04 A Day's Work
Spending five days in Dallas helped me come to terms with moving on from my family to whatever lay ahead of me. My hope was that Andrew “the farmer” Slate would be with the carnival that was coming to town. I figured if he was there I could show him what I learned from his course and he would take me under his wing.
I squandered a lot more of the money I made on the horse than I should have. Outside of the room and meals I decided that I should try a bit of life. It didn’t take me long to convince the bartender to serve me. A legal drinking age of twenty-one had been passed in Texas just a few months beforehand, but the law in Dallas wasn’t interested in busting saloons or children for having a beer. Not that it mattered much, I managed to choke down one beer before I switched to juice and water. Beer was something that I didn’t develop a taste for until you could get them cold.
I tried convincing the madam of the saloon to sit with me, give me a dance. But, that was useless she would just shake her head and mourn for my lost childhood. I spent most of my time at the Dixie. It was a theatre that showed silent films with actors off the side of the screen reading the lines. I would spend a dime an hour staying in that theater for four or five movies at a time.
Having never seen a movie until that point I was mesmerized. I saw what are classics in my own head. I remember watching Ramona and Thunderbolt, but when they showed the Johnson vs. Jeffries boxing match it reinvigorated my passion for getting out there and becoming a grappler. It was called the fight of the century and had only taken place a few weeks before. Although the sport was different it still showed the passion of two men trying to best their opponent and a crowd of thousands cheering for their favorite. I wish I could describe what it is about a contest between two athletes and the adoration of their fans that motivates me. All I can explain is that my life would feel incomplete without it. That is why I had the drive to leave on my own. I knew that I was missing something and I had to go find it. I refused to be miserable forever.
Even though the saloon girl wouldn’t take my money, when I found the nickelodeon in the back of the Dixie I realized what I was missing out on. It was tucked away in the back near a broom closet. It had an electric light that shone out from the middle and you peered into a pair of binoculars. There was a hand crank that would run hundreds of photographs in a circle which gave you the impression that you were watching a movie.
When you give a nearly pubescent boy a ten second movie of a woman taking all her clothes off, that boy will spend a nickel to see it every time. Even when he had just watched it. I don’t doubt that I spent over ten dollars on that machine.
I also saw my first motor car that week. It was a loud, bouncy, smelly beast of a machine. It didn’t handle the ruts in the roads very well. The ruts were there to allow for horses doing their business and it washing away, but the horseless carriage as everyone called it would get its wheel stuck in the rut and then it wouldn’t be able to turn.
If nothing else, that week gave the men of Deep Ellum time to build a little bit of trust in me. They knew by now that I hadn’t set them up. I had done everything I could to work with them.
Tuesday morning, I made the walk down to their neighborhood. It was still dark outside, but late July in north Texas is a hot humid monster. I was drenched in sweat by the time I got to Smiley’s house. I sat down on the edge of his porch and watched the sun peak over the horizon. It wasn’t long before everyone started emerging from their homes.
A firm hand landed on my shoulder. “Good to see you came back.” I looked up to see the familiar grin across the man’s face. “I figured you to be working for a bank by now.” He laughed as he helped me up to my feet.
I looked up into his eyes, “I told you I would be back.”
He introduced me to a few of his neighbors, but it was more a polite gesture than anything. I didn’t remember them and they only knew that I was the white kid that had sold the horse. We walked to the edge of the neighborhood to the Old Union Depot. I was told that when the train came in there would be a bunch of orders being barked out and it was a sink or swim type of moment. I could either join in and start working where I would end the day with a meal and some cash or I could head back to downtown where things weren’t so in your face.
I truly wanted to prove myself, but just the image I created in my mind, I was afraid I would walk away. The clamor of men yelling at one another and moving heavy things sounded like a disaster area for someone my size. I remember standing there just trying to stay calm.
The train could be heard at quite the distance. Most of the men were joking around pretending to fight, talking about the happenings in the neighborhood, but I was stone still. I could have been a soldier at attention. My mind kept running through the mantra, ‘Don’t leave. You can do this.’.
The train came into full view with what appeared to be hundreds of boxcars. It was a bit of a letdown, as a child I hoped to see colorful boxcars with the carnival name on them. I imagined a couple of giraffe heads poking out the top of one car and the next an open air car with bars on the side displaying lions. But, as the train pulled into the station reality hit me that this looked like every other train with old beat up boxcars.
When the engine gave off a final hiss men started pouring out of the boxcars. A skinny man with a broken top hat and a thin pointy moustache started yelling at the crowd of black men. “We need the following items transported immediately! Tents, stakes, ropes, wood for the stalls, all canopies, signs, banners. Leave prizes, costumes, makeup, and props here. Do not mess with the animals our personnel will handle them.”
I, still standing at attention, was knocked out of my trance when smiley gave me a solid smack on the back. He broke into a jog and called back at me, “Grab something you can carry and find me and Abe.”
I quickly shook myself into reality and looked around for something small enough for me to carry. I noticed a couple boxcars down they were tossing ropes, clothes, canvas, tarps… into the street. I squirmed my way through the crowds of men and grabbed an armful of banners. Trying to stand up straight I was constantly pushed and bumped into. I held my ground decently, but I was starting to get disoriented. I looked around for Smiley, but I was in a sea of dark skinned men carrying heavy things and not paying any attention to someone like myself.
I slowly walked away from the train and towards the other side of the road. With banners in hand I surveyed the chaos from a few feet back. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to cry. I wanted to go back to being a child. But, it was too late. This was the life I had chosen. I started walking down the street when I looked up to see Smiley riding what used to be my horse, carrying a couple bundles of rope. He slowed the horse down and looked down at me. “Well, get up here on Abe. We’ll take you down to fair park where they are setting up the carnival.”
It was odd how a person that I worked so hard to believe in me was now treating me with respect. I knew that I needed people looking out for me, but there was something about this relationship that gave me faith for the future. I hopped on and we headed southeast through the residential areas of Dallas.
It was a long day, but I learned a lot. I learned how to stake and raise a tent. I learned how to build midway stalls. I learned where you hang banners and how doing it in the right places brings attention to places you want attention and drive it away from places you don’t. I even started to learn a bit about the freaks of the freak show and how normal most of them were.
Looking back, I am probably mixing lessons up with other days I was out with the carnival setting up, but my biggest memory of that first day was dinner. The man with the broken top hat had walked all around the carnival grounds telling everyone that they were calling it a night. The carnival would open on Thursday and there was a whole other day that would be spent with hard labor. When the man came to me he stopped and knelt down to meet me at my level. I remember how disturbed I was by his thick scraggly eyebrows. It seemed every hair in his face was a black wire that was out of control. He patted me on the head and handed me three dollars, “Good work kid. You looking to run away with the circus?”
We both laughed at his comment, but it really wasn’t meant in jest. I looked into his eyes. “Not tonight. I’m staying at the Freshman Saloon. But, I was hoping to find a spot as a grappler.” I tried my best to be a professional, but it didn’t keep the moustache man from chuckling.
“You are a bit small to be challenging carnival goers. But, we are an ingenious group. I’ll introduce you to Joe Johnson tomorrow. He is our strong man, maybe he will have some ideas for you. Find me in the morning. But for now, go get some grub in the main tent.”
I went over to the big tent where Smiley and all his neighbors were eating and dancing. Everyone was in a great mood. It was a sight that didn’t hit me back then, but it was the first time I saw all races intermixing. The lowest class of people, the gypsies, the nomads, the carnies… These were the people that were able to put race aside and treat everyone as equals. Nowadays, in my seventies I see it all the time, all across the country people are more and more open to one another, but back then no one who was an upstanding citizen would be caught dead mixing races.
I remember the huge chunks of beef they were carving off for the workers, the numerous cans of preserves everyone was digging into. I had never tasted food that meant so much to me. I had never tried food that had the taste of a day’s labor built into it. I stayed and danced and ate with everyone else. Eventually Smiley brought me back to the saloon. I couldn’t say thank you enough. It was the perfect day. It was proof that I was going in the right direction.