Carny Rap

thNJD7ZLEF 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.



from my memoir Faces, Places and Pain

The Carny life had always been there for me when I needed it and I was counting on it when I walked onto the midway at the Texas State Fair in Dallas, lookin’ for a hole. I had combed my hair for the occasion after I blew in from hitchhiking down the interstate. I was sunburned, dehydrated, moving slow and carrying my life in a Korean War rucksack on my back. I was broke, and smoking a roll-yer-own, and the old school carnie’s that were working the joints, (the Marks called them games) sensed that I was one of them, that I was “with it, and didn’t even try to call me in.

The town help that the joint owners had put in the kiddie games like the Duck Pond and Ring a Bottle tried to call me in, but I wouldn’t give them my eyes. Some veterans would just catch me out of their peripheral vision and call me in out of habit and I would just say, “I’m with it.” and they would nod and call the next one in.

I was looking for any joint that I had worked in before. There were a half-dozen that I knew well and I looked until I spotted one; the Stop Sign Game – bounce a whiffle ball off a slanted stop sign into a basket below.

It was a center joint, (in the middle of the midway), and had two stations on each side. One of the holes was empty. I asked the guy at the other sign if that was an empty hole or was the person working it just on a break. He said it was open and told me where to find his boss.

I found Ray, the joint owner, under the office tent with a couple of other owners and the owner of the show. Ray was a big man, about 400 pounds, and when he spoke it came out like a wheeze.

“What do you feature?”

“I’m no high-powered agent. I do the Milk Cans, Bottle Up, Tubs, but I noticed you had a hole at the Stop Signs. I can fill that for you.”

“I’ll give you 15 points.” (15% of the daily gross in my apron). He grinned almost imperceptibly.


“25?! Fuck off. I don’t know you.”

“I’m good.”

“Yeah, how good? Who have you travelled with?”

The other guys at the table watched the verbal piing pong match with amusement. They’d seen it before. It never got old.

I named off six concessioners from Florida to Minnesota.

“Gary Thacker, huh. You were one of ‘Thacker’s Wackers’?”

“Yep. Worked his signs for a season. Strictly hanky pank build-up, a few strong moves but mostly finesse. I made 50 G’s that year at 25 points, so he made 150 large just from my apron alone.”

All of the other men’s eyebrows went up at that, but they held their tongue. This was Ray’s game to win or lose.

“Go jump in that hole. I’ll give you 20 points today. Show me something by the end of the night and tomorrow I’ll bump you up to 25…if you’re travelling with us after this spot.”

“I’ll travel. Got nowhere else to go.”

I walked back to the joint and told the ‘Head of the Store’, who was sitting on a gulf cart next to the canvas wall, what Ray and I discussed. The Store Head looked down the midway at Ray and waited for the big man’s nod. He got it.

He handed me an apron and I stepped over the shin rail, stowed my gear behind a bag of Harley Dogs, and tied my apron on. I bummed a store-bought cigarette from the kid working the hole next to me, lit it, turned around and started calling them in.

“One in wins!”

I was home.