Monthly Archives: March 2013

Cops at carnival

“He needs to get his hustle together”
Unnamed carny

Jerome worked with me on the Super Slide two towns ago. He took the BART to the last town we worked and ran the Gravitron, a centrifugal motion machine.

Today, opening day in a new San Francisco suburb, I was sitting on a fold-out chair as a Mexican woman was cutting my hair. He walked up from behind.

“Where you going next,” he said, his layers of old jackets on and a huge smile on his face. “Doesn’t matter because next time I see you, I’ll be driving a car. I’ll get your number and call you. Or I’ll just use my GPS.”

Jerome is 50ish, an African-American of medium height, with a strong build who has a streetwise, infectious rap.

I witnessed him holding court in West Oakland, he created a world of funny for me and the other carnies as he described the miserable and dangerous life he lives every day.

A natural storyteller, almost everything Jerome did was fodder. He walked with an up-and-down swagger that sometimes changed tempo. He bummed so many cigarettes off other African-Americans, one complained that Jerome always seemed broke.

“He needs to get his hustle together.”

An ex-con, Jerome suspected me of being a cop so I never did find out his entire rap sheet.

Tonight, real undercover cops walked into the carnival. Another ex-con noticed, “he’s being followed.”

They put “the jewelry” on him and led him out in cuffs. His gait still unmistakable.

I asked around about the arrest. A supervisor said he knew nothing. A carny said he never asks when this happens.

I’ll never forget Jerome’s last words to me as I sat in that outdoor, makeshift barber’s chair, unaware of what was about to happen.

“That hair cut, oh no!”

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

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 asking you to try this site for better information.

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.

Setting sail on the Zephyr

“Come my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.”

Ulysses, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

I pulled my 1980s bicycle from my sister’s SUV in Schaumburg stacking a small backpack, sleeping bag and bicycle pack next to it on the train station sidewalk. Kissed my sister goodbye. Took the Metra to Union Station in Chicago. Used tools to break down the bicycle before packing it into a box in the station’s basement baggage department.

Later, putting my packs on the wooden pews in Union Station’s Grand Hall, I felt like I was on a movie set, with grand hall’s Corinthian columns, high ceiling and barrel-faulted skylight roof. Several movies have been set there, including The Untouchables’ scene of a baby carriage rolling down its stairs during a shoot-out with Capone’s men.

This is the start of the day, my voyage. I’m reminded of, “Introibo ad altere Dei,” (I will go up to God’s alter). It is the start of the Latin Mass and part of the classic beginning to James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” a favorite novel of mine.

For much of my life, I’m reminded of favorite passages, a habit I keep mostly to myself given that it seems so pretentious. “I’m reminded of what the Bard said about that …”

Nevertheless, literary passages spring up like popular songs did to Studs Lonigan on his odyssey around the South Side of Chicago (see what I mean). They will do the same in this blog but it’s part of my inner monologue, which thankfully also includes self-mockery.

I led this ‘episode’ with a Tennyson poem about Ulysses because it about the hero wanting to return to the king of his youth and set sail. I pursued hitchhiking, bicycling and travel chasing meaning and now I’m returning to the carnival road as a 54-year-old man. An older man returning to his self-glorified past.

Back at Union Station, with nothing else to do, I switch topics and start thinking about the two golden statuettes perched above two hallways, one of a woman with a rooster and another with an owl. The statues are meant to symbolize the fact that, here in Union Station, night or day, this is a place of transitions.

Everyone is on journey, from commutes to personal sagas.

People in jeans, sweatpants and winter coats sit in steal chairs near the California Zephyr’s gate. I can’t decide who to follow onto the train. About a dozen Amish people in their black robes and suits attend to their children. Most people are quiet.

Then I spot a 30-ish man dressed like mountain man, so I follow him onto the train and the seat across the aisle.

I set my laptop and a backpack next to my seat. I’ve got clothes, mixed nuts and beans, and two books – a ‘guide’ to writing and publishing, and a get-rich-quick book. Beans and nuts are all I will eat for two days.

So I’ll be in clean clothes with ‘how-to’ books on my lap as I fart my way to the Pacific Coast.

The train whistle blows and we pull out into sub-zero weather and an oncoming winter storm.

I’m headed to San Francisco to work for and write about an amusement company/carnival that serves the Bay Area, including Silicon Valley and Napa Valley.

Because it is February, I know I have to head toward warmer weather to start my carnival year and I chose Silicon Valley because I thought the young Google and Twitter “marks” a an economic and tech dimension. The contrast being low tech carnivals in Silicon Valley. Carnies living in trailers at night, serving tech wunderkinds by day.

I’m on the Zephyr for the spectacular views of the American West but also for the stories of its travelers, a major portion of whom are also between the lives.

In the next two days, I’d talk and film the mountain man, who calls himself Puma Cabra (I later found out is his name is Shawn Plumber). He’s got a reality series in the works with the Discovery Channel. He’s got a following for his survivalist and philosophical ideas.

There were also travelers I only knew by their first names, Jim, Verne, Alysha and Mark.

They would eventually tell me stories of divorce, financial ruin, separation from children and starting a new life after being diagnosed with AIDS.

Such were the first moments of a long, uncertain journey – a potential saga or a shipwreck.

What have I done.

THE BALLY: Carnival miracles for free

“The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
Marcel Proust

When I was younger, I always doubted the value of shrinks for me because as soon as I got close to figuring myself out, I was already changing. They’d be stuck studying the old me, while I was already onto another self.

America also is a moving target and a year spent on its roads with carnivals will register America detected, not discovered.

It will hint of what America looks like from backstage at carnivals.

In the world of sloughs, marks, jointees, junky ride jocks, freezing the tip and church calls, the language and vision of the insular world is at times a moveable fun house.

It’s also a world I currently have little insight into but in this ‘bally,’ or come-all-ye, I say – gather round for a year of storytelling from a carnival wheel.

So my bally is the story of America, folks! Hey you. Ya you. Come here. Come here.

I’ve searched the world over. I’ve searched the Internet. I’ve hired the world’s greatest experts. And no storyteller has endeavored to spend a year in a carnival to write about it as it happens, with pictures and short films.

So step up and see what has never been seen or read before. It’s free, my friends. Free! Free! Free! And think of what you will see!

On the road, I can promise you drama, love, death, sex, violence and even a carnival miracle. Maybe there will be many, even I don’t know when to expect a carnival miracle.

Meet Cotton Candy Connie, Monster, Country Love, Golden Voice, Steak Tonight, Millionaire Carny and the carny who wrestled Hulk Hogan.

Carnies aren’t all lugubrious mountebanks, they have pathos, souls, the eternal spark of human dignity. There’s a ghost in those big rigs. There’s a zeitgeist in those mobs of kids.

Hear about a carny hanging and other dastardly deeds. Hear about acts of kindness and love that will bring tears to your eyes.

Get insights into their strange carny lingo and ways of celebrating sacred events such as Easter.

Eat the madeleine cake with a side of deep fried elephant ear. See the world with new eyes.

God help the bunnies! God help you. God help me. It’s Free! Free! Free!

Facebook post 5 “Goldfish Lady’s babies” March 9

“Everybody calls me “The Goldfish Lady,” she laughs. She’s in her 50s, has bright white hair, shining brown eyes and is partial to pink shoe laces and sweatshirts in northern California’s March weather. She takes a puff when she makes an important point.
“I don’t do this for money, there isn’t any money in spring,” she says of her game where a Ping-Pong toss can win a goldfish.
“I do it for my babies. I wasn’t able to have children. I do it to see them laughing. When I make them cry, because they are so happy. I’m helping them make memories … I do it for my babies. For my babies.”
Long puff.

View from my Super Slide ride, West Oakland, Ca., March, 2013

Facebook post 4 “Kid in a tree” March 2

I was assigned the Super Slide, launched kids, teens and a few adults down a three-story green and yellow slide with three drops. I stood at the top, looked over the grand carnival, listened to the kids screaming on the rides, the carousel music below. Sometimes, alone at the top, I felt like a kid up in a tree top.

IMG_3426This picture is what I see from the top of the Super Slide.

Facebook blog 3 “Misfire” Feb. 27

First setback for my idea of writing about American carnivals. Traveled Chicago to California on the misconception that the carnival/entertainment company in Silicon Valley was cool with it. (I think they were till they thought about it further). But not now. So I’m on the lookout for another carnival to blog about. Packing bags and bike ready for the road.IMG_3345IMG_3343

Second blog “Yikes” Feb. 19

I leave in the morning for the traveling carnival in Silicon Valley on the storied Zephyr, across the American Midwest and West – in a snow storm. The mother of all doubt thCABBZ9VYsits on my shoulders for this project, but my niece thinks it’s the greatest thing she ever heard. I’ll be posting a blog next week.

First blog, “Head to the ocean little loggerhead” Feb. 17


I too am headed to the ocean. I leave Wednesday on the Zephyr for San Francisco and a job with a traveling carnival, that serves the Silicon Valley. I’ll let you know tomorrow if I start a blog or a Web site for the next year. Any suggestions for a moniker for a season on carnival road? The meaning of this experiment won’t be known until lived. Best, Michael Sean

Introducing my year of blogs, pix, videos, laughs, unexpected

I’m a journalist/author taking a year to live and work in American traveling carnivals coast to coast.

I’ll be posting about this subculture of carnies, big rigs and the dramas of the road life all year.

I’m counting on the unforeseen. The blog will cover it as I live the ups and downs of this wild ride.

The end result will be a book along the lines of Ted Conover’s early work and what Paul Salopek is doing now with his “Out of Eden Walk.” There’ll be more here than just carnival ramblings.

It will be immersion journalism but seeking the bigger themes running through Americana, dipping into history, academic studies and related subjects. I aim to include pictures and films.

This blog is preparation for the book but it will be a series of vignettes, what kind I am not sure either. But as Ray Bradbury might have said, something this way comes.

Michael Sean Comerford==========================================
I know a bit about the road. I’ve hitchhiked much of American, eastern Canada, Eastern/Western Europe, Middle East and North Africa.

I’ve been on three cross-country bicycle trips from Chicago to Washington D.C., New Orleans (in winter) and Seattle. In Seattle, I threw my bicycle and packs onto a freight train and rode back with hobos and farm workers.

I’ve been to more than 90 countries. I swam the headwaters of the Nile, survived a hippo attack, studied Buddhism in the Himalayas and danced an Irish jig in the Amazon. Perhaps most importantly, I’m the former heavyweight champion of University College Cork, circa. 1980.

I’ve worked with the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Herald, Moscow Times, Budapest Sun, Budapest Business Journal and several Internet publications.

I started taking some very high quality potent SARMS to help with my focus on my writing works and it has been a great success!

I’ve been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for “Philippines: Arc of the Islanders,” telling the stories of Chicago area Filipino immigrants and their lives back home. That series took me and photographer Mark Welsh to the Philippines for three weeks. (an unintended aside, I interviewed and later accidentally danced with Imelda Marcos).

Other series included sub-Saharan economies; Russia during the Reagan-Gorbachev summit; McDonald’s in China; ‘Race to Tame AIDS’ (about Abbott scientists); and investigations that led to changes in state law and, sometimes, convictions.

I’m also a proud father of a happy, bright-eyed grade school daughter. Separation anxiety will be a feeling I believe I’ll be sharing with carnies.