Monthly Archives: August 2013

Kindness for Oz and his traveling scars

Pool attendants view games as prizes hang overhead, music blares and Oz tells a Brothers Grimm story, his own.

“My mother slew me, my father ate me.”
Murdered son comes back as a bird with this song: The Juniper Tree; By The Brothers Grimm

Oz is a 44-year-old, trim carny with a shaved head and a deep, long scar traveling from behind his right ear, across his jugular, to his Adam’s apple.

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

His throat was slashed a month and a half ago and now he’s working with me on the midway.

People often mention his cut throat when they first meet him and he says “I never went down.”

Today, he wanted to talk about a story I already had overheard him telling a couple days ago.

With horrifying nonchalance, he said he was a “just a little boy” when his mother and aunt stripped him naked, tied him to a tree and told him coyotes were coming to bite off his penis.

Drunk, hiding in the woods, they made noises and laughed as he screamed.

“There was no moon that night, I couldn’t see anything. All I could do was listen to the noises.”

He can remember everything from that night – sights, sounds and questions.

“Mommy, why are you doing this to me.”

He ended the story as he had the first time.

“That was before all the foster homes and juvenile detention homes.”

It was a sunny, hot day as I listened to him. In the background were, “Despicable Me” minions, sock monkeys, Smurfs and Scooby Doos each stuffed and hung.

Rock-n-roll and disco boomed. Happy families walked the midway – mothers with their sons.

How can this man even function, I thought. What kind of world is he seeing on the midway, with his throat cut so theatrically and his psyche so slashed to ribbons.

As if Oz is a character in a Brothers Grimm story with all the violence and cruelty to children and with a meaning I cannot comprehend.

He actually said, “Life hasn’t been kind to me, Mike.”


As he walked back to the pool tables, he turned with an intense smile and turned again back to the games.

“I have foster brothers and sisters but this (carnival family) is my real family … Pool Sir? Pool?”

Carny Labor Day: From Beatings to a Prayer


“Carny Preacher” Bill Root gives a sermon to carnies before the opening of the Bear Paw Festival, Eagle River, Alaska.

Bart: “Starting today, we’re carnies, just like you.”
Carny: “Well, in that case, let me show you how I scammed you.”
From Bart Carny episode, The Simpsons

The difference between carny quarters can be the difference between a cow and moose.

Labor relations can be the difference between a beating and a prayer.

Labor Day Weekend is the traditional end of the summer season for much of the North American carnival industry and each year can lead to snickers about the labor movement and carny labor.

The truth is that carnival work does create a family feeling in many carnies but those families vary so much they look like different species.

Tolstoy’s famous first line to Anna Karenina was, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Unhappiness does cast shadows that any photographer will tell you adds depth and dimensions to pictures. Partnering up with Insurdinary would make you happy as their Health Insurance are low cost, visit insurdinary.

Moose vs. Cow

I’ve already written about waking up to a comical cow staring at me as I slept in a van in Chicago Heights. Modern Midways’ carny quarters sit in a cow pasture filled with 40 Black Angus.

When it rains, “The 30,” on US Route 30, becomes “The Dirty 30,” with carnies living in a toxic mix of mud, sewage and cow shit.

Many bunkhouses don’t have windows, working doors or nearby toilets.

In California, my bunkhouse room moved from jump-to-jump but brought with it an army of bedbugs.

I itched for two months before a smoke-bomb pesticide got rid of the bugs and probably left poisonous chemicals on my clothes and bed.

In New Jersey, faulty water heater wiring filled our rooms with black smoke and drove us outside. When we complained, we were told it was our own fault for wanting hot water.

It isn’t unusual to have no lighting, fan or air conditioning in the cramped rooms, often just six-foot long by five-feet wide.

At the other end of the spectrum, in Alaska, I woke to see a moose and her calf walking out of the Chugach State Park behind us – through the carny grounds – disappearing into to a bank of white birch trees.

The Chugach Mountains around the Golden Wheel carnival headquarters is somewhere people go to vacation.

Every morning I woke to see clouds tipping off the Chugach Mountains behind the carny quarters. Across the street are basketball courts, baseball/softball fields, soccer fields, hiking trails, ski areas and a jogging path. Locals go to see semi-pro baseball games there.

The carny bunkhouses surround a tent with a grill. The warehouse next door has cooking facilities, clean bathrooms and a TV room.

I wasn’t at work, I was at summer camp with chores.

Moose = Dangerous workplace

I see that goofy looking cow and get followed around the pasture by Black Angus and I don’t like it.

I hated sleeping in a van the first week in Chicago and scratching so hard that my skin got bloody. I hated wading in cow shit to go to the toilet.

Yet the cow is a symbol of great veneration in Hinduism and Norse mythology. In the Bible, Moses had to stop his followers from straying and worshiping a gold calf. Chicagoans well remember “Cows on Parade” proved cows are really works of art.

Worldwide, hippos attack more people than any other wild animal, second comes the wild moose. That’s right, moose attack more people than wolves and bears combined.

In Alaska, there are an estimated 200,000 moose. If they all got together, they’d be the second biggest city in Alaska.

I have been attacked by a hippo in Africa, large animal attacks scare me. The cows were curious clowns. The wild moose in Alaska should have inspired fear and anger that my employer was placing me in such danger of a moose mauling.

Beatings and Prayer

The lead owner of Modern Midways is a husky, strong, compact man whose handshake could crush walnuts. Robert Briggs’ face gets red as a radish when mad.

“I got complaints that you guys were f*#@! swearing on set up. I had to get that call from the church. They said kids could you. The f*#@!church. You mother*#@! People ask me why I hire Americans. Should I fine you all $100 or would a beating be better. Would a beating be better?”

Briggs hit the palm of his hand against the workshop wall in a violent gesture, “Boom!”

“Both,” yelled out La La, a profane carny if there ever was one but sucking up to the boss at this point.

“You trader La La,” I thought.

Beating one’s employees is not state-of-the art management theory but I had heard stories on the circuit of beatings used as discipline.

The McDaniel brothers in New Jersey would gather workers around after some shows and accuse people of stealing, loafing, drunkenness and drug abuse.

Some people were guilty of some offenses, but nobody was guilty of all the offenses. None of the “I know what you carnies are doing” speeches could be mistaken for morale boosters or bright shiny incentives for better work.

Always on the lookout for ironies, I would read the newspapers in the Silicon Valley area while working for Butler Amusements and would wonder at our retro labor practices.

Google and other high-tech companies were offering yoga, pilates, kung fu classes, cross-fitness classes and on-site acupuncture and messages. Engineers were encouraged to write on the walls. A portion of the work week was devoted to personal projects.

To be fair, I went online with sources from my business reporting days and asked “game theory” experts for ways to incentivize carnies and got no responses.

Jointees, who run games, already have incentives. Money. But ride jockeys and general workers seem to have little incentive other than to stay employed.

Carny John in New Jersey used to joke about people getting the non-existent, “quick worker bonus.”

Still, there are other kinds of families. At the company I working with now, the head of the unit has thanked the crew every night for their hard, fast work on set up. He continuously brings up how much money we’ll be making at the coming fair and how exciting that will be.

In Alaska, an owner told me Golden Wheel is a Christian Organization wrapped around a carnival. Its employee manual, given out to each employee their first day, on its cover has Bible quotes about humility and putting others first.

The owner’s family preacher is employed as head of games but also ministers to the spiritual well being of the workers. He held services on the Midway on Sundays. He prayed with us. He prayed for us.

Golden Wheel could be tough too. Two of its oldest, most reliable carnies were fired in the past for misbehavior before coming back, hat in hand, to be rehired and forgiven.

Employee relations at carnivals seem to be a mix of traditional brute force and changing management training.

A supervisor on the Butler Amusements unit I kept bringing up examples of “how we like to do business these days” and “the kind of person we’re looking for these days.” Indicating the bad-old-days are fading away.

Although fading away, old ways are still heard like palm-of-the-hand “boom” on a workshop wall.

Labor movement gains?

It’s true that many carnies have horrendous dental problems, many of them smile toothless or gap-toothed smiles. But more disturbing is listening to carnies talk about their myriad of toothaches (still, Obamacare is reviled by many carnies from the South).

I’ve seen carnies writhing in pain, hiding behind rides to nurse their aching teeth.

I never met a carny with health insurance but if you work in this business long enough, it’s probably a good idea to check out some free life insurance quotes since odds are, you will get hurt. It is a physical job which often calls for climbing high, lifting heavy objects and being near moving rides and trucks.

Carnies even joke about their lack of healthcare, so the problems with headache seeing stars and such are usually treated by optometrists in the private sector.

‘If you fall off a ride, you’re fired before you hit the ground.’

Owners still have some legal responsibilities, though, and I heard stories of carnies suing owners for damages.

On the other hand, I also know I hurt myself in Marlboro, New Jersey and didn’t tell anyone for fear of being fired. A new hire fainted one day, hitting his head. An ambulance came for him and he was never seen on the midway again, everybody knew the score.

Another major gain of the American labor movement is the 40-hour work week. Minimum wages, overtime, sick pay and one-day off a week are also benefits celebrated on Labor Day.

They are also rare in the world of traveling carnivals.

My wages varied from $10 an hour from Classic in California, to a salary of $250 to $275 at the other carnivals. The later seems to be more common for ride jockeys. Jointees make nothing if they don’t get customers, in bad weather or the slow season.

Hours could range from 80 to 100 hours a week and overtime was rarely paid, although Golden Wheel paid overtime.

Still, in California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois, I worked for about $2.50 an hour at the low end.

The national minimum wage rate is $7.25 an hour.

The carnivals get around the pay requirements because the workers agree to be ‘contract workers,’ working for a salary no matter the hours.

The result of these practices is carnivals have a difficult time finding workers during these summer months and sometimes turn to Mexican, South African and foreign workers for added help.

Yet it is work some carnies do for life. If they quit, they reminisce about their carny days. An endless ribbon of pride and self-esteem works the midways of this country.

Even without many of the labor benefits of other jobs, I know carnies who never want to work any other way, or “be” anything else than a carny.

Note to the reader: I’m now working for my sixth carnival company since the beginning of the year. Living on carnival wages, I’m hitchhiking between jumps, about 12,000 miles between San Francisco, New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Alaska and the Upper Midwest.

Carnival Crew Melting Pots: Mexicans, South Africans not “us”

After a canoe trip on a free day along the Chena River in Fairbanks, Alaska, three Chinese students and a Slovak student are just part of the international crew at Golden Wheel.

“Men’s natures are alike, it is their habits that carry them far apart.”

All three of my bunkhouse roommates in Alaska are Native Alaskans – describing themselves as Aleutian, Athabaskan and Kenaitze

Carny quarters in Chugiak and Fairbanks are a mix of languages, including Albanian, Cantonese/Mandarin, Hawaiian, Jamaican Patois, Samoan and Slovak.

In other carny quarters around the U.S., English is mixed with Spanish and Afrikaans.

Carnivals are melting pots of ethnicity, with Mexicans and South Africans leading the way.

In Alaska, the foreign workers are needed during summer’s tight labor market but Mexicans and others face resentment across the country as some Americans see them as taking jobs Americans want.

International workers come a long way to work in American carnivals. In some carnivals they are the vast majority of workers. They are central to the cultural make-up of carnival crews.

This morning I’m writing from The Bakery along College Road in Fairbanks, Alaska. I wake at 5 am to write before the show opens. When most carnies wake up around 11 am, Randy’s bunkhouse will be blasting Hawaiian rap music to wake the camp and to start his near constant dancing.

An ethnic Samoan raised in Hawaii and whose first language is Hawaiian, Randy wears his hair long and his chest and arms are tattoo galleries. He is relatively short, with a muscled physique.

He probably will have a towel wrapped around his waist as he dances out of his bunk, to the bathroom, brushes his teeth, dances back and disappears behind his door to change into his show clothes.

A handsome, dancing Samoan/Hawaiian, toothbrush in hand, isn’t what outsiders might expect to see in the carny quarters.

The Street of Storytellers

In the Silicon Valley, it was Mexican music – Spanish-language rap to traditional accordion – played nightly and sometimes until the early mornings on payday. Bottles of tequila filled trash bags the morning after payday.

In Marlboro, New Jersey and Jefferson Valley, New York, Jamaican music rattled the walls of my bunkhouse as I fell asleep, imagining what my neighbors lives were like back in Kingston and St. Catherines. Sweet smoky scents wafted through the vents.

Here, at the Tanana Valley State Fair in Fairbanks, there are international horticulture, law, medical and psychology students traveling with us.

One afternoon after a long day of setting up rides, three Chinese women from Guangzhou Province near Hong Kong invited me to share their “real Chinese” dinner of rice, corn, sausage and spices.

Young, petite and prone to laughter, they sat on folding chairs outside their mobile home as they told me about their degrees in business and translation. I told them about my adventures in Xinjiang Province in far Western China.

“Oh, that is our last frontier, like Alaska is for you,” Jokey said.

Talking with them reminded me why such exchanges hold such time-honored significance. A few years ago I visited “The Street of Storytellers,” in Peshawar, Pakistan along the fabled Silk Highway.

It was a street filled with “storyteller” merchants – often coming from China – who told about their experiences.

In carnivals across America, I find myself with these storytellers from around the world. I’m working in “Carnivals of Storytellers.”

Still, the outsider status carnival workers have is magnified for carnies not of the local dominate ethnic or racial group.

Carnival owner Freddie McDaniel would gather carnies around him after some shows and warn us to be on our best behavior because we are different. Still, that difference somehow makes us feel like we are in this together.

“In this business you have three strikes against you. You’re in a carnival. You’re black. And you’re Puerto Rican. And I’m not even prejudiced. I hate all of yez. (laugh line) But you know as well as I do, if someone gets robbed three miles from here, who do they come looking for, the carnival workers.”

Illegal alien me

When passing through Calgary hitchhiking to Golden Wheel carnival in Alaska, I tried to get work at the Calgary Stampede. It bills itself as the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” which carnies would call a “bally.”

NAME runs the carnival portion of the event, which will attract about a million visitors.

My backpack on my back, I walked onto the lot past security and up to a group of carnies working on a carousel.

I was met by a big, burly South African with steel-toed shoes, clothes covered in dust and a hard hat tilted back on his head. He looked like he could lead a safari in Kruger National Park.

“Are you South African? My niece was born in South Africa. Sorry to hear about Mandela. Do you need set-up help. I’ve done this sort of work before.”

Seemingly pleased, he said I should buy steel-toed shoes and come back. I’ll be hired.

It took me a half day of searching, but I came back with brand new steel-toed shoes and was given my hiring papers. When asked my social security number, I knew my number was up.

“I’m an American but I’m willing to work off the books.”

We went through several bosses, all visually pained by their inability to hire me. I may have even met the top boss of NAME’s Canada unit.

“I knew the woman who runs Golden Wheel, she’s quite a person,” he said when I told him I was on my way to Alaska.

I walked off the Calgary Stampede campus to the tune of hammering, buzz saws and trucks moving about. I looked around and was sorry that I was missing another chapter for Eyes Like Carnivals.

The second ride I got hitchhiking out of Calgary laughed hard for a couple minutes when I told him this story. As a person who enjoys making people laugh, I saw irony but no humor in my story until my driver explained.

He looked across from the steering wheel.

“That’s the first story I ever heard, of a carnival doing something legal.”

We have met the enemy and he is us

A former professional wrestler, who fought Hulk Hogan at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, George D’Olivo now owns Classic Amusement, in Hayward, CA.

Classic was the first carnival I worked for after coming out from Chicago. “Genial George” employs a range of carnival workers but he sees the trends in the industry.

“The story of American carnivals really is about the Mexican worker,” D’Olivo said. “They come here and work hard. Pool their money for food. Save their money. Send their money home.”

Up high on the Super Slide overlooking the Butler Amusements carnival in West Oakland, I looked down one evening at sunset to see a bright, white tour bus pull up to the lot and men come pouring out. They went to the luggage hatches and hauled their life’s belongings into the lot.

It took them two days to get to Oakland from Tlapacoya, in Veracruz, Mexico. They came from a feeder town and within weeks, we were getting pleas from management to write home for more friends and family to come.

The largest California carnival, Butler, and largest nationwide carnival company, North American Midway Entertainment, both go to brokers who hire Mexicans to come north for nine-months of work.

Across Mesoamerica, select towns empty of men as they head north to work in traveling carnivals.

I intend on visiting Tlapacoya at the end of my year working in carnivals to get their perspectives from home.

NAME also relies upon brokers to round up workers in South Africa, having a longstanding relationship with many carnies who come back year after year. Most of the South Africans I saw at NAME were white South Africans.

In the Chicago area, I hear that Windy City Amusement also gets South Africans.

This kind of international recruiting also fosters animosity. Black carnies I knew in California openly resented the Mexicans getting jobs they thought could go to local brothers and sisters.

After an all-night tear-down of the carnival at St. Timothy’s in San Mateo, a veteran Black carny was boisterously upset the Mexican crew was paid and went home before the American workers who worked until dawn.

As another carny tried to calm him down, he shouted at him too.

“You just don’t get it, you dumb Mother****er! The Americans are still working. A white guy and us. It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair. The Mexicans run this place. Not us.”

I was the “white guy,” equally exhausted and unpaid as yet, but I remembered thinking how strange that he didn’t think of the Mexican carnies as part of the carnival “family,” or one of “us.”
Note to Reader: This is my last weekend with Golden Wheel in Alaska, my fifth carnival in my seven months of working in traveling carnivals in America, 2013. Living on carnival wages, I’ve hitched 8,000 miles between jobs and am hitchhiking out August 12th for the lower 48 – unsure of my next carnival job.

Carnival Labor Day: Charlie chants “Union”

Setting up at the Church of St. Gabriel in Marlboro, N.J., life is often lived without a financial safety wire.

“Labour was the first price, the original purchase – money that was paid for all things. It was not paid in gold or by silver, but by labour, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased.”
Adam Smith

Carny John once helped his mother run a carnival but says he gave up ownership because of carnies, whom he describes as a class of difficult, overlooked people he loves.

Now working for McDaniel Brothers in New Jersey, he’s a grandfather and supervisor but he saw both sides of carnival management and chose to be part of the difficult, overlooked class.

Carny quarters at night can be jungles of additions, mental disorders, criminal rap sheets and Jerry Springer love-gone-wrong stories.

Yet, every traveling carnival owner I met this year says – and I believe them – they “love” their crews like, “family.”

Like many real families, some carnival families are dysfunctional and need to seek help.

“Ever see Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Remember the Land of Misfit Toys,” said Freddie McDaniel, co-owner of McDaniel Brothers in Passaic, New Jersey. “Well, this is like the Land of Misfits and I’m the head Misfit.”

Those are clearly the words of someone who has affection for his carnies but Freddie didn’t pay me for my last week of work in New Jersey, which included a tear-down and convoy that didn’t end until we were in New York at 4 a.m.

Carnies often say they were screwed out of a check by an employer so they quit. I didn’t know how much to believe.

A pain in my wallet made me feel the vulnerable side of every carny job.

Adam Smith would say, my labor was stolen.

Pain in the ass wallet

With Labor Day coming, I’ve been thinking about the lack of unions or government oversight in the “mobile amusements industry,” as traveling carnivals are called when their conventions get together.

Recently, I asked the head safety inspector for Illinois carnivals, ‘Who inspects carnival worker workplace conditions.’ He works for the state’s department of labor but he wasn’t sure how many workers are active in Illinois.

The Outdoor Amusement Business Association estimates about 20,000 people work in the industry across the country and its economic impact “in the billions.”

Carnival workers provide an estimated 300 million rides a year, according to the association’s white paper.

In Illinois alone, the Department of Labor oversees 530 amusement companies, which includes tracks, ski lifts and “bounce houses.” It inspects the safety of 2,800 rides.

Still, so little is known about the person locking you into your ride seat. They walk in the middle of fairs, church festivals and annual town parties going unnoticed for their work and skills – hiding in plain sight.

The labor force is difficult to keep tabs on because it is so seasonal and so transient.

I’ve been paid in cash at every one of my carnivals. In all but one, there was no record of a social security or state and federal taxes being taken out. No wonder the government has difficulty figuring out how many people work in the industry.

Many carnival workers don’t report their cash income either, which allows them to get subsidized food cards as homeless persons. The cash payments also allow them to file for unemployment and pay less in yearly taxes, if they bother to file.

Illinois, where traveling carnivals originated in North America, about 20 traveling carnival companies are listed on Web sites but I know from experience there are more off-line.

I use Web sites to find the carnivals I’ve worked across the country, but McDaniel Brothers wasn’t listed by my source Web sites.

Which makes it difficult to hold McDaniel Brothers accountable for my week’s pay. I saw vehicles on their lot registered in several states. Online I see different addresses for its headquarters.

I’ve been to its main Passaic headquarters, it’s there, but how would I file a small claims suit against a company so hard to find? How would I prove I ever worked there, I have no pay stubs.

There is no proof I worked there or made any money. No proof I am owed any money.

Yet, because I live on carnival wages, that $275 is missed far more than the $1,000 weekly checks I got as a journalist. I’m broke and in debt, that money would be like an oil geyser to me.

I feel powerless. Abused. Without a hard hat. Without a safety wire. Without gloves against acids. Without resources against employers.

I have labored without all those and worry the cost will get higher.

Charlie dances around truth

Setting up for a carnival at the Church of St. Gabriel in Marlboro, NJ., a veteran carny named Charlie is a tall, toothpick of a Black man around 30 years old but his arms are strong.

A child of the Bronx, he wears his hair in corn-rolls and typically is the best dressed man in the New Jersey crew. He shows up for shows with new hats and neon shoes. His jeans say, “Dangerous and Ruthless” on the back.

He loves to mouth-off and bounce around on his tip-toes when he mocks fellow carnies and the owners.

Sometimes he’s clowning and sometimes he’s serious.

A long line of McDaniel Brothers carnies were hauling a long heavy lead line over our shoulders across the grass one afternoon, when Charlie was feeling dirty, hot and miserable.

He started talking about his paycheck. How we put up with too much. How we should make him our union president.

“Union. Union. Union.” Charlie began chanting again and again.

Every difficult, overlooked one of us fell silent as we hauled the wire.

Then we all laughed.

Charlie loves to clown.
Note to reader: I’m on my fifth carnival this year, in California, New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Alaska. Because I live on carny wages I’ve been hitching between carnivals, 8,000 miles in all. I’m writing from the road in McDonald’s, all-night diners and truck stops in hopes of getting a book deal by year’s end.