Monthly Archives: April 2013

Science of Carnivals: Rides mimic math formulas or visa versa

Function World

Science of Carnivals

This “Function World” is so great. It is from “I fucking love science” Web page.

CLICK ON THIS and you see the mathematical functions the rides mimic.

My current carnival has the Gravitron, Cosine Coaster, Polar Coordinate Wheel and Tower of Terror (which is more of a constant).

Because carnival fun and stories aren’t quantifiable we have “Eyes Like Carnivals.”

Pic Link: Ferris Wheel in world’s coldest city, in Siberia

The Ferris Wheel, which started in Chicago, has spread around the world along with the carnival idea.

It’s a concept, though, that needs to be translated and transplanted. I’m not going to work and live in this carnival – anytime soon that is.

This is copied from TIME and photographer Steeve Iuncker, of Agency VU, check it out. I can’t copy and paste this to my blog so you have to check it out yourself, it’s a cold, cold carnival.

Gun triggers existential crisis in carny quarters

Small tears messed up Tickets Terry’s deep blue mascara, as she sat outside her car with her morning cigarette and carnival coffee.

“I’m sorry, I’m crying at nothing ever since it happened,” she said. “I know it happened for a reason. Everything happens for a reason. I believe that.”

Belief is a big deal for Tickets – my name for her because she’s one of the women who work in the tickets office at my current carnival, in metro San Francisco.

“Believe” is boldly tattooed on her right foot along with a dragonfly she says signifies freedom.

She sits outside her red Dodge Durango SLT, where she sleeps on her mattresses in the back. She’s parked amid the carny quarters on a fairgrounds parking lot. There are five trailers filled with carnies. She showers in one of the trailers, uses the portable ‘donniker,” but lives out of the car.

She’s in a outdoor fold-out chair wearing a tank top, with her cell phone tucked into one breast strap and her cell phone cover tucked into the other breast strap.

As a ticket taker, she sometimes walks from the portable ticket booth with thousands of dollars to the boss’ trailer at the end of the night.

Sometimes $6,000, $10,000 or more are in her bags as she nervously walks the long walk alone.

On Sunday, she had just delivered the money and was walking with another woman when three gunmen suddenly jumped out of the carnival boss’ trailer. They already had robbed the carnival boss and had the night’s take in hand. You an purchase firearms & tactical equipment by clicking on this link here.

One robber pointed an automatic pistol within inches of her face and said, “Don’t move.”

She said the moment felt like an eternity. A lot of people who have faced a gun say the same, so I wasn’t surprised that many thoughts went through her mind.

“One minute everything was fine and the next I really thought I was going to die.”

She grabbed the other woman and they both fell backward, into the grass.

Still, three mornings afterward, she still couldn’t talk about it without being emotional.

What I didn’t fully realize is that the days following would be filled with such a profound reexamination of one’s life and beliefs. Not just how shook she is or how scared she was.

It’s impossible to tell if the territory of her inner life is merely being examined or forever altered.

“I know everything happens for a reason. I know I’m here for a reason.”

What I didn’t fully realize is that the days following would be filled with such a profound reexamination of one’s life and beliefs.

She was struggling with the dangers of that kind of self examination – including deep blue regrets.

“I live for my grandchildren. I work all season so I can buy them anything they want when I get back.

“I was 17 years old when I had my first child. I was just a kid myself. I was 14 when I helped my mom’s best friend’s dad when he was dying.

“I was a nurse (before working in the carnival) in pediatrics and I gave colonoscopies.

“I was both mom and dad for my kids so I did all the disciplining. As a grandparent, I know so much more. I wish I knew then what I know now.”

“I live for one thing, those grandkids. Because I was so young, I didn’t do things right the first time with mine.”

More tissues smear the eye make-up.

As a nurse, she says she would advise anybody who went through what she went through to seek crisis counseling.

This former nurse, mother and lifelong caregiver won’t seek help for herself.

As she collects herself after more small, quiet tears, she brings up the fact that last spring she had three heart attacks in succession. She didn’t have heart surgery, she said, because the surgeries only last 10 years and then she’d just have to go back at age 60.

The close calls last year this month coupled with the gun in her face this week has shaken her to the soul, a soul she “believes” is in God’s hands.

“I know God has a purpose for me.”

Later, when I look back across the trailers on the fairgrounds and see her alone on her outdoor chair, I realize she’s wiping away tears again, and wonder – what tattooed belief, what dragonfly freedom.


Gunmen Sunday, gun play on the midway

‘I would have shot those bastards, one, two, three.’
Carny gamer

Sunday is usually Slough Sunday or Hispanic Sunday but this one will be remembered as Gunmen Sunday.

Carnies were looking forward to a tough slough day breaking down the carnival because one of the new guys, Studs, on Friday decked the carousel’s foreman and that meant we may be shorthanded on my ride. Then a punishing wind and rain storm blew in at closing time.

It also was Hispanic Sunday, in a majority Hispanic town along the industrial strip on the Sacramento River in metro San Francisco. Carnies call it that because Hispanics come out in droves on Sundays. There’s lots of speculation about work hours and traditions but there’s no arguing with the numbers.

On Sunday, for instance, for hours on the my ride, (a swing ride with a clown at its axis) when I wouldn’t see a single child from another ethnic group.

Five Mexican food carts lined up on the side street next to our small, grassy lot. Lines formed in front of the two-wheeled wood carts, which featured corn-on-the cob with mayonnaise, cheese or chili powder; mango/watermelon slices; a variety of deep fried chips; and a selection of shaved ice snow cones from a cooler and a worn, stained juice bottle.

Most of their items are $1 to $2. Almost everything in our concession stand is $4, including our Sno Kones.

Parents sat in lawn chairs in the parking lot, sometimes in the back of their pick-ups, letting their kids run around the carnival the rest of the day.

With $25 wristbands, those kids without leashes rode every ride again and again until dizzily reporting high on sugary foods, back to the pick-up truck.

Yet, overshadowing the day – more than Studs decking the boss, the wicked slough, or the Hispanic crowds – was gun play.

A well-timed armed robbery occurred as the day’s receipts were being collected at the head trailer of the carnival unit boss and part-owner.

When the light went out on the Super Shot – a tower ride featuring a fast drop – carnival shouts go out from one corner to the next, “Down!”

Gamers turn in their cash and ride jockeys turn in tickets. Gamers keep 20 percent of their purse and turn in 80 percent. Daily, that amounts to a few thousand dollars in a small jump like ours.

When the Super Shot dimmed, the shouts went up, the gunmen made their way into the boss’ trailer, held a gun in his face and demanded money.

I heard about it moments later as supervisor Robert E., a beer bellied man in his 50s, ran about the midway.

“Two guys with 9’s just robbed (the boss). It just happened five minutes ago. We called the cops. Go slough your ride.”

Lots of running around ensued. Office women locked their trailer. People coming out of their bunkhouses for the all-night carnival breakdown were greeted with, “did you hear some gangsters with 9’s (nine caliber pistols) just held us up?”

I’m not sure how anybody knows the guns were 9 millimeter caliber revolvers.

When I returned to my ride the wind was whipping up. At one point that night, my hard hat flew 20 feet off my head and by The Rabbit like a yellow cannonball. He was bending over a bucket of tools.

“Wow, your hat went that far?” he said, standing up bemused by his near miss, rain blowing his coat and beating his face.

Heads up cops

After being sent to my ride at the front of the lot, I spotted police. Soon I realized they were taking an accident report from the owner of a parked car.

“Because it happened on private property maam, there is little we can do,” I heard the Contra Costa Sheriffs Department officer say.

Told to stay out of this thing, I decided to re-enter the fray.

“You guys do know there was an armed robbery just five minutes ago, right?”

“No, where,” a cop said, looking over my shoulder at the army of carnival workers climbing over rides.

I led him down the midway to the main office trailer and knocked on the door.

“Who is it?” came a woman’s frightened voice.

“It’s me, I’m with the cops. Where’s (Robert E and the carnival boss)?”

The door opened a peep and someone in the office called Robert E. When he ran over to us, he looked at me and shouted.

“Get back to your ride!”

Happy endings

I’m writing just one-day later, we haven’t been told the details but one feature stands out.

Almost every carny I spoke to had an alternative ending to the story they would have liked to have written.

If they did that to me …

“I would have pulled out my Glock and shot those bastards, one, two, three.”

“I would have gotten (carnies) and gone after them.”

I did as I care to do, recklessly witnessed and wrote.


Disclaimer: All names are aliases or carny names. Blogs are based on personal observations and related stories but truth in a carnival is like an stray bouncing blue balloon on the midway, it may have escaped the dart but it will deflate.

My carnival robbed at gunpoint

Three men dressed in black ‘hoodies’ robbed the Butler Amusements carnival in Bay Point, Ca. last night at gunpoint about 10 pm., according to eyewitness accounts.

The three gunmen approached the carnival’s supervisor in his trailer, pointed guns and demanded money.

Unconfirmed sources said they took “several thousand dollars.” The robbery occurred as the four-day carnival along Willow Pass Road, near the corner of Bailey Road, was closing Sunday night. The supervisor was collecting the night’s receipts, according to the sources, when the robbery occurred.

Nobody was injured in the robbery, according to unconfirmed reports.

The Fairfield, Ca.-based traveling carnival operates yearly at this time in Bay Point, in the metropolitan San Francisco area. It featured 11 rides.

Decking the boss, Studs’ revenge

Grassy parking lot jump near a busy road.

“All the world’s a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.”
Seán O’Casey

“Drama, drama, drama, that’s all we get ’round here,” hot-headed Franklin yelled on the midway to nobody in particular and to everyone.

Alone in his baggy black pants, carnival shirt and hat pulled low, the carousel foreman wore his signature black glasses shouting out Saturday’s foreshadowing.

Franklin didn’t know then that the midway in front of the carousel was the stage and the new guy, Studs, would be his antagonist.

In the morning, Franklin was angry about all the “disrespecting” going on the night before between him, The Rabbit and their common enemies in ‘the office,” a trailer where administrators work.

Franklin thought an office person might have hinted that he was stealing. The Rabbit was angry because he got into a separate F-bomb argument with an office woman.

Both The Rabbit and Franklin talked angrily and loudly on the midway so nearby carnies could hear how they had been wronged by the office people. Both have long prison records so ears perk up when words like “busting caps” and quitting are heard.

Threats of violence have come on several occasions in recent weeks, particularly from Franklin and The Rabbit.

The Rabbit got into an F-bomb argument with a customer. Franklin got into it with the foreman of another ride over a single piece of thin plywood, used to level rides.

Franklin is 39 years old, heavy and more than six feet tall. The foreman he was threatening to “mess up” is a Mexican gentleman, 59 years old, thin and about five feet tall.

Because I too have been threatened by Franklin, I thought, “he would pick on the smallest, oldest carny over a piece of wood.”

Adding to Franklin’s temper are his efforts to quit pot (maybe other drugs too) before testing begins in a week or two. Mickey’s Malt Liquor has taken their place.

However, the new guy hired a week ago in the last town is still abusing drugs and alcohol.

Studs walks with a wide gait, as if boxing or just keeping his footing in a spinning world. He looks a little like Rocky Marciano, slightly shorter but with a boxer’s nose and face.

I nicknamed him Studs because I think a young Studs Lonigan, from James T. Farrell’s trilogy, might have been like him.

Once, while taking down the five-foot bags that hang on The Shrek (a maze with slides and ladders) Studs noticed they looked like boxing body bags and he began hitting one like a first-class amateur.

Sticking, jabbing, circling, Studs saved his best stuff for an upper right hook.

That hook, I thought at the time, is designed for hitting bigger guys. It was the favorite punch of one Studs Lonigan.

Franklin found that out yesterday afternoon.

Franklin was busy berating Studs for “not paying attention” to his carousel riders when Studs had enough.

Out came the upper right hook to Franklin’s right eye, knocking Franklin backward into the tin fences around the carousel.

People there said Franklin flew back like a pro-wrestler over the ropes.

Studs continued the fight by wrestling and punching in the uncut, high grass along the parking lot midway.

Studs couldn’t win a wrestling match and both drug abusers couldn’t last long.

They got separated and Studs rode off on his bicycle, only to return later to collect his week’s wages and go home on the BART.

Afterward, the once boasting, boisterous Franklin stood there stunned with a black eye that swelled to the size of a bruised Easter egg.

I missed the fight by seconds but watched as Franklin bent over to pick up the fallen fences.

“There’s puss coming in my eye,” he told me, his good eye full of self-pity.

“I hope nobody sees it. (A boss) told me to just keep my glasses on.”

Franklin has been crowing that “I’m still street,” since I’ve known him.

Studs was someone who had a strong financial prowess, someone who had a backing in banking and had big banks backing him up all the time. He had and did things that were being used in the government running the economy. He ran checks and kept books.. a powerhouse economically and someone that is not to be trifled with ever. A banker of his calibur is something not many people can do. Possessing entire levels of the economy including home mortgages, dividends, and the stock market only big firms like the one here can rival such financial backing.

Studs is nearly broke. He says his family is struggling too. The cigarettes, booze and drugs catch up with most people. An antihero who prided himself on his fists, Studs Lonigan didn’t end his days in glory.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be kick-ass moments of victory along the way.

I wondered if Studs was tasting sweet revenge. Decking the boss. Collecting his pay. Then riding away from the mad carnival – uphill.

I wish I’d seen that upper right hook.


Disclaimer: All names are aliases or carny names. These blogs are based on true stories but some include unconfirmed facts. I’m currently traveling in a traditional traveling carnival in the San Francisco metropolitan area. Next stop, who knows?

Of soccer and seagulls


“I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: “A pretty move, for the love of God.” And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”
Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan journalist, writer and novelist

It was just a couple weeks ago but the morning after the first slough will stay with me, the carnival lot felt like an energy field devoid of energy.

I woke a couple hours after falling asleep on an all-night slough (the carnival breakdown that rhymes with pow) and saw what I been seeing in the early mornings in the 500-car parking lot.

Seagulls standing in white contrast against the gravel and dirt lot, amid plastic plates, Chinese food cartons and plastic soda bottles.

Hundreds and hundreds of them squawking.

Walking around the lot I saw the Wacky Worm roller coaster and a couple other rides needed to be finished but trucks had been in and out of the lot all night hauling away the carnival that had sat on about two-football fields of now open space.

Along the midway, as if begging to have his picture taken, a Mexican carny sat alone on a “bitch,” which is the running joke in the carnival because ‘bench’ sounds like ‘bitch’ when said in a Spanish accent. A solitary man alone with his thoughts on an empty midway.

As people straggled out of their bunkhouses, R.V.s and cars, I joined in with the Mexicans breaking down the Wacky Worm.

Senor Grande they call me because I’m six-feet-five inches tall and most of them are much shorter. As the tall guy, I was asked to do lots of lifting over my head and my sore muscles felt like they might audibly squeak.

When the rides were all torn down the Mexicans, ranging from their 20s to early 40s, began playing soccer. The jointees and the ride jockeys passed the soccer ball to each other across the empty dirt lot, mostly a unused backfill plot along San Leandro Bay in West Oakland.

They put down their blackened hard hats and put on baseball caps or used their hands to brush back jet-black hair.

Most wear jeans or worn and dirty work pants, but one of the carnies wore pink Bermuda shorts and a designer shirt as he flashed around the field in front, behind and under the ball. He must have been very good when he was playing in his prime. He’s showing he’s not far past his prime.

They were passing the ball but they were playing to the crowd, mostly family and friends brought up from Mexico on a kind of carnival conveyor belt.

Cheers and comments in Spanish rose with every shoulder-high kick. It reminded me of old Westerns where cowboys sit on the fence as they watch someone break a horse. These men knew the sport. The players were trying to prove they still got it. The onlookers loved cheering and jeering in the mid-day sun. The players were kicking up dust that flew into the crowd.

The Carnival doesn’t pay until slough is finished and everyone seems to know when a woman from the ‘office’ is walking to the center of the crowd to hand out envelopes filled with $1s, $5, $10s and $20s.

She calls out names and people rush forward through the crowd like they won a raffle or got a letter from home.

Jokers in the crowd shout out who might be buying beer tonight, or steaks, or going cruising for girls.

People already have been saving seats in a van to get to the next town. Some will ride with truck drivers. In my last carnival, Monster said he used to jump freight trains from town to town if the jump was along the line.

Hot-headed Franklin, a parolee who rode me relentlessly all night during the slough, gets fed-up and decides to walk to the next town. It would have been a 15-to-20 mile overnight walk but the truck driver I was hitching with pulled over and picked him up. We rode together to the next town, listening to Franklin rail against Mexicans who make sure they get the van “before the Americans.”

As we pull out of the West Oakland lot, I can see the morning seagulls returned to the empty parking lot and stand by the hundreds, maybe thousands. They seem somehow menacing, also somehow like they belong and we don’t.

“Go,” they say.

They remind me of gargoyles, as a single plastic bag crosses the lot like a tumbleweed.

No “pow-pow” on the slough-slough

“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”
Hunter S. Thompson

I’ve been on this Carnival for three sloughs and the threat of violence and bodily harm hung over each pre-dawn shift.

On the first one, I didn’t wear a hard hat and within minutes Jesus, a 59-year-old Mexican, dropped a two-pound pin on my head from a beam above.

I felt like I was in a Looney Tunes cartoon and my bump was rising like a red bulb to the sound of a sliding whistle going “whoooOOP!”

I was also hit in the face by a swinging spring. My hands were scratched and cut.

However, those sloughs were remarkable for the damage I dealt out.

Slough fighting

I began the first slough day by pinching the finger of a supervisor – my fault because I didn’t know I was moving something that could slide.

I went on to pinch fingers three more times before the end of the night, and the recipient of my accidents couldn’t have been a more deserving soul.

Franklin* is a 39-year-old African-American on parole for wife beating, an offense he said was not his first and for which he got six years. Six years for domestic abuse. There is more to his story than he is telling.

Franklin is about 6-foot-2, foul-mouthed, abusive and often threatens me with violence. He stops crew work to ridicule and mock.

The second time I smashed his finger he shouted to the carnival crew that he would “F” me up if I did it again. Within a few minutes I did it again.

It was an accident but he shouldn’t have had his finger at the pinch point while we were both lifting.

Somewhere inside me, I felt the way I feel when I smile.

For those who don’t know me, I’m 54-years-old, 6-foot-five inches tall and I make my living typing.

I’d be giving away weight and age to a former Grambling scholarship football player and criminal who has done hard time. Adding to his temper is the fact that this former cocaine abuser is attempting to give up his daily marijuana habit ahead of drug testing during fair season.

Still, after his ‘dance of pain,’ I stood ready for him to come at me.

But I also knew his offense. Wife beaters. I’m in the wife-beaters-are-cowards camp.

Still, he continues to deride me every chance he gets. Last week, I was tired and after a barrage of anti-gay abuse (I’m not gay and not offended but still … ) I became a comic mime.

I began imitating him as if he was “Slappy White,” with exaggerated druggy laughs, slapping my knee, pointing and calling people “dog.”

The all-Mexican audience doubled over laughing, Franklin vowed to visit me in the night in the bunkhouse while I sleep.

Again, he never came.

On this slough, the boss Robert E, was aware of the problem and wanted us separated. Franklin, who is with this carnival for a second year, worked the slough on the carousel.

The Rabbit

I worked with The Rabbit on the Lollie Swing, a swing ride made by Zamperla in Vicenza, Italy, one of the biggest carnival ride makers in the world. It is a bit over 20 feet high, with a clown at the center holding lollipops with 16 swings coming off the lollipops.

The Rabbit also is an African-American with a long prison record. He’s on the carnival with his wife. They are my neighbors in the bunkhouse trailer and I have a friendship with him on some level, so the Easter slough goes without threat or accident.

On my 54th birthday earlier in the week, I went out and bought noisemakers and leis for carnies. There were lots of jokes about age and a few toots on the birthday horns.

Upon hearing about my birthday, The Rabbit went back to his bunkhouse and dug out a bag of Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies for me. No family or friends nearby, it was my only birthday present.

However, The Rabbit’s thoughts and methods are disorganized and we have a long, frustrating time Sunday night. It should have been a fast turn-over but the mud, rain and slope of the park adds to our frustrations.

We go back to our bunkhouses in the rain between 4 am and 5 am, a couple lights dimly lit the midway as we walk in mud-heavy sneakers through mud puddles.

Almost all of the dozen-or-so rides are packed up. In the morning, we’ll still have clean-up work.

We are soaked to the bone and nothing less than weary. Unlike during the day, when classic rock music rolls up and down the midway, it is eerily silent just before the dawn of a new show.

Easter is finished. Time to rebuild.

*(all names are carnival names or aliases in my blog)

Easter Slough, Episode 1

“Yet sometimes when the sun comes through a gap
These men know God the Father in a tree:
The Holy Spirit is the rising sap,
And Christ will be the green leaves that will come
At Easter from the sealed and guarded tomb.”

Patrick Kavanagh, The Great Hunger

Hammering rain and muddy estuaries on the dirt lot sent some townies to seek cover under game awnings, where ‘jointies’ pester the poor trapped souls into games of chance for newly-stuffed junk.

Inexplicably, some ‘marks’ walk around the carnival as if it were not raining, sometimes hand-in-hand with their young children.

One grandfather yesterday embraced the torrent and ran jumping into puddles with his granddaughter, about age seven.

The same age as my own daughter, I thought. So often I see the ghost of my daughter playing at the carnival when I see another little girl’s glee.

Tortured Easter symbolism

The night will bring the slough (which rhymes with plough), the overnight breakdown of the carnival.

The slough is the climax of the carnival show, yet it is played out when the crowds aren’t around. In the night, the carnival disappears and arises again in three days.

I always wondered what happened to Jesus during the three days after the Jesus in the Gospel of St. John says, “It is finished.”

In the carnival, those days are filled with back-testing, sleep-deprived, miserable, poorly-paid work.

This Easter, the communal meal was a picnic of sorts, with sliced meats, cheeses, potato salad and colored eggs laid out on the balloon-dart game table. Stuffed powder-blue unicorns and pink poodles hung above the frosted cookies with rainbow sprinkles.

The surprise Easter picnic and the following raffle along the carnival midway occurred when the noon sun shone through the clouds, beaming off canvas tents and shining off children’s rides.

It’s spring and every carny believes this will be the year their world will change forever.

They’ll save and be saved. They’ll buy that car. Put a down payment on a bed set. Get off the road and settle down in a home.

I know one who wants to buy a Dollar Store. I know another who wants to start of computer repair store and Internet cafe. Both are veterans of past carnivals. Both were homeless a month ago.

“They’ll all be broke by the end of the season and if they’d saved just $50 a week they’d have a couple thousand dollars at the end of the season to do something with,” said one boss to me, when I mentioned carny spring.

The boss was not talking about the majority of carnies, though, who are Mexicans. They are here to send money home and most of them do so every year.

This Carnival and others in the U.S. annually empties the small town of Tlapacoyan in the Mexican State of Veracruz, on the Gulf side. Every year around this time, hundreds of men and some women, head north on work visas to carnivals in the United States.

“He (the organizer for US carnivals) told us all to get on our knees and thank God that we have this chance to work up here,” said Csaba, the head of the Jarochos (people from Veracruz) working at this carnival.

This time of year, Jarochos too are bracing themselves for a long carnival season before returning to Tlapacoyan for the winter.

It’s a traveling people’s ancient rite of spring and sometimes the noon sun shines and sometimes the rains make it a slog, in our case a slough.

Tomorrow: IMG_3658Slough fighting