Miss Trudy holds her granddaughter at a carnival crew party/birthday party at Cosmic Bowl in St. Paul, Mn. Her son and carnival unit owner Adam West is on the far left.
“A merry life and a short one shall be my motto.”
Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts
This morning at the Super 8 continental breakfast, Roger came in with a stripper from last night’s “titty bar.”
I was eating Raisin Bran and reading an online New York Times story on Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat Pray Love,” when he and Candace sat down with me and talked about a wild night.
Roger was tossed from the bar for asking strippers to come on the road with us. Yet here he was with a stripper from that bar, who said she loved the movie, “Eat Pray Love” adding lots of people say she looks like Julia Roberts.
“I don’t have her big lips, do I?” she said with an ear-to-ear smile.
She does, if Julia Roberts had greenish tattoo crosses on her fingers and tattoo flowers on her chest, and was still drunk from the night before.
Roger later regaled the carnival crew about convincing Candace to get into bed with his carny roommate to wake him up with a fake story of a menage a trois last night involving him.
Breakfast talk then turned to the drunken brawl last night in my room, which resulted in a broken lamp and a flying TV set.
The Super 8 is filled with carnies working at the Oklahoma State Fair and there are many stories like these told by the legion of the hungover this Friday morning.
I’ve changed sides in the carnival world, I’ve gone from “ride jockey” running rides to “jointee,” working games.
Jointees like Roger, a tall thin army veteran of Somalia and Kuwait with a less than honorable discharge, strike me as the closest thing modern American men get to buccaneers.
He’s got closely clipped hair, thin rectangular glasses making him look a bit like Buddy Holly but his prison record and life tell the story of man constantly in and out of trouble while in pursuit of money and women.
At 54 years old, I’m about the age that the Welsh pirate Captain Henry Morgan was when he died. Captain Morgan and the pirates of the Spanish Main captured a lot of loot, women and imaginations.
Minus the murder and the Jolly Roger flag, jointees are a subculture of mostly men in and out of trouble in pursuit of money and women, mixed with copious servings of drugs and booze.
All these pursuits they again and again mistake for happiness long after Captain Morgan’s crew sailed off to toward mayhem on a flagship named “Satisfaction.”
Batman’s two crew parties
Carnival unit owner Adam West’s six-month-old daughter was passed carny to carny around the table at On The Border until she made it back to her mother’s lap.
It was the free crew dinner before the opening of the Oklahoma State Fair in Oklahoma City. About a dozen carnies feasted on beer, margaritas and fajitas.
Some of the carnies held the baby in front of them at arms length like she was going to shit on them.
Others mustered their rusty fathering skills and bounced her like she was in a dryer.
“It’s like that line from Armageddon, ‘I was raised around roughnecks, what did you expect,’” said West, paraphrasing the biggest grossing film of 1998.
This is my second jump with West’s crew. In Oklahoma we have nine joints. One of the features of the “Adam West” unit are the black Batman logos, in a nod to the actor who played Batman in the TV series.
The Oklahoma crew party reminded me of another crew party at Cosmic Bowl before the opening of the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul.
“Roughneck” carnies stood around West’s other blonde daughter and sang happy birthday for her sixth birthday party, an event usually filled with squealing first-grade girls.
The carnies cheered when she threw gift wrapping in the air and her dad pushed a dab of cake on her nose.
They towered over her with cigarettes behind their ears. Chango stood with a pitcher of beer in his right hand and a double shot in the left hand. Slamming shots with one hand, he’d hoist the pitcher to his wide-open gullet with the other to the sound of “glug, glug, glug.”
Why doesn’t he just sing “Yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum.”
It might have brought back flashbacks for Adam’s mother, who raised him in carnivals from infancy. Miss Trudy was there laughing with the crew.
I told West and Miss Trudy (who was there to help run the booths) it reminded me of Shirley Temple in “Little Miss Marker.”
In that 1938 film, Shirley Temple’s father uses her as his marker in a card game and loses. She spends the movie growing up with the gangsters and gamblers who “won” her.
It’s a departure for Temple because she swears and steals salt shakers, albeit adorably swearing and stealing.
In real life, Shirley Temple grew up in show business, which traveling carnivals consider themselves to be. She always said she loved her childhood in show business.
Adam is just 28 years old. He’s going through a divorce. He’s gaining weight and loves to drink, much like Captain Morgan did.
Still, he’s owner of this carnival unit, which is large and has reputation for earning money.
If he is a happy man, he’s likely to think of his childhood as happy too.
At both crew parties, I wondered if West worries about his daughters growing up with “roughnecks” or if he sees them as lucky.
“Welcome to growing up in a carnival,” West said, as if to his daughter but out of ear-shot for her. “I grew up this way, now my best friends are carnies.”
Life in pursuit
Our crew know all the carny tricks.
They know how to “juice a game,” spring the baskets, bend the darts. They know how to confuse the mark with fast talk and faster math, called “tipping up” a booth.
At parties they talk about towns they’ve played like Morgan’s men might have talked about Jamaica, Panama City or more sacked cities drained of their loot.
On the ride down from St. Paul to Oklahoma City Roger told me, “We don’t leave a dollar on the midway.”
When I interviewed for a job at the Golden Wheel in Alaska, I mentioned to the owner I ran a dart game when I was 22 years old in South Dakota.
“Don’t tell that to my husband, he won’t hire you,” she said. “We don’t want anything agents learned in the lower 48 to come back here.”
This crew is the crew type she feared but West runs honest games (just overpriced like all carnival games).
Still, as a crew, they’ve worked hundreds of carnivals, maybe in thousands of towns.
Their machismo is outsized. Fighting is fun. Hookers are friends (sometimes employees) and so are strippers. Drugs, hootch, cigarettes and huge deep fried meals are their fare.
Most of the time I talk to them they talk about how much money they can make by being a “F*cking Power Agent.” How different are they from the Caribbean “roughneck” sailors desirous of drinking from the gold cup.
They are part of a larger fleet of buccaneers going from carnival to carnival across America partying like there is no tomorrow.
Living like today is their last, in pursuit of satisfaction.
This is my eighth month of working in traveling carnivals, hitchhiking about 12,000 miles between jumps. I’ve worked in and hitchhiked between California, New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota and Oklahoma.
Grace, 8, and me on Carnes Avenue behind the Mighty Midway of the Minnesota State Fair and in front of my bunkhouse. In my hands are pictures of a watercolor dog, a postcard lion and a coloring of a rainbow.
During my year writing “Eyes Like Carnivals” I look for connections. The Baum connection is a doozy and got me thinking about creative inspiration.
Frank Baum was a financially struggling newspaper reporter when he lived in Humbolt Park, Chicago and visited the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
It’s impossible to know what inspired him to write, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” but it’s a fair guess that Burnham’s “White City” inspired Oz in some way.
My daughter Grace, 8, (Dorothy) came to visit this old newspaperman at the Minnesota State Fair and Exposition on Labor Day weekend.
Grace came up via Amtrak from Chicago with my parents. No yellow brick road but it was a great adventure and she made new friends along the way. She was thrilled to see wonderful sights like the mighty Mississippi and a fantasyland, America’s biggest state fair.
When she saw me at the gate, we ran to each other. I got on a knee and we hugged. I thought she was going to cry but she was brave.
“It feels like four years .. since I saw you,” she said and kissed me.
We ate at O’Gara’s and I told her the words on the wall, “Cead Mile Failte” in Gaelic mean “One Hundred Thousand Welcomes.”
It was her introduction into the fantastical world of her first state fair.
At breakfast, she showed me her gifts to me. A watercolor of a dog (Toto), a postcard lion from her visit to the Brookfield Zoo and a coloring of a rainbow. She draws lots of rainbows for some reason.
We walked the Mighty Midway and saw giant rides, a couple house of horrors and a freak show called the World of Wonders. This “world” bills itself as the last traveling sideshows in America. A woman outside the tent said, “Children in strollers get in free because we all know how kids love freak shows.”
If there had been munchkins the symmetry would have been unbelievable.
Eventually, we got to the pool table tent where I work, and I introduced her to my supervisor whose carny name is “Oz.”
I told her she would remember this trip for the rest of her life, she should write about it in her diary.
Who knows what inspires people, influences the rest of their lives.
I only saw her and my parents for breakfast and during two breaks. Carnies worked 9 am to midnight every sweltering 12 days of the fair.
I was on break when I ran away from my mother and daughter on the midway to get back to the pool tent on time.
Feeling their eyes on my back, I disappeared into America’s most crowded state fair I thought about my words to Grace, “you’ll remember this trip for the rest of your life.”
It was then I knew it. This visit by ones I love so deeply may have been more important to me.
That 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was the inspiration for so many. Walt Disney’s father worked with the fair. Traveling carnivals call it the birthplace of American carnivals, with their midways, Ferris wheels, games and thrill rides.
Walt Disney grew up and called his fantasyland “Disney World.”
I believe traveling carnivals are worthy of study because they operate so close to the heartbeat of local epicenters – neighborhoods, churches, commercial hubs. At that spot they increase the pulse with sights, sounds, tastes and thrills.
At the right moment, they can also appeal to the intangible that pops to the mind like a bright, electric flash people call creative inspiration.
Aha. Eureka. Blink. Nobody knows where it comes from or where it leads.
My theory is it might be cellular, we’re a long way from finding out how it works but we know it has outside triggers.
People are always trying to figure out ways to summon that flash but history and myth are so full of outside stimuli – of Archimedes’ public bath, Newton’s apple and Decartes’ bed fly.
People come at creative inspiration in so many ways and traveling carnivals create such strong impressions and connections they are at work deep in our minds.
I believe Disney and Baum were just a couple of those kids who got those mysterious messages from somewhere inside, inspired by traveling shows.
If Disney and Baum, what then my little girl carrying her pictures of a dog, a lion and a rainbow to see a carny writer father.
I know what part of me brought, what is she taking away.
I’m on my eighth month of a year spent working and living in traveling carnivals coast to coast. I’ve been living on carnival wages and hitchhiking between jumps, about 12,000 miles. It’s now state fair season. A former “ride jockey,” I’m working the traveling carnival portions as a “jointee” on games.
Life’s a carnival for writer on road
August 30, 2013|Rick Kogan | Sidewalks
All summer long they pop up, those neighborhood events known as carnivals. Though there are some pleasures to be had in that northern playground that is Great America and there’s a bit of fun available at Navy Pier, nothing can match the rough-and-tumble treats of a carnival.
It comes unexpectedly, all sparkling and ready to go. What one day was a vacant lot is, the next night, a forest of neon and sound and movement, and you feel an urgent need to be part of it. You know there is a bit of danger there too, depending on the amount of rust clinging to the rides, and in the mannerisms and manners of the men and women working those rides and games, mysterious strangers.
If you happened to visit a few of the carnivals that hit town this summer, notably the Puerto Rico Days in Humboldt Park in June, you might have seen the man in the accompanying photograph. He is Michael Comerford, wearing what he calls his “Crocodile Dundee” hat.
A former newspaperman — his byline has appeared over the past decades in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Daily Herald, as well as papers in Moscow and Budapest — he has been on the road, a lot of roads, actually, for a total of some 12,000 miles and counting, working for carnivals in neighborhoods across the country since March.
Comerford has always been something of a character, and many newspaper people still working in the trade can tell you stories about him, funny and not so. I have a couple. But he has always been interesting, in part because he has had serious wanderlust. “I’ve been to more than 90 countries. I swam the headwaters of the Nile, survived a hippo attack, studied Buddhism in the Himalayas and danced an Irish jig in the Amazon with an upraised jug of local White Lightning,” he writes.
He is 54 years old, and his writing now, on his blog eyeslikecarnivals.com and occasionally for The Huffington Post, is captivating. Filled with quotations from a wide and wild variety of people — including Proust, Kerouac, Mother Teresa, Picasso, Marcus Aurelius — and peppered with philosophical observations and colorful portraits of people and places, his blog is by turns emotional, erudite, enlightening and ever engaging.
We meet who he meets, people with names as interesting as their stories: Cotton Candy Connie, The Gold Fish Lady and Kid Gypsy; two Amish fellows on the California Zephyr; and Navajo Mike, who gives Comerford a four-hour ride to Amarillo, Texas. There are posts from his Chicago visits, and the blog is embellished with terrific photos and some absorbing video.
One of Comerford’s major influences is the late Studs Terkel. On his blog, he borrows a line from Terkel’s magisterial book “Working,” which should be required reading on every Labor Day: “Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
In the 1980s Comerford wrote a five-section special edition of the Elgin Courier-News called “Working.” It included some 100 profiles of Fox Valley area people, “from a struggling car washer to rags-to-riches entrepreneurs.”
Studs loved those stories and would no doubt be beguiled by these new ones told, Comerford writes, in “that tradition of living, working and writing about the lives inside history’s big narrative outline.”
His has been no easy trek. Sleeping has gone from lovely (“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.”) to lascivious (“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.”). And plenty of bedbugs.
Though he does hop a train here and there and ride his bike, hitchhiking is his usual means of transport from carnival to carnival: “So much of my time hitchhiking, I think of roads. Of Patch workers on ice roads. Of roadside running caribou. Of traveling carnival convoys. Of runners in love living their dream lives on the road.
“There’s a lot of living on the road and some rides go far.”
One journey has him trying to get to Chicago for the eighth birthday party of his daughter.
He talks to her every night but has “real concerns about Northern Indiana and the South Side of Chicago. I’ve hitched it before and it was always epic.
“Maybe I’ll be lucky this time.
“I’ll be a dirty, smelly mess when I get there but I am the dirty, smelly, messy gift for an 8-year-old angel.”
Does he get to see her? You will be rewarded by finding out on the blog.
Comerford tells me that it has ever been his intention to turn this project into a book and says, as if in apology, “all posts are written on the run, in fast food joints.”
Yes, there are some rough edges. But there is such vitality, life and immediacy in his work that some reputable publisher should jump at the chance to put it all in hardcover.
For all the hardships and hassles Comerford has weathered so far, it is difficult not to feel a certain envy for his independence. It is impossible not to admire his work. He hopes to wind up this journey in December in Mexico, and so, vaya con Dios, and keep writing.
(Writer’s Note: Hope this doesn’t violate copyright law. This is Rick Kogan’s article, Andrew Nelles photo and the Chicago Tribune’s property copied online.)
This is my “bally” at the Minnesota State Fair, the biggest state fair and carnival in the USA. I’m on the Mighty Midway calling in players by walking back to the table to grab a cue ball, sometimes handing it to a player while explaining the rules.
This time I ring in two “marks” by telling them it is as easy as 1-2-3. I know you can do it.