Early on during my boardwalk career – and then again for a brief time toward the end of it – part of my job consisted of taking money from young children, who would, in turn, pick up a loaded pistol from a counter, then take aim at one of several severed heads lined up across a metal spit.
Parents loved it. A lot of them insisted upon taking pictures.
And the reality is that I loved it too. So much so, in fact, there’s still an off-chance you might find me dancing high atop the counter of some boardwalk joint come Saturday night, headset mic turned up to 11, crowd packed three tiers deep, all in a fleeting, desperate attempt to recapture my lost youth.
Working a microphone will always represent an absolute rush for me, the two-way kind that comes from sharing a reciprocal relationship with one’s audience. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of carnival barkers lack a similar appreciation for their craft. The low-down reputation career carnival workers have earned is – at least, in part – a direct result of this dynamic. Game operators, in particular, inevitably come to view it as their charge to fleece the general public.
Psychology majors refer to this as overcompensating for one’s own lack of upward mobility. I refer to it as shady dealings, plain and simple.
Shady dealings are the primary reason why county fairgrounds are so often associated with verbal – and sometimes even physical – altercations. The longer a specific operator’s been at it, the greater the chance his or her compensation is based almost entirely upon commission. The more control an operator has over whether each player wins, and, more importantly, what each player wins, the greater the chance that operator is going to manipulate the odds to maximize his own end.
The career operator is really nothing more than a modern-day Jack Dawkins, one with an entire deck of aces peeking out of either sleeve. There are any number of quick fixes an operator might employ to suspend a player’s disbelief. Whether it’s palming tags or weighting balls, the goal is to keep each player at the table until the game op makes his nut. Public arguments have become so apropos that modern-day carneys refer to them as “drawing heat”.
“Frankie sure is drawing some major heat over there tonight,” one operator might say.
“No shit,” another might reply. “Bad for business, Frankie drawing heat like that on a Saturday night. Baaaaaad for business.”
It’s true. Drawing heat is bad for business. But it’s also considered something of an occupational hazard.
Frankie just got caught, is all.
The commission scale for most games of chance is based upon net profits, as opposed to gross volume. This is precisely what keeps that grizzled-looking dude at the Break-a-Plate from caving in whenever some customer starts begging for a giant lobster. That giant lobster costs upward of $25, and that $25 eats into the grizzled dude’s percentage. Consequently, the majority of well-trained operators won’t even consider parting ways with any top-shelf piece unless they’ve already raked in 4-5 times its wholesale value.
This is how carnival types maintain their insane profit margins.
This is how Wall Street types unload their worthless stocks.
Wall Street types refer to it as pump-and-dump inflation.
Carnival types refer to it as working a mark.
How’s that for trickle-down economics?
Sooner or later, colleagues begin referring to career operators as agents. Achieving agent status is the sideshow equivalent of earning an honorary degree. There is no associated pedigree or curriculum. The designation is simply meant to recognize a specific operator as having been around the block a time or two. Agents have spent their entire adult lives hopscotching from one Podunk hollow to another, seeking medical attention in free clinics, shaving down in public restrooms. Most agents appear unnaturally weathered, and bitter, and altogether disinterested in anything beyond their daily take.
And yet, the whole thing cuts much deeper than that, really.
Understanding the career operator requires an in-depth analysis of how and why a person might come to be working at a fairgrounds in the first place. Was this person running from something? Hiding from someone? Was he or she a social outcast? Unintelligent? Unmotivated? Drug-addicted or disabled? Was he culturally inept or simply curious? At what point did this person shift from working the circuit for a few short months to pursuing it as a vocation? What exactly is it about a life on the road that makes it seem appealing?
I mean, sure, as a kid, who among us didn’t fantasize about running away to join the circus, in one form or another? But the allure of that tends to fade somewhere around the time one wanders off beyond the circus grounds – smoldering ruins where the camel shit lies in stagnant heaps and the ringmaster reeks of Portuguese snuff; where the deaf-mute wanders weak and listless and the the bearded lady’s got a penis; where the Conundrum’s hissing vile and flaccid as he slips into old Anna Swan.
This … This is what the greatest show on earth is really all about.
This is how a rite of passage makes its mark.
Commence, Oh, Festivale.
I was working the counter of an eight-player race game at the corner of 24th and the boardwalk. I was living in a one-bedroom apartment less than two blocks away. My roommates were two girls named Jen and Heidi, raging potheads who only agreed to take me on so they could afford to buy and smoke more weed.
Jen and I shared a room, and we very often shared a mattress. Certain nights the two of us would lie awake along that mattress, debating what the repercussions might be if we decided to have sex. Eventually, one or both of us would fall asleep, beaded foreheads mingling sweat toward the center of our pillow.
Heidi slept alone, on an off-white cotton futon in the living room. She had recently been diagnosed with Herpes, and, as such, she’d become ultra-respectful when it came to others’ privacy. “Herpes Heidi! Herpes Heidi!” drunken hecklers would call out from behind Heidi at parties. On more than one occasion, I’d come home to find poor Heidi cursing out those asshole hecklers at the top of her smoke-laden lungs. Eventually, Heidi just up and disappeared one August morning, providing no notice – nor justification – whatsoever.
“Heidi moved out,” Jen told me, as she took a slow drag off her cigarette.
“Wow, really?” I said back. I was staring at the ceiling.
“Yep,” Jen told me. She was exhaling through flared nostrils.
“Want to have sex?” I asked Jen.
“Not right now,” Jen Black responded.
Anyway, there isn’t all that much else left to say about the girl named Herpes Heidi. She was meek, and kind, and she preferred to sleep alone, on an off-white cotton futon in the living room. She had a series of festering sores along her vagina.
The day before I moved into the apartment on 26th Street, I got fired from my job as a part-time dishwasher at Samuel’s Pancake House. I had landed the position through a friend, who was both gracious and sympathetic enough to put in a good word. What that friend did not account for, unfortunately, was the fact that I’d become a floundering drunk. Most mornings, the manager would either have to send someone to fetch me or gamble on letting the dishes pile up until I arrived. At least once a shift, I’d fall asleep between bus loads, hovering over the steel faucet like a windsock. Every so often, I’d come to only after hearing the report of a nine-inch plate shattering to pieces on dark tile. The boys working the grill would simply shake their heads and breathe. “Stupid motherfucker,” their mocking expressions might say. “Stupid, punch-drunk, no-alarm-clock-havin’ motherfucker.”
Expressions can be so cruel, y’know?
Some days I’d arrive at work so famished, I’d sneak leftover scraps into my mouth before scraping a fresh plate into the garbage. I was entitled to one meal at the tail-end of every morning, only Sam rarely opted to keep me on that long. Beyond that, I was living on a steady diet of cheap beer and nicotine, burning more electrolytes than my body could afford.
Anyway, the point being, the job at Samuel’s Pancake House sucked, and I sucked at it. So, eventually, Sam fired me. What’s more, I had to sign over the only two paychecks I received to a Korean girl named Ronnie, who in turn cashed them through her account for a nominal fee. I still had no picture ID, and there wasn’t a check-cashing joint on the island game enough to roll the dice on me – all cheek-acne and bones, using a three-foot piece of twine to keep my jeans afloat.
Toward the end of July, I accepted an offer to wander up and talk to Bob Satanoff. Bob ran the Beach Grill and several other snack carts along Morey’s Pier. He also ran a water gun game on the west side of 24th Street. A lot of people referred to Bob as Bobby Seven-Fingers, on account of he was missing all the digits on one hand.
“I hear you have a drinking problem,” Bob told me, when I wandered up to meet him.
“Where’d you hear that?” I said, completely taken back.
“Bill Salerno,” Bob said.
“I don’t know who that is,” I said.
“Well, he knows who you are,” Bob said.
“Apparently not,” I shot back.
“You ever worked a game on the boardwalk?” Bob asked.
“No, but I’m certain I can learn,” I said.
“Everybody thinks they can learn,” Bob told me.
“No, I’m serious,” I said. “I swear.”
“You ever worked a microphone before?” Bob asked me.
“I used to be the lead singer of a band named 13,” I lied.
Bob hired me on the spot that afternoon, instructed me to report to the Beach Grill the following morning, at which point I would collect my bank, and keys, then learn how to operate the stand.
My only full-time co-worker was some slicked-back motherfucker named Dan. Dan worked the night shifts, while I worked the days. Dan was selling drugs out of the stand … lots and lots of drugs, and very little else. My fourth day on the job, I found a quarter-ounce of weed buried deep beneath some dollar stock. A day later, some black dude with a scar across his chest approached the stand, asking where my “partner” was.
“Dan?” I said, sarcastically. “Dan won’t be around until tonight.”
The dude looked to his left, then his right, then straight ahead again.
“Yo, you holdin’?” he asked. He sniffled, wiped his nose clean with his hand.
“Holden who?” I wondered.
“Yo, nevermind,” the dude said.
He leaned the top half of his body over and into the stand, like a fisherman stretching starboard to reel in his catch. The dude was digging in with either hand, feeling round like a blind squirrel. “Anything I can do to help?” I asked. I found myself transfixed, far too intrigued to admit I’d stashed that weed behind the stand.
“Nah, I’m good,” the dude told me. He pulled his body from the bins, shot me a look that said it all. A few days later, Dan got fired – replaced by a 37-year old named Karen. Karen stood 5’2, tan and stocky like an anvil. Karen wore a belt pack over tank-top and short-shorts. Karen was a lesbian, and she liked to justify a great deal of her bullshit by saying, “I’m an agent, dude. The last thing I need is someone hanging round the stand, trying to tell me what to do.”
Karen eventually agreed to let me work the stand alongside her (entirely off the clock, of course). My goal was to attain some sense of how Karen achieved a natural rhythm on the microphone. But all I came away with was the sense that Karen might’ve been much better served keeping her job down in the Heartland. The entire shift felt like a grind, punctuated by Karen smoking menthols in the corner, vaguely attempting to call in passing tourists between drags. There were prolonged spans of dead air time, uncomfortable periods during which Karen would school me on all the reasons people weren’t stopping by to play the game. Karen cited shitty lighting, half-ass flash, outdated stock, and a one-speaker sound system that was turned inward, rather than out.
“And I’ll tell you one other thing,” Karen insisted, “This stand’s located two blocks north of where all the real action’s taking place.”
Karen pulled a prescription pill bottle out of her windbreaker. She counted out a fistful of whites, washed them back with a quick shot of water.
“Don’t ever get old, dude,” Karen instructed me. “Don’t ever get old, and don’t ever get Scabies.”
That might’ve been the best piece of advice Karen the agent ever gave me.
I spent the next few nights wandering the boardwalk, gaining a feel for how the best microphone operators transitioned through a crowd. There was Ricky Nickels down on Midway, whose nasal delivery seemed more suited to a DJ booth, there was the six-foot Scottish chick who ran the race games down by Mariner’s, and then there were Sean and E.J. Dougherty – a pair of brothers from South Philly who not only looked, but also sounded, the part.
Sean and E.J. ran the Gambit – a huge, free-standing structure along the east side of 24th Street. Both brothers had second-generation ties to North Wildwood, and they also had an instinctive sense of what stood missing from most midway attractions. Gambit’s music, sound and lighting were all precision perfect … irresistible to any passing crowd. The Gambit was located one block south of Sportland Pier – a rotting piece of flotsam boasting Bozo and the Toilet Game, the Hell Hole and The House of Horrors. Sportland Pier was also home to Wild Wes and Lucky Lou, equal partners in an industrial-sized bushel joint situated directly across the way from Bob Satanoff’s water-gun game.
Lou was tall and fat, pot-bellied like a walrus. Wes was short and tan, with white-wash dentures and a mustache. Lou and Wes employed a molting nest of vipers, the lot of whom detested me on principle. The more proficient I became at working on a microphone, the more those vipers hissed vague threats. Every night at 6 pm when Karen showed up to relieve me, the Sportland boys would break out into spontaneous applause. Most of them had worked with Karen, and they showered her with nicknames like Madame General and The Sarge.
The first Thursday in August, Bob Satanoff instructed me to hand-deliver Karen’s wages. Bob wrote Karen’s total on the outside of an envelope, which is how I discovered Karen was earning more than $600 per week (25% of her nightly gross, with no adjustment made for costs). I maxed out at $260 ($6 per hour with no taxes taken out). The revelation didn’t bother me so much as the fact that Karen sucked at what she was doing. Given the gaping disparity, I intended upon proving it.
There was no chance of me rivaling Karen’s totals on an average August beach day. But every time I caught a boardwalk afternoon, I’d throw down upon that mic as if I were a madman hawking cattle. I started running $3 races for $7 tigers, upselling dollar stock at $4-5 a pop. My day-time totals began to increase, and then double. Karen, on the other hand, grew increasingly frustrated, spending the first 10 minutes of every night shift dismissing whatever it was I had accomplished. “You had the clouds working in your favor today,” she might comment, or “I’m guessing people spent so much this afternoon they won’t put out worth a damn tonight.”
I’d taken to walking each afternoon’s till over to Bob, thereby avoiding any risk of Karen taking credit for my work. I’d simultaneously taken to adding a few dollars from my own pocket, assuming it might help me beat Karen’s number from the night before. Toward the end of August, Nick the Greek, who actually owned the block that I was working on, handed me an envelope with an extra hundred dollars in it.
“Good work, Bill,” Nick assured me.
The day after I received my bonus, a slow and steady rain fell down in heavy sheets upon North Wildwood. I sat alone along the counter, sifting through some old cassettes. I turned the speaker out toward the boardwalk, sang along into the microphone. Somewhere around 2 pm, Lucky Lou wandered over from across the way, leaned his back against the counter.
“How’s it goin’?” Lou wondered.
“How’s it goin’? It’s goin’ alright,” I said. “How’s it goin’ with you?”
“Aaaaaah, it’s a washout,” Lou said. He swung his body round to face me, squeezed the trigger of a gun. “Might as well roll down the shutters and call it a day.”
“I hear ya,” I said, laughing. “I could use a few more hours of sleep, if you know what I’m sayin’.”
“So, listen,” Lou told me, completely ignoring my last comment. “I was talking to my guys over there, and we were wondering if you could do us a small favor.”
“Sure,” I said. “No problem. Just tell me what you need.”
“I, well, we, need you to stop singing over the microphone. Otherwise, the entire lot of us are gonna need to come over here and shove that goddamn speaker up your ass.”
Lou stood still and silent for a moment, sizing me up like a pitbull might a rabbit. He took a breath, then lumbered back across the boardwalk, where he fell asleep across a bed of plush.
If only the guys in 13 could see me now, I thought.
If only the guys in 13 could see me now.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB)