The first thing a jockey needs to learn when operating a joint – any joint – is how to run a percentage. And – at this particular moment – Eddie Buck was running ridiculously high … like 40% high. I mean, sure, if this were a race game or even a bushel joint, it was conceivable Eddie could tweak that line to 25 – or perhaps even 30 – provided he compensated for it in the night’s final tally.
But this wasn’t no race game, and it sure as hell wasn’t no bushel joint.
This was a balloon joint, and balloon joints relied almost entirely upon the operator’s ability to maintain a ridiculously – almost criminally – low stock average.
In a perfect world, a balloon joint’s stock average would play out in calculated measures, like profit margins in a retail outlet – predetermined and periodically adjusted to account for changes in shipping and production costs, demand, inflation and/or labor.
But this wasn’t no perfect world, and it sure as hell wasn’t no retail outlet.
Like I said, this was a balloon joint, built into an 18-foot mobile trailer – a mobile trailer which was currently parked along a lonely strip of the Douglas County Fairgrounds known only as the Strand.
This was dense pollen at dusk on a temperate Tuesday evening in the early days of May. This was 66 degrees, partly cloudy with no immediate threat of rain. This was a cool and curling eastern breeze, inflating a sea of windbreakers and stroller canopies as they swept their way across the fairgrounds – slow-moving silhouettes against the fading sky.
This was Eddie Buck, a 36-year old veteran of the circuit, operating his way out of a deficit – working every mark to the bone just to ensure the joint would come out even on balance. No worries, Eddie Buck thought to himself. I’ve been here a thousand times or more. Pull ’em in. Work ’em hard. Move ’em out. Suckers make friends. Wheelers make deals.
Eddie leaned forward. Squinted. Zeroed in on the hands of a wind-up clock hanging just above the batter shelf in the funnel cake joint across the way.
Ten of eight. Time to pick up the pace.
Eddie spotted his first mark of the night – an uber-tan Polo shirt wearing khaki pleats and Amber-vision glasses. Eddie whistled, shrill and sharp, like a football coach or foreman. The mark stopped in mid-stride, turned to his right. Eddie waved the mark over. Looked to his left, then his right, as if the two were about to engage in some type of covert exchange.
“Take a free one,” Eddie said, dropping a dart onto the counter. “Go ahead. It’s on me.”
“What’s the scam?” the mark asked, both hands still planted in his pockets.
“No scam,” Eddie said. “I’m just bored. It’s slow out here tonight, y’know?”
It was slow. But then again, it was always slow at this time of night – a time during which most carnival-goers were either still dining in the pavilion or stuck in merging traffic out on KS-10.
“If I pop one, what do I win?” the mark asked.
“I’ll tell you what,” Eddie replied, leaning in close, lowering his voice, “You pop one, I’ll let you hold on to the tag. That way, if you decide to keep playing, you’ve got a leg up. Fair enough?”
“What does that mean, ‘hold on to the tag’?” the mark asked.
“It means if you pop a balloon with a LARGE tag behind it, you’re already on your way to the top-shelf plush hanging overhead,” Eddie said.
The mark took a step back. Looked up. Ran his eyes across the tight row of flash weighing down a garden chain that ran from one end of the trailer to the other. The chain boasted miniature whales, oversized toucans, bearded elves and wooly mammoths. It boasted furry purple elephants with eyes of green and tusks of white. It boasted five-foot blue ostriches, which hung like bookends on either end of the stand, their neon-orange legs twisting in the wind.
The mark took a step forward. Refocused. Eyed up the three corkboard panels behind Eddie Buck. Each panel was four feet high, three feet wide, dominated by six rows of balloons, arranged 15 across, like a seamless, oversized, inflatable bouquet.
“No one’s popped a single balloon all day,” the mark said, both hands still nestled in his pockets.
“Bullshit,” Eddie Buck replied. “I reflashed the boards during my dinner break.”
As if to demonstrate his point, Eddie took a dart from his apron and tossed it nonchalantly over his right shoulder. The dart landed in the upper-left hand corner of the center panel, popping a bulbous green balloon across the top row.
The dart dangled there for a moment like a slow-dying leave, then fell limp and lifeless to the rear counter below.
Eddie Buck did not turn back to look. He did not have to.
The report of the balloon told him everything he needed to know.
“See?” Eddie said, shrugging his shoulders. “Cake.”
“What are there, magnets back there?” the mark asked.
“You’re overthinking this,” Eddie said, patting the mark on the shoulder. “I’ll tell you what … Take two free shots. You pop one, you’re on your way. You don’t, the two of us walk away friends. Honestly, what do you have to lose?”
Eddie sniffled. Dealt the man a second dart. Turned to his left and flipped each panel on the wall as if it were a chalkboard, revealing three identical panels on the opposite side – 90 balloons to each panel, arranged in a bright spectrum of sizes and colors.
No magnets. No mirrors. No discernible way for Eddie Buck to rob the mark blind.
Eddie stepped aside, leaving the mark to consider the two darts laid out before him.
He’s mine, Eddie thought, as he looked out across the Strand, banging his index fingers against the wooden countertop like miniature drumsticks.
The mark had pitched his first dart, popping a tiny blue balloon tucked deep inside the center of the right-hand panel.
“You’ve still got one more,” Eddie said, validating the mark’s accomplishment with a broad smile and a wink of the eye. “Have at it.”
Eddie leaned forward. Squinted. 7:55, according to the clock on the funnel cake wall.
Time to start drawing in some players.
A second balloon exploded. This one just below the first.
“You’re a natural,” Eddie said, as he wandered over to the board.
Eddie turned his back. Inspected the tags hanging behind both balloons. Wheeled around. Laid the tags out on the counter for the mark to see.
“One MEDIUM and one LARGE,” Eddie said. “You’re on your way.”
“Did I win?” the mark asked.
“You would have if you were a paying customer,” Eddie said.
“What would I have won?” the mark asked.
“With a MEDIUM and a LARGE, you’re already guaranteed anything up to and including the third rung,” Eddie said, referencing eight rows of stuffed animals, arranged in descending order (according to size and cost) across nine-foot pegboards bordering both sides of the stand. The top row was packed firm with $10 stock; the bottom row an anemic collection of $1 plush – the type of piece carnival barkers generally referred to as a “rag in a bag.”
“Like I said, if you decide to continue playing, I’ll let you hold on to the tags you’ve already earned, so you’re basically guaranteed something on the fourth rung or higher,” Eddie said.
The mark took a step back. Tilted his head forward. Motioned with his chin.
“How much for the toucan?” he asked.
“What? You want to buy it?” Eddie asked.
“No,” the mark said. “How many of these tags do I need to win it?”
“Anything hanging across the chain overhead is eight LARGEs,” Eddie said. “You already have one MEDIUM and one LARGE. You’re practically halfway there.”
The mark was not practically halfway there.
“How many MEDIUMs equal a LARGE?” the mark asked.
“Two MEDIUMs equal a LARGE,” Eddie replied. “Three SMALLs equal a MEDIUM.”
Weighing the pros and cons of leaving a guaranteed win on the table.
The mark was struck with the unmistakable Christian guilt of accepting something for nothing.
“How much?” the mark asked, digging into his pockets.
“The standard deal is three for three,” Eddie said, referencing a printed sign posted beneath the center panel which read, ‘3 DARTS FOR $3. POP ANY BALLOON AND WIN!’ “But I’ll tell you what – since it’s just you and me here, I can offer you 10 for six. I mean, consider the odds. You just pulled a MEDIUM and a LARGE with two darts. Six more LARGEs and that toucan’s as good as yours.”
The 10-for-six deal was a brilliant mechanism. It almost guaranteed players would pay using something larger than a $5 bill. And that – in the hands of a seasoned operator like Eddie Buck – was the first step toward maximizing his end.
“Can you break a 50?” the mark asked, waving a crisp paper bill in the air.
“Sure,” Eddie said.
Eddie took the bill, folded it in half, used a dart to pin it to a 6-inch strip of carpet that ran the length of the counter. The mark eyed up the edge of the bill, twitching restlessly in the breeze. Before he had an opportunity to ask for his change, Eddie had already dealt out 10 darts in a rainbow array of points and feathers.
“10 for six,” Eddie reminded the mark. “I owe you 44 on 50.”
Eddie moved to the far end of the counter, fixed his eyes on the board.
The mark took aim. Fired.
“Spot on,” Eddie said, clapping.
The mark missed the board completely with his third dart.
He followed up with a near miss, then a rapid-fire series of pops and bangs, causing passers-by to stop and stare.
Two more misses. One more POP!
“You’re a natural,” Eddie said.
Eddie wandered to the board. Removed the tags behind each balloon. Laid the tags out on the counter. Six SMALLs and a MEDIUM.
The mark took a step back. Pointed.
“I’ll take the toucan,” he said.
“You’re almost there,” Eddie reassured him. “Six SMALLs, two MEDIUMs and a LARGE … You’ve got four LARGEs already. Four more and that toucan’s yours.”
“What can I win with the tags I’ve already got?” the mark asked.
“Anything from the fifth rung down,” Eddie said, nodding toward the eight rows of plush hanging on the pegboard. “But, I mean, you’re basically there. It’d be a crime to give up when you’re so damn close, right?”
“Tell you what,” Eddie said. “I’ll give you 10 for seven. This way, you’re almost assured to walk away with that big-ass toucan.”
This time Eddie didn’t wait for the mark’s approval. He simply waved his hand across the counter and 10 darts appeared, fanning out like feathers on a peacock.
“37 on 50,” Eddie said, referring to the crisp 50 still pinned to the counter. “Let’s get you that toucan.”
The mark stepped up. Took aim. Popped six balloons.
Eddie turned his back, pulled the tags. He swapped one LARGE for a SMALL he’d been cradling in his palm, slipped the LARGE into his apron. Then he spun round to face the mark, laid his tags on the counter.
“OK, so you’ve got one more LARGE now,” Eddie said, after pretending to do some quick math in his head. “You’re one step closer to that toucan.”
“Jesus Christ,” the mark said, the first beads of frustration now furrowing his brow. “Can’t I just buy the damn thing?”
“Trust me, it’d be more expensive to buy it than it would be to win it,” Eddie said.
This was a lie. The reality was the wholesale price of the toucan hanging overhead was $12. It sold for $15.99 at most retail outlets. The mark had already spent $13, and Eddie Buck was gearing up to milk him for more.
“Listen,” Eddie whispered in the mark’s ear, patting him on the shoulder, “I’ve got a bit of a crowd here just now, so I need to be a little more cautious about cutting deals. But I’ll slide you a free one cause you’ve been a good customer … 10 for nine this round.”
By the time the mark looked down at the counter, Eddie had already dealt him 10 more darts.
“28 on 50,” Eddie said, stepping aside so the mark could take aim.
The left panel was nearly bare in comparison to the other two now, but there were players standing along the rest of the counter, so the mark decided to continue focusing on the near side of the board.
POP! POP! Miss. Miss. Struck a balloon. Bounced off. POP! POP!
Followed by three clear misses to round out the set.
Eddie had a captive audience now and he was adjusting to work the crowd like a tip. That meant the mark could wait. His money was still pinned to the counter. His tags were still hanging on the board. His toucan was still looming overhead. Eddie Buck had all the leverage he needed.
Eddie swept his way across the stand, dealing each customer the standard three for three as he went. Pin and move, he reminded himself. Just pin and fucking move.
Eddie zipped past the women and children in much the same way a bartender zips past a surly drunk. Fathers, boyfriends and alpha males were the only ones with the green and the ego to plunk down major stakes for a musty, moth-ridden piece of plush.
Standard operating procedure when working a tip was to pin the large bills on your initial sweep, then double back and work the dollar-players, many of whom were still waving singles in your face. Eddie never made deals with minors when he was facing a full counter. It was far too difficult to discern which children were accompanied by an adult. And the prevailing wisdom – from an operator’s point of view – was that an irate mother or father had the potential to ruin a decent tip in no time flat.
Better to take the young ones for a quick three and send them on their way.
On the rare occasion a child under 10 failed to pop any balloons, Eddie kept a box of fluorescent-colored straws beneath the counter. He passed these off as limited-edition Walther-PPK blowback peashooters. This seemed to satisfy both the young boys and their parents. Young girls, on the other hand, were another challenge entirely. Not only did they have no interest whatsoever in limited-edition Walther-PPK blowback peashooters, more often than not, they had doting fathers standing less than a foot behind them – doting fathers who were both willing and eager to come to blows in defense of their daughters.
Eddie generally handled this type of situation by taking the father aside and cutting a deal. The father would slip Eddie an additional $5 (on top of the $3 his daughter had already paid), then thank him kindly for hooking the two of them up with a $2 piece of stock.
“17 on 50,” Eddie called out, as he dropped 10 more darts in front of the mark. “One more LARGE and that toucan’s yours.”
There was no time for small talk now. Customers were lined up three-deep all the way across the counter. Eddie Buck was rolling – three 20s, one 10 and a 50 all pinned to the carpet at once, while dollar-players elbowed their way between to request the standard three for three.
The mark fired off another series of darts; wound up with four more SMALLs – two short of what he needed to win the toucan. Eddie could sense the mounting tension as he set the new tags atop a growing pile, bobbing to avoid the other players’ line of fire. The mark looked down at the collection of tags, then over at his $50 bill, still flagging in the breeze.
“What the fuck, man?” the mark said aloud. “This is bullshit.”
“Y’know what?” Eddie said, attempting to diffuse the situation. “You’re right. You’ve had a rough go of it. But the fact is, you’ve earned that toucan.”
“Thank you,” the mark said, laughing awkwardly.
Then Eddie leaned in close, dropping his voice to a whisper, “Tell you what … five more bucks and we’ll call it even. I’ll hand you that toucan right now, no questions asked.”
Eddie pulled back, patted the mark on the shoulder. “Besides,” Eddie said, loud enough for the entire crowd to hear, “you’re liable to throw your arm out if you keep this up.”
Eddie was smiling. The mark was not. But he waved at Eddie dismissively, as if to say, “Go ahead, asshole. Do it.” With that, Eddie hoisted himself up, straddling the front and rear counters like a human A-ladder.
He unhooked the toucan, eased it down, held it out for all to see.
“CHECK IT OUT!” Eddie yawped, from high atop the buckling countertop. “THERE GOES ANOTHER LUCKY WINNER AT BEDFORD BILL’S BALLOONS! DID IT! DONE IT! GOT IT! WON IT! BUST ONE YOU WIN!!!! WHOOOOOOOOO’S NEXT?”
Eddie lowered himself to the surface, handed the mark his toucan.
Eddie unpinned the $50 bill from the counter. Reached into his apron. Made change.
“12 on 50,” Eddie said, handing the mark a 10 and two singles. He did so quickly, then wished the mark a good night, hoping to avoid the usual interrogation from onlookers regarding how much the mark spent to win.
Thirty-eight dollars on a $12 piece of stock. Thirty-two percent. Still high, but Eddie Buck was making up for it in leaps and bounds. Prime time was in full swing, and that meant the percentage would take a major nosedive from now until 11 PM or so.
Just work the counter, Eddie reassured himself. The percentage’ll take care of itself.
Eddie flipped all three panels on the board, revealing a broad canvas of fresh targets for players to shoot at. New players stepped forward, eager to ante up while the getting was good. Existing players doubled down, hoping the law of averages would soon work in their favor.
Eddie was dropping dollar stock once a minute now, taking in $10 for every two he gave away in plush. He’d been running just below 20% since 8:15 or so, and he could sense the extremely high stock percentage he’d accumulated early on slowly beginning to balance itself out.
It was just after 9 PM – the height of business. Eddie had players waving cash over one another’s shoulders in order to secure their place in line. He was working the center of the counter, but could feel major heat coming from the right-hand side of the stand, where a backwards NASCAR cap in a midriff mesh shirt had been playing for the past several minutes. The NASCAR cap had a small group of friends in tow, one of whom was yelling out obscenities every time the cap fired off another shot.
“What is this shit?” the NASCAR cap called out. He was feverishly waving a SMALL tag just outside of Eddie’s periphery.
Eddie held up an index finger without looking over to let the NASCAR crew know he’d be with them momentarily. He worked the other players at the counter, then waved the crew over to the opposite end of the stand, where he assumed he had the best chance of containing the situation.
“What’s the problem?” Eddie asked, impatiently.
He was speaking loudly now, doing his best to compete with the pint-sized microphone man in the water gun game across the way. Microphone operators always turned their speakers up around 9 PM in an attempt to drown out the inevitable white noise that crops up during prime time. While most veteran operators on the circuit wouldn’t give a second thought to walking over and threatening to rip the mic operator’s throat out if he refused to tone it down, Eddie Buck took a more sympathetic approach. Eddie got his start working race games on the Jersey boardwalk way back in the mid-nineties, and he appreciated the reciprocal relationship microphone operators shared with their audience.
Unfortunately, Eddie was forced to hang up his headset after a routine physical exam for a college he never intended on attending revealed nodules on both vocal cords. A lot of the veteran barkers Eddie knew had developed a similar condition at some point along the way. Most of them sounded like someone had taken sandpaper to their windpipes. This was a direct consequence of constant, 10-to-12-hour mic shifts – punctuated by two packs a day and the soothing burn of rotgut whiskey, stilled and served in Mason jars by the boys who ran the temporary tattoo stands.
The microphone operator currently working the race game across the way was a 22-year old Irish kid who’d been bouncing back and forth across the Bible Belt ever since he’d exceeded his work visa in the summer of 2010.
Veteran operators along the Strand warned the Irish kid to pipe down on an hourly basis, swearing at him in terms ill-fit for the unholiest of dogs. Senior employees tended to prey upon the green and the weak – for lack of anyone else to flex their collective muscle upon. This was precisely why the 22-year old Irish kid, who was wholly uninterested in drawing undue attention to himself, represented the perfect foil. Here was an illegal alien hiding in plain sight, while working a 16-seat race game with flashing lights and dual four-foot speakers. When the Irish kid spoke into the microphone, no one could really make out his accent … In fact, no one could make out much of anything at all, come to think of it. Just a garbled mess of rhythmic slurs.
Most of these modern race games – constructed and rented as full-service trailers by a Daytona-based company named Bob’s Space Racers – relied heavily upon built-in bells and whistles that caused passers-by to stop in their tracks. Every now and again, a microphone operator would come along who instinctively understood how to generate and maintain a tip, but most 12-to-16 player race trailers were devised with the idea in mind that the owner could put a blind squirrel behind the counter and the joint would still manage to make money.
Race games drew a tremendous amount of heat, but they also drew a tremendous amount of business – so much so that by the late 90s, traditional, home-spun concessions like the ring toss, frog bog and cat rack were largely irrelevant. Most Space Racers charge $3-a-seat for a 30-second race. Take into account the amount of time it takes to fill all 12 seats, collect money and make change, and an owner’s still looking at $36 every 3-4 minutes throughout prime time, with no need for manipulative gimmicks like pinning, palming or price-gouging to maintain his percentage.
Even on his best day, there was no way Eddie Buck could pull off back-to-back $720 hours in the balloon joint. Not a chance. Which is precisely why – despite the constant maintenance, exorbitant rent and electricity costs – race games represented one of the safest investments on the entire circuit … assuming there was such a thing.
Safe investments were few and far between these days. Consumer spending and inflation were both way down, and – even if they weren’t – kids were far more interested in Super Mario and smart phones than they were a stuffed Smurf. Even if an owner were fortunate enough to find a vendor – or fence – who was capable of offering that type of item in bulk, there was still no real way to flash a stand or attract a crowd with it.
The joint would look bare, and so would the returns.
It was precisely this dynamic which gave rise to a new breed of game operator known only as the Agent.
Agents were like salespeople, paid a nightly commission based on the net profit they yielded for a joint. The standard formula for determining how much an Agent got paid looked something like this:
(Total revenue – $ value of stock given out) x Agreed-upon % =
This was – in large part – why it was so important for every operator to learn how to maintain a percentage. This was also the reason why business owners on the circuit considered Eddie Buck such a valuable commodity. Eddie possessed a unique, almost autistic ability to instantly calculate and catalog the monetary value of stock he’d given out at any given point during a shift. This is what is known among industry types as running a percentage.
Percentage is the leading variable upon which most games’ profit margins are based.
Game operators have stock percentages drilled into their head on a nightly basis. While most operators are capable of running the numbers on paper at the beginning or end of a shift, very few can keep a running tally throughout the night.
Failing to maintain a consistent percentage has one of two inevitable consequences. Either the joint runs too low, in which case the night’s take will suffer (the fewer prizes given out, the more skeptical people are about whether the game is a scam), or the joint runs too high, in which case the stock average is consistently eating into your profit margins.
Eddie Buck always ended up ahead of the curve on balance, even on nights like this, when he was forced to dig his way out of an early deficit. Eddie occasionally skimmed off the top, but only when he found himself so broke or behind on bills he needed a few bucks just to get by. He rarely skimmed when the balloon joint was having an off night, and never when the percentage was running high.
Eddie’s occasional transgressions were nothing compared to the vile circuit kleptos who seldom went a shift without fleecing an owner blind. Sometimes these cretins were fired at a moment’s notice – left pride-stricken and penniless on the edge of the fairgrounds, forced to hitchhike their way back to wherever it was they called home. Other times, the owner of a joint would wait until the end of a shift, at which point he’d escort the thief out to a desolate lot behind the stock trailers, where a crew of pot-bellied enforcers were waiting to beat the cash out of him, one bill at a time.
Most operators learned very quickly that – once confronted – it was better to cop to what you’d done and walk away than it was to stand your ground and crawl. This wasn’t no Six Flags, and it sure as hell wasn’t no Disney. This was the road, and it might as well have been the Warsaw Ghetto, for all it mattered. The road was governed by a groupthink mentality – a constant state of mob rule in which more than one innocent man wound up hacking and half conscious in the deep weeds of Memphis, choking on jagged shards of his own teeth.
In extreme cases, the pot-bellied enforcers were even called upon to mix it up with irate customers. Eddie Buck had personally wrestled a monkey wrench and a Phillips-head screwdriver from drunk patrons in the past.
And – at this particular moment – Eddie was doing his best to avoid a similar situation, as the NASCAR crew continued to hover round the left-hand side of the stand like a vile nest of hornets … many of them rotten with the scent of skunk weed and Skoal.
“This game’s a goddamned scam is the problem,” the NASCAR cap barked at Eddie, as he spread six SMALL tags out across the counter. “How in the hell you gonna try and pass this shit off as legit? I’ll bet my ass there ain’t but one of them LARGEs on the whole goddamned board.”
“Looks like you hit a rough patch there,” Eddie said, doing his best to maintain an even keel. “Tell you what … Take three on me. Maybe you’ll have better luck this time round.”
Eddie dealt three darts to the NASCAR cap and instructed him to take aim.
The NASCAR cap dropped back – as if he were prepping to launch a football – and popped one of the remaining 16 balloons on the left-hand panel … followed by a second, and then a third. Eddie was busy serving other customers at the time, but hurried back to the left side of the counter as quickly as possible, hoping to minimize any additional distraction.
Eddie turned his back, pulled all three tags from the board, then – waiting for the POP! of a balloon to divert the crowd’s attention – he swapped one of the SMALL tags with a LARGE he’d been palming for the past three minutes or so.
He laid all three tags out on the counter.
“This is fucking bullshit,” the NASCAR cap bellowed, extending his middle finger.
“What are you talking about?” Eddie asked. “You pulled a LARGE.”
“No way,” the NASCAR cap replied, wagging his index finger directly in Eddie’s face. “I popped three SMALLs. We could see the tags from here. You must’ve switched one of them fuckers out when you went to the board. This game’s a fucking scam and you’re nothing but a goddamned cheat.”
“What seems to be the problem here?”
The question came from a 6’5 man in a Stetson hat who had been standing directly behind the NASCAR crew for the past five minutes or so. The man was wearing a plaid button-down over blue jeans and work boots. He had a pack of menthols peeking out of his breast pocket.
“I own this stand,” the menthol man continued, crossing his arms. “If there’s something wrong, I’d sure as shit like the opportunity to make it right.”
The man directed the entire crew to a public bench several feet away from the stand. His first priority was to separate the heat from the profits.
Eddie continued to work the counter, doing his best to energize the crowd, despite the momentary setback. Five minutes later, the menthol man appeared at the left-hand side of the trailer. He made a repetitive snapping gesture with his middle finger and thumb.
Eddie recognized the gesture immediately, responded by holding up four fingers.
“Percentage?” the menthol man called out.
Eddie gave the thumbs up, despite the fact he was still running high.
No need to get the big guy all rattled, Eddie reasoned.
The menthol man lit a cigarette, waved Eddie to the edge of the counter.
“Gimme 10,” he said.
“Ten?” Eddie replied. “That kid only spent …”
“You fucked up,” the menthol man said. “You fuck up, you pay out. You know the way this shit works. Deal with it, or risk blowing your tip. Your call.”
Eddie looked over the menthol man’s shoulder, where the NASCAR cap was standing with his arms crossed, a smug grin on his face. Eddie pulled a $10 bill from the apron. Handed it to the menthol man. Went back to working the crowd.
A minute or so later, the NASCAR crew continued on its way, and the menthol man sauntered back to the counter.
“You need anything?” he called to Eddie.
Eddie looked over, pinching his index finger and thumb in front of his lips, as if he were toking an invisible joint.
The menthol man acknowledged Eddie with a nod. Hopped the counter. Disappeared behind the board to blow up more balloons, reflash the back panels.
By 10 PM, Eddie Buck had slipped beneath the 20% mark for the first time all night. The breeze was picking up now, and Eddie could feel the rush of goose pimples along both arms. The crowd was thinning out, but he still had players two-deep along the counter. Eddie estimated he could maintain this tip until at least 11 PM, then downshift into late-night mode, reeling in the occasional mark or two until it came time to roll down the doors.
Late night was the most rewarding part of any carnival shift. In these waning hours, the Strand became a muted collage of lights and metal. Late night was a time for breathing easy; for unwinding with a cigarette and an overdone hot dog; for counting stock and flashing walls. On this particular night, however, Eddie Buck still had a long way to go before he slept. This was the carnival’s final day at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, which meant once the chasing lights went dark, it was time to pull up stake and continue on to the next stop along the way.
This was – in large part – why Eddie Buck preferred the year-round circuit to tourist towns and amusement parks. Out on the open road, just about anything went. If you had a mark on your hands who was either green or gullible enough, you could drain that poor bastard for everything but the dust on his boots … and no one – least of all the local law enforcement – had any real mind or ambition to stand in your way.
It wasn’t like New Jersey, where a state-funded gaming agency strictly regulated everything from the hours of operation to how much an owner could charge. In a place like that, pinning or palming could score you a $300-$500 fine, easy – perhaps a grand or so for repeat offenders. In states like Jersey, where games of chance were the status quo, owners needed to apply for a license, then pay sky-high gaming fees before an outlet could even consider opening its doors.
But out here … out here, it was every mark for himself. The only person who regulated what Eddie Buck said or did was the menthol man … and his interests were the same as Eddie’s. Any way you sliced it, the odds were always stacked in the house’s favor. And on the rare occasion when the house took a hit – as it had earlier this evening – every other player at the table was made to compensate for that loss until the house came out on top again.
On the slow road from Douglas County to Fayetteville, Eddie and a handful of his colleagues would hang out in the back of the balloon trailer as it barreled its way south along Route 71 – drinking beer and gunning whiskey, while the menthol man steered his mighty Caravan through the night.
This was what life on the road was like – no internet access, no sitting down for meals, no Sunday morning service followed by mid-day brunch at the firehouse. This was hand-to-mouth living. This was mixed loads of wash stuffed into a motel dryer between the hours of two and four a.m. This was every man for himself – minimum-wage dropouts living two paychecks behind where they needed to be at all times, pinballing debts from one co-worker to another; scamming Peter to pay Paul.
When cash envelopes were passed out on Monday, they were either thin from unwarranted advances or gone by the break of dawn Thursday. Employers on the circuit knew better than to hand out pay on Friday. Weekend shifts were always the busiest, and it made no wordly sense to hand your employees disposable income on the very nights when you needed them most.
Tuesday mornings were the worst. On Tuesdays, everyone on the circuit was either hungover, still drunk, or legally prohibited from being either. Eddie Buck wasn’t a drinker when he started out on the circuit 16 years ago. Back then, Eddie was just a kid who preferred the allure of the road to the constant tension and complacency of a broken home. The drinking came naturally over time, as did the nodules, the one-night stands, the credit card debt, and the mounting layers of plaque on his teeth. At 36, Eddie Buck stood 6’1 with a slight gut and a double chin. He wore high tops with the soles worn through and cut-off jeans that were held up with a rope.
Eddie had gone to the menthol man on more than one occasion, begging for a larger percentage of the net. But he was always told the same thing: “The beauty of working a percentage, son, is that you dictate your own salary.”
Not only was Eddie living off a meager piece of the action, but the balloon joint’s numbers had dropped off so steadily over the past five years that he was actually clearing less now than he had been back in the summer of 2005. The only way to compensate was to find new ways to increase his average volume per customer, while lowering his stock percentage.
There was a time when Eddie Buck considered going into business for himself – leasing his own trailer and bidding for a regular spot on the circuit. But he had no savings, no collateral, and no credit with which to secure a small business loan, which explains why Eddie went on grinding it out for peanuts in the only real profession he’d ever known – declining a day off out of pure necessity; brushing his teeth in public restrooms.
Yet somehow, some way, Eddie Buck continued to wake up every morning and convince himself that he was pretty damned fortunate to lead the life he did.
On nights like this, as the Strand went quiet and the Zipper went still, Eddie thought of all the advantages there were to being out here, alone on the road … how he could literally disappear into the ether without the slightest hint or consequence.
It was in the midst of considering such things that Eddie noticed the 22-year old Irish kid from the race game across the way waving to him from the far left side of the stand.
“What’s the craic?” the kid said, as he leaned his back against the counter and looked out across the Strand.
“Just getting ready to call it a night,” Eddie said. “Once I get a final stock count, I’m outta here.”
“You mind I hop a ride with you and the boys on the road down to Fayetteville?” the kid asked.
“Not at all,” Eddie said. “But don’t expect to get any sleep. We’ve got enough booze and weed in the back of this trailer to get us clean through to Mexico, if need be.”
“That’s the idea,” the Irish kid said, laughing. “Say, you got a smoke, man?”
The Irish kid had learned very early on that asking for the traditional Irish fag
only caused his American co-workers to break out into wild hysterics.
Eddie reached into his pocket. Pulled out a pack of American Spirits. Opened it. Held it out.
The Irish kid grabbed a smoke. Packed it. Lit it. Spit on the ground.
“Nasty habit,” Eddie said, placing the pack back in his pocket.
“You’re telling me,” the kid said. “It’s bad enough I’m on that microphone eight to 10 hours a day. Now I’m hooked on these fucking things to boot. I’ve only been at it for six months or so and my voice is already shot to shit.”
“Welcome to the big top,” Eddie said, as he pulled a sheet of paper from beneath the counter and began his final stock count. “Just knock on the back door of the trailer after we close up. And be sure to bring a blanket along with you. It gets wicked cold in the back of this rig come the middle of the night. Last thing I need is to catch hell for getting you sick a day before we hit the show in Fayetteville.”
With that, the 22-year old Irish kid made his way back across the Strand, to run his percentage and determine whether the joint had come out even on balance. Eddie Buck, on the other hand, had no real need to run his percentage. The only reason he ever took a final stock count in the first place was to confirm what he already knew – that the house had, in fact, come out on top.
(Bob Hill is a writer for hire who lives and plays in New York City. He is also the Founder of I Fear Brooklyn – a limited liability company that does absolutely nothing. He can be reached at BobHill@IFearBrooklyn.com).