My year as a carny
by Michael Sean Comerford, Arts ’81
On the Fourth of July weekend of 1981, I was a 22-year-old Marquette graduate riding my bicycle from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean when I pulled off the road to work at a traveling carnival in Cody, Wyo.
On the Fourth of July last summer, at 54 years old, I hitchhiked through the Yukon Territory on my way to a traveling carnival in Chugiak, Alaska.
One Independence Day led to the other and played out in the most astounding ways. Inspired by that Cody carnival and needing to change careers from newspaperman to author a little more than a year ago, I wagered all that I have to write about traveling carnivals and carnival people. Money I borrowed for rent bought a train ticket to San Francisco’s Silicon Valley.
I would live on a concept and little else.
Working in carnivals for a calendar year, I survived on the wages and hitchhiked between jumps. I crossed 36 states, Canada and Mexico and traveled more than 20,000 miles.
I worked carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. I had no idea how difficult it would be or the outrageous reversals of fortune in store.
Traveling carnivals pop up in town squares, malls and church parking lots for annual parties and communal celebrations. Thrills. Games. Prizes. Then they vanish in the night with their traveling secrets. What better way to search for that zeitgeist that makes us Americans if not in our mirth?
I ran rides and games and took tickets but didn’t perform in the freak show. Along the way, I met Cotton Candy Connie, Monster, Cockroach, Chango, Batman, Original Tommy, Breeze, Flash and a 22-inch “half man” named Short E. Dangerously.
The only way to cover territory on carnival wages was by thumb. Tailwinds from 18-wheelers knocked off my hat when I stood on American roadsides. Long hikes, weather and cops put a price on free rides. But after empty eternities came magic rides. Denali National Park, the Rocky Mountains, California’s central valley, the deserts of the American southwest all blew past while I asked drivers for their life stories. I drove five days out of Alaska with a trucker who told bawdy Canterbury-like tales of attempted murder, Russian roulette, and a wolf’s bite that turned a wolf into a man and a woman into a wife. Outside Memphis, I told a devout young Muslim driver that the only type of person who didn’t pick me up was young, beautiful, blonde women.
“Oh, no,” he said, “that’s too much to ask of God.”
Who picks up hitchhikers these days? Inventors, lawyers, truckers, families, grandmothers, rich and poor, young and old, black, Hispanic, and white. A lepidopterist from Princeton University regaled me on the genome of the papilio glaucus, the tiger swallowtail butterfly. Idealistic hippies on their way to the Rainbow Gathering in Montana solved the world’s problems and reminded me that idealism still lives. Several drivers had rich carnival pasts and talked about their carny days as highlights in their lives.
Many drivers were in the midst of personal transitions. Big ones. At times I wondered if I was hitchhiking through self-help nation. It seemed an American trait, as if ennui is Old World.
I set up my own website, eyeslikecarnivals.com, using the Wi-Fi at a McDonald’s in Oakland, Calif. The site added immediacy to my stories. If I was in a fix and didn’t know my next step, readers felt the suspense and waited for the next installment on my action adventure reel. Daily posts on Twitter, Facebook and other social media kept my saga on people’s minds.
My two most popular blogs were about hitchhiking. In one, a man living in a yellow school bus in the woods beside Pink Mountain in Canada sat for a video. In the other, I wrote about a mad-dash hitchhike from New York to Chicago for my daughter’s eighth birthday. My longest ride on one trip was with a war refugee from the Balkans. He talked about harrowing escapes that led him to America and living the American Dream.
Who picks up hitchhikers? The most compelling people in the world.
My direction changed when a colorful carnival owner and former pro wrestler with the stage name Bo Paradise told me the new face of American carnivals is Mexican. About 5,000 Mexicans get H-2B visas to work each year in carnivals, motivated not by the American Dream but by survival. I learned that just as other Mexican towns send men to the grape fields of Napa Valley, Calif., Tlapacoyan empties each year, its men en route to U.S. carnivals. I vowed to go to Tlapacoyan, in Veracruz. There I attended a born-again Christian revival where carnys spoke in tongues and families told of paying protection money to “the bad men” when their own men go to work up north.
My scope gradually expanded to see America as it looks from a Ferris wheel platform and while hitchhiking along U.S. interstate highways. I immersed myself in the life and left my former self behind. Carnival work is a lifestyle. Workers leave home and make another home on the road to do hard, accident-prone work for little pay. You live with your neighbors and your work.
My muscles bent under the weight of all-night “sloughs,” the carnival slang for tear downs. I lifted beams above my head, scaled poles and hauled electrical lines. I banged, jammed and taped rides together. Rain and wind, low pay, no pay, and heartache morphed me into a carny. It is the physically toughest job I ever worked. I slept in bunkhouses that reminded me of the “worst toilet in Scotland” from the movie Trainspotting.
Most carnival people are the working poor. When I ran rides, I lived on $225 to $325 a week. Jointees, the people who run games, can make less or more based on traffic. I couldn’t say criminally bad conditions are common. I can say I lived with them. The month I started, American University put out a major report called “Taken for a Ride” that alleged systematic problems exist in the industry with housing, work hours, wage theft and unsafe work conditions. I eventually saw it all, including theft of my week’s pay by a New Jersey carnival owner.
The beauty of working with so many carnival companies in a single year was seeing both the good and the bad. With my Chicago carnival, I slept in a dirt field with 40 Black Angus cows and a bull. When it rained, the living quarters along Route 30 became “The Dirty 30,” with mud and cow dung clinging to our shins.
Early one morning, I emerged from the clean bunkhouse to watch great white clouds tip Alaska’s Chugiak Mountains. I saw a moose and her calf lope through camp. They stopped to look at me before disappearing into a bank of spruce and white birch trees. Depending on where you stand in the world, the moose and the cow can be considered sacred. I favor the moose, and Alaska in August is carnival heaven and where I became most familiar with the spiritual side of this bruising life.
The owners of Golden Wheel Amusements in Chugiak hired their minister to run games. Bill Root preached on Sundays and held Bible study classes along the Midway.
I found a traveling apostolate of Catholic priests work with carnivals. Father Michael Juran was a carnival stuntman for 27 years, a stunt double for Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit II, and a stunt car driver in the James Bond film Man with the Golden Gun. Father John Vakulskas from Sibley, Iowa, spoke of his friendship with former carnival worker Gordon Henke.
Henke, the son of a carnival worker nicknamed Red, ran a milk bottle game. His customers paid to knock down bottles with balls. He told a newspaper he learned to make money in carnivals. Henke went on to make his fortune in direct marketing of industrial equipment. The Henke Lounge in the Alumni Memorial Union, Marquette University High School’s Gordon Henke Center and scholarships at both institutions bear his name. Red’s kid did alright.
A carny dad I knew in San Francisco said his son is going to Marquette this fall. Carnivals may be a bit retro in the digital era, but their connections live on.
For the past year, I slung iron and pushed plush (carny for prizes). I worked Midways from Alaska to Florida, from California to New York. I thumbed my way, living life close to the bone. In all my writing and thinking about those hard miles, I saw the evil and the good, but I reveled in an epiphany. I expected to see carnys on the make. I suspected hitchhiking was dead — and maybe fatal. What I saw while peering out a wide truck windshield was America in its blazing panoramic beauty. What I heard were stories of Americans seeking meaning and struggling with changes in their lives. Through those vistas and those stories, in these crazy times, ran a river of people who are good at heart.
Michael Sean Comerford, Arts ’81, is writing a book about working in traveling carnivals in 10 states, touring Mexico and hitchhiking America. He’s an award-winning journalist who worked at newspapers in Budapest, Chicago, Moscow and New York.