Friday, September 15, 2006

Barbara Bamberger Scott, "With It- A Year on the Carnival Trail"

For awhile I have been casting about searching for a memoir, or likewise documentary material, of contemporary carny life. Sifting through my rather large Amazon wishlist, I came across an item that was very close to matching my criteria- Barbara Bamberger Scott's "WITH IT: A Year on the Carnival Trail". The book is a recounting of the author's experience of running several "joints" (concessions, games, "garbage" sales) on the carny circuit in the mid-70's.

The author got swept into the "show life" as a result of her husband's wanderlust and gritty capitalist ambition. With their young daughter and some friends in tow, they learned the hard lessons of the lot very quickly. The mysteries and initiations of this particular substrata of society were disclosed alongside the dreary inconveniences and discomforts of the lifestyle. We learn about the gradual process of transitioning from a "First-of-May" (novice) into a seasoned operator. We read, enraptured, as the hierarchy of the midway- from the ride jocks to the agents to the jointees to the patch to the "big man"- lends it's peculiar structure to the lives of our heroes. We see them progress from a "Sunday School" outfit, to the last bastions of grift (the lower class fun on the "back-end", with everyone "working strong"- freaks, flatties, and girlie shows).

In the process, they learn the gaffs (tricks) of the hanky panks, alibis, and flat store games. They tempt the marks (suckers, rubes) with their "flash" and "slum" (plush stufffed animals and other cheap prizes), and drain their wallets. They learn how the carnival deals with the "wrangs" and the "beefs" (fights and complaints, respectively) of their customers, and how a bit of "smice" (payoff, bribe) can make the local authorities look the other way. They also come to terms with the "blanks" (show dates that are unprofitable and forgettable), the "dings" (the surcharges that jointees pay for unreliable electricity, security, and clean-up), and the wearisome tear-downs.

Scott's story is slightly fictionalized, and she freely admits recalling all of this experience from decades-old memories. Some of it is obviously sensationalized, yet overall it has the ring of truth to it. All of the characters in the book, while based upon people she actually encountered, appear under fictional names. Grady Stiles, Jr. is transparently given the nickname "The Crawfish Kid". Scott peppers her bally with thinly-veiled newpaper article updates of Stiles' continued legal trouble. This choice does serve the function of putting the author's personal experiences on the road in the context of the final decline of the golden era of traveling carnivals.


** NOTE: If you are interested in carny lingo- HERE's a great web page that seems pretty comprehensive.

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