Monthly Archives: June 2013

Dark Carnival: Ghost Clown Shot in Dunk Tank

The Fire Ball swings back and forth at my Chicago carnival, as the glassy-eyed Flying Dumbo turns in twisted circles.

“The way I see the Dark Carnival is it’s a place where you have all the evil souls that are going to be going to hell. Some of them might ride the ‘Murder-go-round,'”
Joseph Bruce, co-founder Insane Clown Posse

The carnies were fixing the Ferris Wheel and passing the time talking about bar fights when one started talking about “Ghost.”

“Ghost got his money, he started flashing it around at the bar saying look what I got,” the carny said. “Somebody shot him in the shoulder. F’in’ Bastard. M’ F’er. Nobody’s seen him since. Now he’s a real Ghost. Ha, ha, ha.”

I don’t know why I even remember the off-hand conversation on set-up that Sunday in Marlboro, New Jersey but it struck me that the grease covered storyteller had no sympathy for Ghost, as if Ghost deserved to be shot.

As if the lesson is, “If you have money, of course, people are going to want to take it from you.”

Which also seemed like a lesson of carnivals in general.

Earlier this month, I hitchhiked from New York/New Jersey to Chicago and was working a carnival in Gage Park, next to Humboldt Park, the most violent neighborhood in Chicago.

We were at the Chicago season opener for this carnival at 55th and Western, a longtime dividing line between the Latino gangs and the Black gangs.

There’s enough tension at this jump that at least one of the security guards carried two holstered guns on his hips and another pistol hidden on his person.

This is from the archives of

CHICAGO — Two people were killed and nine others were wounded in shootings over about nine hours Wednesday evening.
A 15-year-old boy was standing with another teen in the Gage Park neighborhood when he was gunned down Wednesday, police said.

In the midst of this season of murders, along a gang fault line, I focused on running the Dumbos. Dumbo the Flying Elephant is a ride with a two-seater car attached by arms to a center, where another Dumbo is perched high on a spinning pole. In the Disney cartoon, Dumbo’s big ears are his wings. The ride is supposed to rise up and give kids the feeling they are flying on Dumbo’s back.

It’s a common and popular ride, made by one of the biggest manufacturers of carnival rides in the world – Zamperla Amusements, Vicenza, Italy.

Still, parents like to comment on Dumbo’s glassy eyes and half-witted smile, which makes Dumbo look very, very high. Or as they say on the midway, Dumbo looks like he’s flying twisted.

One night I heard someone call out to a Ghost and I wondered if I had found him.

Bo Bo The Clown, “he all kinds of laughs”

Before the evening lines started to form that night, I waved over Marine Eric as he walked by the Dumbos to the donikers (carnival lingo for port-a-potties). I asked him if the carny running the balloon game was really named Ghost.

“Oh, that’s really Bo Bo The Clown,” said Marine Eric, a tall, big, black man in his 30s and a veteran of the Marines and carnivals. “He’s the funniest guy here. Anything he say make you laugh. He walk by you and say something – you laugh! He all kinds of laughs.”

Ghost, he said, was once known as Bo Bo The Clown when he worked the dunk tank.

I later heard several carnies talk excitedly about Bo Bo The Clown, as if he was an artist of the insult.

Bo Bo knew just the right dig, or jab, or verbal slap to get people to step up to the line and throw a ball at the target to sink the hated clown.

“Bo Bo was the greatest ever, no, maybe Ghost is better,” one carny said, who I think felt sorry that Ghost had to change his identity.

Nicknames in traveling carnivals stick like someone’s identity. It says something about the person, just like the job they do defines them.

That’s why a carny feels proud if he/she is working the Giant Wheel vs. working the Nemos in kiddy land.

Still, carny names can mock. A carny in Chicago got the nickname Sugar Lips. One in New Jersey was Dummy.

Bo Bo The Clown was unmistakably a show name, a persona he put on when he worked. But carnies work seven days a week during the season.

Ghost is different. He doesn’t play the tank. Something happened, he isn’t that guy anymore.

Belief in the Dark Carnival

With a supernatural name like Ghost, his girlfriend could only be named Angel.

Angel rolled a souvenir cart around the Gage Park carnival, selling cheap, loud items including the multi-colored flashing dolphin necklace I bought for my daughter. Angel is pretty, blonde and in her twenties.

“I wanted to be a veterinarian, now look at me, right?” she said to me. “I’m going back and get my GED and I’m going to college … Majoring in business … So I can open my own shop. I’ll put in all my own stuff.”

When talking to her, it occurred to me, that many traveling carnival workers have a similar dream: hitting it big – coming back to the carnival to own rides or shops – acting the big shot.

Ghost is tallish, thin, with black curly hair that comes out the back of his low-on-his brow cap. He looks like a young version of playwright/actor Sam Shepard.

Both Ghost and Angel wear shirts with the Hatchet Man, the logo of the band Insane Clown Posse. The Hatchet Man is an outline of a wild-haired man running with a cleaver, ready to strike something or someone.

I didn’t ask them, but, often people wearing those shirts are fans of ICP and believe in the Dark Carnival. After all, band co-founder Joseph Bruce said traveling carnival workers visited him in a dream and showed him the Dark Carnival.

In the Dark Carnival, all the dark rides and dark amusements send damned souls to hell.

Bullets make the ghost

Ghost and Angel were talking when I went up to them during a short break.

“I heard about a Ghost on the East Coast, would that have been you?”

He shook his head, as in “I don’t think so.”

“I heard there’s another Ghost on the East Coast,” Angel said.

Then Ghost, lifted his low-brimmed hat.

“Wait a minute. What did you hear about this Ghost.”

“I heard he was shot in the shoulder,” and I pointed to my left shoulder.

“Well, I wasn’t shot in the shoulder,” he said. “But I was shot in the chest.”

Bo Bo The Clown, in full clown regalia, was taunting people from the dunk tank at a carnival in Tennessee when a young man took offense. He drew out a .22 caliber gun and began firing, hitting Bo Bo in the chest.

It is so wrong, but I had a comical vision of a dunk tank clown squealing for mercy and splashing around as a hillbilly with hurt feelings hurls loud insults and blasts away.

Mel Brooks once said, “Comedy is when I stub my toe. Tragedy is when you fall down a manhole cover and die.”

I wanted to ask both Ghost and Angel more about this violent, cathartic upheaval in their carnival lives but they got paid that Friday and disappeared in the night.

“When people quit carnivals, they don’t say where they’re going,” Marine Eric said. “They just not there the next day.”

What happened to Bo Bo wasn’t funny and those bullets literally made Bo Bo a Ghost.

His vanishing act added to his lore around traveling carnivals. Someday, another carny will hear about him like I heard about the East Coast Ghost.

Maybe he and Angel did get off the circuit. Maybe they caught a bus to another traveling carnival. Maybe they’ll both change forms again.

Child specter seen nightly at carnival


“I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.”
Sigmund Freud

A single child specter follows me in carnivals amid unruly mobs of children.

Each show night I go to work my ride, I see kid legions plus one specter. She stands out on the midway as if in a spotlight and all the other kids are running around in dark stage light.

My daughter turned eight a few days ago. I came hitchhiking back from New York to Chicago to see her after my former mother-in-law e-mailed that my daughter was missing me deeply.

I’m following traveling carnivals from coast to coast for a year, writing essays about America from the road.

I’d say this is a personal haunting, but I think it is another common experience shared by carnival workers with children of their own.

There is a running, bouncing dynamic in a child’s happiness, which takes on an even higher pitch with mobs of children. Its an incalculable, elusive zeitgeist that darts between people in the moments of shared happiness.

It’s inexplicable but something so deeply human. Blind people, having never seen a smile, smile. It’s a contagion that carnival workers all say they feel.

Yet many carnival workers grew up in unhappy families and as adults don’t see their own enough.

They grew up orphans, foster kids, juvenile delinquents or victims of abusive parents.

Seeing happy children every night must be an elixir at times for those once unhappy kids.

As for me, every running, laughing, bright-eyed child I see reminds me of my newly-minted eight-year-old daughter in far-away Chicago.

I feel simultaneous twinges.

Sometimes I look at kids about her age, I see her in them, and it hurts.

Other times, I think – I love one of these too.

My parents are carnies

Carnival workers whip out their cell phones to show you a picture of their child. Or they’ll tell you they often call or text their kids from the road.

Others bring their kids along with them in the carnival. At Butler Amusements in California, Robert E. had two daughters and two sons in different units. At the Chicago carnival I’m at now, several children of the owners say they want to be in the business and travel jump to jump.

Some children of carnival workers are raised on the road, missing key grade school and high school years. As a result, I met several who cannot read, including a carnival supervisor.

Last night, I met a 36-year-old Alabama carnival worker who proudly told me he was texting his three-year-old grandson.

A 40-year-old Chicago carny told me he has seven grandchildren. He became a dad at 12 years old and his daughter a mom at 12 years old.

In California, Mexican migrant carnival workers typically said they were working in America in order to send money home to their wives and children.

One of the older Mexicans at the Butler Amusements, Joshua, was perhaps the most shining example of this child empathy.

When a mother of three could not afford all-ride passes for her kids and began leading them away crying, Joshua left his ride, opened his wallet and paid the $75 for wristbands. That’s almost two days wages.

He never mentioned the gesture to me, I heard it from the ticket woman who said it brought tears to her eyes.

The Englewood neighborhood in Chicago is known as one of the toughest and some of the street kids are real hustlers.

One child, I guessed to be under 10 years old, actually summoned fake tears to try to get a free “Dumbo” ride from me. For fear of being fired, I said no. Even though I knew it was a con, I felt like a crumb.

But I later saw the kid running around the carnival going on rides, his tears worked with the real carnies.

Still, carnival workers aren’t just lonely parents longing to be with their kids.

Numerous workers I’ve met have been working off-the-books at carnivals in order to avoid child payments. They declare themselves homeless, without any income, to avoid detection by authorities.

Some just disappear off the grid.

A Pennsylvania carny I talked to this week said his girlfriend in Florida is pregnant and he can’t wait to get his fiancee pregnant because pregnant girls are sexy. He seemed to have no wish for fatherhood other than that pregnancy period.

Cell phone call from a tree

Grace Cell Phone in a tree

Before I left New York I was on a nightly cell phone call with my daughter, who loves to play in the dogwood tree outside her apartment.

I asked her what she thinks about when she climbs up into the tree. I used to climb trees and dream all afternoon, I told her.

Her school district emphasizes writing and diary keeping. She recently bought a diary so I told her she should write about what she thinks about when she’s in the tree.

Silly thoughts. Funny thoughts. Pretending what she might be when she grows up. Or just looking out over at the roofs and over the roads.

She came up with the idea of calling me from the tree, I worried she might fall but she assured me “I’m an expert.”

Then came the call.

What are you thinking about, I asked.

Long pause.

“I’m thinking about what I’m thinking about,” she laughed.

It’s not so silly, I said, writers are always watching themselves think. That’s what you are doing, I said.

“I’m thinking about what it would be like to be a dolphin trainer. Would the training be hard?”

Somehow, I’m on the other end of the phone and yet on the ground looking up into the tree at my sparkling, darling girl.

I finally saw her last week after an all-night tear-down of my Chicago carnival. I imagined that I’d show up at her birthday celebration a dirty, smelly mess after hitchhiking 800 miles.

But the carnival tear-down supplied my apparition as a muddy, archetypal absentee father returning from the road.

I gave her presents bought at the carnival, a blow-up pink dolphin for the beach and a plastic necklace with a dolphin that changes colors. She named the necklace dolphin “Colorful.”

My parents said she got better presents but when she got home she raved about her carnival dolphins. Dad’s hat was so dirty. He said I’ve grown.

I already knew it but the haunting goes both ways, another carnival specter follows her.