Sept. 18, 2004
As recently as a hundred years ago, most people in America lived and died without ever traveling farther than forty miles from their homes. In rural areas, folks were too busy and exhausted to figure out much in the way of entertainment beyond barn dances, church on Sunday, card games, moonshine-related hijinks, hunting, and listening to the radio.
Back in the era before television and movies, the average family was uneducated, simple-minded, and mono-cultured. The one time of the year regular folks ever encountered anything different, unusual, or foreign was when the circus rolled through town.
Circus sideshows, as everyone knows, spotlighted people with deformities (real and fake) and foreigners (for better or for worse). Sideshow owners were also among the first entrepreneurs to introduce audiences to exotic animals from halfway across the globe (giraffes, tigers, elephants, etc.).
And the carnies — the people who set up the rides, performed on the midway, sold the overpriced food, swallowed swords, and talked from behind tall podiums, trying to get the rubes into the tents — were considered to be both the dregs of society and an endless source of fascination for God-fearing yokels.
Carnies were treated like outcasts, and as a result, behaved as such — drinking, partying, thieving, and fighting. They isolated themselves, mentally and physically, from the rubes, both for protection and peace of mind. The rubes, in turn, looked for reasons to pick fights with the roustabouts who, given the chance, might make off with their daughters or steal their wallets.
Linda and this writer (and most of the Bike Rodeo) share a fascination for all things circus. When we were kids, she in LA and this writer in Tennessee, we both wanted to run away and be a part of some sideshow or another, the way other kids aspire to be veterinarians or astronauts.
After the Omaha show, at one point when were all breaking down the rides, running to and fro, lifting things, finding tools in the grass and losing them again, picking up trash, and over-discussing which bikes go where on top of the bus and in what order, Linda froze, caught her breath, and looked to the heavens with a fed-up sigh.
“I finally feel like I could wear a cotter pin around my neck and not be a poser,” she said. “Any carny gives me any lip about it and I’m going to punch them in the face.”
Carnies wear cotter pins on chains the way gay people wear rainbows and pink triangles. And yes, we agreed, we deserve to wear them too. On show days, we work just as hard, and we put up with just as much shine-ola. Pedal-powered or no.
“I feel like an ant,” Linda said. “Can you mention in your weblog how hard and irritating this is?”
Our major altercation of the day came when some drunk jerk-off stumbled around the midway and crossed our safety line at the Cyclofuge, almost got his head kicked off by a rider in the seat, and then had the nerve to 1) get belligerent as he 2) refused to move and then 3) finally stomped off, threatening to “smoke us,” at which point we chased after him to ask him if he was serious, and he 4) verbally abused us while denying he even said or did anything wrong. His poor wife — she stood at his side, looking at us with hangdog eyes that said, “Yes, he’s hollering at you now, but I have to live with the bastard.”
He had Fat Tire gear all over him, so we got a bit nervous he might be a jackass exec in our otherwise wonderful sponsor’s company — but still, we were in the right. Our rides, our rules, rider assumes all risk, and do what we say before we have to call you an ambulance. Thankfully, the Cyclo-Douche was just a random guy who spent a fin at the Tour de Fat merch table and covered himself with their branding.
There’s always one fight. Every show. It makes us sympathetic to the carnies of old. Most people listen to reason, but sometimes, the rubes can make you feel like getting stabby.
The park we performed in in Omaha was nice and grassy, with a clay pigeon shooting range right next to it and a shockingly friendly groundskeeper named Randy.
We set up the rides the night before — the first time for us to extend our setup time like that — just so we wouldn’t have to wake at 5am and start on the Cyclofuge. (‘Tis a beautiful ride, but it adds two hours to our setup and strike times.) We got ‘er done, locked up the show bikes, and Shotwell celebrated our early start by busting out “Timmy,” a rather large firework he’d purchased in Battle Mountain. BOOM! …
Ten minutes later, we heard a thunk-thunk-thunk-thunk. A cop-shop helicopter rose above the trees, spotlight shining, and proceeded to case the entire park for the next 20 minutes. Yeah, Timmy was loud, but it wasn’t bomb-style loud. Who called the cops? We all made sure we looked busy. We’re just the help, officer. We wouldn’t do anything like that. Right?
Thankfully, the cops were too far up in the sky, and the day’s light already too faded, for them to see what hoodlums we really look like. Dang, that was an overreact, cops. We’re not the kind of chip-on-shoulder carnies who start fights and mainline crystal meth and pick pockets — we’re just idiots who like to ride weird bikes and see stuff blow up.
By the time we got to the hotel — yay, hotel! Showers! Finally! — the swimming pool and hot tub were closed. We fought back tears, drank beers, and crammed into the 2 rooms to hose ourselves off and watch cable. Some of the boys tried to go to the hotel bar downstairs, but the security guards wouldn’t let them in because they looked too scruffy.
The next day at the show, the crowd was a little dead — probably because it was hot enough to sweat the makeup right off a klown’s face. The new “spaghetti western” skit didn’t work, our stand-in drummer didn’t really know the songs (or how to play with a band at all), Moses hurt his shoulder pretty bad when he jumped the Ramp of Death, and the jousting was tamer than tame. Omaha was alright, if a tiny bit demoralizing and dehydrating.
Right after the cotter pin discussion, some other guy drove up, screeched his van tires on the grass, and almost ran us over, red-faced and screaming at the top of his lungs that we sabotaged his car by tying a rope to the steering column. He was lit too, and way madder than the Cyclo-Douche.
We all tried to reassure him that we were too busy to ruin a stranger’s day on purpose, but he was inconsolable. Though we’d almost finished striking and totally impressed ourselves with our well-oiled machine status, we were all down. Plus Chris, our Fat Tire angel, had such a hectic day that he forgot to give us our post-show beer.
That’s when Jarico told us that the super-nice Fat Tire regional-rep guy we met that day had gotten us four — FOUR — hotel rooms at the same place we slept the night before. Woo hoo! We thought we were going to have to sleep in the park. We rejoiced, rushing back to try to finally get in the pool before it closed.
We had ten minutes before closing, and we made the best of it. We jumped from hot tub to pool and back again and ran around and splashed in the water like monkeys. We were so hyper that people came out of their hotel rooms to watch us freaking out at getting to go swimming. Klean klowns.
Hotel pools are exciting, for those of us who provide spectacle, as long as we don’t get kicked out (or until we do) by the locals. In this information age, the midway isn’t needed as much as it once was, but there are some things you can’t be satisfied with looking up on the internet or watching on TV — like being hit in the face with a pie, flying through the air on a pedal-powered ferris wheel, or jousting a human monster on a tallbike.
Once we get to Colorado, Linda and this writer are going to look around and see if we can’t get us some silver necklaces and some cotter pins.
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