I picked up Rags near Meridian, Mississippi not far from the spot where I picked up that guy who singlehandedly brought down the Soviet Union. Rags was as polite and pleasant a traveling companion as that other guy was pugnacious and paranoid.
He told me his real name, but I'm going to stick with "Rags" here -- the name by which he was known during his long career with the carnival and the name he continues to use in his new business detailing big trucks. He is a diminutive man, wiry and weather-beaten with piercing blue eyes. He was carrying a pup tent, a sleeping bag, and a backpack.
Rags told me that he got his start in the carnival when he was 12 years old. Here's his version of the story: "I had this pet goose that I kept at home. I used to cluck my tongue a certain way, and that thing would follow me wherever I went. So one day the carnival came to my town, and my parents took me to the show. There was this game with a live goose, and you had to try to throw a wooden ring around the goose's neck. They had a big stuffed bear, and I decided I wanted to win that bear for my mama. When it came my turn, I clucked at that goose just like I did with my pet goose back home, and it just walked right up to me. So I just layed the ring around its neck easy as you please. The guy who ran the game said, 'I don't know how you did that! Nobody's ever done that before.' And he asked me if I would like to help him out with the game.
Rags fell in love with carnival life. For the next four years anytime the carnival came anywhere near his town, his parents would take him there on weekends, and he would help out with the games. When he was 16 he quit school and went on the road full time with the carnival. He continued full time on this career track till last year. He is now 56 years old, so that makes 39 years that he lived on the road as a carny.
When asked what the skills are that make a good carnival game operator he laughed a kind of embarrassed laugh and said, "Being a good thief!"
"Are you serious?" I asked. "Is it really all rigged?"
"Not so much anymore," he said. "Nowadays they've got special policemen that dress up like ordinary folks and come play the games. There's a book out there that tells you how to win at carnival games every time. These policemen have read that book, and they know how to play. So if they lose you're in trouble. But in the old days, you didn't win unless I decided you would."
I pressed him to tell me some the tricks. He described a target shooting game in which the targets were marked with red. He said that he kept a tube of lipstick hidden under a counter. Whenever he took down a target to show the shooter his results Rags would touch his finger to the lipstick then to to the target. He told about another game which involved releasing a mouse onto an enclosed area with holes and betting on which hole he would dart down. Once the bet was made Rags would secretly dip his finger into ammonia then touch one of the holes. The mouse inevitably chose the hole with the scent of ammonia. He said that at first he didn't mind but that over time he became ashamed of ripping people off, especially children.
According to Rags, drug and alcohol abuse is less prevalent among carnival workers than in the past due to the widespread practice of random drug testing. Carnival work can be dangerous, and a drunk or high employee, especially one working with the rides, can endanger more than himself. Rags admitted to having been a heavy drinker in the past, but he says he quit some years ago due to health problems.
Speaking of danger, he said that he has seen quite a few people get hurt through the years. The most gruesome was a case in which the operator of a Kamikaze darted under the ride to pick up change that was falling from the pockets of riders. For a handful of change the man's head was knocked from his shoulders. Rags says the he witnessed this first hand. (I did a little hunting on the internet and couldn't find a report of anything like this, so I don't know.)
The carnival season generally starts in April and lasts till Thanksgiving. A lot of carnivals try to head to Flordia for the winter to keep on working, but intense competition makes it hard to turn a profit. Rags eventually took to detailing trucks to make ends meet through the winter, and he came to realize that he could make more money by making the chrome on trucks shine than he could under the bright lights of the carnival.
But this career change hasn't meant settling down. Rags still lives on the road. He travels from truck stop to truck stop to carry out his craft. Sometimes he sets up outside the truck stop with a handheld cb radio and make his sales pitch to drivers as they approach. Other times he walks among the refueling trucks holding high a bottle of polish. He says that he usually makes $70 for polishing 6 wheels and the fuel tanks, but he can make up to $300 for doing the entire truck.
Even though he hitchhikes, Rags sometimes fears for the safety of those who pick up people like him. He told a story about a lady with a small child who gave him a ride once. "Ma'am, please don't misunderstand me," he told her. "I really appreciate the ride. But please don't do this anymore. You're putting yourself and your child in danger."
"My daddy told me that whenever I saw the ones with the bedroll and all I could trust them," she said.
"Maybe it was like that when your daddy was little, but it ain't that way anymore," he told her.
Of course the hitchhikers are at much greater risk than the drivers. He mentioned the case of a serial killer who has been killing hitchhikers. Sometimes the danger comes from unexptected sources. He claims to have spent 13 days in jail in Hammond, Louisiana without ever being charged with any crime.
When I asked him how I could pray for him, he said, "Just that I'll be safe on the road."