Monday, October 6, 2014

Carnival Lights and the Green Light at the End of Gatsby's Pier

With some regularity, you drive past the Santa Barbara intersection of Las Positas Road and Calle Real, whether to have coffee and write at one of your favorite coffee shops, browse books at your favorite independent bookstore, or shop at one of your favorite supermarkets.

The Las Positas/Calle Real intersection is strategic to your lifestyle, bordering the US 101 Freeway.  On at least three occasions a year, some ambitious amusement zone with neon-decked rides is in operation.  When you drive past the area at night, the amusement zone is an elaborate, pulsing spectacle of neon, LED lights, and the characteristic midway movements of Ferris Wheels, merry-go-rounds, and revolving rides.

At the moment, the amusement zone is set up and running in anticipation of Halloween.  There are other times during the year, including the regular visit of a circus, when the thirty-four acre facility in Santa Barbara known as The Earl Warren Showgrounds reminds you of the times in your life when those rides and amusements were an integral part of your life.

There are times when you arrive early at your Monday morning coffee shop of choice to be greeted by the smell of onions, caramelizing on the grill.  Never mind that the coffee shop is a few miles from the Earl Warren Showgrounds; the sight of the amusement rides and booths, plus the aroma of the onions is a one-two punch, reminding you of your life within the carnival.

Your times with the carnival began in Ventura, worked up the Central Valley of California, then swung over to Reno for a time before taking you back to the huge State Fair at Sacramento, then back down to the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona, then home to live off your earnings while trying to establish a career that had everything to do with writing and little or nothing to do with illusion.

Easier said than done.  About half the things you were working on writing-wise had to do with television, which, at your level of involvement, had more to do with illusion than you suspected at the time.  The most significant event, still resonant with irony, involved your work on a show that was done live before an audience, recorded for multiple showings later on.  The show involved the need for a laugh track.

Being able to write for this show was a promotion of sorts.  To commemorate this promotion and pave the way for more assignments, you took exquisite care with the script.  When the producer called you back to challenge the completeness of the script, you were at first stunned.  The producer tapped at the script.  "No marks,"  he said.  "You didn't put in the marks."

"What marks?"

"I'm told you went to a school with a good Theater Arts Department.  I'm told you had some sense of understanding of the medium.  I'm told you understand about laugh tracks."

With an uncharacteristic diplomacy, you assured him he'd been told correctly about such things, even to the point of your understanding that most laugh tracks were recorded in Japan because the Japanese, when they laugh, laugh funnier than Americans or Europeans.

And so you returned to the matter of the marks.

"The marks for the Laugh Track technicians.  They need to know where on the script to put the laughs."

This was not going well.  You believed the places where laughs should go were obvious.  The producer did not.  He scanned a page or two of script.  "I'm not seeing funny,"  he said, "and I'm thinking the technician will not be seeing any funny."  He handed you a moist marking pen,  "I'm thinking,"  he said, "it would be a good idea for you to mark the places.  One dot for a little.  Two dots for a longer laugh, and three for, what do you call it?"

"Guffaw,"  you said.

"Exactly.  Guffaw.  Got it.  One, two, three."

You took the script and the marking pen to your desk, away from his presence, where you no longer had to be diplomatic.  You marked places on the script with no regard to where you'd thought laughter belong.

"Nice job,"  the producer said a day or two later.

The things you did at the carnival were more in the nature of marking places for the laugh track that you realized at the time and have come to realize in more recent years because of your experiences with the forces of life, of persons coming to carnivals or television for entertainment and some form or another of illusion.

Each time the carnival moved to a new city for a new stand, the rides and booths had to be taken down to basic, portable parts, transported, then reassembled.  The first thing set up in the new location was the Cook Stand, that amusement-laden cornucopia of hamburgers, French fries, corn dogs on a stick, chili, and something that looked as though it might or might not be mac and cheese.  

The moment the propane tanks were connected to the grills, someone would dice a few dozen onions, then begin sauteing them on a high flame, broadcasting the scent over the afternoon air.  

In many ways, the smell of caramelizing onions and the blur and dance of red, green, blue, and LCD lights are the smell and sights of promised adventure.  These smells and sights come upon you when your guard is down.  The effects on you are like the green light at the end of Gatsby's pier, reminding you of the fragility of some of your beliefs and illusions and the strengths and steadfastness of others.

Story, too, is a form of illusion.  Knocking down booths and tents and games, while more physical than composition of story, brought you many summers of learning how to construct, populate, and then bring illusions to life.

You were reading things such as Gatsby and As I Lay Dying and My Antonia in cheap, awful hotels and motels.  You even reread Of Mice and Men not to far from where it took place.  Against the background of cheap teddy bears and epidemics of plush toys, you bumped shoulders with and finagled twenty-five-cent pieces from individuals desperate for the fun they settled for in the form of the illusions you and others like you brought them.

Bawling out your pitchman's spiel over the cotton candy summer evenings gave your voice a gravelly edge that lingered until long after the carnival season ended.

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