Thursday, November 15, 2012

Neon Lights, Teddy Bears, and Midway Illusions


Your first hint that the teddy-bear laden Cadillac, now transporting you to new and delicious vistas of the human condition, had issues was about twenty miles due south of Tulare, California, when, at approximately eight in the evening, it stopped.  This came as a complete surprise to Ron, its driver and your Virgil to the Dante-like landscape he was about to guide you through.

One moment, the car was purring away as though it were a well-tended Cadillac.  The next moment, it was not.

Ron maneuvered the car to the side of the road.  Although there was a semblance of AAA and emergency roadside service in those days, there were no cell phones.  Your contribution was to flag down what at first seemed to you a California Highway Patrol. As it approached, you discovered it was not.  Rather it was a police car from the nearby city of Visalia.  “I wish you hadn’t done that,” Ron said, sotto voce.

 You did not get details on that for some days.  For the moment, the Visalia police radioed a Tulare tow service, which gave you second thoughts about the Cadillac.

The tow service driver, peering into the motor compartment of the Cadillac said, “Interesting.”

Of course Ron wanted to know what was interesting.

“That,” the tow service driver announced as a judge of at least district court authority, “is not a Cadillac motor.”

“So, maybe some other GM heavy-duty?”  Ron speculated.  “La Salle? Maybe Pontiac?”

“Maybe,” the two service driver said.  “Hard to tell.”

The difficulty was, in fact, so profound that Ron did not ever, to your knowledge, determine the provenance of the engine.  Several months later, under similar circumstances outside Sacramento, you bade a philosophical farewell to the Cadillac which, by that time, had traded its traveling companions of teddy bears for the generic motor oil sold by a California chain of automotive supply houses known as Pep Boys (three partners, Manny, Moe, and Jack).  You do recall Ron’s adamant threat to wreak vengeance on every gypsy in Medford, Oregon, but like so many aspects of this narrative, that information is for later.

The Cadillac is towed into a repair shop in Tulare, where a loaner car is arranged, but not until Ron puts up a $500 security fee.  When you are settling into your motel, you joke that this is surely a pet-friendly establishment.  Ron looks a  "what" at you.  You point to a large cockroach.  He is not amused.

After an educational breakfast in which you learn from Ron and the waitress that folks in this part of the world may have heard of poached eggs but are likely to think of them as things eaten by the English or the French, you return to the auto repair shop long enough to transfer the teddy bears from the Cadillac to the trunk of the loaner car, and then out to the fair grounds, where hives of activity seem to be stirring up the dust.  A city is coming to life, a city of dreams and hoke.

You help Ron carry the teddy bears to one of the carnival booths Ron runs for a wheezing, long-limbed woman named Grace, who begins eyeing you speculatively.  Ron is the manager of the booth, meaning he pays the rent and the cost of the teddy bears and other “prizes,” for which he is paid fifty percent of all the money he brings in.

Grace gives you another onceover,  “College kid, huh?  Just might be the right image.”

Ron appears to know more about her comments than you do, mentioning your background in theater arts.  While it is true that you took a few classes in the TA Department, one of them was learning to write for radio and the other was a history of motion pictures you took more to be with a girl named Janet, whom you believed you loved.

The ‘theater arts” from Ron seemed to make Grace’s lingering decision complete.  You were suddenly confronted with your first job.  You were now a carney.  You were officially with it.  Your job was to be a shill at Grace’s booth, a ham wheel, in which a large vertical wheel was spun, its flapping leather marker stopping on such prizes as a one-pound canned ham, a five-pound canned ham, a vacuum-sealed tin of Maxwell House coffee, a slab of Farmer John bacon, or jars of Smucker’s apple butter.

Players “bet” on a large baize-covered plywood board reminiscent of a roulette layout.  Grace or one of her underlings spun the wheel, which could be controlled by a hidden foot lever.  You were to appear at the booth every half hour or when there seemed to be few players.  You often won the pound of coffee or the one-pound ham.  When Grace’s instincts argued for it, you won the five-pound ham.

Your responses at winning were intended to induce real customers to risk their dimes and quarters, hopeful of the bigger win.  Early into your second day working for Grace, you won a five-pound ham for a 25-cent bet, whereupon, and to your immense satisfaction, you burst into tears before declaiming that now, you could feed your family proper, a trope you’d picked up from the same waitress who’d frowned upon your earlier request for poached eggs.

By noon of the third day, at about the time you’d begun to enjoy being a shill, Grace fired you in such a way that you remembered it vividly and with gratitude when you find yourself writing a dramatic scene where it comes to you that you may have been shilling for Grace instead of writing at the best of your ability.

“You may have been some hot shot in college,” Grace told you, “but out here on the midway, you can’t win ham worth shit.”


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