Under the Overpass
While hitchhiking in the 80’s I covered 43 states. I was almost always solo, but I was also part of a tribe of travelers who were usually well met as we crossed each-others paths the along the Interstate Highways across the country. Along these roads are thousands of over pass bridges, and the ones closest to Truck Stops and towns were where those of my tribe would shelter from a storm and spend our nights.
After I carefully trudged up the 75% cement grade that ended on a three-foot wide flat ledge that spanned the width of the bridge, there would be a four-foot heavily shaded clearance under most of them, so I would crouch to unload my gear onto the cold cement. Sometimes, if I was lucky, there would be a cardboard mat left by the last traveler or a couple local teenagers using the spot to get high or make-out, but other times I would have to go out on a mission seeking a cardboard box from behind a local business.
Usually, I spent my time alone in those spots, but at times someone else would be up there, or just their gear. If there was another traveler (or sometimes a pair of them), I would smoke what I had with them and offer what I was drinking, or vise-versa. Most times we didn’t have a damn thing. We would camp on opposite ends of the ledge that spanned the width of the bridge.
There was always graffiti to be read along one of the concrete rafters set about ten feet apart spanning the width of the overpass. Names and dates of the last ones to pass through, messages to others about the local police or other dangers up above in the area and messages to each-other about when they were here or when they expected to arrive at a destination to meet up. Poetry, some long and some short, and “underpass essays” were common too. The words could rattle you or soothe you. Often there were canned goods that others chose to leave behind. A little weed or tobacco may be found in a baggie under a rock.
The sleep on concrete, even with cardboard and a blanket or sleeping bag was always rough, but it’s the life we chose.
“Yeah, you read my sign right, I’ll listen to your confession for a dollar, but just one. Man, really, I’ll listen to you if you just keep dropping ten dollar bills every few minutes. This is my corner, this is my gig. No one else does what I do.”
“Okay,” She said, ” I just left a man tied to a tree. I tried to beat him to death, but I’ve broken both of my hands on his face and he was still breathing when I left him. I kinda ran out of hate, too. It felt good.”
Up on The Range is where we everything
Remember when the County Fair was in Hibbing?
Six of us went, the girls on our laps
T.J. Swan and Schnapps for them, we had Southern Comfort, Jack and Jim.
A little Columbian with some of the worst homegrown for backup
More friends met us there in Bubba Pender’s pick-up
We had mini-donuts and elephant ears and we made bad decisions behind the carnival trailers
Those two broke up and that one threw up and it went bad from there
Up on The Range is where we everything
Grandpas, Dads and Uncles working swings at the mine
We had our first time and did our first crime
Got our first cars and lied our way into that one bar
Some of us graduated, some dropped out, some died
Some grew roots, some of us couldn’t be held down
We moved or stayed, found our tribes and lived our lives
But we all have it in us, with us, in our being
Up on The Range is where we everything
When you’re born into the life it’s like being raised by wolves. Growing up a carny kid prepares you for no part of the real world. Not one thing about it is common. Some families in the business go back generations, to the turn of the 20th Century, and have generations of traditions unique to show-people. Other show families came along in the last couple decades or even as recently as the last season. It gets in your blood. Not everyone is wired for the life, but there are those that were raised as citizens that found “the life”.
When I was a kid, my parents would take us off the lot to shop for clothing or whatever and usually I thought of those trips as trips into the real world and that when we returned it was to the midway- wherever it was that week. As I got older, I considered the show as the real world. It was where all my family, both immediate and Show Family- which were truly family, and lifelong friends were. Fuck the rest of the world. If they wanted my time, they would have to come to my world.
We come from generations of tradition and myths, lies and manipulations, and a sense of family that many of the carnies never experienced when they lived back in Bum-Fuck Minnesota or wherever they’re from. It’s a self – contained off the grid nomadic community that is unrivaled in today’s age. Street gangs and bikers are probably the closest in the dynamics of infrastructure within the group.
We bang the occasional town-mark, but more often each other, and try not to fuck a concessionaire’s wife or daughter, but a show-owner’s women are fair game.
The green help don’t know about the old days and ways. When a carny yelled “Hey Rube!” it meant he was in trouble. You stopped what you’re doing and come running and bring a hammer or a joint brace with a hinge on the end because shit is getting real on the Midway. Everyone knew they better be in some deep shit that involved blood and some town marks before they yelled those two words.
Ours is one of the last to have a Freak Show – Snake Girl, Two Headed Woman (slept with her. Boy howdy), Wolf Boy, Sword Swallower. The canvas was painted by one of the last few carnival artists in the world, trained by a master.
The show started with just a Ferris Wheel on one end, a Jenny on the other, and a rotating kiddy airplane ride in the middle. Jonny G had an Italian and Polish sausage grab joint, Big Connie spun floss out of a tornado of a joint. Billy had a Duck Pond, and Dirty Darrel had a Shoot out the Star.
The game joints are where the money is. There was a certain knot that you had to learn to stake a joint down. There are a lot of aluminum framed joints around now days, but back in the day they were all panted and carefully pin-stripped wood and canvas stick joints held together with hinges on two-by-fours, and Kotter keys, we call them R keys. You’ll see show folks wearing them as earrings, necklaces, and on their key chains. The rides were held together with them too. It’s a symbol.
Prince aand Husker Du and later – Tina and the B-Side rumbling through the coolest venues and Kid Johnny Lang playing everywhere. But it was more than that. Deeper. The music came from the vibe. The vibe came from the streets; the tribe of street people, the tourist restaurants, the drugs, high end clothing and shoe stores, gay bars, local bars, and seedy bars like The Speakeasy, adult book stores with 24 hour video arcades – the hunting ground for the chicken hawks. The labor pools and Catholic charities drop-in centers, Rifle Sport Pool Hall where the hustlers hustled the hustlers, and Tourist Education establishments like Moby Dicks where, in the back at the pool tables, some of the best acting, finessing and double-talking sharp shooters will rob you in a few games of straight-eight call your shot. Money was laying around, you just had to pick it up
There is a barely real Bohemian coffee house called The Alley Cat Café. It’s not part of the world, it’s just in it. When you go inside you know it immediately. The whole joint is done in sepia. From the moment that you walk up the stairs that lead from the alley and pull open the door, everything you see is cool and it appears that every cool thing you see has been there for years. As though nothing is new, but it’s not true. I’ve seen the ebb and flow of art, décor and architectural design over the course of fourteen years, and even though the management has changed a time or two, the character in the visuals stays deep and vibey.
I go there for the coffee and the slightly vibrating barely contained pulse that draws me back. The U-shaped counter is wrapped in copper sheeting that has been beaten and burnished to perfection over the years. Every acoustic ceiling tile is an original work of art, in mediums ranging from oil paint to Sharpie, and each one was done by a patron. The music playing reflects the tastes of two twenty-something java sorcerers working a shift, and it moves from Coltrane to Kraftwerk and Avenge Sevenfold to Etta James, Trance, Jam-grass and everything between the cracks.
The cadre of Baristas is well curated and vetted in the refining fire of the most successful coffee house in Fort Collins, Colorado. Their educations range from BA, MFA, Master’s to ‘I just dropped out of high school and lived on the streets until The Alley Cat took a chance on me’. Some were born abroad and some here. Big, little, Rasta, Bald Girl, Man-bun, Yoga pants, ripped jean, cargo shorts, performers, writers, engineers. The Baristas are a tribe unto themselves.
The taco joint downstairs doubles as an over-night bakery for ‘The Cat’,which is open twenty four hours a day, and the duties in the past year have been split between three bakers, all of whom take great care and add their individual character to every sinfully decadent bite that we wait to experience. If you’re fortunate enough to be there at 4 or 5 a.m. when the fresh hot trays come up from that amazing cave, the sensory overload is enough to kill you.
I can sit at a table and stare off into space, slack-jawed and unaware of my appearance, and at any given time there will be half a dozen others doing the same thing. To the one’s who don’t know me, I’m “Older dude with the cool hat”. I’m in my mid 50’s, and there are a few of us around that age range that are regulars, but for nine months of the year, most of the customers are chai-drinking college kids with fire in their bellies and in their eyes. And about them I have to say; they give me hope for the future and God bless the creator of Yoga Pants.
The Alley Cat – If you haven’t, you should and if you don’t get it, it’s okay, you never will.
I saw Billy at the Bus Stop on Nicolette and Franklin. I hadn’t seen him in eight years, but Scarface Billy looked 20 years older. He was on crutches dragging a bum leg in a brace. His face had been always been a cross-hatch of scars, but it looked worse. One eye was milky, blind, and that side of his face was drooping. His once jet-black thick hair had more salt than pepper and it struck me that I never knew how old Billy was…55? Maybe, but he looked 65. He didn’t have many teeth left, but the old tramp had fire blazing from his eyes and muscles still rippled in his forearms. He looked like what he was – an old wolf that, if pushed, would just kill you because he was too old to last in a fight.
I was embarrassed for him to see me in the condition that I was in; I had just come from my twice monthly hair-cut, I had a well-cut Brooks Brother’s suit flipped over the shoulder of my white light-weight Perry Ellis shirt. I was wearing pleated pants and expensive shoes. Hell, even my socks were expensive. He saw me.
“Hey, Soldier!? Is that you, man?”
“Hey, Billy. Yeah man, it’s me.”
“You look like a mark. Spare any change, mister?”
“Fuck you, old man.”
We stood there grinning at each other for a long ten seconds and then he said,
“Buy me a drink and give me a tailor-made smoke, ‘Citizen.’ “
We made our way to The Speakeasy – where all of the two-in-the-afternoon drinkers were pros. All of the men had decades old tattoos and some of the women had all of their teeth. It was where guys like us felt at home…when we were with guys like us. I was 29 years old, a kid in that bar, but I had lived ten men’s lives.
Billy asked about my clothes and I told him that I was married, separated, had a son and a different life than I once did. I was an account executive for print advertising for a publication that had a circulation of 100,000. I bullshitted my way into a job that had a company car and two-hour client lunches on the expense account. But I blew into town in a stolen car, had a warrant out for my arrest, and my life was coming apart.
“Who do you think you’re bullshitting, Soldier? Guys like us, we’ll never be Citizens.”
He called me Soldier because that was my street name when I met him. I was an 18 year-old street punk looking to get schooled in the art of hopping a freight train from Minneapolis to Eugene, Oregon. I rode the rails for the first time with Scarface Billy, Limpin’ Ed, Curly and Jim Forney. There was a girl in that mix too. I brought her along, but she disappeared with Curly when we hit Spookaloo. Billy took me under his wing and taught me how to roll my own cigarettes, make coffee over a fire in a soup can using a tied off clean-sock-pouch. He showed me how to get fifty cents on the dollar for food stamps, how to dive the best fast food dumpsters, and how to drink White Port, Wild Irish Rose and Thunderbird wine. I discovered Mad Dog 20/20 on my own.
Billy and the other guys knew where all the Salvation Armies, Rescue Missions, soup lines and food banks were in every town that we stopped in along the way. It was their way of life and I was being shown the ropes. I hung with Billy for a couple weeks, saw him open up the forearm of a big Ute with a broken Wild Irish Rose bottle, he was a wolf back then and I hadn’t seen him in the 8 years since.
An hour of drinking draft beer and Bacardi shots and I had stripped down to my wife-beater and threw my Perry Ellis shirt in the trash. We got shitty drunk, played shitty pool, Billy hobbled around the table on crutches, banging peoples shins and pissing off the room. It ain’t easy to get kicked out of the Speakeasy, but we did find ourselves out on the sidewalk in the hot sun of the late afternoon.
I got Billy back to the physical rehab place where he was sleeping, which was supposed to be a sober environment. I left him leaning on a buzzer and telling me not to forget that I would never be a Citizen.
I got arrested a week later and was sent to a work farm for six months.