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.)