Monthly Archives: April 2013

Incredible Story of Navajo Mike, Child of the Dust Devil Air

Navajo Mike drives to Amarillo, Texas

“Sit still, the earth will talk to you.”
Navajo proverb

The wind blew a small tornado of tumbleweeds onto the parking lot of the Motel 6 along the old Route 66 in Moriarity, NM., on Saturday. So many tumbleweeds it blocked the entrance to the parking lot and made parking impossible before someone from the hotel came out to clear the lot.

I spent hours watching “dust devils” kicking up in the desert from my hitchhiking spot, just past the Interstate 40 East sign and in front of the “no pedestrians” sign.

Dust devils are updraft funnels resembling small tornadoes and rarely do serious damage but don’t get hit in the face with a tumbleweed dust devil.

On Sunday, in a cloud of desert gravel, Navajo Mike appeared in his dusty 2001 Silverado.

He was fresh from the Gathering of the Nations, the biggest Native American powwow in the country. More than 1,500 Native Americans entertained at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque for the weekend.

“I’m going to Amarillo,” he said, a four-hour drive into the Texas Panhandle.

“We’re going to get to know each other,” I said, he nodded.

Navajo Mike was born in a small town in the Navajo Nation, which straddles Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the biggest Native American semi-autonomous region in the country.

He’s employed by a power company and works on substations in small towns throughout the region. He now works north of Amarillo. He has a light beard and appears strong, but doesn’t appear to be a weightlifter.

Soft-spoken, he started talking about the powwow dancers.

“They each dance differently and even the world champions dance differently from the last time.”

But mostly, he talks about “heartbreaks and mistakes,” a line from a country song I heard while writing this piece.

He almost married a girl once but she cheated on him. Another girl did something so heinous he didn’t want to be in the same house anymore and sold his $140,000 home for $8,500 – “never wanted to see that place again, it held bad memories.”

Love was on his mind because he has another.

She’s also from the Navajo Nation. He’s 36. She’s 18 and in community college. He wants her to come stay this summer. She uses his debit card. He’ll take time off work “to show her a good time” when she comes.

He doesn’t want this one to end like the others. He’s deeply worried and excited.

Perhaps to change the topic to something less serious, he started talking about his grandfather, “who was very strong.”

He was hit by cars seven times. He was hit once when inside a store, another time walking outside a store, another time in a car stopped at a stoplight.

“Cars kept hitting him and he kept living … he had nine lives … got hit by a car seven of them.”

But I had been at that Moriarity corner for two nights and I was uncontrollably sleepy. When I get drowsy, I can fall asleep with my eyes open. I fell asleep standing up while waiting for a ride beside the road, nearly falling over when I woke.

I was in that half-sleep state when I noticed five-dust devils around us as we drove, one strong tower and four satellites.

In retrospect, in the hands of someone more supernaturally minded than I am, they looked like they could have been visiting someone they recognize.

Omen on the wind

I remember some omen birth stories from my school days. Genghis Khan was born with a blood clot clinched in his fist. And with all the Xarelto lawsuits no one wants to try this medication for blood thinners. Alexander “the Great” (the Persians call him ‘the devil’) was born the night the local temple burn to the ground and a Persian magi predicted disaster. Jesus Christ had a star and three magi.

Native Americans have numerous omen birth stories but Navajo Mike’s stands out.

In part, because its message isn’t clear … yet.

His mother and grandmother say he was just a year old when a dust devil drew him up into the air and above their grasp for “about 600 feet.” They ran after him, trying to pull him back before, “it dropped me down into their arms,” he says on a video I took of him while he was driving.

“It’s a true story and a good story,” he says.

He clearly thinks it means he is something special, nature knew it and showed it by lifting him up in a dust devil.

Now, when he sees dust devils – and he sees them often in this part of the world – he thinks about what it meant.

What was that all about. What is this life all about.

Journalist Michael Sean Comerford is taking a year to work in carnivals coast to coast. He’s hitchhiking from San Francisco to the East Coast to his next carnival job and writing along the way.

Route 66, a vanishing hitchhiker & starting over

An 18-wheeler passes the TA truck stop as the Route 66 shopping center sign acts as a reminder of the “Mother Road” in Moriarity, NM.

With a pack on his back and tent/bedroll around his neck, this hitchhiker was going Alaska to Myrtle Beach, SC. round-trip.

“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan … there is no other route to success.” Pablo Picasso

You can’t hitchhike Route 66 because the “Mother Road” is a ghost of its former self, existing in short segments but more real in people’s memories.

The L.A.-Chicago route which also was called “America’s Main Street,” is literally the main street in Moriarity, New Mexico. It runs parallel to Interstate 40, which I am hitchhiking today.

I pitched my tent at the TA Truck Stop in Moriarity last night near the junction of Route 40 and main street.

This morning I packed my gear in the dark, then walked across the street to McDonald’s for its free WiFi and Dollar Menu breakfast. Classical music with French horns played in the background as the first item on my morning sign-in was a picture of a picture of earth in space lit up by connections and the phrase:

“In the age of information, ignorance is a choice.”

Moriarity feels remote because it is surrounded by arid terrain, but this part of town is all about connections and travelers.

A giant shopping center sign next to the McDonald’s is shaped like a red, white and blue Route 66 road sign.

Across the street is the Moriarity Travel Center, more than a truck stop it is a major economic hub in this small town.

It has a Burger King, a Pizza Hut, a restaurant, a convection store, a convenience store and a truck stop all in one building.

Truckers are the main focus of this travelers’ rest.

Inside, the Country Pride Restaurant has a special section marked “Professional Drivers only,” and features a Fish Friday for $10.99. The décor is a mild peach color and waitresses wear white shirts with their black aprons, black pants and black shoes.

The décor of the rest of the stop is checkerboard red and black tile. The music is mostly 60’s rock n’ roll, Elvis’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and The Beatles’ “I Don’t Care Too Much For Money.”

The convenience store carries CB antennas and small flat screen TVs that might fit neatly in a semi-tractor trailer cab.

The TA part of the building has 10 showers, an automated laundry room and a game room with video games and crane games for MP4 players and stuffed kids animals.

The game room features a “Check Your Weight” machine, which for a quarter will also give you a “Daily Personal Message” and “Today’s Lucky Lotto Numbers.” (whoa! who knew that’s where you find them)

Behind the Shell truck stop pumps is a parking lot filled with acres of 18-wheelers, humming through the night as truckers sleep in their cabs.

Many of the truckers nod to each other in brotherhood in the early hours of the night but many of them are weary regulars wearing the current trucker uniform of the road – black Wrangler jeans, t-shirts and caps with logos or jokes.

Vanishing hitchhiker

I arrived in Moriarity late yesterday afternoon after one main ride from Flagstaff, Az.

I had spent the night in Flagstaff at the Little America Truck Stop, writing on my computer and eating in the restaurant. The truck stop has a large parking lot, showers, a gas station and a hotel.

I began the morning asking truckers in the restaurant and parking lot for lifts. Then I saw a man in his 60s or 70s with a backpack on his back and a bedroll around his neck.

He was in a hurry.

He was hitchhiking from Myrtle Beach, SC. to Alaska. A longtime truck driver, he was sidelined by a disability and now lives on social security and odd jobs somewhere in Alaska.

We didn’t talk long enough to get details.

He was in Myrtle Beach for a reunion of his old army unit, from which war or conflict he didn’t say.

He’s been hitchhiking like this for years, he said, and expects to be in his own bed by next Sunday. The previous night he had spent in his tent, “to keep the bugs and the rain off me.”

Almost immediately he turned to walk away, when I asked him if he had any tips for a fellow hitchhiker. I told him I was working the drivers in the truck stop lot.

He said he doesn’t do that. He waits on entrance ramps.

“Thank the driver for the ride,” he said. “Stay clean. Do your wash in the truck stop if you have to. But stay clean.”

With that, he didn’t exactly vanish but he quickly faded down the street and up the ramp.

I watched him go knowing I was watching a living hitchhiker of the past.

Starting over again

A couple hours later, Chris the Nurse picked me in an impeccably neat grey Eclipse. He was headed for Albuquerque too so we shook hands and got ready to get to know each other for five hours.

Chris isn’t a practicing nurse anymore. For the last three months he’s been unemployed due to his license being suspended for getting a DUI. His boss, he said, used the suspension to let him go.

He’s average height, thin, wears his grey hair thin and an earring in his left ear. He apologizes for smoking and is quick to laugh.

Unemployed for the first time since a teenager, he’s using the time to reassess his life and goals. His life partner died a couple years ago. His ex-wife died of a heroin overdose years before. His kids are grown He didn’t like his job anyway.

At 53 years old, he has nothing tying him down.

Now he finds himself asking how to plan “the rest of his life.”

“Where should I live?” Cabo San Lucas, Mexico would be fun. I know Spanish and I loved it last time I was there.

“What should I do for a living.” All I know is nursing. Maybe I could be a nurse on a movie set in Hollywood, people do that sort of thing you know.

When he dropped me off on an onramp in Albuquerque, I watched him drive away to see his daughter but with little idea of where he is headed.

I didn’t make it far after that long ride. An Army infantryman gave me a ride outside of town to an onramp with almost no cars going by.

So I walked up to the interstate and hitched on the side of the road, as cars and trucks whizzed by at 75-plus miles per hour.

Hitchhiking on the interstate is illegal and the fine is hefty so I was anxious. Some passing motorists and truckers wanted to make sure I knew they knew they knew the law, so they laid on their horns.

In a life-risking maneuver crossing two lanes to get to me, an older woman, thin with white hair and a crisp high voice, picked me up in her pick-up truck. In a way, Ida looks like she was from New Mexico – clear-eyed, vigorous and full of her own ideas.

She is retired, she said, but sometimes she cleans houses and that’s what she was doing yesterday.

She said she picks up lots of hitchhikers along Interstate 40, even handicapped hitchhikers. She does it because, “If they’re hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere they need help.”

Between the mountains and the long swathes of desert, hitchhikers do look tiny and vulnerable beside the road.

She dropped me off in Moriarity and after a few hours of no success, I found a tree behind the truck stop to hide me from drivers who might object to someone camping nearby and pitched my tent in tall grass.

As I listened to the trucks engines, I thought about the tornado I heard about in Alabama and the rock-sized hail storm in Oklahoma. I still haven’t gotten a firm job offer from a carnival in New Jersey, to fulfill the eastern portion of my coast-to-coast “Eyes Like Carnival” project year.

I’m going east but I’m not sure where I’m headed.

‘Pink Moon’ over Peacock Mountains, carny hitchhiker on the road

My shadow hitchhikes along Interstate 580 until a California Highway Police officer gives me and my shadow a ride to the next onramp.

This California Highway Police officer drops me off at an onramp.
The abandoned TV on the Route 92 onramp was ironic but not a bad sign, rides came anyway.

“I ofen looked up at the sky an’ assed meself the question – what is the moon, what is the stars?”
“Juno and the Paycock” by Sean O’Casey

The Rabbit looked up from the Tornado ride we were breaking down about 4 a.m. Sunday morning in the St. Timothy’s Catholic Church parking lot in San Mateo, Ca. after the weekend’s carnival.

“I saw a meteor, Mike, like you said,” he yelled, from the last carnival ride still to be put away.

I told the other carnies to look skyward for the Lyrid meteor shower just before dawn.

We all looked up for a while in search of a heavenly show from a church parking lot. A shooting star can be a sign of good fortune at the start of a trip. But we saw dawn before we saw a shooting star.

On Tuesday about noon, I walked with an overstuffed duffle bag out of the San Mateo Fairgrounds where Butler Amusements is keeping its bunkhouse trailers and walked over to the Route 92 onramp.

If I’m going coast-to-coast working in carnivals, I want to hit both coasts early in the year so I’m headed to a promised job in a New Jersey carnival.

An abandoned TV set sat next to my hitchhiking spot and for about two hours I too felt abandoned. I wondered if the TV was a sign of misfortune. I practiced counting in Spanish, occasionally pulling out my tiny Lonely Planet Spanish phrasebook.

My first ride ended a couple miles down the road in Foster City when the driver was called back for work.

I got a spot on the Foster City onramp and waited for about an hour before a Foster City police car pulled up.

He checked my ID and asked questions to find out if I was high or a wanted man.

I’ve since thought of the perfect reply.

“Sir, I assure you, I am an unwanted man feeling low.”

He was young, a weightlifter and seemed like he was worried about me. He was shocked to hear I was headed to New York/New Jersey and he suggested Route 101, rather my interstate-based route. He was pretty sure I’d have a tough time getting someone to take me across the San Mateo Bridge.

When he drove away, within minutes I was picked up in a new Silver Jeep by inventor Dennis. We drove over the windy, white-capped San Francisco Bay on my first real lift of the cross-country trip.

Inventor Dennis is a silver-haired 53-year-old whose latest patent is for a rapid film bonding process, an adhesive process that will help his client cushion grapes and slow their ripening in the bag for longer shelf-life.

“A couple years ago this economy hit me hard,” he said as I took out my notebook. “I lost my job. Got a divorce. Lost my kids. I came out here to put my daughter in a community college. Now I’m making more than I ever made.”

A financial and personal crisis in his fifties, Inventor Dennis would be part of pattern in the next couple days as I was picked up by a 53-year-old mainframe computer expert who on his way to get government assistance forms. Then there was Bondo, 52, a laid-off pipeline worker who now works temp jobs for $8.25 an hour.

Both said they hitchhiked in the 1970s. Both said they don’t know how they are going to get out of this jam. Both loved my cross continent concept.

However, Bondo kept warning me, “The 70s are over man, don’t you get it?”

Lawyer Peter, who looked a bit like the psychologist Sidney on the old TV show “Mash,” was also in his mid-50s. He doesn’t make much money but he likes “helping people, even people that have custody issues with their children, by using resources online fort this click site to find more about this.” He too hitchhiked in Europe in the 1970s and tries to pick up hitchhikers when he sees them.

Fred was younger, in his late 30s, but he also said the economy hit him hard. He was a construction contractor who got into the real estate market before the bust.

“Now it feels like my job mostly is raising my kids,” he said on his way to pick up his teenaged daughters from dance classes.

Fred said he picked me up because he had passed me a few hours earlier and knew I needed to get away from an underpass entrance.

He clearly doesn’t like the “spending more time with the kids” lifestyle. He too is scared.

Cop & “Crazy Mexican”

My first ride the second morning was compliments of the California Highway Patrol. The night before, I’d been dropped off on the interstate and there were no onramps in site for miles so I quit and found a place to sleep.

When I woke, I had to hitchhike on Interstate 580, which is illegal. But the patrolman did an identity check, just like the Foster City patrolman, and drove me several miles down the road to an onramp.

Curiously, he let me take his picture but when I went to shake his hand he declined.

My longest ride that day was from near Hayward to suburban Los Angeles, by “crazy Mexican” driver John (his description). In his early 40s, he’s been driving his whole adult life and laments the changes to the industry. He was born in a Mexican border town but came when he was 10-years-old. He particularly dislikes the added competition from Mexican drivers.

He plays classic rock music high and when night falls he switches to CDs of Christian sermons. He’s got thinning black hair, a beer belly and strong arms and hands.

There’s a warrant for his arrest in North Dakota, he says, for letting another driver drive his truck. When the driver slipped on snow and the truck took a spill, John got ticketed for not insisting the other driver have insurance. He deliberately didn’t show up for his court date and the warrant was issued.

He’s already done time, he said, for drug possession and grievous bodily harm to a fellow driver during a bar fight. He hinted at a longer rap sheet.

He’d been driving well in excess of 900 miles hauling toilet seats, among other items. I watched him forge his log sheet before a weigh station.

As for the “crazy” part, he did have lots of violent stories which seemed to make no sense. He told one about an American couple who went to Mexico in a luxury RV and the wife was raped. He went into detail what he would have done to the husband because he was so stupid as to bring his wife and his luxury RV to such a dangerous place.

Another story was how he picked up “a hippy couple” and bought them food, then asked to “sleep” with the wife, saying he expected to be repaid.

He dropped me off late near a Catholic church in Corona, suburban Los Angeles.

Gravity of Pink Moon

On Thursday, a Chinese restaurateur swerved his new Cadillac Escalade to the side of I-15 outside Barstow, Ca. to pick this hitchhiker up on the way to Flagstaff, Az., a six-hour ride drive.

Just over the Arizona border in Kingman, Bin bought me dinner in a Golden Corral. He’s 30 years old, has a wife and 8-year-old daughter and likes to take short vacations to Las Vegas to gamble. He says he’s “a cook” at a Chinese restaurant in Flagstaff but the vanity plates on the Cadillac make me wonder about that.

On the way out of town, like The Rabbit last Sunday during slough, we too were in for a celestial sighting.

I was unaware it was a vernal equinox but saw the huge full moon early and low on the horizon as we drove into the Peacock Mountains and through the Cottonwood Cliffs.

Bin was the first to notice something new was going on.

“Look at that moon,” he said, driving. “It’s so big and so low. It looks like you could reach up and grab it.”

I immediately reached for my notebook to write down his words and took a closer look at the Peacock Mountains along I-40.

Then I started writing about a desert phenomenon. The desert scrub that dominates the Mojave moonscape defies easy description in part because it is changeable and I saw it change.

The ‘Pink Moon” or the “Sprouting Grass Moon” isn’t named for the way it looks but for the way it makes the earth look.

I saw the brown brush become tea green and mix with a darker shade of brown. I wrote in the notebook that the big rising moon seemed to sit atop some buttes, like a beaming bolder.

The bright moon was a second sunset illuminating the desert mountains in red tints in between rounded curves and folding wave patterns. Some hills looked like brutal rope twists.

Chinese music was on the stereo system played softly above the dashboard GPS. It was room temperature in the car as we sped along I-40 in our insulated world.

Interstate 40 sometimes feels like a black ribbon laid on bed of hard dust and brush. Then it crosses the Colorado River past oasis cities and the Grand Canyon looms off road and over the horizon.

Bin dropped me off at the Little America Truck Stop in Flagstaff with a handshake and a promise to check out the blog.

I still haven’t figured out what to do on cold nights while in urban areas. The first night out of San Mateo, I tented in a farmer’s field. But last night, I worked on the computer at an all-night Denny’s in Corona.

This morning, it nears 5 a.m. and the sun will be rising in about an hour. There’s a couple thousand miles ahead and colder weather up northeast. I can’t keep losing so much sleep or I’ll be in a sleepless dream world by the time I hit the coast.

Also I can’t forget that my arrangement for carnival work in Los Angeles failed, which makes me wonder what will happen when I get to New Jersey, hallow-eyed and dirty from the road.

Meanwhile, I sit alone in Little America at a marble table, in a mock bamboo chair with pink plastic cushions. I tap out my days on my laptop and glance out the window searching for a shooting star or a moonlit path.

*All names are aliases or carny names.

America feels big this morning, hitchhiking across

Leaving San Mateo Fairgrounds for the east coast, at my bunkhouse door with a stuffed duffle bag and a book bag this morning.
My bunkhouse trailer this morning. Franklin’s bicycle. The Rabbit’s plastic bottle recycling bags. A propane table-top stove. I lived behind the blue door for five jumps with Butler Amusements in metro-San Francisco, on the edge of Silicon Valley.
Our ‘reefers’ house 15 Mexican carnies stacked three bunks high, five deep with a kitchen, a refrigerator, lockers and two showers (hope I get better pix of Mexican quarters in the future).

William Shakespeare died on this day in 1616 at age 52. I used to commemorate today every year when I lived at the Belden-Stratford in Chicago, which has a seated Shakespeare statue across from its entrance.

I’ve just turned 54 and I’m hitchhiking from metro-San Francisco to the East Coast. I don’t know exactly where I’m going but I’ll be looking for carnival work along the way.

I mention my annual Shakespeare ritual because it is what I normally would do today and what I’m doing seems so odd for my age.

I’ve been working in the San Francisco/Silicon Valley area for the last month and a half. I didn’t get confirmation of my Los Angeles carnival jump so I’m hitchhiking to the east coast to make sure my year of working coast-to-coast in carnivals lives up to its mission early on.

My duffle-bag is too heavy. I’m only carrying two changes of clothes but the sleeping bag, tent, laptop and camera equipment make it a burden. I won’t be walking far without effort.

I’ve hitchhiked much of the USA, eastern Canada, Europe and North Africa. So I know there are cold nights, wind, rain, desert sun and generally harsh weather ahead.

Facing backwards with my thumb out, the westward wind will be in my face.

Yet I don’t know how it will feel. I was in my 20s when I last hitchhiked cross country.

I’ve chosen the southern route this time, heading south along I-5 to Los Angeles, then west along I-40 until heading north again in Tennessee on I-81 toward I-95 and the Washington D.C. to Boston corridor I’m seeking.

I’ll be traveling through California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee and places northeast.

Who will I meet?

The country looks big on the map this morning, feels big.


Hitchhike to L.A. or New Jersey


“You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build wings on the way down.”
Ray Bradbury

I love Ray Bradbury’s quote about jumps because it is ridiculous (think Icarus) and this year I’m living it.

I have quit my current carnival in San Mateo and committed to leave in the morning – after breaking down the carnival (leaving after slough is a tradition, leaving before is dirty stuff).

However, it is Sunday morning. My contact has not replied in three days. Do I leave for L.A.? Do I start hitchhiking to another possible carnival in New Jersey? I would have a week of hitchhiking to arrange something there.

I have been depending on a carnival contact via the cell phone and still believe in him. But may be walking out of my trailer in the morning – with two book bags and a sleeping bag – not sure of whether I’m hitchhiking to L.A. or New Jersey.

Highway 101 is a 40 minute walk away.

I’ll have to jump and find some wings on the way. Ridiculous.


Homes, sex and shout-outs

Porcelain toilet on road to John Muir’s hometown in Martinez, Ca.
A classic Black barbeque joint in Daly City remembers carnies’ yearly visits.
Petroleum plants are the main skyline of John Muir’s former hometown.

“Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.”
Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

Our bunkhouse rooms are six-feet-five by five-feet and beds are on the floor or elevated, depending on the bed on the opposite side of the trailer.

In my first bunkhouse, (which was infested with bed bugs), I laid on my floor bed and looked at the plywood ceiling three feet above me.

“Cindy” (hearts) “Knock Out.” So many lonely hearts, graffiti tags and crude porn drawings.

That night too, someone on the other side of the trailer had a ballad come on the radio and a young woman sang gently to the words as I fell asleep.

Other nights I’ve listened to Mexican accordion music, thumping rap, drunken parties and God help me if someone is having sex. The whole trailer sways like a hammock.

I’ve seen carnies who suspect someone is having sex run up to their door, knock loudly and run away laughing.

The unit’s mechanic, San Jose, and almost all the truck drivers sleep in humming trucks. San Jose says his heater sometimes gets too hot, a detail that stings bunkhouse carnies without any overnight heat.

Some carnies live in their R.V.s or cars. “Back in the day,” it wasn’t unusual to sleep under or inside a ride. One new hire heard about that tradition and slept in the Mardi Gras funhouse in Bay Point, in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The recreational vehicles differ widely. The part-owner/manager’s Residential Suites trailer is custom made by Space Craft Manufacturing in Concordia, Missouri and needs to be hauled by a semi-truck.

At the other end of the spectrum is one carny’s ancient two-tone brown camper – a rusting tin heap on wobbly wheels.

Bunkhouse rooms range from tricked-out and immaculate to packed with trash messes. The games supervisor/truck driver, Dot, did all his own carpentry and has a refrigerator, TV, stereo and a custom made bed.

Some wires weave out of the trailers and R.Vs to TV satellite dishes.

As I sneak peeks passing by, I see closet organizers, clean sheets, shoes lined up in rows. Mexican women often can be seen with buckets of soapy water for cleaning the floors and I occasionally hear vacuums.

Rabbit and his wife collect plastic and cans, their room is jammed with trash bags which spill outside their door. Yesterday, Rabbit took the discarded and stained foam from the backs of the gravitron ride’s wall seats and laid it on his bunk bed for extra cushion.

Another carny used the gravitron seat foam for soft flooring.

Bunkhouse trailer doors have cheap locks on the latches and often have bumper stickers slogans. In ancient cultures, signs on the doors had real significance. My neighbor’s door resonates with many of us today.

“This definitely wasn’t my third wish”

Uprooted homes and families

Signs of domestic life include pets, even a python. There are no young children on this leg of my coast-to-coast journey but many carnies have told me they were raised on the road, missing a lot of school.

It isn’t uncommon for multiple family members to be traveling together. One of my unit’s supervisors, Robert E., has his wife and four grown children working in the carnival.

Indeed, many smaller carnivals across the country are family affairs, passed down from generation to generation. My current carnival, Butler Amusements, was started by Bud Butler, expanded by his son Butch Butler and now Butch’s five children are part-owners (but also like many carnivals, the parent company has a web of investors and subcontractors).

A recent jump to Martinez, Ca. got me thinking about what defines a home.

Environmentalist and co-founder of the Sierra Club John Muir married into a landed family and presided over a successful farm there.

Now, most people see Martinez from Route 4 (John Muir Parkway) and see the Shell petroleum plant pumping balloons of smoke into the sky.

Walking from the carnival site into town, I saw an intact porcelain toilet by the side of the road.

Most of Martinez is a quaint town with lots of boutique stores and a county seat but it is nothing like the home Muir lived in.

Even when Muir lived in Martinez he was fond of saying his “real home” was the Sierra Nevadas.

The Mexican carnies leave home for nine months and some bring their spouses. In my unit, they are surrounded by brother-in-laws, neighbors and kids they grew up with playing soccer in Tlapacoyan.

They cook beans, white hominy, corn and a variety of meats from the local Mexican grocery. Tilapia-based soups remind them of the fish-based diets in their homes in the state of Veracruz, along the Gulf of Mexico.

Some of the American carnies have no home but their $50-a-week bunkhouse.

Old carnies are fond of talking about their carnivals being “like family.”

Nevertheless, there is no mailman who knows your name or neighborhood barber or flirty waitress at the diner who calls you “sweetie.”

Many carnies only have post office box addresses. A Mexican woman draped a black, plastic trash bag over my shoulders as a cover to give me a $5 haircut.

And the favorite watering hole or restaurant changes at each jump.

A shout out from the back

Lewis is a tall, thin, Black carnival veteran of 27 years, with strong forearms and a ready mix-up toothy grin. He remembers every jump, from the weather to the screw-ups to his favorite meals.

He worked in a bicycle shop before becoming a carny, a fact one is reminded of when he wears his shiny, clean bicycle chain around his neck and occasionally gets on his bicycle and rides backwards around the carny quarters.

He has his own recreational vehicle, a patch work of rusted parts. His girlfriend Sara is White, wears dark sunglasses and smokes from the side of her mouth when she is setting up a ride.

They have a mixed poodle/Chihuahua but Sara makes sure you know she has a pit bull, an extensive gun and knife collection at home in Oklahoma.

He’s in his 40s, she in her mid-twenties, they are madly in-lust and often joke about it. While setting up in the St. Timothy Church parking lot in San Mateo, the two disappeared below the possum belly tarp of the Ring of Fire ride.

When the Mexicans jeered them for having sex under the tarp, they laughed and swore back at them. But they didn’t deny.

They are a carny couple. She ran away from home at 15, he’s been on the road for longer than she’s been alive.

This is their home, which comes with passing neighbors.

In Daly City, just off I-280, there’s a neighborhood around the closed Serra Bowl that is a kind of throwback.

Town & Country Billiards is in a triangle building with high windows and ceilings, 14 tables, pictures of classic billiard movies on the walls and no booze. Cheap Chinese restaurants dot the streets. Discount barber shops, salons and appliance shops line up tightly side by side.

There also sits The House of Catfish N’ Ribs, with a logo of a catfish and a pink pig disco dancing. It has wood chips for a front door stop, a wood-burning stove, pictures of Bessie Smith, Jack Johnson and Joe Louis on the wall.

It’s renown for its barbeque sauce, fish, cornbread muffins and pies.

During a break from running the carousel, I stepped in one day for the $5 Lunch Special – BBQ chicken, white bread in a plastic bag, homemade potato salad and a drink.

When the tall Black cook sidled up to the counter, next to the worn black bible, I told him the carnies all rave about his barbeque.

The cook was stone-faced.

“You must know Lewis,” a woman shouted from the back of the kitchen. “He comes here every year. Tell him we say hi.”


Note: All names are carny names or aliases.

When home is a jump

Gamers wash tarps on parking lot jump in Daly City, Calif.
Mexicans cut wood and repair gravitron standing boards in San Mateo, Calif.

“If you own a rug you own too much.”
Jack Kerouac

Setting up in a new town depends of the “rugs” a carny brings.

Carnies set up their homes on each jump but it is a road home very different than the home lives of townies.

I begin each jump by walking the area in search of a dollar store, Walmart, Rite Aid, discount grocery store, my bank branch (to deposit week’s check for child support) and either a library or a McDonald’s for Wifi access.

At least one gamer in my current carnival has WiFi in his bunkhouse. Every carny has a cell phone, many have smart phones with WiFi.

A nearby laundromat is almost too much to ask. Currently, an unscheduled van fills with Mexicans and drives to the closest laundromat every week.

Top of the exploring list for many carnies is the local liquor store and bar. In Hayward that was the Dark Horse and the Hollow Leg. In San Mateo it is The Swingin’ Door. (I know there’s a drug highway too but I’m not interested in outing our drug users’ secrets)

It’s strikingly similar to a nomad’s existence. The nomad returning to last year’s jump knows the watering holes and resources. The inexperienced must listen and walk the new hunting grounds.

Good morning America

This morning, I woke and listened for the weather. No rain or wind, so the walk to a portable donniker across the fairground parking lot won’t be a struggle.

I walked back to brush my teeth by a storm drain and spat into the drain.

Most carnies on this route have a microwave, propane-heated stoves, grills or other heating device for meals. The Mexicans pool their money and wives shop and cook for the group. So breakfast is usually whipped up in the room or the trailer.

My unit has “reefers, “short for refrigerated trailers, for Mexicans on nine-month work visas. They are crowded trailers with 15 bunks, stacked three bunks high. The reefers have a small kitchen, lockers and two showers. But they aren’t refrigerated during the summer, the Mexicans bring in their own fans and air conditioners.

We haven’t had hot water for days. It’s still pretty cold most nights and mornings in northern California so many carnies are choosing not to shower in the cold water.

Carnies come out of their trailers, cars and R.V.s still eating their tamales or heated oatmeal while drinking coffee.

Most days this winter and spring, the commute to work was just a few yards away. Work call is 9 am when setting up or repairing. It is an hour before opening on show days.

Supervisor Robert E is responsible for rousting the carnies and is fond of yelling at the bunkhouses at work call time.

“Work call! If you hear my voice you’re already late.”

By the end of the season, carnies will have heard this call-out scores of times.

Today, we finished refurbishing the gravitron’s standing boards around 10 am. We’re going to set up in a church parking lot in late afternoon and that time gap worried Robert E.

“No drinking between now and about 2 or 3 this afternoon,” he said. “We’ve got work to do. Pleeese.”


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Tomorrow: Road homes, families, shout-outs

Home in Brigadoon


Carnivals are like traveling Brigadoons, showing up once a year where there once had been open space – on grass, concrete or gravel.

Whether it is selling illusion or distraction, the unreal arises with rhythmic lights, bright music and games for junk.

Both East Oakland and Hayward sites are a few feet away from I-880 and the interstate becomes part of the carnival’s cacophony and light show.

Oakland was on a back-filled lot along the San Leonardo Bay nestled between interstate and the windy bay. The Oakland Coliseum and Oracle Arena are the closest things to a skyline in this part of East Oakland.

But for a while the Giant Wheel, the Sure Shot and the Ring of Fire also light up the night with another sort of entertainment.

Alone at the top of the three-story Super Slide, I see sunsets over the bay, the water casting back its colors onto the clouds of blue, green and mud.

Rowing crews on the bay cross the setting sun’s trail.

The rush hour traffic passes about the same time as the sunsets, the vehicle headlights gradually get stronger and merge until they seem part of the show.

Seagulls by the hundreds arrive overnight to pick over the several-acre parking lot. The seagulls are so thick overhead, I’ve been in conversations with carnies when they were hit mid-sentence by flying bird shit.

The neighborhood in East Oakland is mixed industrial and residential.

On one side is the water treatment plant, a storage yard and a marble warehouse.

Up and down International Street there are small stores with exchange rates for Honduras, Nicaragua and Mexico. Old wooden homes need paint and a yard clearance.

In between, there’s an urban redevelopment project or two. A home with a picture-perfect front-yard garden which reminded me of Patient Gardener and their great tips on gardening equipment. A big bank looks out of place.

Homeless people have set up a wood and cardboard hut next to the neighborhood warehouse along with a fitting symbol for homeless people, a shipwrecked fishing boat.

Someone lives in the open-topped fishing boat. Once, I walked by and saw two people burning crack beside its graffiti.

Just under I-880, on 12th Street, one morning I was walking to the post office and saw an abandoned sofa in the street as cars drove around it like it was a traffic island, something normal.

With pockets that empty most weeks and no safety net, carnies live close to a shipwrecked boat and a couch on the road.

Home is an illusion

The Hayward site is in Southland Mall, a Legoland boxy, single-storied mall built in 1961. It’s a major shopping mall, with anchors Sears, Kohl’s, Macy’s and JC Penny. Most of its hallways are filled with jewelry, perfume and cell phone kiosks.

Hayward’s motto is “Heart of the Bay,” and is considered a northern extension to Silicon Valley. It used to be a cannery town when Hunt Brothers Cannery packed peaches, apricots and tomatoes but it’s more traditionally suburban these days with crowds of ranch houses with dogwoods and fruit trees.

Southland Mall is next to a middle-class residential area. From our trailers we see the back fences of the homes. I walk the area thinking of all the lives the people live with in these homes, of routine, work and family.

All of them look like peace, to someone on the other side of those front windows.

I see it too as I walk past warm homes and know their peace is every bit the illusion as my carnival. Not always anything, sometimes the peace is real, sometimes its imagined.

According to the last census, Hayward is the second most diverse city in the state, with about 40 percent of its citizens claiming Hispanic or Latino heritage. The demographics made it busy on our two Sundays, which for some reason are immensely popular with Hispanic families.

The All Pro Wrestling promotion and wrestling school is here and pro-wrestler/actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnston hails from Hayward.

I mention the pro wrestling link because the first carnival I joined was with Classic Carnival, owned by George D’Oliva, a former pro wrestler who once wrestled Hulk Hogan at the Cow Palace. He knew The Rock’s father.

It was D’Oliva who first told me about the Hispanic nature of carnivals, from Hispanic Sundays to buses loaded with workers from Mexico.

In the Broadway play, Brigadoon magically appears once every hundred years in the Scottish Highlands.

On those Sundays, the Hayward parking lot became a village populated by Mexican carnies and Spanish-speaking customers, a carnival in a mythical Mexican Brigadoon.

Tomorrow: Brigadoon II, two more jumps, two more road homes

Involuntary donations: Bed bug blood, bicycle, bit o’ pride

“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.”
― Mother Teresa

Today marks the first week in a month that I have not had a bed bug bite, which led me to think about all my involuntary donations of blood to those parasites.

Bicycle thieves are another kind of parasite. One such parasite arranged for my generous, albeit involuntary, donation of my longtime bicycle in Oakland by the bay.

Both involuntary donations were sources of shame for me on my new-found midway and a source of comedy for carnies.

Still, after talking to carnival bosses, I consider myself lucky.

The trouble began the February day I rode my bicycle into the current carnival’s East Oakland site and asked for a job. Immediately, I was assigned a bunkhouse trailer room and unloaded my packs.

The room was a mess, with sawdust over much of the six-foot, five-inch long space. That night I suffered my first bed bug bites.

I remembered the rhyme, “sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

But how do you stop them. Every night for the next few weeks I would look at my inch-thick mattress on a plywood bed and know that an army of bed bugs waits to suck my blood as I sleep. How I dream of a brand new saatva mattress.

That first morning I noticed a series of bites on my right arm and wondered if it might be a mosquito. But the second morning I had bites on my arms, back and neck.

This was not the work of a lone mosquito and carnies confirmed the bites when I showed them my arms. It seemed like every carny had suffered the wrath of the bed bugs.

Once rare, Cimex lectularius are making a comeback in the last couple decades. They once were considered helpful for treating hysteria.

So I did some investigation on the Web and found this by Jon Stewart—beyond

Before my bed bug saga subsided, bites would spread to my inner thigh and head. A bite on my forehead swelled so much my hard hat fit more smugly.

I moved the second day to another bunkhouse and decided to wash all my clothes, hoping against the odds that I wouldn’t bring “guests” to the new abode.

A thief, a hooker and drug dealers

I had to fit the washing of clothes into my two-hour work break. So I loaded up my bicycle with all my clothes/sleeping bag and rode about two miles to the Laundromat at High Street and International Avenue. It is behind a check cashing store in a strip mall, with a convenience store, Hispanic grocery and a beauty shop.

Carnies told me High Street is a dangerous area so I was on my guard. I washed my laundry and sat beside my bicycle. But when I rose to empty the drier, a bike thief jumped my bicycle and rode away.

It was a Panasonic LX that I had recently tuned up. I’d owned it since the 1980s. So it stung when I realized how stupid I had been to leave it unlocked, even for a few fleeting moments.

Here too, is when the shame in my story enters.

I was washing my tennis shoes and waiting in my socks for the laundry. So when my bicycle was stolen, I ran into the parking lot in my socks stupidly asking strangers, “did you see someone riding away on a black bicycle?”

Was I really going to run down a bicycle thief in my socks?

I ran into the local convenience store, the local Hispanic market and then around the corner.

The side street corner revealed what I instantly guessed might be a drug dealing corner. Then I heard an exotic bird call and thought, “there aren’t any exotic birds in East Oakland. That sounds like a warning call.”

I stood frozen for a few seconds, realizing I had more to lose than an old bicycle. A skinny, Black teenager on a small bicycle came riding out of the crowd and up to me saying, “you better get out of here, those guys over there think you’re a cop.”

By the time the rider got to me, I had already turned on my heels and begun speed-walking away in my socks like a British mime.

As I left, a wizened, old prostitute waved me down from across the street.

“I know you, you picked me up last week. How are you.”

I didn’t know if I was more sorry for my fleeing ass or my doppelganger who is wandering drug-infested neighborhoods in East Oakland picking up wizened, old prostitutes.

When I got back to the laundromat, I realized I had just a half hour before my shift started at the carnival. So I loaded up a bag of laundry under each arm and grabbed my large sleeping bag. I ran the two miles back to the carnival.

I must have made quite a sight along the side of the busy Oakland streets awkwardly, hurriedly running with bags of laundry and a sleeping bag.

Making it in time for the shift, I later retold the story to the great amusement of the more streetwise carnies.

“Hey, ‘High Street,’ going back tonight for a date, can you pick me up some dope?”

I was afraid my carny nickname would forever be, “High Street.”

Head scratchers

The third morning I woke up to more bed bug bites. The laundromat which had cost me so dearly, did not pay off.

I told The Carnival management and got little sympathy.

“You brought bed bugs to another bunkhouse?” said Robert E., a carnival supervisor. “You’ll fit right in here.”

All the stories about how impossible it is to get rid of bed bugs had me worried. I worried I might also bring the bed bugs to the next carnival.

The bed bugs did follow me to a couple jumps, to Hayward and Martinez. I washed the clothes several more times and used industrial pesticides on my room that gave me headaches. I sprayed the pesticide on my mattress and clothes, which I feared might be poisoning me. Finally, I used a bed bug “bomb,” to release a spray into my cabin for a couple hours the morning after a slough (the breaking down of a carnival and transfer of sites).

The bite tracks have cleared up and I sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite.

On the bright side, I still have my wallet, cell phone and camera. I no longer have a bicycle to lug across the country on my “Eyes Like Carnivals” project. Walking is better exercise.

The day after my bicycle was stolen, I walked up to a group of three supervisors and a part-owner. I told them the story of giving blood, the bike thief, the hooker, the drug dealers and my theory on involuntary donations – they can be head scratchers.

They laughed. I was lucky, they said, one year a carny roamed off in that part of Oakland and, “was hung.”