“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.”
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
I’ve only spotlighted one other writer – Craig Johnson- on this sight before, and that was some years ago. Today it’s a writer that I’ve known for a few years named Ray Harvey. I’ve read Ray in small bites before, but this piece drew my envy and admiration. I’ll let it speak for itself. So damn good.
The Northwoods of Minnesota, in the ’60s and ’70s, was a blue collar enclave of iron mining communities. The women and children worked hard on the home front while the men (and a very few women) worked swing shifts at the mines. With all of the responsibilities of raising four kids and taking care of my Dad’s needs, Mom wrote.
It’s taken me until very recently to realize that therein lies the roots of my writing. One would think that it is a glaringly obvious statement, but her writing was almost never discussed. Ever present, in various locations around the living room, were copies of Redbook, McCalls, and Ladies Home Journal and Reader’s Digest. There were novels by Leon Uris, Anais Nin, William Peter Blatty, Victoria Holt or Mario Puzzo. And then there was the Writer’s Digest – The Bible of writers.
Mom wrote short stories and submitted them to each of the women’s magazines, and received her rejection letters quietly. In fact, her entire writing experience was done quietly. No one ever discussed it. It wasn’t taboo, it just never came up. I was barely aware of it, being so self-absorbed as kids are I do remember her tap tap tapping on her typewriter on days that I was home sick from school. I’ve never read her work. I can only assume that the subject matter would have been appealing to women – based on the magazines that she was submitting to.
She was repressed by time, place, societal norms and expectations. As more time passes since her death a few years ago, I’ve come to see her in a much different light and along with that comes a much deeper appreciation and respect.
She was an avid reader and always encouraged me to do the same, and I did. When I showed an interest in photography, she subscribed to two photography magazines for me. She was a good singer, and when any of us showed an interest in music, she supported it. She was always trying to expand her world. After my father passed away, she married an artist who worked in the painting and sculpture mediums.
She was bigger than her surroundings, but I didn’t appreciate it. I do now, and I am proud of her.