What you see on the road with traveling carnivals

CHICAGO — Some years ago, a not-so-young and close-to-penniless journalist named Mike Comerford took a trip. It was not his first trip, but it was a long trip, taking him across this country and into Mexico. He traveled by bus (5,740 miles), train (2,130 miles) and by that vanishing means of transport, hitchhiking (13,700).

This journey changed him, as you might imagine, but in ways that he could not have anticipated when he got the bold (to some) and foolhardy (to some) idea of joining and working for the country’s traveling carnival companies.

The result is a remarkable book, colorfully lively and filled with a cast of characters that would do a Fellini movie justice, as well as deep observations of life. The book is titled “American Oz: An Astonishing Year Inside Travel Carnivals at State Fairs & Festivals” (Comerford Publishing) and in it he writes, “Carnival people are the untold stories in America. They put millions of people on rides a year. The carnival industry rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars every year. The carnival worker deserves to be seen.”

The book is by turns funny and sad, romantic and hard-edged and it is impossible to argue with his claim, in its first few pages, that he is taking us on “a magic roller coaster never ridden before.”

I first met Comerford when he was a young and eager journalist, starting his decades-long career that would find his byline in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Daily Herald, as well as papers in Moscow and Budapest. He was ever be happy to tell you that he had visited nearly 100 countries, swam in the Nile, studied Buddhism in the Himalayas and “danced an Irish jig in the Amazon with an upraised jug of local White Lightning.”

He hit the carnival road, he says, “because journalism jobs were drying up and I thought this might be a good way to start a book-writing career.”

He was, in a fashion, born for the road, since, as he writes, “I’m the oldest of four kids in a family that moved ten times before settling in the Chicago area. In my young mind, I linked moving to a new home with a life of discovery. Sights unseen. Amazing people. Wonder.”

I caught up with Comerford when he was in the midst of his journey, stopping with a carnival for the Puerto Rican Festival celebration in Humboldt Park in June 2013. At the time he was operating a blog (still in existence at eyeslikecarnivals.com) which contained pictures and words and was, he said, “written on the run, in fast food joints.” I wrote about it, noting its “vitality, life and immediacy.”

He needlessly thanks me for that in the acknowledgments of this book and I can vividly recall that in Humboldt Park he wore what he called his “Crocodile Dundee” hat which, as he details in “American Oz,” was part of one of his shifting carnival identities, along with Cowboy, El Grande, Mike Love, Slim and others. “When I deep-sixed my real name, I felt like a fiction in a traveling fiction land,” he writes. “Every day in carnivals, I sang along with the music of the midway. I made up stories for riders and customers. I helped people have fun.”

He has his fun too, as well as lousy sleeping arrangements, nasty and potentially dangerous encounters. He writes: “Where you find the greatest happiness, you find the most pain.” He artfully details moments of both.

Eventually, of course, he left the carny life even though, he writes, “leaving carnivals wasn’t smooth. ... I shared something more than experience with many carnival people. I had no income and no permanent home.” He then gives us a sad carny character named Scott, “headed toward a have-not life in a gotta-have-it world.” Scott tells him in the book, “I haven’t had a real job since I was sixteen. Now I have a prison record and just carnies for references. People don’t like carny references. They think we’re all drug addicts and idiots, which is pretty true. I’m thirty years old. How can I save one thousand dollars for a deposit on an apartment?”

Since returning here, Comerford has worked a few sales jobs, got a detective’s license, been a security guard and taken “any job that would pay the bills.” He also worked on his book, sculpting a cohesive narrative from the series of vignettes on his web site. He tried the conventional publishing route and “with every rejection I got, which didn’t feel good, I would rework the book and it became better.”

He collaborated with editor friends and the self-published book took its current compelling shape, wisely including his hitchhiking encounters and impressions because he found that, he says, “cars become confessionals.” He got drivers and his carny colleagues “to relate the true inner geography of their lives. Yet they talked about their lives in their own ways. They spoke of seeking love and meaning in their lives on the road.”

Now involved with various book promotional chores, he is determined, in the face of the decreasing number of available jobs in the ever-contracting newspaper industry, to keep writing books, perhaps one focused on environmentalism, a passion he shares with his 15-year-old daughter Grace who says, “I missed him a great deal when he was gone but he called almost every day.”

She is a writer too, and a young activist. She has written a book, “Power of Purple: Jackie’s Purple Ninja Story.” She has, understandably, a proud father who writes, “Grace kept me in touch all year with the family side of carnival life.” Amicable divorced many years ago, he lives near Grace in the northwestern suburbs and spends a great deal of time with her.

He is in his early 60s now and keeps in touch with some of those he met on the road. Most are out of work and that is why there will be no carnivals in town this season.

There will be none of their rough-and-tumble pleasures bursting forth overnight in a vacant lot or playground in a jungle of neon and sound and movement, with fear-inducing rust hanging from rides, the weirdly wonderful look and mannerisms of the men and women working those rides and touting those why-can’t-I-win-at-these games.

I have always loved carnivals and I miss them now. “American Oz” is as close as I can get and in its powerfully persuasive way, it brings me closer than I have ever been.

Tribune Wire

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