07 El Paso to San Diego to Los Angeles
Trying to remember each fair now is impossible. They all kind of blend together. Again, if I had written these memoirs back in my thirties I may have stood a chance of relaying all the stories from all the towns, but in my eighties it is a different situation.
I know those first few carnivals were mostly learning how to tote the line between worker and scam artist. I remember standing on the midway watching people play games. I stood in the middle of the walkway with game tents lining the dirt path on both sides. I stared off at the men at four side to side games trying to keep straight how much each one had spent. Once I saw someone spend over a dollar at nickel game or over two dollars at a dime game I would walk over to them and pat them on the back.
The first few times I tried this I was met with anger for either breaking their focus or covering them in dirt when I tried to mark their clothes. In El Paso I ran for my safety at least a dozen times.
Most of the midway carnies were entertained by my consistently bad attempts at finding marks. It wasn’t until San Diego where a very round carny with a cauliflower ear noticed that when I tried finding marks near his game, which consisted of throwing coins at a bed of milk bottles trying to get them inside instead of between, that someone objected to my presence.
I had run three of his customers away when he screamed across the midway, “Keazid, beazee deaziscreazeet!” I stood dumbfounded staring at the man trying to translate in my head. I got as far as ‘kid be’ before another carny jogged over next to me. He was a short man with very tanned skin and tattoos all over his face. His dark hair, tan, and layer of dirt all blended into a sheen of filth.
The strange tattooed carny whispered to me pointing down the path of the midway. “Watch Sara Bell over there. It is about befriending them rather than ambushing them.”
I had trouble getting past the thick musky odor of the man, but I peered down the dirt walk following his outstretched finger to find a middle aged woman that didn’t look anything like a carny. She wore a full length blue dress with white lace gloves and a large hat that was adorned with a full bouquet of flowers.
I walked over and watched the woman. She slowly walked down the walkway between the stalls looking back and forth at the games being played. After a few minutes she walked up to a booth that had a man throwing balls at baskets nailed to a wall. When he got close to keeping the ball in the basket she would cheer in excitement. After a few minutes the man started making conversation with her and before long she was standing right next to him rooting him on. When the man missed his target for the tenth time she reached behind her and dabbed her pinky in a small jar of ink that was tied to her waist. Then patted the man on the back telling him she thought he had it that time leaving a few green dots near the man’s collar on his back.
I watched her do this three or four times always making conversation, then giving them a pat on the back of encouragement always leaving a few dots that were only noticeable if you were looking for them. After I thought I had it I caught her eye and yelled out, “Ceazan weazee teazalk?” It was the first carny speak I tried. It came out so slow and broken that I don’t think she had any chance of understanding me. But, she heard my pitiful attempt at the code language and she quickly came to me.
“Neazot heazere.” She scolded me and turned back to her job.
I went back to my area and tried her tactic. I sat in between a couple of the tents and watched for someone to overspend on one of the games. I saw a woman spending money with no abandon. I spent some time with her, talked to her and even was able to smear some black ash on the back of her shirt. I was so proud of myself when she didn’t react like I was scamming her.
I continued the process with everyone I saw overspending on the games. By the end of the day I found at least thirteen marks. I walked back to the catering tent expecting huge congratulations from Joe and Timmy, but I was instead greeted with both men scowling at me like I had broken a window.
“What the hell were you doing today?” Timmy nearly screamed at me.
“I was marking marks like I am supposed to!” I was fighting back. I had spent all day accomplishing my goals and I wasn’t about to let these two take it away from me.
Joe kneeled down so he was face to face with me. “I saw someone walk by my ring today. They had a black mark on the back of their shirt, they looked a bit small, but thought they must just be self-absorbed. I grabbed the gentleman by his shoulder and spun him around to give him my spiel. I only got ‘fella, want to see if you can last sixty seconds with…’ and I stopped when I realized I had just grabbed a woman. Luckily she thought it was funny and didn’t go get the coppers. Later another mark walked by that was an old man, probably in his eighties! These aren’t the marks we are looking for! Who are you marking?”
I started to cower a bit and sheepishly replied, “Anyone who is spending a lot of money.”
Timmy jumped in the conversation, “You are looking for people that are spending a lot of money that look like someone who would challenge Joe. You work with us, not the rest of these carnies. Everyone knows that marks who are marked with black are for the strongman. Green is for the girly shows, red is for the food vendors, and blue is for games.”
They were upset with me all the way until we got to Los Angeles. On the first day of the Los Angeles stop I found the woman who had inadvertently shown me how to mark people. Before the crowds had been let in I found her coming out of one of the costume tents. She had yet to put on her makeup or wig and realized that she wasn’t a woman at all. She was a man with very effeminate features. I would later learn that he was our bearded lady in the northeast, but that show didn’t sell well in the west, so he found marks on that side of the country.
I approached him with the plan to scold him for not taking two seconds to talk to me, but the revelation that I had just discovered a cross dresser shocked me. In those days it wasn’t something that was even discussed, it was so far from the norm that I really didn’t know how to react to the person.
Standing there in shock I could hear the first wave of people coming from the street. The carnival had opened and the day was beginning. The murmurs of people started to grow, the smell of fry oil began to waft through the air. I started looking for people spending money when I heard a bit of yelling from the front gate.
As I walked in that direction I heard deep voices, “Where’s your strong man?”
I quickly realized that they were probably hookers sent by the local promoter. I ran back through the midway, round the corner of the girly shows, past the freak shows, and back by catering where Joe stood in his dirt circle waiting to challenge anyone who dared step in the ring with him.
“There are some men here.” I paused panting from my sprint. “I think they are hookers.”
Joe’s demeanor grew a little darker. His fake scowl left his face and he donned a serious look that I had yet to see on him. He started stretching his arms in front of his chest as he yelled into the catering tent, “Timmy! I need you to go scout. Squirt thinks there are hookers here.”
Timmy ran out of the tent and past us as I screamed, “They were at the gate.”
It wasn’t long before there was a crowd around the ring and the normal trash talk was being thrown at Joe. Each time he faced a man he would look at him with a lot of care to determine if that was the man who was there to take him out.
He went through five men with ease before a group of men approached. The lead man was about the size of Joe, burly strong man that was obviously not your average customer. He was flanked by a tall lanky man to his right who wore a strange headgear giving him I could only express as donut ears. On his left was another huge man, but much older. Someone who was probably very formidable in his day.
Timmy came up behind them and shouted, “It’s on the level. Negotiate it!”
As they walked up Joe looked at the old man and said, “Billy Mulders, the solid man.” Joe recognized the man as one of the greatest grapplers of the 1800s. “Don’t tell me you are going to step in this ring. I respect you, but I will take you out if you make me.”
Billy smiled the smile of an old man who still has some tricks up his sleeve. “I don’t expect to compete with someone with meat hooks like those. But I have someone who wants to take part of your house. This is Frank Bell.” Billy motioned to the man in the center.
The large younger man stepped forward looking eye to eye with Joe and growled, “I am going murder you.”
Joe responded, “Did you bring a gun? You going to shoot me? Because I am pretty quick. I can help you learn to draw your gun better.”
Frank backed up a few feet, “You think you can draw better than us? I’d love to see that. But I’m not going to shoot you. I am going to work you until you learn who runs this place. Learn that we’re standing over his territory.”
Joe prepared himself for the conflict. He lowered into a stance where he could grapple, “Let’s do this job. You have a screw loose in your head if you think I am finished. Then you can let that funny faced man know that my heat is going to hotshot him to be able to draw.”
Timmy pushed his way through the crowd until he reached the circle. He patted down both men to see if they had any weapons. He explained that he is looking for one fall or submission.
Then the two men barreled towards each other slamming together in a collar and elbow tie up that left an echoing slap through the edge of the fair. Joe leapt up and wrapped his arms around Frank’s head creating a headlock that forced the man to bend at the waist. Frank tried to push out of the hold, but Joe was locked in with his feet dug into the dirt. Frank then squatted down and lifted Joe in the air. The sensation shocked Joe as he was too large for most people to lift. He released the headlock and pushed himself forward but as he landed on the ground Frank grabbed Joe’s right hand and bent it backwards while twisting his thumb around the back of his hand.
Timmy immediately started screaming, “That’s it. Frank Bell is disqualified for using an illegal thumb lock.”
Joe raised both his hands in the air and grunted in accomplishment similar to a gorilla. While Frank stared back with incredulity.
The lanky man with the donut apparatus on his head stepped into the ring. “That move isn’t illegal!”
Joe screamed back, “We never allow toe or finger locks.”
“Well here in California they are legal.”
“And who do you think you are?”
“I am Dr. Jesse Steamer. The Pacific Coast Champion.” He took a few steps and stood up to Joe, nearly nose to nose if Jesse wasn’t so tall. “And I want you out of California.” When the words came out the crowd let out an ‘ooo’.
“You are going to have to make me.” Joe took two steps back and spit in the man’s face.
Dr. Jesse Steamer wiped the saliva off his eye, “I will be back here Sunday. And when I am done you will never step in California again.”
Joe laughed a maniacal laugh and responded, “No, when I am done I will take your Pacific Coast Title and leave you in retirement.”