My Summer As A Carny
We were coming off our first winter out West. I came back in early May. My buddy Chad Smith finally made it back from Bend a couple weeks later, and was seeking gainful employment too. After a long winter of making pizzas, little did we know we’d be “doing I-talian” again all summer long.
Mom and Dad ran into some old friends from Central Lake, Michigan: Ray and Rose. Ray, 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 shitlists. Rose straightened Ray out, and they were slowly growing their amusements 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 wagon, across the way from their lemonade/corn dog wagon.
I spoke with Ray and we agreed on $250 cash, per weekend. That sounded really good the first time I heard it, thinking, “$250 for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.” Under the table, too. Michigan-wide adventures. Carny chicks. Not bad, and, I’d get a truck to drive for the summer. I accepted, and got Chad hired on too.
The first couple gigs were in the Detroit area. So that meant we had to drive down the night before, with the wagon in tow. That added an extra day to the “three day weekend.” There was a lot of “jockeying of equipment” moving from event to event. Ray and Rose had a fifth wheel they slept in, so they’d drive down separately, with Rose towing the lemonade wagon and Ray 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 fifth wheel Chad 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 offered up for the ragtag roster of carnies. We’ll get to them in a couple paragraphs.
Our day in the wagon consisted of waking up around 9am, prepping dough, sauce, and toppings. Thawing the goods was a crucial step. We’d make sure the pop was flowing like a river too. The crowds would show up around 10am, with the first couple slices hittin’ the gums around 11am. Chad and I would stagger the slow time, offering relief to each other every hour. There would be a dinner rush around 7pm, lasting a couple hours into the night, with the lights going down around midnight.
In no time, we were six weeks into the season and humming along. Man, we hit some ugly little towns. Clare, Irons (home of the Michigan-famous annual Ox Market and Flea Roast), Ironwood, Iron Mountain and the Coleman Junefest were some of the colorful destinations. Our down time on the road was spent reading, drawing, junkin’ in between ports 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 and his wife had big, blonde hair and lots of gold 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 court vendors rent space from the owners. If they are lucky, they’ll build a little empire of elephant ears and corndogs and have a whole row of wagons set up at any given event. Ray and Rose were responsible people, with a nice house in some little town somewhere, a couple big trucks and lots of determination to succeed. For all I knew, they took the winters off, due to the riches from their summer. Chad and Isomewhat reluctantlywere a part of the “food court” caste.
But our hearts, well, they 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 are descriptions that come to mind. It’s been over a decade since that fateful summer, so, the names are fuzzy, but the faces and their strong personalities are ingrained into me forever.
There was this older lady named Alice who’d lie like a rug. One day she’d have six kids, the next day, seven. Her husband “Bob” 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 along with her lies.
There was guy who’d get a big “Dew” from us each morning with green, rotting teeth. After some time we got to know each other. 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! Ta-ha-haaaaa!” And that was that.
Carny life is a tough go. First of all, they don’t get paid shit, and are expected to work long, long hours. 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 are allowed a “draw” on their earnings. Now, if I remember correctly 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 would 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 the wagon made, and how fast it 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 say a guy would come up to get his daily 50-ouncer of Mountain Dew. It was three bucks. He’d give me a five dollar bill, I’d give him the wink and then give him 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 having one of the carnies come over to police the wagon’s canopy area. Backup. Brothers. Now, it’s not like Ray and Rose lost very much on my benevolence that summer. Maybe a couple hundred bucks, which, I’d gladly pay back. It put smiles on their faces, and maybe, just maybe made ‘em feel like someone gave a shit about their plight.
The highlight of the weekend was “going AWOL” long enough to hit a thrift store or local restaurant. That and when friends would visit. I can only wonder how we looked inside that cockpit.
Now, things were rolling along just fine, and some 10 weeks into it, a meltdown changed everything.
It was a late night in Norway, Michigan, in the west end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We were busy right up until closing, and being hungry after a long day, we shut the rig down and left without “cleaning up” to try to get into town before everything closed. So we go and eat, hitting a Subway or something. (And I remember that felt “premium” after spending a whole summer around corndogs and shit.) We roll back into the site to do our nightly cleanup and then hit the sack when we noticed the wagon’s back door is open and the light is on with some movement inside.
We walk up to find Rose feverishly cleaning up. “We’ll get that. We just wanted to go into town to grab something before everything closed,” we offered. She didn’t reply, visibly miffed, feverishly scrubbing away.
And that’s when Ray showed up, and went nuts. Accusing us of, “making Rose clean up after us.” (Bullshit. We always cleaned the place up, like we were supposed to.) and “not caring anymore.” He was getting close on the latter, as our paycheck stayed the same and the days on the job being more and more each weekend. For instance, he never told us about the fairs that were Thursday-Sunday, which meant driving out on Wednesday night and back on Monday morning, in turn becoming six days all together. But we still made it and honored our pact.
I remember him specifically bringing up an incident about a pantyhose. At the end of the night, we were “trained” to put a pantyhose on the release drain, and then release the waste water into the grass or dirt, catch all the crud in the pantyhose, then remove it and cap it back up. This was against the law, as, we were supposed to drain the waste water into a state-sanctioned receptacle. So this one night, Chad forgets to remove the pantyhose. We crash out and as we’re walking up to the wagon the next morning, we are greeted by an official from the Michigan State Health Dept. Well, Ray got a big fine for that one, and was pretty bummed on us. Thanks for the good training, boss.
Then he started to talk about how, “He oughta fire us,” when I interrupted him and said, “Nah, you won’t have to do that. I quit.” Or something to that effect. 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 Chad 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 on time. And this one time we broke protocol in the name of getting somewhat of a square meal and 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 Chad what he was gonna do. I remember Chad saying, “Nah, I’m outta here. I’m not gonna listen to you talk shit about Aaron for the rest of the summer.” My 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, then” as Ray sought guidance on how to handle our leaving. And that was it. We were free.
It was 2am, in the middle of the U.P. and we were done. Ray paid us out for the weekend and gave us a hundred bucks for Greyhound tickets back to Traverse City. Then 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. Once we were on the road we bought the guy some smokes or a big Dew or something and he drove us all the way to Escanaba, down on the Lake Michigan coast. He dropped us off at a 24-hour Laundromat where we caught up on laundry and watched the sun rise.
Mom and Dad came up to our rescue the next morning, and drove us back down to TC.
A couple weeks later, after a hellishly-amazing Ryder truck roadtrip back to Bend, we were settling into our second winter in Oregon.
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