Monday, December 20, 2010

The Man Who Was Not with It (Apologies to Herb Gold)

When you first went off to work the carnival, to "get with it," as carnival employees spoke of their occupation, you were looking for metaphor because, after all, you were now a graduate of a respectable English Department at a respectable university where your flair and talents were less for the scholarly curiosity and discipline, more for prank, insouciance, and the perfervid evangelism of intuitive forces as substitutes for work.

How splendid you felt when your first job was as a shill at a game called The Ham Wheel, an enormous wheel hung vertically, having a diameter of about eight feet.  It was free-wheeling up to a point; the agent or individual who ran the booth could control where the wheel stopped.  The wheel was a mixture of numbers, as in a roulette wheel, and symbols for such things as canned hams, one-pound tins of Folger's coffee, one-pound packages of sliced bacon, or chips with numerical values such as five wins, one win, ten wins, which could be redeemed for such additional prizes as teddy bears, stuffed dogs, Kewpie dolls, and other prizes scornfully referred to by carnival employees as slum, which was the then equivalent of blue-collar bling.

It was your job to approach the booth when there were only two or three players, plunk your quarter down, and "win" a canned ham, over which you were to exclaim loudly enough to attract attention, which would in turn attract more players.

There you were, a graduated English major from a pretty good university, several published stories to your credit, freed from the drive to make journalism your calling, on the lookout for the metaphor teeming about you on the carnival midway.  It did not hurt that your employer at the time was Joyce, a rather attractive women who wore no wedding ring, did not seem to have a boyfriend.  You liked the idea of being paid twenty-five dollars to be a shill, even writing letters in your mind to friends about the unfettered romance of the carnival life.  Even though this was your first job, you thought of yourself as a full-fledged member of the life; you were with it, bringing entertainment and adventure to those who sought the romance of the dramatic and unexpected.

When you won your first ham, you exclaimed loudly.  I won this--this remarkable ham for twenty-five cents.  Emboldened by the quaver in your voice, you allowed that you had never won anything before, that it was always the other fellows who seemed to win things.  In what you considered a stroke of libidinous genius, you leaned over the railing, hugged Joyce, then kissed her.

Mindful of your job, you said at some volume that it was clear your luck had changed for the better.  You slapped another quarter on the betting board, the wheel was spun again, and won a one-pound can of Folger's drip grind coffee.  You were ecstatic in an emotive way, seeking to convey to these good people who'd gathered about you the virtues of taking risks, of finding a sense of purpose and belonging at the carnival that was transformative.  You would never again, you averred, eat a ham sandwich or drink a cup of coffee without thinking of the Foley and Burke  traveling shows.

You wandered off toward the halo of light cast by an overhead fixture, in your mind the Charlie Chaplin tramp, taking dramatic exit after a poignant adventure, a lilt of the romantic in your gait.

That evening, Joyce fired you.  "You can't win ham worth shit,"  she said.  "And another thing, just so you don't get any ideas.  I don't do boys.  I do girls."

You were fired the next night from a booth where it was your job to guess the weight, age, occupation, or state of birth of the player.  The owner of the booth groaned openly when you told a man whose hands and arms were stained a shiny brown that he was a picker in a walnut orchard.  "Your job is to fucking lose,"  you were told.  "Your job is to make them think they smarter'n you.  How the hell you gonna make any money when you guessing the right thing?  You tell 'em the truth, they gonna go spend their quarters somewhere else."

The Carnival was and is no more nor less a metaphor than other ventures that have drawn you forth, academic ventures or gaming booths, if you will, and surely publishing.  You are most comfortable being with it in the sense of the feel it is to be a writer, where you deal with manipulation and illusion, but only in the dramatic sense of shapes and appearances, where as Mark Twain had Huck Finn put it, you might tell some stretchers from time to time, but mainly, you tell the truth.  You do not have to worry about "making" the reader think he or she is smarter, that is a given; you know for a fact that the reader can surely tell when you have strayed from the truth, whatever your vision is.

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