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.

Leave a Reply