Carnies And The Way Forward

My father-in-law started working as a carnie when he was twelve. He showed up on the day the circus hit town and was swept up by some guy who yelled, “Hey, kid! Need a job?” and next thing he knew, he was holding one of the ropes that guided the elephants that helped lift the poles of the big tent, all for one free ticket.

At least, that’s part of the story. For all I know, he was peeling potatoes before that.


The book I’m reading feels like it’s been written by a crazy person. It’s one of the billion self-help books out on the market, which I tend to read sometimes, because well, sometimes I need perspective.

Why I think I can find this in the half-narcissistic, half-con-man, all-bullshit ramblings of a man doing his best Woody Allen meets Charlie Sheen impersonation, I don’t know.

I made a pact with myself that I wasn’t going to spread more anger in the world, so I won’t mention names.

That said, I still believe in reality and behaviour-based evaluations of character. That’s not going away anytime soon, no matter how loathe I can be to turn it on myself.


The other thing I learned on my wife’s birthday this year, on St. Patrick’s Day as it falls, is that you should never drink the orange drink at a carnival.

Somewhere in the confusing series of tales regarding my father-in-law’s ventures into carniedom, timeline uncertain, he began working for 50 cents an hour peeling potatoes for the day. He started with one fifty pound bag, peeled it, and was told to go empty it, and bring back a pailful of water.

And so he did, dumping all those mud-and-manure caked potato skins out of the bucket, and re-filling that same bucket with a hose. No rinsing.

This doesn’t sound bad, until he returned with the water, and the guy working with him turned and dumped the (recently filled with dirt-covered potato peels) bucket into the machine with the orange drink.

At lunchtime, they gave him a hot dog and some french fries.


I think the reason this book bothers me as much as it does is its fundamental dishonesty. That and somewhere in and around all the self-promotion and the pretense of guruhood that there’s actually a nugget of truth.

I don’t like when people present themselves one way but behave another. It’s hard to take a guy seriously when he talks about what a great boss he was and how all his prior employees have done wonders with their lives after his tutelage, then later tells us how he used to call his secretary to ensure the hall was clear so he could run to his office and lock the door, and avoid interaction with any of these supposed proteges.

He has a whole section on how honesty compounds, apparently oblivious to the repeated examples he gives of screwing people over and his own admission of thievery and sociopathy.

The whole not-spreading-anger thing is a work in progress.

There’s a bunch of these types of scenarios where he claims one thing and then later contradicts those same claims. It’s hard to buy that he believes in kindness and gratitude when in the same breath, he tells us that his family refuses to speak to him. And not in the deep past, when he was a fuck-up, but now, or at least, now when the book was published.

Still, the problem remains. In one thing, he’s fucking right.


You know those clanky, creaky, screeching rides that pop up overnight at the fair? You know. The spinning cups, the merry-go-round, the one with the two opposing cages that whips around opposite ends in a circle and slams you and your face repeatedly up against the grated metal? You know, the one you always thought you were going to die on? The one that made you walk like you had just been in a car crash?


That was, most likely, by the way my father-in-law tells it, put together by a twelve year old boy pulled fresh off the street. His qualifications?

“Hey, kid! Need a job?”

The good old days were a wild place.


The jobs are leaving and they aren’t coming back. The days of any random monkey being hired off the streets for menial tasks are gone. Factories are being automated and so are offices. Programs replace spreadsheets replace workers. Robots replace hands. What was once the work of four people is now the work of an hour, through a part-time temp.

Sure, people need to maintain those robots and write that code, but those aren’t the jobs you get off the street. Those jobs are gone. Or at least, they’re leaving.

The creative arts are good, but how to get into the space? How to monetize it enough to cover the basics, let alone live with any comfort? How many artists can the world support?

What about plumbers?

The time is coming when that question will need to be answered. The education isn’t there. The opportunity isn’t there. The safety net isn’t there.

We are all on our own.


He reached his finger in the cage and poked the back of the lion, quick. As quick as he could. The lion turned and headed toward him, far too late.

You could poke the big cat. You just had to be careful.

Probably best not to do it too often, lest he start paying attention.

For one day a year, my father-in-law was a carnie. He peeled potatoes, scooped up elephant dung and somehow assembled and ran the merry-go-round, usually for a free ticket and a meal.

In the evening, after the three rings were empty, he ran home, without bothering to help tear down. His mother wouldn’t let him. Presumably, she might not have let him set up either, if she’d known where he was. I thought my wife was going to pee herself laughing.

He swears he never drank the orange drink.


I have nieces, a year past carniedom in the old world. I have no idea what we’re leaving them.

Hell, I have no idea what I’m getting into, and I’ve got thirty years on them.

I can’t claim guruhood or prognostication. I can’t even claim any particular insight. I have no intention of pretending to be anything I’m not here, though it’s not my intent to pour out all my secrets. If it’s relevant, I will. If I need to clarify that I’m a fuck-up and should not be trusted for advice, I will.

All I want at this point is a path forward. It’s increasingly clear that this must be achieved on my own, if there’s to be any hope. I know I’ll need help and I know I’ll make mistakes. I’ll have setbacks and things will not turn out how I want them.

But it is forward.

I used to repeat the phrase “every step is a step forward” to myself. Not every step is a step in the right direction, that’s for sure, but it is forward.

Always forward, even if we don’t know exactly where.

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