Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Skywheel Jimmy

The Skywheel was built in 1968. Skywheel Jimmy joined the carnival fresh out of the Army in 1984. There, the two of them began a long and storied relationship. In 1998, in Lincoln Nebraska a ride operator turned it on while Jimmy was climbing. He pushed himself to the inside on purpose so there'd be something to grab onto. He was telling the story and I couldn't help but interject:

"I bet you can still hear the lights crashing."

 "I still think about it every night when I lay down" he said, "It was nothing but star lights and sucker rods all the way to the ground."

"What are sucker rods?" I asked him.

"That's those things you try to grab onto when you're falling through that son of a bitch." 

He went on. "Jeff Crespo said 'Ya' alright Jimmy?' and I said 'Yeah, I'm alright but that motherfucker that turned it on ain't gonna' be alright, not after I catch him.'"

Monday, June 1, 2015

Swan Song

Dick used to cook for his sister Gracie on The Mighty Bluegrass Shows. I can't begin to guess how many years they were on the road together. After work Dick would have a few beers and get to singing. Opera mostly, and occasionally show tunes. Turns out he was in the Army with Mario Lanza. This and his eventual stint in the carnival business led him to Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason among others. The man had stories and a wicked sense of humor. He died this past month and it didn't take long for the news to reach his old friends, some of them retired and some still out on the road.

If only he could pour them all another cup of coffee, take their dollar and cheerfully suggest that they "Have a nice day at the fair."

Rest in peace Dick.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Good Neighbor

 The first time I went to what is known (in the carnival world) as the livin' lot for Thanksgiving, Smitty was kind enough to offer me a bunkhouse room. He had a few extras at the time and fortunately I was given his old one which had been remodeled the season before. I was grateful as it would save me paying for a motel room and offer more time to actually shoot pictures instead of driving back and forth. Relieved, I also knew there were no roaches there because in his words: "My wife doesn't do roaches."

Smitty did not tell me that he was hot natured and had maintained the air conditioner in that bunkhouse to run at an even 55 degrees. Everyone who lived there was aware of this fact however, and had keenly, many of them, plugged their vents with toilet paper, t-shirts, and duct tape. 

As night fell and the bay breeze of late November passed through, it did not even occur to me that I was about to endure a night when I'd make more than one deal with God, in an effort to stay alive (or so I perceived at the time). I fell asleep quickly in a bunkhouse room and woke up thirty minutes later in a refrigerator to an argument that I thought at first was a dream. My face was numb.

A bunkhouse (for those that aren’t familiar) is a trailer that's split down the middle and then divided into what are basically closets big enough for a mattress and a foot and a half of walking space. Some rooms have one bed, some have bunk beds and others in the fifth wheel, have an elevated bunk with a little more room to move around. There is little privacy and if there is substantial movement in the bunkhouse, everyone is aware of it. 

I awoke to realize that the couple in the room next to me were practicing domestic violence. It had escalated into them hitting the paneling so hard that it buckled to the top of my pillow. I hoped then that God would spare me from the imaginary bullet I envisioned bursting through the paneling wall at any moment which, if it missed me, would no doubt make it through at least two rooms and maybe half another before landing in a pile of someone's dirty laundry. I closed my eyes and tried without success to deny an overpowering need to go to the bathroom.

There were portable toilets only a short distance away but I didn't want to let go of the covers let alone open the door. I contemplated just standing up wrapped in the blanket but somehow knew it would cause me to trip off that second step on the way out. Teeth chattering I sat up and spent the next five minutes putting on many of the clothes in my bag, trying hard not to pee my pants.

When I got back the room was colder than before. I thought of people I'd known who'd slept on concrete sidewalks and told myself to get over it but the next three hours went by slowly and at 5 am I was asking God again to spare me. A little after dawn I quietly opened the door; stiff and exhausted and sat in the doorway, lighting a cigarette like everyone does, and put my shoes on over dirty socks. 

At the livin' lot, if you want coffee in the morning you have three choices. Your own coffee pot is the preferred method with coffee and a cup to put it in. Friends that rise early and invite you to drink their coffee is another option but there's always the chance that those friends will have gone to bed only a short time ago. The third choice is a gas station that is almost half a mile away. Four lane highway, rush hour traffic, not the best way to wake up but certainly practical.
Just as I was beginning to hear my own headache, a woman I had never seen before opened the door of a trailer across the lot and waved a cup of coffee at me. My first thought was that it was a crippling hallucination of some kind. Then she said "You want this cup of coffee don't you?" I levitated off the steps and closed the door behind me, nodding hard and waving with my whole arm, like some rescued kid.  For a few minutes that morning, a woman I'd never met became my favorite person in the universe and I knew I'd be forced to like her from that moment on. 

She handed me the steaming cup, and smiled, a beautiful, wise "old soul"- kind of smile and said:
 "Hi Sue, it's great to meet you. I'm Bonnie."

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tearful Old Men

Harry had a gigantic fan club. This is Denise and their daughter Casey. He spent pretty much his whole adult life working on the carnival. He dodged my camera for a long time but finally gave in around the time this baby was born. Babies give you a whole new perspective. Harry died of a heart attack in Alabama, in September of 2008. Or was it 2007? I can't remember now but I remember very clearly being the one who inadvertently told Pops. It was three days later. I assumed he knew.

Some of you may already know this but for anyone who hasn't had the experience - when you accidentally tell an eighty-year-old man that someone he loves has died - he's going to cry. And so are you. And so is anyone else who happens to be there.  Doesn't matter how big a bad ass they are. Tearful old men: one of the world's great equalizers. Rest in peace Harry.