The Things I Did To Survive

Terry Mulcahy

© Copyright 2023 by Terry Mulcahy

Photo by Eduardo Soares at Pexels.
Photo by Eduardo Soares at Pexels.

In 1973 I got arrested for losing control of a vehicle on Interstate-10 in Louisiana. The vehicle belonged to a carny who managed a big ride, but he owned a kiddie ride - a small metal setup that allowed some ponies to be hitched up and walk around in a circle. It was very popular with tiny fair goers. Before I get into that, I should explain how I ended up there, as I was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland.

Earlier that same year I had embarked on a cross-country trip on my ten-speed bicycle. I pedaled away, day after day after day, sometimes cycling 150 miles a day, occasionally more. I traveled through the upper Michigan peninsula, which is flat-out gorgeous, as it is bordered on three sides by Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. Wisconsin has a border with Lake Superior also, and while it was also beautiful on that northern edge, it was damn cold at night, and although it was summer, I had to dig out my long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, and start drinking coffee. I passed through Minnesota uneventfully. It was an amazing experience, but I was nearly out of money. I do like eating, and bicycling was burning a lot of calories every day.
I asked an attendant at a gas station in North Dakota where I could find some kind of day work, and he told me there was a carnival down the road, in Minot.

It was the Murphy Brothers Mile Long Exposition, and it was their last night in Minot, so they did need help tearing it all down. I spent the night there, helping to disassemble a Ferris wheel. Then the electrician, Duane, had me disconnect all the electrical cables and load them into a tractor-trailer. Even though I managed to trip a generator’s main breaker when I shorted out a live cable against the side of a junction box, he hired me to work full-time as an electrical assistant (since I didn’t die). I hooked up the rides, the games of chance, the food “joints” and the “poppers” that sold popcorn, hotdogs and sodas. My main job was running and maintaining the five huge diesel generators. I stayed with them for the rest of the season. After the season ended, I went with a few rides to Norman, Oklahoma. By this time, I finally had enough money to rent a small motel room, instead of sleeping in the truck trailer that hauled all of the power cables. It was wonderful to have hot showers and a bed to sleep in.

I met Cindy, a nice woman from the University of Oklahoma at a bar called Gilley’s, which I was told was quite famous. Gilley’s had begun in Texas, and spread to other states. It was a big, sprawling place, with lots of music and drinking and tons of people. A week later, when the carnival packed up, I checked out of my room. Cindy went back to her college life. We stayed in touch. I visited her two years later while bicycling west again. Eventually she married and no longer wanted to hear from me. Meanwhile, back at the carnival, I stashed my gear under the Tilt-a-Whirl I’m been helping run (the electrical assistant job was over when the season officially ended). It was a long night. There was a lot of tear-down work to be done, but when I finished in the morning and went to get my gear, with more than $350 in savings and “bonus” money, it was all gone. The boss of that ride had disappeared, along with my backpack, a small boom box, and my money. The other ride bosses told me old “Toothless” Lester often went on drinking benders when he had money. They even searched the bars for him to help me out, but he had gone to ground. My money had been enough for him to get drunk and stay drunk awhile. I had sorely hoped to be able to leave the carnival by then. No such luck.

My plan, as soon as I had left the carnival, had been to visit my first lover Geri, an art student from Texas I’d met in Baltimore, who was currently in a psychiatric hospital in Galveston, Texas, but I was broke again. I signed up to help take a big ride to Houston, then to Florida, and crew it until I had some money again. Houston was fun. Instead of working my ass off servicing the generators, and hauling cable all over the midway, I helped set up the big Skydiver ride, and loaded people into its cars, which had a cage all around them that had to be fastened with huge steel cotter pins. I had built up an impressive set of muscles while hauling all those electrical cables, so I cut off the short sleeves of my carnival shirt to show ‘em off. I’d never had muscles like that before.

The Skydiver’s cars were mounted on an upright Ferris-wheel-like frame which circled around, but also had a steering wheel inside that could make the car spin all the way around at a 90-degree angle from the main rotation. Easy to get sick on one, or lose everything in your pockets.

One night, after cleaning up the Skydiver’s cars and collecting all that lost change under it, the three of us who ran it - me, Cherokee and Scooter - used it to buy dinner far from the midway. We were sick of eating that carnival food all day, every day. On the way back from dinner, a car stopped to offer us a ride. We got in. We were full, and tired. It was a big, wide car, and real low to the ground. I thought the shocks were blown. There were three young guys in the front seat; one of them pulled out a gun, an old German luger, but just as he was doing so, we told him we worked for a carnival. It turned out they did too, for another carnival on the same lot. As we were with it, he didn’t rob us, just laughed. Then he offered each of us a watch, saying they’d taken several that night. I was not a big fan of robbery or stolen goods, but there was this gun still in his hand, so I figured it best to just take the watch. It was a nice one, an expensive Benrus watch.

Next day it was time to move the ride out. We took it down, got it loaded, and headed for the Houston freeways. We had two trailers to haul the Skydiver, but also a truck full of ponies, and the boss had an old station wagon he had me drive; it had a disassembled pony ride hitched to the back. (That was how you do things in a carnival, work hard, work your way up, save your money, buy or build a small game, a food joint, or a small ride - save your money, get a bigger ride, or more games, etc.)

Unfortunately, I’d never been in Houston before, and I got lost getting out of town. I finally found I-10, but not the other three trailers. I drove and drove and drove, expecting to find them on the highway somewhere. I pushed the speed up to about 70 (the speed limit on the interstates had just been dropped to 55mph by then-President Nixon, as an emergency response to the 1973 oil crisis.) However, I needed to hook back up with the carnival trucks, and I was sure they were ahead of me somewhere. I never found them. They thought I was lost – sure enough – but figured I had turned back and was still in Houston, so they were waiting for me. At one point, just outside of Jennings, Louisiana, a tire broke loose from its lug nuts, just came right off the trailer. The lopsided trailer dropped and pulled on the car, spinning me around as it turned over and dumped all of its contents all over eastbound I-10. I was surrounded by flying bits of yellow and orange metal fencing and support poles that tricked my mind into thinking of fire. Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry about ponies. I stopped, facing the wrong way on I-10, but I had all lanes blocked with the scattered pony ride. I’m often amazed at my luck.

The cops came, told me there was a fine, but when I told them I didn’t have any money at all, they arrested me, for “Losing Control of a Vehicle.” I was booked into jail, in Jennings, Louisiana, for how long I didn’t know. It was an interesting night. I had a small sandwich baggie with a little weed in my pocket. The deputy who searched me had only one arm - honest to God - so he searched my back pockets one at a time, and as he moved forward to search my front pockets, I took my hands casually out of my front pockets, put them up in the air, and then, when he said put my hands down, casually transferred the hand with the marijuana to the back pocket that held my bandana. As he took me down an elevator to the jail cells, he noticed the bulge in my back pocket. I told him it was just my bandana. He felt it, and I could hear the baggie crinkle a little, but he didn’t seem to notice that, or care. Which was a damn good thing, because the guys in the other cells told me most of them were in there for drug offenses.

I got to talking with my next-door neighbor and told him about the weed. He was really excited about that. He had papers. I passed it over to him, and he rolled up some joints and had me pass ’em down the line, as I was in the corner cell of an L-shaped cellblock. He asked me if I had any for myself, and when I told him I’d given him all of it, he passed me another one for myself. We all got high in jail that night. In my cell I found a copy of a biography of the famous singer Joan Baez, and I stayed up all night reading that. For some reason I don’t remember any of it.

After a breakfast of some really tasty Louisiana sausages in the morning, I managed to get hold of the carnival headquarters in Tulsa, and explained my situation. I was released, and set about to get the trailer fixed and get out of town. Well, they couldn’t fix it quickly, so I wandered around town some and then went to a big supermarket to look for food. Because I only had about a dollar in change, I picked up a loaf of cheap bread and was trying to find a really cheap jar of peanut butter. An older woman came up to me and offered me a dollar. She said she sympathized with us young people traveling around the country trying to find ourselves, and wanted to help. I took the dollar and thanked her. I bought a jar of peanut butter that had stripes of grape jelly mixed in with it. Woohoo! I could eat for a week.

I headed back to the jail, because I had no other place to go. They were very nice to me. Perhaps they felt I was a responsible working man down on his luck, or maybe the marijuana had helped me instead of hurting me, I don’t know. They told me I could stay in the area used by the trustees, the inmates who helped run things there, and help myself to the refrigerator for sodas or whatever I needed. That was just simply amazing, but there’s Southern hospitality for ya. In the morning I got the station wagon and the trailer. The cops had gone out and picked up every last piece of that pony ride and put it back in the trailer while I’d been in jail the first night. They had parked it at the garage where I ended up having them put the wheel put back on, after the carnival had wired me enough for repairs. I headed to Florida.

Partway there the engine heated up badly and steam was coming out from under the hood. A water hose had burst, and I was trapped on an 18-mile stretch of bridge with no way off, and no shoulder to speak of. I pulled to the right against the guardrail before stopping the car, and the big rigs kept blowing by me inches from my door. My left tires were in the road. If one of them had hit me, I’d have been knocked clean off that low bridge into the swamp. No one might ever have known what happened to me or the car. The car swayed back and forth from all that truck traffic rumbling by. Many of them honked at me. I waited until the engine cooled off, and drove some more until it redlined. Then I stopped again until it cooled, and again, and over and over again, until I was finally off that bridge and I could get to a payphone. I told the carnival where I was and what had happened.

It turned out the guys with the ride were all in Florida by then, and they told me where to find them. So, I found a pawn shop and pawned that Benrus watch. The owner didn’t give much for it; he showed me a wall full of pawned watches, and told me he couldn’t be sure it was a Benrus inside, as I could have switched out the movement. But I got just enough to buy a bus ticket to Florida, and a cup of coffee at a restaurant. I remember being pissed off when I looked around at the empty tables as people left. Most of the plates were half full of food. I could have used some. The abandoned tips on those tables beckoned to me, but that would have been unfair to the wait staff, and a very stupid, dangerous thing to do. When I got to the Florida lot hosting the small carnival, the guys were all surprised as hell to see me, as they thought I had taken off with the car and trailer. So, the boss borrowed a truck, and went back to Louisiana to get his car and pony ride.

Meanwhile, the three of us set up the Skydiver. At one point, as we were running the hydraulics to get the big wheel up in the air, the whole rig started tilting really badly. We had set it up in sand, and had not used large enough blocks under the big 800-pound steel supports on each side, so it looked like it was going down. I thought about clearing the hell out of there if it did. Those things are expensive. But we managed to chock the supports and back it down slowly, and then we leveled the thing again, making sure it was solid. We ran it every day, but we didn’t have the huge lines of riders we’d had in Houston, so we weren’t making any money. The boss had given us each $5/day for food. It wasn’t really enough. One late night I went across the street to a supermarket to buy a can of beans, an apple and some crackers. I tried to check out, but there was no one at any of the registers. I stood there a bit, and called out for help, but no one came. Finally I just shrugged and left. Later, I sure wished I’d picked up a little more food.

The boss was gone for a while, but when he came back, he found out I’d been in his “office” – the cab of his rig – and had recovered a small attache case I’d been using for what little clothing I had left. He had confiscated it and filled it with his papers, which I left on the seat. He accused me of theft, which really hurt me, as I would never have done that to him. He had always been a good guy, and I just felt like crying. I remember tears on my face. So, even though he apologized for his outburst, we agreed I should leave. He drove me to a bus station, gave me money for the ticket and I headed toward home. However, I only went as far as Virginia, up in the hills, on the farm of the people I’d met on the road in Canada when I’d been bicycling up there. Since they had invited me to visit anytime, I took them up on it.

I stayed the winter. It was a lot colder in the mountains than it had been in Florida. When I had first gotten off the bus from Florida, they left me at a closed station. The driver told me the bus to take me to the town I wanted wouldn’t come until morning. Poor planning there. I didn’t have any money at all, so I walked around. It was very late at night - I didn’t have a watch any more and everything was closed. I was freezing. I only had on a sleeveless muscle shirt under my jacket. I had a long wait until the bus returned in the morning, but I didn’t know what to do. It was a very small town, and nothing at all was open. I considered going to the police, but I was afraid they would arrest me for vagrancy. I didn’t know if there was a church that might take me in, and I didn’t want to wander aimlessly through an unfamiliar town at night. The beard and long hair I had would make me look suspicious, and somebody might call the cops or sheriff’s office, and, like I said, I wanted to avoid that. I happened across a gas station with a repair shop, so there were several cars parked in their lot. I found one that wasn’t locked, and crawled in. It was not warm, not at all, but I was out of the wind, and off the ground. There was nothing to cover myself within the car, or anywhere nearby, and I wasn’t going to root around. I longed for a blanket. I got as comfortable as I could on the back seat. I couldn’t sleep. It was way too cold. I shivered relentlessly all night. I found out later that shivering is our body’s way of warming itself, to a degree. Haha. The crunchy snow on the ground proved that the degrees were below freezing. I survived the night somehow. I never want to be that cold again.

When I finally arrived at the farm the next day on my bicycle - which the bus had taken off with the night before and brought back - I was warmly welcomed. I split wood for them and helped keep the single wood-fired cooking & heating stove going. The three women I’d met in Canada were all there. They had a brother too. Two of the young women were simply not interested in me, and the third one liked me, but she was much younger than I had thought. She would actually sit on her mother’s lap at times, so I avoided her. It was a horse farm, run by the mother, a divorcée.
While I wintered there, I met and visited a neighbor of theirs, a single woman who lived nearby. I tried to hook up with her, but she said, basically: Hell no! She said she had left Boston to “…get away from all that.” We drank hot chocolate, and had a nice philosophical conversation sitting around her expensive Franklin wood stove (sexual politics, anti-government talk, and carny life.) That was that. I spoke with some other neighbors about sticking around and they offered me a job taking care of their little herd of goats. It was so funny to me. In the carnival we had set up at a lot of state fairs. There are two types of people there, besides the marks, of course: carnies and goat ropers. Although the term goat roper is meant for fake cowboys, it was just something carnies used to distinguish themselves from the livestock handlers. Carnies tend to be city folk, and there are maybe a few ponies in a carnival, but it’s mostly just mechanical rides, oil, grease and electricity.

Eventually I decided not to be a goat roper and headed to Baltimore. I almost didn’t make it. I left the farm on my bicycle, and went up the road to the next town, which had a train station. Since I had to wait about half a day for a train going to Baltimore, I found a pool hall and someone to play with. We’d played a few games when shots cracked outside. Everyone in the pool hall, and I mean everyone, hailed ass out of that pool hall. I stood there for a minute, unsure what to do. But since I was all alone, and curious, I went outside. And, I stepped right next to the shooter, who pumped a couple more bullets into a man on the ground, whose body jerked with each shot. I was in shock. I’d never seen anything like that in real life before. I looked at the shooter. He looked at me.

I didn’t know what was going to happen. I must have been staring bugeyed at him, because he shouted, “He deserved it!” Well, a lot of things went through my head at the time. I thought about asking him if he was God. I thought about telling him that a lot of people die who deserve to live, but I seemed to be frozen in place. It was, yes, a weird situation to be in. But then he lowered his gun and walked away. I stared at his back. Then I heard sirens. An ambulance and a squad car showed up. I watched them look at the man on the ground, check him out and put him on a stretcher. They did not cover his face. They loaded him gently into the ambulance and drove away, siren wailing. The cops were still there, so I waited for them to come over, ask me questions, or something. The crowd from the pool hall and people from town were all huddled together on the other side of the ambulance. The cops were making notes, but spoke to no one. Then they just packed into their squad car and drove off after the ambulance.

I went back into the pool hall, as did all the other players. I asked my pool buddy if he wanted to finish our game. Since he did, we went back to it. He shot, but didn’t sink his round quarry, so I took a shot, but I jumped the cue ball up in the air and off the table, where it rolled halfway across the room. We decided it was time to quit. I thanked my pool buddy for the games, and went to the train station to wait. I half-dozed on the train, daydreaming of women, and Carnies, and goats, and men with guns, and seeing bullets thud into a man.

I was roused from all that as the train pulled into Penn Station, on Charles Street in downtown Baltimore. I was home, for now. I had no money. No job. No place to stay. But I knew “Baldimore,” or even more colloquially, “Bal’more,” a.k.a. Crabtown. It was the birthplace of Edgar Allan Poe. Close by was where Star Spangled Banner had been written. It was a seaport, a place of immigrants from many, if not most of the world’s cultures. It was Bethlehem Steel. Shipyards. Oriole baseball and Colt football at Memorial Stadium, a.k.a. Babe Ruth Stadium - the “Babe” was a native Baltimorean. Lexington Market. Johns Hopkins Hospital. Bars and nightclubs full of strippers, or jazz and blues. Rich suburbs and dirt-poor inner-city slums. I was home, for better or worse.

I found friends to stay with, and worked two jobs for a while. I sent $300 to Bill, the foreman of that big ride, the guy who owned the ponies, because I felt terrible about what had happened to his car and trailer. He wrote back, in shaky block letters, with very simple words and awkward grammar, to thank me. I suspect he had never learned to write. He was very well spoken, so I had never suspected that. The amazing thing about that carnival was that they would give anyone a chance. If you worked out, you became part of the family. They’d been good to me.

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