It was one big juggling act.
We were coming off our first winter out West. My buddy Brad finally made it back from Bend a couple weeks later and was seeking gainful employment, too.
Mom and Dad ran into some old friends from Michigan: Butch and Petunia.
Butch, a barrel-chested, fast talkin’ rabble rouser; sorta famous for tearin’ the hell out of that little town and making all the concerned father’s shit-lists. Petunia straightened Butch out, and they were slowly growing their amusement business.
They had a couple of food carts and rented out some space in a small, Mid-Michigan-based traveling carnival. They were looking for a couple of nice young bucks to man their pizza and food wagon, across the way from their lemonade/corn dog wagon.
I spoke with Butch and we agreed on $250 cash, per weekend. That sounded really good. $250 for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, under the table. Adventures. Carny chicks.
Not bad, and, I’d get a truck to drive for the summer. I accepted and got Brad hired, too.
There was a lot of ‘jockeying of equipment’ moving from event to event. Butch and Petunia had a fifth wheel they slept in, so they’d drive down separately, with Petunia towing the lemonade wagon and Butch towing their summer home on wheels. It took a couple days just to get all the gear to the site and up-n-running.
The final piece to show up was the trailer Brad and I slept in. Hot and musty, the bathroom smelled of piss and the shower more or less peed lukewarm water on you. But these were ‘luxury accommodations’ considering the shady and sheisty sleeping quarters for the regular ragtag roster of carnies.
Our day in the wagon consisted of waking up around 9 am, prepping dough, sauce, toppings, and the rest. Thawing the goods was a crucial step. We’d make sure the soda was flowing like a river.
It would always be a long day, every day. The crowds would show up around 10 am, first couple slices of pie hittin’ the gums around 11 am. The lights and pizza and food would go down around midnight.
In no time, we were six weeks into the season and humming along. Man, we hit some ugly little towns. Our downtime on the road was spent reading, drawing, junkin’ in between, and sweating the nights out in the fifth wheel.
Things weren’t so bad and hell, if anything, the constant traveling was dirty, kinda reckless, and fun.
The carnival’s family hierarchy is broken down systematically. At the top of the food chain you have the owners. They own the equipment, book the shows and cut the checks. The main guy had this perpetual look of disgust and exhaustion on his face; his wife had big blonde hair and lots of gold bling dangling off her buxom chest.
Oh yeah, and a couple of spoiled shit-ass kids running around getting into everything.
Moving right along, the next step down is the food court. The food vendors rent space from the owners. If they’re lucky, they’ll build a little empire of fried pig ears and corndogs and have a whole row of wagons set up at any given event. Butch and Petunia were responsible people with a nice house in some little pleasant town somewhere, a couple of big trucks, and lots of determination and grit to succeed. For all I knew, they took the winters off due to the riches of summer.
Brad and I—somewhat reluctantly—were part of the “food court” caste. The worst sweaty weeks spent were selling pizza, corn dogs, curly fries, loose-meat sandwiches, flat bread tacos, corn-on-the-cob, red vines and caramelized apples. But in our hearts, well, we were pumping carny blood.
The carnies. Oh man, what a lot. Rough around the edges, oddly enigmatic, stereotypically undereducated, dirty, colorful, loyal, sunburnt, simple, repressed, and kinda lost, all are descriptions that come to mind. Some never showered and stunk of stench. Their faces and strong personalities are ingrained into me forever.
There was this older lady named Agnes who’d lie like a rug. One day she’d have six kids, the next day, seven. Her husband “Zeke” was this hefty redhead some 20 years her junior with no front teeth, deep-set eyes, a dangling smoke and a big smile to share with everyone. He’d just nod to all of her lies.
There was another guy who’d get a big Mountain Dew from us each morning with green, rotting teeth. He’d ask me about living Out West. I’d ask him about living in Saginaw.
One time I asked him if he ever planned to fix his teeth. With a toothy grin and poetic delivery, he said, “Hurts too much to brush ‘em, so I’m just waitin’ for ‘em to fall out! Ha-ha-haa!”
And that was that.
There was the erotic vampire novelist who worked the fryer; the old, troll-like man with no teeth who liked to stare at my butt; the U-Haul converted into an apartment others slept in; and showering in the 4-H showers, the same ones the horses are washed in.
There was also a carny who got pissed at his ex, drove her out into the desert somewhere, and left her there. We were all hating on her because she was being a drunk crazy bitch– scaring off customers with her brown leathery skin.
Then there was the carny ‘marriage’. After hours when the park closed, the betrothed couple-to-be would take a few runs up and down on the dinky roller coaster by themselves to consummate their ‘marriage’, much to the amusement and chagrin of the other carnies– the ’witnesses’– watching, drinking, clapping and cheering about in the bleachers. Don’t ask me more. You don’t want to know.
Make no mistake. Carny life is a tough go. First of all, they don’t get paid shit, and are expected to work long, long hours.
Some say the men are sleazy perverts, the women tough and catty; tattooed crackheads and alcoholics and lost souls alike. I don’t know. They work hard and wear their hearts of gold on their sleeves. I do know one guy who smoked 54 cigarettes. Every eight hour shift.
Set the shit up, run it, tear it down and travel to the next gig. And that was their summer. Each night after they shut the fair down, they were allowed a “draw” on their earnings. The cash was dispersed in an envelope, carefully recorded, and doled out to the eager workers. Their money often went to smokes, trashy food and beer.
This “draw” business was a calculated part of the relationship between the owners and the carnies. And man, the whole “draw” thing was one more way to keep them under their thumb and eating out of their hands. Cuz then when payday would hit, well, they would be taxed for the whole amount and have tiny paychecks. Plus, they had to rent out sleeping quarters. The deck was stacked against them in every way: the work, the hours, the safety issues, the food offered. Nothing was in their favor.
So we took matters into our own hands. After seeing how much money the wagon made and how fast they made it, I started to “give back” to the people who I felt were taken advantage of. The carnies had to pay for the food, which, considering how they were treated overall, was complete bullshit.
So a guy would come up to get his daily 50-ouncer of ‘Dew. It was three bucks. He’d give me a five dollar bill. I’d give him a wink, and seven dollars in change. And so on. I took it upon myself to give these guys a break, and in the process, won them over.
Now, if anyone messed with us, the carnies would come to our rescue. I remember some drunk frat fucks messing with us somewhere in the Upper Peninsula and one of the carnies coming over to stand guard by the wagon’s canopy area. Backup. Brothers. It put smiles on their faces and maybe, just maybe, made ‘em feel like someone gave a shit about their plight.
There’s a language, yeah. And a carny code. Rules to live by. Don’t nose into anyone else’s business, don’t screw up anyone else’s hustle, and when the trucks leave the lot all debts are paid. Band together to protect yourselves, to make a buck, and don’t give ‘em your real name– remember that little disagreement in the last town a few miles away? And stand by your fellow carnies.
It was one big juggling act. And things were rolling along just fine. Until a meltdown changed everything.
It was a late night in Norway, Michigan. We were busy right up until closing, and being hungry after a long day, we shut the rig down and left without “cleaning up.”
We come back to find Petunia feverishly cleaning up. We offered to help. She didn’t reply, visibly miffed, feverishly scrubbing away.
And that’s when Butch showed up, and he went nuts. Accusing us of “not caring anymore.” I remember him specifically bringing up an incident about the pantyhose.
At the end of the night, we were “trained” to put a pantyhose on the release drain, and then release the wastewater into the grass or dirt, catch all the crud in the pantyhose, then remove it. This was against the law as we were supposed to drain the wastewater into a state-sanctioned receptacle.
So this one night, Brad forgets to remove the pantyhose. We crash out and the next morning we’re greeted by an official from the Michigan State Health Dept. Well, Butch got a big fine for that one and was pretty bummed out on us.
Then he started to talk about how, “He oughtta fire us.” I interrupted him and said, “Nah, you don’t have to do that. …I quit!” And man, it stopped him in his tracks. He went double nuts at this point.
I think I made a point of saying something about how pathetic his “career” was as a fucking corndog huckster or something. I just remember Brad cautioning me as I unloaded a summer’s worth of disgust on the guy. Fuck him. We worked hard for them and never lost a sale or turned people away. We made them a TON of loot and were always there on time. And this one time when we broke protocol he freaks on us.
So I quit on the spot, and man, it felt good. I had saved all my summer loot so my Western nest egg was secure. Then they asked Brad what he was gonna do. I remember Brad saying, “I’m outta here. I’m not gonna listen to you talk shit about Harry for the rest of the summer.” My carny brother had my back.
I remember being outside the owners’ fifth wheel and hearing that little snake-tongued wife say something along the lines of, “I wouldn’t give them a thing. Get ‘em out of here!” as Butch sought guidance on how to handle our leaving.
And that was it. We were free.
It was 2 am and we were done. Stick a fork in us like a baked potato, we were done. Butch paid us out for the weekend and gave us a hundred bucks for Greyhound tickets. He recruited this guy with bad hearing and Coke bottle glasses to drive us off the premises and to the next little town where we’d wait the night out until the next bus came through.
He dropped us off at a 24-hour Laundromat where we caught up on laundry and watched the sunrise.
The days of the juggling act were over.
Mom and Dad came to our rescue the next morning.
–Thanks: Aaron D., Skippy, Josh, Alicia, Myrtle the Turtle
by Harry Payne
This post originally appeared at the Humboldt Sentinel. Reprinted with permission.