Wednesday, September 23, 2009


The weather is drop dead gorgeous--you can smell death creeping in, as it will in autumn, yet you don't care.

The honeybees will chase you down if you wear a colorful shirt, and the impatiens are flowering like there's no tomorrow.

Tomorrow never comes.

The carnival came to the town green, and the carnival left.

The colors were unreal, or maybe just too real--a monitor has 16.3 million colors, and cannot capture the light of a carnival at dusk on the equinox. Nor the smells . People working. No, really working. Laying tracks. Flexing cable. Smiling and joking. Cussing. Living.

I used to work on the docks. Not for long, but long enough to help rebuild a boom on a crane anchored to a barge. I helped thread the cable once we were done welding the boom back together.

I felt like I did something that day. I could point to it. Look what I did.

Feeling useful beats feeling used.

I once took care of a carny mother and her two young ones. Life was not easy, but she took good care of the children, and they were happy.

They were not, however, in school.

Now I've missed a few things while playing doctor. At least one cost a life. Rarely, however, does anyone call you on it.

I got called on this one.

The NJ Division of Youth and Family Services wanted to know why I did not report the older child, well into her 7th year.
Well, um, they get home-schooled while traveling with the carnival.
How do you know?
I don't.
Truth was the mother said her said carnies school their children on the road, and I had no motive (though plenty of reason) to doubt her. I practiced medicine; I cared about kids. Her child was healthy, her child was sane, her child was happy.

Carnies face a lot of prejudice. They're different. They're transient. They're drunks. They're shifty. They're loused. They're ne'er-do-wells. They're a lot of things according to the townsfolk, but their biggest sin might be their strengths. They do useful work, and they have reason enough not to trust the future, so they live more in the moment.

A few of them are even, well, happy. Perhaps their biggest sin.

We should all be carnies for a day.

When I was a pediatric cardiology fellow at Mount Sinai, a short-lived disastrous turn early in life, I spent an afternoon poolside with a dozen docs or so, and their clans. The hostess sniffed at her perceived happiness of one of her gardeners--"they're too ignorant to be unhappy."

It's hard to pretend class lines do not exist in the States when you're a doc, and even harder when you think that as a doc you've fallen on the wrong side of the line.

I was, I think, a good doc, but never a "gentleman." I wonder about the child from the carnival--she's a young adult now, and by now DYFS has given up on her, one way or the other.

I wonder whether the extra few month with the show made any difference one way or the other.

I know this much, though. She was happy once in her life.

The photo was shamelessly lifted from the Dixieland Carnival Company until I get my own photos uploaded here.


Kathryn J said...

What did DYFS think they were going to do given that the carnival would be in the next state the following week?

Love the image of carnival light at dusk on the equinox!

John Spencer said...

It struck me the other day when I heard about the injustices faced by Roma people that the world hates migrants. We hate wanderers. Whether it's carnie kids or workers in our fields, we automatically assume that wandering is wrong.

But it's always a double-standard. A church kid who gets home-schooled isn't a big deal. A father who chases promotions from every urban metropolis is doing what's right. Hell, we send military kids on globetrotting missions and then hail them as heroes.

So, it's okay to move around in search for success and it's okay to move around and blow shit up in other countries. Yet the man who chases each field and town to provide food is called a villain.

Anonymous said...

I used to be friends with a kid who came from a carnie family. He said they would do math packets and read books. His dad loved science and would explain the science of a fair. People seemed shocked when he went to high school and did well.

Kate said...

The light is leaving. I went camping with the seventh grade and I am going apple picking soon - two activities that make me think of you.

When I was younger I worked in the restaurant business. 60 hours a week in Boston for a corporate restaurant company. I hired as seasonal waitstaff people who worked on sailboats. They spent the summer in the northeast and the winter in the Caribbean. I fell in love with one and joined him in Bermuda for ten days as the boat he was on moved from Antigua to Newport.

What did I notice about these hardworking folks who tended the toys of the very wealthy? They smiled SO much more than I did.

I flew home to Boston and quit my job. The rest is my history. I think I broke his heart one day on the tarmac in Dubrovnik, but he changed my life. He still is a migrant, and his wife loves the life they have. It's no crime to work hard (she's a varnisher; he's a captain now). And it's no crime to smile at work either.

doyle said...

Dear Kathryn,

The photo, alas, is not mine--I have one, but I need to upload it here. I like writing a lot more than I do posting pictures.

I will seek permission to keep it up, though--it's a wonderful shot!

Dear John,

Interesting connections--some people wander, though, because they are hated. It would be an interesting history project to research why some peoples move so much.

I've always wondered what kind of person drags their children from town to town for huge personal gain (as opposed to just surviving). You can pretend you're doing it for the children, I suppose.

Alas, to be a national leader in this land requires behavior that does just that.

Still waiting for your book--should be here by midweek!

Dear anonymous,

I'm not surprised--I suspect the best education (and religion) is found outside of brick and mortar caves.

Dear Kate,

Thanks for the words. Beautiful story.

Kathryn J said...

Oh I actually meant the mental image - no worries about posting your own photos, I read all the way to the bottom and understood.