Slavery is Alive and Well in the American Carnival

Usually I take adverse situations in stride- reveling in ridiculousness, funny stories to tell and the underlying understanding that things really aren’t really THAT bad.  So when I joined a traveling carnival, I may not have been expecting the best of times but I was counting on having an adventure and walking away knowing a bit more about life.

What I encountered hit me like a falling mountain of bricks- the realization that some things ARE really THAT bad, and regardless of how much there is to learn, some experiences are better not lived through.   Nothing particularly bad happened to ME- other than having my fundamental beliefs in humanity challenged and earning terrifying new characters for my nightmares- I just… call me a denialist or whatever… I would just rather not have been exposed to a reality so toxically dark and disturbing.

The cast of characters, while they may sound hilarious, were anything but.  I ride-jocked on a small crew consisting of the angriest, one-eared (lost his other in a machete fight), three-toothed stuttering crack-addicted Puerto Rican who did 18 years federal time for molestation and repeatedly took off his belt threatening to beat me with it.  A bona-fide North Florida crack whore who reminded me of a terrifyingly sassy (no, not sassy- what’s 3 levels up from ‘sassy’ only on crystal meth with a baseball bat?) Big Bird with no teeth and aggressive habits towards children (and everybody else) and a healthy dose of what I would call insanity.  A toothless pirate oxicotten dealer who, before I even met him or noticed he was covered in swaztika tattoos, I decided was the meanest looking man I’d ever seen in my life.  He introduced himself as ‘the asshole of the group’.  A great big huge guy man named Cowboy cruising for a heart attack at age 30 who had most
of his teeth although they were rotting out of his head.  And me.  Everyone with severe anger problems- everyone hated each other, everyone else, everything- armed to the non-existent teeth- heavily drugged- the five of us, the hooking and drug dealing operations and streams of doped-out customers, all co-habiting a 15-foot-radius sesspool behind a ferris wheel.  At night people carried baseball bats and swords- full-on, big, lethal swords.  There were fights everywhere.  I never dreamed it was possible for a full-grown man to live off bbq sauce packets, but I witnessed it.

But what was really, really frightening was how hard these people worked.  10-14 hour shifts every single day, with one (or two on the weekend) 30 minute breaks, except for set-up and tear-down when we worked 24 hour shifts lifting, pushing and carrying heavy heavy steel.  No days off, no overtime, no hourly pay.  $35 a day (no extra for the 24 hour shifts)- backbreaking work, trashy Florida parents bitching at you all day long.  Cowboy bragged to me- BRAGGED to me- that on Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year, “Bobby (the boss) goes to celebrate with his family.  And you don’t got to do anything.  I mean- NOTHING.  You can do whatever you want- you can sleep all day if you want to, drink all day if you want to, beat your meat all day long if you want you.  You don’t got to do NOTHING.  Bobby takes care of us.”  This- mind you- is during a time called “winter quarters” where the crew spends two or three months fixing rides, re-painting, doing small
shows, rebuilding things, washing the boss’s house, AND DOESN’T GET PAID.  Two or three months of work for two meals, two beers and a pack of cigarettes a day.  The boss man SURE does take care of us, Cowboy!

For whatever reason- lack of employability anywhere else, lack of ID, criminal history, lack of citizenship- people get snared up into this nasty trap.  The four people on my crew other than myself had been there 10 years, 1 year, 18 years and 10 years.  I don’t know how much of what I experienced is true for the rest of the carnival industry- but what I saw was a predatory environment intentionally encouraging and benefiting from people’s addictions and hopelessness- a bleak, bleak world that no one can see out of, an atmosphere of very real fear at the thought of leaving, where people are being worked until their bodies are too chewed up, banged up and crippled (moving those rides is incredibly physical and dangerous work- especially when everyone’s fucked up) at which point they’re spit out to rot in a ditch.  Everyone is expendable, insecure and owns nothing of their own- and this frustration, hopelessness and anger is all channeled out towards one
another or in towards themselves in countless different ways.

I don’t mean to say that it was all bad.  Amidst this sea of violence, deeply disturbing racism like I’ve never encountered in my life, cruelty, domestic violence and addiction I did see glimmers of humanity.

But only glimmers.

So I left.

Walking away from that experience I hang my head and give mad respect to these men and women for being the hardest working people I’ve ever met.  I can’t do what they do- and if you think you can you’re wrong.  I’m no carny, and hats off to them.  But I also walked away with my held held high- knowing that I’m no carny.  I am so lucky to know that anywhere there is a highway or a freight train or as long as I have my own legs then I’m in charge of my own life and destiny.  I’m proud to know that I’m a hobo- in the sense that I have a self-reliance and independence that no one can snatch from me.  Where ever I land I know I can take care of myself on my own terms, and for this I am so, so, so, so thankful.  I caught a train out of Florida not caring where I was headed- just happy to be on the road and to be free.  I treasure this freedom and refuse to ever give it up.

Ride hard,
Live free.
If you don’t see me tomorrow,
Know I died as I please.

2 thoughts on “Slavery is Alive and Well in the American Carnival

  1. This is a beautiful story — a bit mad, a bit frightening, but beautiful nonetheless. I suppose I will now not be joining the traveling circus when I head to Florida this next month.

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