Ode to My Fucked Up Knee

[Originally written on this date in 2006]

Q. What do you get when you put 32 carnies together?

A. A full set off teeth.  ::rim shot::

There is no such thing as medical coverage in the carnival; if something goes wrong, it is your responsibility to take care of yourself.  There were people I worked with who had bad things happen to them as we traveled from place to place.  The manager went to the hospital with chest pain right after we finished the second week at our first spot.  Mild stroke I believe that was, and he left shortly after we had made the jump to upstate New York.  The mentalist had diabetes and so he required shots of insulin but had no refrigerator in which to store them.  [A space had been offered by the boss’s wife but I am not sure why he did not take it.]  There were times I thought he was going to keel right over because he was pale and sweating bullets.  He left at the third spot as well and we all were getting the idea that this life was not for everyone.

The bally girl who also played Miss Electra won the crown for Drama Queen.  Where to begin?  She wore these vinyl shoes on her first day that were high heeled disasters from Hot Topic or something.  She “tripped” down the stairs and “sprained” her ankle; or as we all saw it, she skipped down the stairs and may have slipped slightly, but immediately collapsed into a crumpled pile while owing a bit pathetically.  Needless to say that she had a miraculous recovery after getting attention from another performer, and at times I wondered if that was her plan all along.  That is neither here nor there but just my thoughts on the matter; make of it what you will.

At one point ever one passed around a cold that I came to dub the Carny Flu which seemed to touch everyone but me.  Little Miss Drama Queen milked the shit out of having it and always had worse symptoms than everyone else.  She actually left at one point to re-cooperate at home, which did not go over well with the boss, and she left when were in Sinking Springs before we had even finished our time there. Her “falling off the stage” [which actually happened more than once] was nothing short of a performance, which should be expected from someone who proudly admitted they were a Ren Faire groupie.

Possibly the worst thing that happened was when one fellow I worked with was getting off stage and actually fell off, landing on the pavement below.  It was frightening, particularly since I was pretty sure I saw him hit his head on the steel edge of the frame that held the stage together.  Why did it happen?  A malfunction of great Carny Engineering; the BWB* was implemented in making a set of steel steps ‘level’ with the stage, which was about a foot or so off the ground.  The stairs were much shorter than the stage, and so a few BWB’s were placed under them yet nothing actually attached the stairs to the stage.  They slipped every time someone was getting on or off stage, which was often because we did continuous shows for ten to twelve or more hours a day.  Watching something like this happen, and in front of an audience no less, makes you thankful that there was not a serious injury.

Being in this new environment offered some challenges that took time to adapt to, such as having to climb up semi-steep steps to get into my sleeping quarters, which was essentially a box constructed on the back of an International truck cab.  The steps were made from diamond plate and the first one up was pretty high up for someone who is five foot four inches tall.  The first time I slipped and hit my right knee on edge of said steps was on the third day at Bedford, PA.  When we were in Frederick [Maryland], there was this small square of asphalt missing that just happened to be in the area where we were setting up.  Jerry stumbled in it and I laughed, then wound up doing the same thing later, though I fell and landed on the same knee again.  Then, while hanging up the side wall in the sideshow tent later in the same day, the weak ladder shifted under me and I fell, hitting my knee on the metal leg.  Thankfully I caught myself, or I would have busted my ass, but that part of my body was really starting to hate me.

This is where it gets good.  The Halloween spot we did was in this beautiful park out in rural Pennsylvania.  Where the tents and bunkhouse had been set up was in close proximity of a creek.  It rained four days in a row one week, and we had to clear the important items out of the sideshow tent in case of flooding.  And boy did it flood.  Would have to wade through ankle deep water in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.  Yea, just like camping, only under a bigger tent.  Trenches were dug around the animal tent to keep the critters inside as dry as possible.  Being that we were in the woods, with trees shedding leaves and not much light, I stumbled into the trenches on many occasions, usually while high.  Of course this aggravated the knee more but there was not much I could do for it aside from trying to be less clumsy.  When the tent came down, it was harder to remember where the trench was, and I managed to catch myself in it during tear down and of course landed on the knee once more.

It was pretty sore for a while after that, but eventually it settled down and the remainder of my time with the carnival was spent without incident.

Perhaps I am a bit ungainly at times, though this point of the story is that all of the damage I may have caused still leaves me with pain that comes and goes whenever it wants.  Still having no insurance or even enough money to go to a doctor, there is no way of knowing if there is any serious harm or not.  While  having a knee that likes to be sore at random moments is not that severe on the injury scale, it is indeed a testament to the fact that life on the road is not without cost.  This is what pops into my head any time I see someone say they want to run away with the circus, which just makes me shake my head, laugh and wish I had the ability to grant them their request.

*BWB – Big Wooden Block; a device with multipurpose uses.

Prose Inspired by Coney Island

Going through the journal I have kept for about a decade now, I really miss having the opportunity to drive out to Coney Island any time I wanted to. There are a lot of thoughts I have about my adventures, which I certainly plan on documenting in this space, much like the recent post I made. Reading about how much this place meant really brings back those happy memories. It has been three years since I last set foot on the Island, when I had the chance to perform at the Rockabilly Festival and took the stage at Cha Cha’s. For me, it was a moment to bring a long-standing fantasy to life. Knowing that the amusement area will never be the same [not that it ever was after the Golden Age] brings me much pain. However, I will always cherish the memories I have, and hope that others are encouraged to do the same.

Drowning in the black water below
Turning in the surging tide
Rotting beyond the sandy shore
Torn from the polluted womb
Of the neon-lit Mecca
Transformed by age and land-lusty politicians
Life thrown away in the gutter
Disgarded among the ramparts
The last remains of a glorious empire
Now reduced to faded memories
History buried ‘neath the sand
Strewn amongst the rubble and glitter
A kingdom of fire that doesn’t burn as bright
Haunted by the ghosts of days passed
A victim of greed and control
Stood as a silent witness to the demise
Uttered a final cry as it too was murdered
A secret taken to that amusement park in the sky
Lost amongst the chilidsh shouts of joy
And time continues to go forward
Without so much as shedding a tear
Such is the fate of Sodom by the Sea

Coney Island Suicide

The lights have all gone out
The laughter has been silenced
The Wonder Wheel turns no more
The Cyclone has been put to bed
In the shadow of the tower
I stand in contemplation
Cigarette in one hand
Loaded gun in the other
While the moon is full and bright
By the midnite hour
I stand in hesitation
The only thing to keep me warm
Would be a bullet thru my head
Boards creak beneath my feet
A drunken man passes me by
Paranoia starts to set in
A cacophony of voices floating in my head
In the shadow of the tower
I stand in contemplation
Kissing the barrel of a gun
Waiting for the right moment
The final stage of my life
By the midnite hour
I stand in hesitation
One pull of the trigger
And I’d choke on hot lead
The lights are flashing red and blue
The sirens scream late at nite
The corener takes photographs
Of the bullet thru my head
In the shadow of the tower
They gather in confusion
Asking questions of ‘why’
But getting no answers
Body lays bleeding on the boards
There is no illusion
Death claimed His victory over me
One sweet kiss struck me dead

Carny Philosophy – Man Eating Chicken

[Originally written 1.22.2004]

Was watching A&E for no particular reason, and my attention was gained by the mention of Lobster Boy. It was an entire hour on the death of Grady Stiles, and I found myself glued to screen as footage of Gibtown, Florida was shown.

One of these days I shall have to take a visit to that place. There are rides and games and animals and other cool carnival things right out in the open, all year long. The people that live there who aren’t carny folk enjoy it as well. They see the freaks as friends and neighbors who just happen to have made a living from the sideshow.

That’s the kind of place I wanna live in; a never ending carnival.

To this day, I still remember the episode of Jerry Springer where hole Stiles family made an appearance. Apparently, Jerry was trying to get them to make peace.

On Sunday, I happen to catch a program on the History Channel that focused entirely on circus freaks and sideshows. It was basically a visual time-line of how they came to be. It started with P.T. Barnum’s dime museum that bloomed into a traveling show, and eventually sideshows became a common sight in Coney Island and other places.

Despite the fact that some people may think the freaks were exploited and treated poorly, they made a damn good living. Tom Thumb [the world’s smallest man at one point] died a millionaire. Ain’t that some shit?

The sideshow gave those with physical deformities a home and an income, while the rest of society would rather shut them away in the dark. When the activists came out of the woodwork to complain, it was the freaks who spoke out against them and told them to fuck off. They enjoyed what they did, and who else would hire someone with three legs or a parasitic twin?

Now for the point of the entry. Referring to the program about Lobster Boy, a gentleman that was interviewed in Gibtown said something which I have now adopted as one of my many mantras. Carnies always keep an optimistic attitude. They may have a terrible week where they earn little or nothing, but they don’t let it get them down. Instead, they believe that they will do better next week, because you never know what can happen, and you have to keep a positive outlook.

A new phrase popped into my head while watching this terrible fascinating program. During the trial, a tape was submitted to prove that he was abusive to his family. There was no sound, so the tape showed what looked like a rather aggressive wrestling match between Grady and his son. The jury fully sympathized, until a second tape was submitted, with sound this time. Since the voices were now fully audible, what seemed like abuse turned out to just be playful wrestling, with Grady’s wife giving pointers to her son.

This is a clear case of Man Eating Chicken. If you have seen the HBO series Carnivale, then you know what I’m talking about. For those who have not, it’s quite simple.

In one episode of Carnivale [and in real life sideshows], there was a banner that simple said Man Eating Chicken with a picture of a giant chicken. Now, taken the wrong way, one would assume they were going to see a chicken eating a man, when in fact they saw exactly what the banner said they would. Of course this angered all the people who paid to be fooled. “Tell your friends,” you say, “so they have to pay as well, and the joke will be on them.”

That is the basis of Man Eating Chicken.

Thus concludes today’s lesson.

Coney Island – the Addiction

There are many well written books on the subject of Coney Island, numerous films that depict beautiful images of what once was, and millions of people who have walked across its sandy beaches.  It draws you into the history and allows appreciation of the fact that it even existed in the first place.  Truly it was a wonder of its time, long before there were theme parks and advances in technology to allow for competition of bigger, taller, faster and the most extreme rides.  Four different parks were born and subsequently destroyed or closed within a matter of decades, but the evidence is clear that there was indeed something very unique and spectacular that once existed on this slice of Brooklyn

At one point in my life, I was constantly making the 18 mile journey from where I lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey to a place where all your dreams could come true.   No matter if the amusement area was open for business or not, there was something that constantly drew me to the Island.  On a few very special occasions, I had an unforgettable adventure, and I certainly enjoyed photographing various objects and landscapes there as much as possible.  Figured that I might as well share all the thoughts and feelings I have documented over the years from these visits.  Perhaps a part of me still wants people to know just how serious the dedication to my lifestyle is and that there are certain things which will always be with me.

[Originally written on 10.17.2003]

When I see photos of a place that I dream about and long to be there, my imagination is ignited and my mind is taken on a journey to the most fantastic place in the world.  Every time I go, no matter why I am there or how long I stay, I never want to leave.  Of course I am talking about Coney Island.  Suffice to say that I fell in love with the place the first time I went [about three years ago], and ever since, I cannot seem to keep myself away.  In a way I feel as though I am addicted; drawn in by the being that is.  Reading about the history of Coney Island for days on end would keep me captivated and I would never grow bored of learning something new.  There is just so much about it that I find terribly fascinating.  It has taken over me; it is inside of me and it refuses to get out.

After I graduated high school, it took me a while to figure out what I want to do with my life.  The first time I saw a performance at Sideshows by the Seashore, my mind was made up and I live for it now.  All of my past experiences combined with what has been happening over the past couple of years and having the honor of know Jon, someone who has lived the things I dream about,  I know that I  was born with sawdust in my veins and I am meant to do this.  Right now we are doing everything we can to be successful, but that is a topic to discuss another time.

To be honest, Jon is pretty much the only person who understands how I feel, partly because he loves the Island just as much as I do.  It is not something that I can just put down in words, though many have tried with brilliant works.  There is something about the Island that reaches out and grabs you – once you are hooked, it’s like you can’t live without being there.  It is the end of America where millions upon millions of people have passed before. It is something man could not handle, so he actively seeks to change it and destroy the history it holds.  It is truly unique, and there will never be anything like it again.

There is a certain a variety of feelings that washes over us when we are there.  The sea is what calls out to me, as I always find myself at peace when the sand is beneath my feet and the water is stretching out into infinity.  The Island has had a rocky history since it was spawned, and yet it still exists, while other things are long gone.  There is history all around you there, and you are a part of it.  By now I have been there at almost every time of day, from early afternoon to the evening to sunset to sunrise.  Beautiful blue skies uninterrupted by any clouds, and I have even seen the beach blanketed by snow.

One of my fondest memories has to be watching the sun rise.  Of all the times I paid a visit to the Island, I had never stayed to see this.  When I did, something happened to me.  Maybe I was just in awe of what I was witnessing, or perhaps overjoyed I could share the experience with someone who means the world to me.  The moment was as perfect as it could get.  A sort of bliss settled over me.   There were no worries, bills to pay or traffic to be annoyed by.  No television or radio.  No distractions at all.  No ignorant people.  No drama.  No bullshit.  Just the sea – I could sit on that beach and listen to the sea for hours.  The thought has entered my mind on a number of occasions to just say ‘fuck it’ and live by the sea.

Circus Family

There is a theory I have about how the Circus is like the Mafia.

Seriously. Think about it for a minute. When an old school circus set up in a lot, there was a main boss, sub-bosses and variety of workers. The games are crooked, there’s likely pick-pockets wandering about, and if you’re lucky, you get to be a mark. In case you did not know, that means you are gullible and flashing around your money. Don’t worry, we a have nice safe spot for it in our pockets.

There are few rules in the Circus [I am using the term to generalize, so this includes carnivals, sideshow, burlesque, etc.]. Should you be an unfortunate townie that happens to break one of them, well then you’re in store for some good old fashioned Carny Justice. And if you think that’s just something out of a television show, you obviously have never seen the wooden bats hidden amongst plush toys at a game booth.

One of the most important rules is: you do not fuck with the Carnies. Much in the same vein as you do not fuck with the Mafia. There are dire consequences for doing so, and I’m not talking about the shit you see in Hollywood movies.

Like the Mafia, the traditions of Circus are passed from one generation to the next. If you fail to see the connection at this point, you should just stop reading and waste your time elsewhere.

Taking this one step further, as silly as it may sound [and this is just in my humble opinion], when it comes to the whole of sideshow in Philadelphia, Red Stuart is at the top of the game. He is the oldest living sword swallower, holds multiple Guinness Book records, has traveled across the country numerous times, and has done more tent shows than anyone I know of. Suffice to say that he is, indeed, the Godfather.

It seems that many performers have a better-than-thou attitude when it comes to certain things. While at first it is comforting to know that they have so much confidence, it gets to a point where one cannot help but wonder why they strut around like their shit doesn’t stink. They are not the end-all and be-all of sideshow, though certainly desire to corner the market on as much as they can. Is it to bring a dying form of entertainment to those who may not otherwise have seen it? No my friends. They are doing it for the almighty dollar, and that is a blow to each and everyone of us who have slaved to pitch a tent.

Obviously one can expect some sort of compensation for entertaining audiences. However, in the old days, just having this opportunity was enough to satisfy. There were many moments when each penny was scraped together, just so that everyone could have a decent meal. Animals were more important than the humans who cared for them, because it was far easier to replace a roustie than it was to get another lion. Of course there’s also those stories about how people would get tossed off the train in the middle of the night if they were considered to be dead weight.

Perhaps my head has been clouded by visions of what it must have been like in the early days of Circus, when everyone pitched in and worked their hardest in order to give the best performance possibly. The sheer joy evident on the faces that surrounded you as applause filled a canvas tent was something that others could only fantasize about. It’s something that you either understand or you don’t, and if you fit into the latter category, perhaps you should take some time to learn a little something called history. People lived and died for the Circus, but I do not see the same commitment from those who dare say they are carrying on the same traditions.

Certainly there are plenty of movies, television shows and even books that are full of common misconceptions. Going back to the original comparison of Circus and Mafia, do no let anyone fool you into believing that neither one of these are highly organized businesses which deal with large volumes of cash. Stereotypes exist, and unfortunately are played into any time the media picks up on a negative aspect. However, in my heart I believe that some people truly get it, and will forever remain with it.

The theory of having a Family composed from a variety of individuals who all work together for a common purpose seems to elude many. In the end, everyone will do whatever they want and there’s no use in trying to change that. Instead, I am will always remain loyal to what I know and love, because Family is all I have.

Tales From the Road

Introducing a new feature that explores what life is like traveling with the carnival.  For some, it is a great thrill of the open road, the opportunity to see the sights and meet interesting people along the way that makes the journey worth it.  By no means is it any sort of dream world filled with glitz and glamour; you are tired and dirty and hard worked pretty much every day.  While I can only speak for myself, what makes doing this worth the effort is having the ability to interact with the public; seeing the expressions on their faces  make it easy to forget there is anything else happening as you relish the moment and bow for thunderous applause.  For me there is no better job in the world than being myself and making money from it, though that is just an added bonus to the priceless experiences that come with my lifestyle.  This is just a small slice of what is is like to be an American Carny, though I hope others finder it interesting or at the very least somewhat entertaining.

 

GREAT AMERICAN CIRCUS SIDESHOW TOUR


In 2005, I had the opportunity to travel with one of the last remaining 10-in-1 sideshows in America.  The owners had toured carnival circuits for about 15 years with a menagerie that carried a full banner line and canvas tent.  For those not familiar with circus slang would know this as a ‘petting zoo’, and I might as well mention that I will be using many terms throughout this series which might have the reader feeling puzzled.  Will try my best to explain them so that everyone can follow along the story, but there will likely be times I am in the moment and the language just comes out because that’s what I am used to and do not always think to offer a definition.  Anyway, eventually they decided to start offering a 10-in-1 sideshow [one where you can see ten acts for a single admission] though at times had considered sticking with the menagerie for various reasons.
The articles that will be posted in this  that follows was written during the several months I was a part of the Great American Circus Sideshow, slightly edited for content and grammar, as well as changing names to keep those mentioned slightly anonymous.

July 21, 2005 – Heading West

Packing is a strange thing. You have to find room for everything you want to take while making sure you will be able to remember where it is later on.  Well, I managed to fit all of my clothes in two suitcases, utilizing the smallest one for my shoes.  That’s right,I have an entire piece of luggage filled with shoes, for working, performing and casual wear.  Also had enough space for all of those small and yet very important items.  No matter what, you are always thinking of something else you need, because the last thing you want is to be far from home and realize that you forgot something.  You can buy stuff on the road of course, but it is better to have something so you do not have to spend money and never know when the opportunity to go shopping will arise.
When organizing the luggage is all said and done, it is time to put it in the car.  Packing a car is a fine art, tell you what.  Though it can be a long process to ensure that everything fills space yet isn’t cramping the passengers or blocking the driver’s view, but when done right there is is definitely a feeling of satisfaction that comes with completion.  Needless to say I managed just fine between my stuff and my partner’s; he convinced me there is no reason for both of us to drive and since his mom was kind enough to give me her kind, I will be on driving duty during the tour.Received well wishes before departing, then stopped to pick up a few provisions and gas before I hit the highway.  There were many thoughts driving through my head as we left New Jersey and headed into the depths of Pennsyltucky.  The main one focused on the conversation I had with Jon prior to leaving and knowing that he was on his way across the country to California.  While I am not sure exactly why he feels the need to make such a trek, I know that it is just one of those things he has to do.  It would have been nice to see him before departing but there was so much to do between packing and making sure the car would run well that there was just no time.  Now I have too much of that as I sit here in the spook house, awake early in the morning on a carnival lot.

The drive was long and I knew this before I even got behind the wheel because I looked up the route on-line.  There was not much scenery along the way aside from farms and lots woods, though that is better than nothing and at least offers a few ways to kill boredom or awkward silences   Two stops were made to get out and stretch the legs, as well as to put some food in the stomach.  When I finally reached the town where the fairgrounds were located, that was when things went very wrong.

Wound up driving around Bedford in circles trying to find at least a sign, as being in foreign territory late at night does not exactly make for a clear view of the landscape.  Somehow I managed to discover the fairground entrance and boy was I glad to finally arrive, eager to meet everyone and get some sleep.  Could tell that my boss, his wife, son and the son’s girlfriend were good people right from the introductions, though the son said he only shook people’s hands when they earned it and I really respect that.  Everyone stood around to bullshit for a while and I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to listen to some funny stories about being on the road.  When someone has in this business for such a long time, there is an endless vault of information and a willingness to share it with those who can appreciate it.  By the way, these people are totally not the kind of Carnies one often hears about, so I am wondering where the bad reputation and negative stereotype comes from.

Certainly could have listened to them talk all night, however the need for rest was too much and they wanted to put us right to work in the morning so it was bed time.  Spent the night sleeping on a mattress in the back of the spook house, as the other quarters have not been cleared out yet.  It was not bad at all, just higher off the ground than what I am used to.  It was really quite save for the noises of Nature, but I slept just fine and might as well go wash up since I have to walk down a hill to the bathroom and want to get that all done before going to work.  For my first time being on a carnival lot, at the moment it’s not so bad.

Introduction

Welcome to the other side of the canvas wall, where few have been fortunate enough to gain access to. This is one woman’s perspective of the American Circus culture, which has been a part of my life since I was a child. There were a lot of things that interested me about the carnival that magically appeared every May outside the windows of my Catholic grade school. It was amazing to me that people lived in these mobile trailers, which allowed them to go any place they wanted to, bringing along with them this unique form of entertainment.

While early exposure to live circus performance is hard to remember, I do know that I was not very fond of the clowns, mostly due to the fact they made some loud noises which were not friendly to sensitive ears. However, there was always a fascination that filled me when I watched people do amazing things. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment I wanted to be one of these people, but there was definitely a yearning to know what it was like. Not so much because I felt the need to be the center of attention, but more so due to the fact that what they did seemed magical, and the audience loved them for it.

My imagintion certainly became even more interesting when I discovered strange things on the midway of a carnival my parents brought me to. At the time, I had no idea what sideshow was, or that there was such a thing as a gaffe. The vivid illustrations certainly caught one’s attention and got the imagination stirring. Natural curiosity wanted to know exactly what was on the inside of these strange metal trailers. Some of them were more rewarding than others, but in the end, satisfaction was found.

The years passed and eventually I found my way to Coney Island, where I saw my first real sideshow, and marked the beginning of a new obsession. There was a constant craving for knowledge of history and any information I could find about this magical place. Part of me could take that step back in time, and know what it was like to see thousands of incandescent bulbs burning through the darkness. An electric Eden that many saw instead of the welcoming torch held high by the Statue of Liberty. Imagination was easily sparked, and truly I felt a connection to the Island.

All of this has helped shape me into the person I am today, along with countless adventures and experiences that some people only dream about. There were moments when I wondered how I had become so fortunate as to walk in the footsteps of those I once admired. In many ways, I feel as though I have carried on the traditions of American Circus, which I feel is important to preserve as much as possible, particularly now that we have become a digital-obsessed society. Everything needs to be instant gratification, and then quickly move on to the next thrill, as though there is an addiction.

The contents of this blog are purely meant to document the events that have occurred over the course of my life to serve as education for anyone interested enough to read this. From my time spent traveling with an authentic 10-in-1 sideshow and late night exploits on the Island to living in the city that gave birth to American Circus and joining the ranks of sword swallowers world wide. Some opinions may not be suitable for all audiences, but I have always stayed true to myself and believe in the ability of free speech.

With that said, please enjoy this assorted collection and appreciate the rare opportunity presented here.