Tales From the Road

A continuation of the feature introduced last month, in which I opened up the proverbial vault of things I wrote while traveling with an authentic 10-in-1 sideshow on the carnival circuit.  To briefly recap, I found the opportunity via Sideshow World, packed my bags and drove out to Bedford, PA.  There I met a couple who owned a menagerie and had spent fifteen years exhibiting them all across the country and had spent my first night on a carnival lot sleeping in the back of a spook house.

July 22, 2005 – Hard Working Carnies


It was massively humid late in the morning; so hot that everyone was sweating just doing light chores.  The only mild inconvenience I have experienced thus far is having to walk down that hill to the bathroom, but a little exercise is never bad.  Took claim on sleeping quarters that is essentially a box of sorts built over the cab of an International truck that is used for hauling the main bunkhouse around.  Being the only female, I was told I did not have to share space with the guys if I did not want to, and while I am not one to ask for special treatment I felt it would be rude to turn down the offer.  So I proceeded to move in my luggage, unpacking items that would be needed or used on a daily basis. and the rest staying put.  A trip was made into town for food and few other things such as water, ice and a cooler, as well as a folding chair scored from the dollar store.

The crew right now consists of the Manager [who is an old school Carny that used to travel back in the day], this guy who will be doing magic and mentalist tricks, and this guy that has worked for the Boss for a year.  He mainly works the spook house though, so there are only four of us to fill various roles once the sideshow is actually happening.

We were put to work and given instructions to bring the components for the stage into the tent [which we would be sharing with the menagerie] and setting it up.  Having animals to play with is fun though that comes once responsibilities are filled.  The goats are great, even if their eyes are a bit creepy, and the miniature horses are quite nice; one of them is very affectionate and will eat treats out of your hand.

There is always plenty to do though, so play time comes after sweat has been spilled and you are told you can have a rest.  Some people might have a problem with taking orders, but I don’t because my experience is limited to setting up Outlaw Cirkus shows and this is much different.   Assembled the aforementioned stage, working in the late afternoon so as not the expend energy under the hot sun.  Next we were taught how to put up the banner line, which is that row of colorful banners one usually sees in front of a sideshow tent.  The banners are clipped onto ropes that are hoisted by pullies attached to wooden posts, each of which has to be manually staked into the ground.  Each post has to be positioned just right before that happens to make the line straight, otherwise the whole thing could fall down.  Believe me, watching the men swing that sledge with grimaces on their faces tells you how hard that is.

Would have taken my turn but I was not allowed [yes, I was told this] and kind of felt useless because I would have at least tried even I was bad at it.  No matter, the job was done and then the painted signs had to be hung, so I made up for my lack of participation on the stake-driving by carrying as many signs as possible.  Since there was not much else for me to do once those were up on the posts of the banner line, I was told that I could take a shower.  Noted here that the shower is an open stall at one end of the bunkhouse separate from the other sleeping quarters except for one, which makes a bit weird it is there because not all fairgrounds have bathrooms with shower facilities.

Once all squeaky clean, I was able to leave the lot and went into town for dinner, relieved to be done for the day.  The remainder of the evening was spent listening to stories told the boss or his son, learning the lingo and what it really means to travel with a carnival.  Eventually I headed off to my new bed and realized it was two in the morning when I climbed up.  The mattress was slightly more comfortable than the first, and after all that work I was happy to pass out.

July 23, 2005 – Receiving the Proverbial Torch


The morning I woke up to was a beautiful one, as the humidity that had us panting yesterday has been replaced by a very pleasant breeze, which made spending time outside much better.

Now seems like a good time to introduce the crew a bit more.  Brett hails from Chicago and does a mentalist act, bending forks out of shape with the power of his mind; forecasts one’s past, present or future with Tarot cards and also has a blindfold at.  Our Manager and Boss are very friendly and keep us laughing while making sure all work gets done.  Reg is the resident handyman and scapegoat, often on the receiving end of many jokes.  In fact, we all bust each others balls, but it is always in good fun and prepares you for what the townsfolk might shout at you when on stage.

This guy came along while we were setting up the remainder of the banner line and was welcomed into the crew as an all-purpose worker.  The Boss calls him Elvis due to the black hair and heavy Southern accent.  We have one strange Family alright, but we work hard together to get things done and then lose hours in each other’s companies as stories stretch late into the night.

Hit town for lunch then sat and played cards since there was not much else to do.  The banners had not arrived yet and everything else has already been taken care of.  Talk of a BBQ had the crew eager for some good food and I volunteered to make an alcohol run since a few people had mentioned wanting to have a drink if that was happening.  The local liquor store had the green label Jack Daniels, which I have not seen in New Jersey and talked myself into buying it.  Now the same size bottle retails for about $24 back home but here is was several dollars less.  A bottle of Smirnoff vodka was only ten bucks so that went on the counter too.  Pleased with the acquisition, a stop was made for the appropriate mixers and a bag of ice.

It was getting late by the time I returned to the fairgrounds, and despite the fun we had exchanging stories and jokes, the crew was desiring BBQ.  Since I seemed to enjoy driving so much, I was asked to take Boss Jr.’s girlfriend into town to acquire the food, and I was happy to oblige.  Needless to say, the hungry crew was happy for our return and moments later the meat started cooking.  There was a buffet style set up on tables inside the tent, with everyone grabbing a paper plate and plastic utensils to help themselves.  For a variety of reasons, the Bosses and their ladies do not eat pork or beef, so the sausage and burgers were turkey.  The sausage was great, but I did not care much for the burger.  Thankfully a few rather strong screwdrivers aided in washing that down, as did the watermelon and cantaloupe.

With stomach full and definitely slightly buzzed, it was time to get in bed.  However, as I am getting ready to climb up to my bunk, I get a surprise visit from Reg.  We wind up smoking a bowl and chatting about the crew, though I did more listening than talking.  It is difficult to have a detailed opinion of people that you just met, though certain personality traits often surface quickly, particularly when one speaks highly of themselves.  If I am going to trust anyone here, it most certainly would be the Boss and his wife who have been doing this long enough to make those snap judgments.

For instance, the Boss had a feeling that the couple who had come up to say hello were going to be trouble.  Nonetheless, because we could use the extra hand, the girl wound up being invited on as the Bally Girl.  Her duty will entail standing on the stage set up outside the tent in a skimpy costume and wave the tip in, which is why the role is also known as being the Bally Bitch.  It does not take much skill or effort and so the role can be filled by pretty much anyone.

Her boyfriend works at the bingo tent down the hill in the main part of the carnival, and they have a darling mixed breed puppy that always accompanies them.  Did not get a good feeling from them myself initially, and it has stuck with me the more they open their mouths, fixated on scoring weed and talking about it way too much.  It seems they are more in need of a ride than anything, and hey, if they can make some money along the way they might as well take the opportunity to do so.  The guy made a commented about how he wanted to bring his younger brother along, but did not say a word about that to the Boss’s wife.  Well, these Carnies certainly are not stupid, and I am sure they are keeping an eye on everyone.

Smoking that bowl with Reg, my suspicions were confirmed and it was hinted that good behavior is rewarded while those who don’t want to get with it can get on down the road.  It was also good to know that my assumptions of certain individuals have been picked up by someone else who just happens to have the ability to read people.

Aside from all that, Reg explained it was important for everyone to learn all we can about what it takes to put on a show.  Not only so that we have a greater appreciation for this, but also that we understand the business should there be a desire to frame our own show.  Just as there are those who are ensuring the sideshow acts are kept alive by teaching a new generation, so too are these people ensuring that the traveling show will have a future as well.  It is a great honor, and I certainly have learned that a lot of hard work goes into this; the sweat and sore muscles are worth the reward that is yielded.

Full, slightly drunk and very high, sleep was welcomed.

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