third world poor. The ventilation is poor and conditions are crowded. The showers, I can say from experience, always seemed muddy.

Judkins advised owners to tell workers not to talk to anyone about their conditions, to let ownership and lawyers do the talking.

With conditions, pay, immigration rules and government oversight at issue, Judkins never sounded like an advocate for higher worker pay, better conditions, stricter oversight or unionization.

However, as a personal insight, Judkins seemed genuinely concerned with all those issues for workers. He was a passionate advocate for Mexican workers ability to work in the United States and against restrictions on employment. At one point, he told me the Chicago carnival I worked for was not one of his clients because of the poor living conditions provided for workers, conditions American workers and I lived in.

That I know of, there is no union for American carnies.


For a fuller picture of the legal ramifications and possible conflicts of interest, please read the New York Times piece. Another upcoming investigative piece is being worked on by a wire service. View my YouTube video “Mexico: New Faces of American Carnivals.” Links are at the top of the article

Michael Sean Comerford spent a year working in 10 carnivals in 10 states, hitchhiking 36 states between jobs and venturing down to Mexico. He blogged along the way at and for Huffington Post (search Michael Sean Comerford). He’s written about the year for Northwestern Magazine, Marquette Magazine and Wand’rly. The Chicago Tribune called his blogs, “By turns emotional, erudite, enlightening and ever engaging.”

Literary agent Tim Hayes is representing efforts to publish a book “Eyes Like Carnivals. Michael Sean Comerford can be reached at




“Eyes Like Carnivals” will be literary non-fiction, Americana, a quest story and a full-throttle fun ride across the USA.

When it is published, that is. In the meantime, it needs it’s own platform, it’s own following before a publishing house is interested.

“Eyes Like Carnivals” is my blog, a Huffington Post blog, a YouTube video series (at Michael Sean Comerford) and I’ve written about it for Northwestern Magazine, Marquette Magazine and Wand’rly magazine.

The Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine called upon its Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame columnist Rick Kogan to do a “Sidewalks” column on the Web site.

“(Michael Sean Comerford) is 54 years old, and his writing now, on his blog and occasionally for The Huffington Post, is captivating. Filled with quotations from a wide and wild variety of people — including Proust, Kerouac, Mother Teresa, Picasso, Marcus Aurelius — and peppered with philosophical observations and colorful portraits of people and places, his blog is by turns emotional, erudite, enlightening and ever engaging.”

It needs a Facebook page of it’s own, for when it is finally sold to a big New York City publishing house! (hear that Lit Agent Tim Hays?).

I’ll post carnival and hitchhiking and Eyes Like Carnival news here and gather like-minded readers.

For newbies, I worked a year in rides and games in 10 traveling carnivals in 10 states, ending 2014. I hitched 15,000 miles across 36 states. I toured Mexico and Veracruz to find the “new face” of American carnies.

Specifically, I worked in carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida, where I worked a freak show.

I hitchhiked 15,000 miles across 36 states and ventured down into the mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental in Veracruz to a small hamlet of a village that empties of men every year as they head north to traveling carnivals in the Unites States. They are the “new face” of the American carny and I wrote about them and have posted videos on YouTube.


Secrets of Batman’s Dark Knights

A Batman Dark Knights
Adam “Batman” West, his family and the Dark Knights at a pre-state fair party in St. Paul. He is second from the left, in the grey t-shirt.


Adam West’s favorite carnival moniker and icon was chosen for him when he was born, given to him by his carnival games owning parents.

Named after the actor portraying the 1960’s TV hero Batman, Adam grew up in carnivals. Now that he was a young games owner, he put the iconic black bat on his Batmobile golf cart and on his Batcave, a carnival supply/office trailer. He gave Batman rings and Batman shirts to his crew.

At 28 years old, the former high school football star was divorced and remarrying when I met him and his crew, Batman’s Dark Knights.

Batman joked about his wild days and nights in Mexico. He soaked in the lore of the wild nights of his father’s generation of carnival owners. He waxed lyrical about his childhood with carnies and growing to be a tough teenager who could beat-up other carnies, even the South African migrants, in traveling boxing matches.

With his ex-jock frame, he was a dynamic, fast-taking, fast-counting success on the traveling carnival circuit. His plush were the latest, hottest items. His games were old world stingy, tight. His crew was the strongest.

On the Super Midway at the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul, I asked for a job and he wanted to know if I had the right stuff. The exchange was typical of the speed and carnival justice of the American carnival Batman.

“Can you pass a piss test,” he asked. “Do you have drug or alcohol problems? (long pause) Are you honest?”

I laughed and said, yes, no and yes.

“Why are you laughing,” he said, “something funny to you?”

“If I was a liar,” I said, “I’d say the same thing.”

In that short exchange, I was hired to work games the two biggest state fairs in America, Minnesota State Fair and the State Fair of Texas. We worked the Oklahoma State Fair in between, which claimed to be the World’s Biggest Carnival. I ran pool tables, a shark pool, a basketball game and the Tubs of Fun for more than two months in Batman’s crew.

I called the crew Batman’s Dark Knights because every man and woman was admirable to me and every one carried dark secrets. The knights of the round table, this carnival crew was not. They were knights of the open road. They were so good, one boasted, “we don’t leave a dime on the midway.” They were avarice knights, greedy for a money, wild nights and life.

When Batman’s Dark Knights walked the midway, mammon walked the midway.

On Freaky Friday Videos, my video shows clips of the three state fairs and crew members. At the end is a tribute to Patrick White, who died of a heart attack in Texas. We were all thunderstruck when the 29-year-old who ran the Break-a-Plate suddenly shattered and died himself.

You’ll see parties, games, high times and hints of the secrets of the Dark Knights are all there. Walk the midway with Batman’s Dark Knights.


From 2013-2014, I worked rides and games in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida, where he worked in a freak show but didn’t get on stage because they didn’t see the inner freak in him. He rode a bus into the mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental to a Mexican village that empties of men each year, going north to US carnivals. Living on carnival wages, I hitchhiked 15,000 miles across 36 states. My blogs appear in Huffington Post and at Agent Tim Hayes is seeking a publisher for the book.

Traveling Inspirations: Disney, Oz and Grace

Minnesota State Fair me and Grace
Grace and me at the Minnesota State Fair

I wrote about my hope that my separation from my daughter Grace, 8, would be somehow mitigated by the inspiration she gets from traveling to the Minnesota State Fair with my parents.

I made lots of connections between the inspirations Walt Disney and L. Frank Baum may have drawn from traveling shows and carnivals. Grace, ironically, brought presents that included a hand painted picture of a dog, a postcard lion and a rainbow. I introduced her to my boss “Oz.” She saw a freak show tent and a house of horrors, all in a fantasyland that a state fair strives to be.

The story is based on my blog from the road and updated slightly for Publishers Marketplace. The picture was never run on “Eyes Like Carnivals.”

SPECTACULAR VIDEO! New Face of American Carnivals week

Mexico Me 2

I shall be the envy of all my actor friends as I star in this video filmed on my 3,000 mile trip across Mexico, as I tracked down my fellow carnival workers in their native habitat.

A Brown University Graduate student in anthropology wrote me this week saying he is working on Mexican migration to US carnivals and wants to see what I found in Mexico and in 10 US carnivals.

So this is “New Face of American Carnivals” week on Publishers Marketplace, starting with my debut as a FILM STAR IN A SPECTACULAR VIDEO!

YouTube Link to Video

Monday is lead with “Spy in the Mexican Reefers” with probably my BEST VIDEO OF MY YEAR IN TRAVELING CARNIVALS
Publishers Marketplace site until it expires this summer
From 2013-2014, Michael Sean Comerford worked in carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida, where he worked in a freak show but didn’t get on stage because they didn’t see the inner freak in him. He rode a bus into the mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental to a Mexican village that empties of men each year, going north to US carnivals. Living on carnival wages, he hitchhiked 15,000 miles across 36 states. His blogs appear in Huffington Post and at Agent Tim Hayes is seeking a publisher for the book.

Carnivals the Chicago Way

Boogie Man sells Dog
Chicago Southsider sells Rottweiler pups along the Midway Plaisance, Chicago, the site of the original midway.


“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” ― Studs Terkel

Boogie ran a spinning Century, near the first Ferris Wheel at the birthplace of American traveling carnivals.

Standing high on the launching ramp, he watched neighborhood crowds lining up below. He was proud to be part of it all – Chicago, history and living in these days.

Boogie ran the Century Wheel, a premium Ferris wheel in use in the bigger traveling carnivals. A Black man in his 30s and strong-looking, Boogie wore a flashy, baggy jacket. He had a way of attracting other carnies to the wheel to talk to him. Something about Boogie, people liked talking with him.

During a rain break I took time to talk to Boogie. I mentioned that I was woken by a cow face looking at me that morning at The Dirty 30, the carny quarters along U.S. Route 30, in Chicago Heights, on Chicago’s far Southside. The owners kept 40 Black Angus cows on the same lot as the carny quarters.

Boogie laughed but he wanted me to know that cows are part of Chicago’s history.

“Remember, a cow is responsible for all the good shit we have around over there,” he said pointing to downtown Chicago, the focus of Chicago tourists and photographers.

Boogie was referring to the legend of “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” which was blamed for knocking over a lamp and starting the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. After the fire, Chicago rebuilt and has been reinventing itself ever since.

Boogie was hazy on the details but he knew about the Union Stockyards, which operated near our site.

Dirty 30s Cows 4
Cow herd on the “Dirty 30” along US 30, the Lincoln Highway, through Chicago Heights, on Chicago’s far Southside.

He also knew the first Ferris Wheel, a elephantine version of his wheel, operated just a few blocks away, “a long time ago.”

However, I was up on my Chicago history because I’d recently been rereading “Devil in the White City,” which featured the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. I also spent years as a journalist in the area and drank in the Chicago history and lore. Where Boogie was hazy, I stepped in with the background. After that night, he consistently would ask, “Why you know so much about Chicago?”

I was glad he knew what he knew, it meant some inner city kids in Chicago still grow up knowing something about its past. Chicago kids like Boogie still see how it spins through their lives.

EyesLikeCarnivals traditions

The 1893 World’s Fair was called “the fair that changed America” and it still lives on in names and traditions in Chicago. The concept of a midway with games and shows down a main street of entertainment was a centerpiece of the fair. These days, Chicago has Midway Airport, Midway Airlines and the Monsters of the Midway, the Chicago Bears. Restaurants, bars and even churches have Midway in their names.

“Modern Midways” was the name of the carnival I worked for in Chicago, in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. We also played hollowed ground for carnivals, the Midway Plaisance, the exact 1 mile site of the original midway.

Midway Plaisance was the site of the original Ferris Wheel. Galesburg, Il.-born George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. built the Chicago wheel with 36 cars, holding a capacity of more than 2,000 people. It took 20 minutes to turn twice. Some cars featured waiters.

The World’s Fair played for six months and drew crowds of 27.5 million at a time when the entire country totalled just 65 million people. (btw, we now number about 312 million).The fair made such a national splash that waves of smaller traveling carnivals followed with rides, games, freak shows, burlesque, carousels and Ferris wheels.

They spread out from Illinois and, as one carnival manager recently told me, Illinois is still “a busy state for carnivals.”

Traveling shows or circuses, even smaller versions of the Ferris wheel have existed for centuries but the North American carnival traces back to that Chicago World’s Fair, with its Ferris wheel and midway.

The Big Eli made in Jacksonville, Il. on the first midway along Midway Plaisance, with the University of Chicago Hospital in the background.

At that Washington Park jump, we put up a Big Eli, made by Eli Bridge Co. of Jacksonville, Il., which traces its roots back a century. Known as a “wheelman,” Boogie ran both the Century in Gage Park and the Big Eli along Midway Plaisance.

We were just blocks away from the union stockyards, at one time the largest meat producing square mile in the world. Meatpacking names from that era like Swift and Amour still thrive.

It’s squalid conditions became the subject of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” Also a journalist, Sinclair worked in the stockyards before writing the book, as I’m working in traveling carnivals hoping to write a book.

Another writer Bertoldt Brecht wrote a play about downtrodden labor in “Saint Joan of the Stockyards.”

Brecht was a favorite of Chicago author Studs Terkel, who I interviewed a few times. Terkel quoted a Brecht poem in his autobiography “Touch and Go.”

“Caesar beat the Gauls. Was there not even a cook in his army?”
“Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?”

Studs wrote “Working” about the people not included in history’s narrative. I also wrote a five-section special edition of the Elgin Courier-News in the 1980s called “Working,” citing Terkel. It included nearly 100 profiles of Fox Valley area people from a struggling car washer to rags-to-riches entrepreneurs.

Studs called the newsroom to compliment me. I was out at the time but the compliment made it to the whole office as our loud secretary yelled his words across the newsroom to me later.

“Studs Terkel called and said he loved your series, whatever the name of it was,” she yelled.

“EyeLikeCarnivals” isn’t “The Jungle” or “Working” or “Saint Joan of the Stockyards,” yet it is in that tradition of living, working and writing about the lives inside history’s big narrative outline.

Standing outside that story timeline, on the western edge of Midway Plaisance, is Father Time watching the Fountain of Time. The 126-foot fountain shows the passage of time, with people parading past Father Time in what appears to be the sands of time. The fountain added a historic feel to our Midway Plaisance shows. The fountain is a landmark but on hot days local kids flock to the fountain, jumping and playing as if part of a living work of art.

I chose carnivals to write about because they operate in town centers across the country. The focus of the community often is an annual event and each has workers with lives as colorful as the carnivals they work.

Along the way, so many people I met related how they once worked with a carnival, loved carnivals, or always wondered what kind of life carnies live. Let them wonder away. Let them come ride and play. They are important, they are the show.

And near the Fountain of Time, Boogie shifted the lever back and forth on the spinning Century, watching today’s crowds thrill on the ‘modern’ midway.

Boogie Fish
Nemo’s kiddy ride in front of the Fountain of Time on Midway Plaisance, Chicago, site of the original carnival midway.


From 2013-2014, Michael Sean Comerford worked in carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida, where he worked in a freak show but didn’t get on stage because they didn’t see the inner freak in him. He rode a bus into the mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental to a Mexican village that empties of men each year, going north to US carnivals. Living on carnival wages, he hitchhiked 15,000 miles across 36 states. His blogs appear in Huffington Post and at Agent Tim Hayes is seeking a publisher for the book.