Monthly Archives: March 2014

Carnival Quarters, Pastures to Parks

Dominos Steve Best
Playing dominos in the carny quarters on the San Mateo County Fairgrounds in California, these carnies are “cutting up jackpots,” swapping stories and laughing.

Chugiak quarters
Workers gather at the end of the day for food and a bit of socializing in Chugiak, Alaska.

“Life near the bone is the sweetest.”
Henry David Thoreau

In the ten states I worked carnivals this last year, I lived on the border of Chugach National Forest in Alaska and in a cow pasture outside Chicago with 40 Black Angus cows and a big, dirty bull.

The carnival quarters exist in sharp contrasts, in part because of the ownership but also due to the people in the bunkhouses.

In Chicago Heights, a town with high unemployment on the rural edge of the Chicago south suburbs, I met a short “jointee” the first morning named Pork Chop. A “jointee” runs games. I was running the carousel for the Chicago carnival, so I was known as a “ride jockey.”

It was one of the few dry nights of June last year but I was still negotiating my way through mud puddles that morning.

Apparently, my awe of the cows and the widespread decrepitude gave Pork Chop a good laugh at the new guy.

“Welcome to The 30,” Pork Chop said. “Wait till it rains, then it’ll be “Welcome to The Dirty 30.”

It’s called The 30 because US Route 30, the legendary Lincoln Highway, runs along the border of the cow pasture. The Lincoln Highway was the first bi-coastal highway in the country. It was one of many fabled highways I traveled this year in carnivals from Route 66 to the Alaska Highway.

One morning a carny on The 30 pointed at the rising sun and said, “My house is right on this highway out that way, in Ohio.”

When it became the Dirty 30, my shoes would sink and disappear in the mud and cow shit. The “donnikers,” which is a carnival term for outhouses, were a football field away.

That concept prompted Marine Eric to object.

“If you have diarrhea, you’ll never make it. You’ll have to do it next to the cows. Say, move over cow.”

My room had no window and the door hung by a single latch, like a child’s loose front tooth. I had no heat in the cold, no air in the heat. Much of the time I had no electricity.

The first 10 days I was on The 30, I slept in a decrepit van, crawling with bugs and mites. One morning I woke and saw a cow pushing his head up to the partially opened window. I half expected him to say, “Good mooo-ning.”

As bad as my conditions were, others had it worse. One couple lived in the underbelly of a trailer, that looked something like an animal transport trailer.

Trash overflowed from trash cans all around. The pasture was a dumping ground for old rides and a storage grounds for rides in need of repair.

That carnival troop had no H2-B visa workers, migrants working from Mexico, South Africa, Jamaica or other countries.

Last month I met James Judkins, the biggest migration agent for Mexicans in the country. I asked him why he didn’t send people to that carnival company, he said because the living conditions were too raw for the Mexicans.

I felt so surrounded by sewage and infestations, one morning I woke myself up with the greeting, “Mud and cow shit everywhere, honey, what’s for breakfast?”

During my final tear down in Chicago, Peanut told me that I was going to miss my family, the carnival. I’ll even miss the cows, he said. He was right to link the carnival family with the cows.

I loved The 30, I just didn’t know it when I was shin-high in bullshit.

Bugs to Weber grills

My California bunkhouse was infested with bed bugs. I endured the bites when I slept. I scratched all day for weeks. Not only was I miserable but if I ever mentioned it, I became a pariah, so I suffered in silence.

That bunkhouse’s filthy showers featured shower curtains blackened by grease and dirt. The floors were torn up and caked with mud and grime. The joke was, you came out of the shower dirtier than you went in.

In New Jersey, an electrical short caused sparks and smoke. It drove us out of the bunkhouses. When the smoke cleared, we went back to bed. The owners the next day said it was our fault for leaving on the water heater. No apologies for the fire hazard.

Single-room carnival bunkhouses are about six feet long, about five feet wide. Bunks on one side of the trailer are on the floor, on the other they are chest high. In most bunkhouses, I could touch all four walls.

In Alaska, along with my Native Alaskan roommates, we slept three in a room. Two bunks on one side and a chest-high bunk at the entrance. A small sink and closet fit snuggly.

Across the country, Mexican “reefers” fit 15 or more Mexican men to a trailer. Showers are on one side and a kitchen is on the other. Lockers face the bunks, where men slept on three-leveled bunks.

Workers didn’t want to take frequent cold showers. The Laundromat van sometimes skipped a week. I never saw a reefer with circulating air. So those trailers smelled of working men.

Mexican men pool their money for food and the few women who come up from Mexico are responsible for shopping and cooking.

Small outside kitchens line most carnival bunkhouses. Mexican meals are common meals. The “Jarochos” from Veracruz eat more fish than the city slickers from Mexico City.

American carnies put out their portable Weber grills and sit around on fold-out chairs or industrial sized buckets eating hotdogs and hamburgers.

In Alaska, Golden Wheel had a souped-up modern grill and tent for common meals. It also had a kitchen in its warehouse.

Chugiak was such a carnival paradise, I imagine only E.K. Fernandez Shows in Hawaii to be a match. Grocery stores and fresh fruits and vegetables are just down the road. Across the road is street is a park, for playing basketball and baseball. Behind the quarters is Chugach National Park, for hiking.

In Chicago I saw 40 cows in the carny quarters, in Alaska I witnessed a moose and her cub walk majestically through camp.

Barrios to “love shacks”

In my Oakland carnival, I slept on the floor bunk and looked at the pornographic graffiti on the pressed wood a couple feet above.

Somebody loves Knockout and someone else wishes me a future filled with great sex. Good to know.

I remember stressing out about the viability of my year in carnivals when the rap music turned down and I heard a young woman singing softly to a ballad. The noisy night became quiet. No other word for it than pretty.

Other nights, frisky couples rocked the bunkhouse like a hammock. In Minnesota, the couple across from me were a new couple, really new.

The rocking went on most of the night but I was happy to hear the man once in a while say, “quiet Mike will hear you.” Every little bit of courtesy is appreciated here.

In the bigger carnivals the Mexican reefers are filled with men who don’t want to stay inside so they hang outside. The Mexican music and tequila on pay day can give it a barrio feel.

Living next to Jamaicans in New Jersey and New York, I got a contact high from the pot smoke wafting through the vents.

The closeness of the quarters meant nothing is private. Who is sleeping with whom. Who is abusing drugs, alcohol or their wife.

Whispers can be heard through the walls and farts smelled. We knew each others secrets and what we had for dinner last night.

The closeness led to bickering and to closeness. When carnival people talk about the carnival family, it’s because they work all day together and sleep side-by-side at night.

In off hours, carnies usually hang around the bunkhouses. Younger workers played hacky sack and basketball in Alaska. In most traveling carnivals, pay days were for drinking, drugs, music, video games, dominos and “cutting up jackpots” … gossip or storytelling.

We shared so much. We shared the weather, food, cigarettes, booze, drugs, shoes and the constant state of being broke. Working constantly and yet being poor is the life of the carnival worker.

The old-time carnies talk about sleeping under rides, which I did on several occasions. They bemoan how soft the new carnies have it compared to the days when boats were made of wood and men made of iron.

After a year working and living in those bunkhouses, I can say carnival workers aren’t that spoiled and some have it every bit as tough as the old days.

Yet I also saw bunkhouses and ‘barrios’ filled with all the human foibles, passions, vices and fun of traveling small towns. They were as good as their people, living close and close to the bone.

I spent the last year working and living in carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. Because I lived on carnival wages, I hitchhiked between jumps for about 15,000 miles, making me America’s #1 hitchhiker for 2013-14.
I’m writing a book. If interested or you want to comment, email me at

Carny Philosopher King with Buffalo Bill Beard

Kelly Best

“Someday I’ll wish upon a star
Wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where trouble melts like lemon drops
High above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me”

Somewhere Over the Rainbow, music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg

The 30-ish bartender sports a shiny bald head, purple triangle earrings and a Buffalo Bill Cody goatee.

I decide to take a seat where the bartender gets ice, so he can pause to talk once in a while.

I’m on the hunt for carnival stories. My duck blind is the main bar in Showtown USA, during its annual traveling carnival trade show in February.

Not many people were there yet. It’s a long rectangular bar with flat screen TVs. Brightly lit, real Italian- painted carousel scenery panels above the bar made it carnival chic.

I remembered an encounter the night before, when I walked in with a carny who knew I was looking for stories.

“There are going to be hundreds of people here tonight,” he said, “and each of them will have thousands of stories.”

We chuckled and looked around the room, not at the each other.

“And half of them will be related to each other,” I said. “A lot of them will be slaughtering someone else’s story.”

The bartender’s name is Kelly Wilson and he was born into the carnival business. His parents were in the business, he grew up in games and food wagons.

His eyes are clear and he sports an easy, full smile. Buffalo Bill Cody was the greatest showman of the early 20ths Century and the first to join a the first showmen’s association. Kelly Wilson’s look shows he knows his showmen’s traditions. That, plus he knows it looks cool in a place like this.

I just knew the story safe at a carnival trade show would be at the bar and the key is the bartender with the Buffalo Bill beard.

Wilson’s Laws

Kelly learns from everything he comes across, religion, philosophy, music and art. He’d be a humanities scholar if he ever went to college.

“My college is life,” he said as he poured rum and coke.

Then he began mixing disciplines.

“Love and music are my religion,” he said. “Buddhism and Daoism make sense to me.”

He was careful not to “dis” Christianity either. He’s not ruling out ideas so much as seeking unifying laws for life.

“Kindness,” Gandhi and food service are the disparate concepts he’s been mulling.

“Gandhi said you should be the change you wish to see in the world,” he said. “I want to be kind as much as possible. Even to the meanest people.”

Bartending is Kelly’s off-season gig. He’s tried lots of sucker jobs. He’s trained under some good restaurant chefs, so, “I know how to cook.”

The “season” calls him back, though, like it does migrating birds.

“I tried the normal life,” he said. “Every a April I’d get the itch.”

Maybe it’s because he was raised on the road in a cramped blue trailer, in a family of six.

His childhood was spent running around, free rides, free sweets, playing with the other carnival kids from town to town.

He worked some games coming up but he spent more than half his life on the road making cotton candy, gyros, pizzas and hamburgers.

“My whole life, there wasn’t a year I didn’t go out and do something,” he said pouring whiskey and Coke. “My friends always say I’m like the Allman Brothers song, “Ramblin’ Man.” That’s the way we lived in a blue bus.”

When he reached his teen years the cramped living and maybe his phase in life, led to lots of arguing. Sometimes it was great but somewhere it turned.

Music was his savior. At his first “Rave” he had an epiphany. I don’t have to live like this any more.

“It was like the Bob Marley song, ‘If you are unhappy then travel wide.’”

Nevermind he was already traveling wide, it was a freedom song to him.

Unification theory

From July to October he travels the Midwest and South working a Mexican food trailer.

About five years ago he began selling hula hoops on the side. On breaks he went to the meeting room off the bar area so he could hula with kids.

I videotaped the dance. It started out with a “life’s a playground” feel. Then he kept going, part dervish, part “auana,” a Polynesian hula word for “to wander or drift.”

Kelly hears all the wild carnival stories as he pours drinks but I asked him what’s the weirdest thing he ever saw on the road.

He kept pouring drinks and making change but was stumped for a while.

“For me, weirdness is just normal,” he finally said. “Like people having sex in random spots is normal.”

When I prod him about his future, he says maybe he’ll buy his own trailer some day.

Which tells me, he isn’t like some carnival people I’ve known who envied homes in towns they passed.

He was more like a nester, who sets up home where he migrates.

Once again, he searches for the unifying theory of his life.

“I like cooking. I like people. I like traveling. And this is the best way to do all three.”

What I find disorienting about his unified theory is the backdrop. We’re in a carnival bar, everyone in this bar is a carnival person. He was raised in carnivals and lives in carnivals.

Yet he’s not jaded. His theories are idealistic, at times romanticized and wishful.

Bob Marley, the Allman Brothers, Daoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Gandhi, cooking, traveling and “kindness” even to the mean people.

Such are the truths he lives by – Wilson’s laws – as he dances in hula hoops through life with his beard of Buffalo Bill.

I recently finished working a year in traveling carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and a Florida freak show. I trekked down into Mexico to see the new face of American carnivals, Mexican carnies. I’ve traveled more than 20,000 miles through 36 states, Canada and Mexico. I’m attempting to sell a book on the America I saw from the carny quarters and the side of the highway.

Mexican Faces and Reefer Madness

Video of my Mexican co-workers from San Mateo and Martinez, California to Tlapocoyan, Veracruz, Mexico. I used Son Jarocho music, La Bamba, sung by Los Lobos.
Video of my Mexican co-workers from San Mateo and Martinez, California to Tlapocoyan, Veracruz, Mexico. I used Son Jarocho music, La Bamba, sung by Los Lobos.

“Don’t shave, don’t shower, don’t care. Be really stinky and wear the same clothes everyday. I think what makes a man sexy is not being self aware. That’s what is really cute to me.”
Gwen Stefani, American singer

Emerging from the shower in the reefer, I was alone in the sleeping quarters for more than a dozen Mexican migrant carnival workers.

Unexpectedly, opportunity was at hand. I went to the Mexican reefer for the shower but when I finished it was empty. My camera was in my pack beside the cramped shower. Time to film.

I rushed, putting my clothes and fast-walking to the front of the bunkhouse trailer. I took tiny steps, in order to avoid slipping on the water I was still dripping.

Wood bunks with thin mattresses were stacked three high on the left wall. Lockers and a table for hotplates and spices lined the opposite wall.

Work clothes hung from bunks to air out. Carnival workers work extraordinary hours, 60 to 80 hour weeks aren’t unusual. Hundred hour weeks are unusual but happen. You didn’t want to miss the bus to the local beat-up, coin-laundromat. The bus was always unscheduled and sometimes skipped a week.

Our reefers in my San Francisco Bay area carnival smelled like work.

I went to film from the opposite side of the trailer, by the refrigerator and sink. It was also near the exit, should I need a quick getaway.

The suspense was crazy high. People in carnivals are always walking around corners. It’s like a Shakespearian play that way, someone is always opening a door, overhearing a scandalous comment or bumping into someone.

Everyone knows what you’ve been eating. They’ve seen what you’ve been drinking. Everyone is guessing about who might be sleeping with whom. I imagine people lying awake listening through the thin bunkhouse trailer walls. Nothing is private and not even your dream life, because people speculate about that too.

The lack of privacy is magnified in reefers because people are piled on top of each other. They didn’t need to listen through walls to hear someone sleep talking. Their meals were communal, everyone pitching in a few Yankee dollars for supplies. The donnikers, (carny lingo for port-a-potties)were just a few feet from the front door of the reefer.

My bargain-basement camera blurred at the least bit of movement. Picture after picture blurred in my shaky hand. I cursed and kept taking unusable pictures.

I decided to take a video, I could always take a snapshot off the video.

If someone walked in while I was panning across the reefer with my camera, there would be hell to pay.

Bosses would be told. I’d be unmasked as a spy.

In the days of carnival lore, disloyal carnies were beaten or thrown from the train. Workers have been beaten for drinking on the job. Some have been beaten for mouthing off to the owner. Some carnivals, allegedly one I worked on later, beat people up for leaving before the end of the season. I had no idea what I might face if caught.

I wasn’t just in danger of being fired or beaten. My year in carnivals could be defeated by gossip. Not only do people know everything about you in the carny quarters but carnies talk across carnivals.

A reluctant spy, I was forced by circumstance into working as a carny but writing every spare moment about their lives.

My spy career began with the a colorful carnival owner and ex-pro wrestler, with the stage-name of Bo Paradise. He owned the first carnival I worked for, Classic Amusement in Hayward, California. However, he fired me after he judged my blogging to be dangerous for business. Then he told me he thought the carnival project was a stupid idea.

No owner will allow a writer in his carnival. Even if I’m hired, I don’t speak Spanish and the new face of the American carnival is Mexican. I won’t have access to the dominant work sector.

Yet there I was showering in the reefer, which was the exclusively Mexican bunkhouse. They’re called ‘reefers’ because they supposedly have ‘refrigeration’ during the summer.

Unlike the bunkhouse I lived in, Mexicans lived rent-free. I paid $50 a week for a six-foot, by five-foot bunk room. They lived shoulder-to-shoulder and slept in stacked bunks.

I befriended my Mexican coworkers and they were comfortable enough to allow me into the reefer unsupervised. Showering in the reefers was another way to open communications.

Being seen with a camera in their quarters would sound alarm bells for management because we already knew Butler Amusements was being sued by Mexican employees. My Mexican pals thought they knew who was suing but their names were deleted from the lawsuit for fear of retribution.

If coworkers knew their identities for sure, those bringing the suit feared for their safety and their ability to ever work again in American carnivals.

Networks of families and friends might blackball them. Agents who recruit workers might take a pass on the trouble makers.

Workers from Mexico are at the mercy of so many forces.

Filed under the name of Doe, the lawsuit alleged substandard living conditions, uncompensated work hours and pay below the minimum wage.

The groups helping with the lawsuit also participated in a study called, “Taken for a Ride,” conducted by American University. The study alleged such abuses are widespread throughout the country.

I eventually worked in carnivals in California, New Jersey, New Mexico, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. Nobody worked in more carnivals than I worked.

I can’t say abuses are widespread. I can say I’ve witnessed them. I once calculated my hourly wage at roughly $2 to $4 an hour.

The lawsuit and the national study were fresh on people’s minds.

I stood my ground, filming and panning longer and longer and longer. It seemed like forever. Then I tucked the camera in my side-pouch.

A split second later, someone walked in as I walked out.

“Cold water El Grande?” he said.

We laughed. I walked away into the night.

Grateful for the bracing shower of a cold-hearted spy, I smelled of cheap soap and a clean escape.


Last month was the end of my year working and living in traveling carnivals around the USA. I lived on carnival wages so I also hitchhiked between jumps. I’ve traveled through 36 states, Canada and Mexico, for more than 20,000 miles. My 15,000 miles of hitchhiking makes me the #1 Hitchhiker in America. I worked carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. I worked rides, games and one freak show.

Death Defying Father Mike tells Hell Rider stories

This video is brought to you by HoldtheMayoMedia.

“You must not fear death, my lads; defy him, and you drive him into the enemy’s ranks.”
Napoleon Bonaparte

I’ve heard that scholars believe when Shakespeare wrote “All the world’s a stage” and “one man in his time plays many parts,” it may have already have been a well known saying.

That is because people already noticed life’s stages and that not a single role defined a whole life.

Father Michael Juran’s stage is full of characters and so many are him.

You might know him as the Human Battering Ram, the Flying Padre, stunt man in “Man with the Golden Arm,” Burt Reynolds stunt double in Smokey and the Bandit II and Father Mike.

I met Father Mike in the main bar at the headquarters of the International Independent Showmen’s Association in Gibsonton, Florida.

Bellied up to the bar, having a white wine with pals, he took time out to talk to me about his many roles in life.

Freak Show owner Chris Christ, left, and Father Michael Juran talk at the IISA Trade Show last month.

His life, he says, is part of a “traveling apostolate,” a mission sanctioned by the pope for itinerant workers.

When asked why he was both a priest and a stuntman in circuses and carnivals, he hints there may have been some “pompous asses” who didn’t understand.

“We have this Argentinian, (Pope) Francis, who says remember what Jesus did,” Father Mike said. “He’s popping the bubble of the pompous asses.”

At 65 years old, he’s retired but he’s been a priest for 40 years and a stuntman for 27 years.

He performed the “Human Battering Ram,” in which he is strapped to the front of a car as it crashed threw a burning wall.

He drove his car on two wheels at state fairs and racetracks. He flew over a bridge in the 1974 James Bond film, “The Man with the Golden Gun.” He drove stunts for Burt Reynolds in the 1980 movie “Smokey and the Bandit II.”

He slept in the trailer for Joie Chitwell Thrill Shows and performed priestly duties in his off hours. He heard confessions, performed baptisms “without the paperwork,” and performed carny weddings.

“Jesus didn’t do paperwork,” he’s fond of saying.

In a carny wedding, couples get on a carousel. Words are spoken. Blessings made. The carousel turns three times to symbolize the union.

When the end of the season comes or the end of the relationship, whichever comes first, the couple gets on the carousel which turns three backward three times signifying the carny divorce.

“None of its official,” Father Mike said, and probably all might get him in trouble in some church sectors.

Father Mike had their trust, he said, because he walked among them.

“They’d say, he’s one of us, he’s a performer too,” he said. “I’d say God loves you. I’m just like you.”

Confessions happened behind rides, walking along the midway, anyplace, he said.

“They’d say I want to talk about God’s forgiveness,” he said. ”

It was barroom banter and couldn’t last long as carnival workers came from every corner to shake his hand and share a story.

Father Mike has more stories to tell. A television company is making a documentary about priests that serve the itinerant people at carnivals, circuses, racetracks, rodeos, cruise lines and airports.

Christianity is a religion where the Messiah came from the common people and so it stresses that it is with the common people where the divine is to be found. It is also a death defying religion, one where the Messiah defies death and says followers can too.

Father Mike drove a fast car down those tracks and defied death, hell bent and heaven sent.

Last month I finished a year in carnivals, hitchhiking between shows. I crossed 36 states, Canada and Mexico on my way to racking up 20,000 miles on the road. Many stories were not written as they happened and are now being written as I write a book about the year.