Friday, November 16, 2012

Looking for theGimmick


The San Joaquin Valley is in its land-locked way the California equivalent of the Mississippi River, ranging as it does through the center of California from just south of Sacramento, meandering between mountain ranges in broad swaths of arable land south to Bakersfield, where the rich, loamy soil gradually gives way to alluvial fans, dry stream beds, then desert sand—lots of it.  The Central Valley, as it is sometimes called, is in yet another reach of metaphor, a spine.

A number of California’s fifty-eight counties appear along this spine. Each of these has a county seat, which, in turn, has a large assemblage of outbuildings, stables, corrals, and venues associated with animals and agriculture.  These counties have at least one fair a year; some have a number of fairs built around such local crops as asparagus, lettuce, and strawberries.

Fairs draw carnivals the way an unattended hamburger will draw flies.  The particular carnival entrepreneur, Foley and Burke Shows, was the one Ron followed, attached to it through his mother and stepfather but also through the habit of working for many of the concessionaires at a range of jobs requiring increasingly more sophisticated abilities.

Ron’s stepfather Teddy, a gruff-but-amiable Man in his late sixties who attempted to manage his curly dark hair with pomade, saw you taking your being fired with a heaviness uncharacteristic of you.  “Try not to let it get you,” he advised.  “There is a saying among us that we discover our talents by being fired.”  The “us” he was speaking of were his Portuguese forebears, but there was a kind of practicality to his wisdom.

While you were tucking into the steaming mound of scrambled eggs and linguica sausage he’d introduced you to, your opportunity to discover your talents by being fired expanded in the form of Dale, a short, dapper man with sharp-edged facial features.  Dale and Teddy were, you imagined, friends.  Teddy teased Dale about being even shorter than the actor, Alan Ladd, and Dale returned the favor by speaking at great length about Teddy’s failure to master the card game of klabiash.

Dale put you to work as an agent in his Guess Your Age booth after an experiment of asking you to guess the approximate ages of random individuals in the cook stand dining area.  The G or gimmick was that you were not to guess the customer’s age because doing so would end the transaction and perhaps embarrass the customer.  “You don’t ever wanna do that,” Dale explained. “What you wanna do is lose.  You see a woman you know is fifty, you look her dead in the eye, like maybe you seeing something about her maybe her old man don’t see.  Then say loud, so everyone can hear, ‘You can’t be no more dan thirty-seven.’  You see how it work?  Then she say, ‘No, I’m—I’m forty-five.’  We both know she got to be fifty-two, fifty-three, but she’s hooked, you see.”
The next step is where you plead with her for a chance to get even, get the customer to pay another quarter if you guess her weight or maybe her occupation, and if you miss, the customer gets to choose a prize from the second shelf.

Dale’s booth had five shelves, the top level being lamps, bracelets, enormous teddy bears, and portable radios.  The routine was in effect for you to sell a customer a $1 or $2 item for upwards of ten dollars.  You did this by “losing.”

Watching you at one point, “losing” a guess of a walnut picker’s occupation (walnut picker’s hands were invariably stained a dark brown) by announcing that you could tell he was a bus driver, Dale confided to you that you seemed to have a natural affinity for losing, which took some of the edge off you not being able to win a ham with anything resembling authenticity.

And so, for a week or two, you were gainfully employed, you were with it, a carney, already set to wondering what the G or gimmick was in story telling, to the point where you could successfully “lose” at that, and be with in the ways that were ever so much more meaningful.

But then came a scheduled circus jump, which meant you had to dismantle your booth, store in Dale’s trailer, then drive two hundred miles to the next city in the San Joaquin Valley where, instead of being able to sleep, you needed to assemble the booth in time for the opening of the next county fair.

Even more interesting, there you met for the first time Papa Louie, a man who reminded you in many ways of the actor Sidney Greenstreet, except that Papa Louie had the burnished, leathery complexion of a Gypsy.  He seemed to emerge from the interior of the cookhouse, confronting you while you took refuge in a cup of the bitter, over boiled Midway coffee.  “I see you looking at my daughter,” he said by way of greeting.  “You got some kind of, you know, interest in her?”

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