Growing up in the Midwest, there was a yearly visit to the State Fair that — during my childhood, at least — was always tempered with a tremendous terror.

For many months, there was a story in the newspaper about a young boy who visited the Nebraska State Fair in Lincoln and then disappeared.  He was continuously searched for on the Fairgrounds and communities in the area would get together and search other pockets of the city so the boy might be found.

A long while later, the boy’s decomposing body was discovered stuffed inside an empty train tank car in a faraway town.  The thinking at the time was that the boy had run into a carnival worker — a Carny — and something horrible happened and the boy was killed and stuffed, and sealed, into the tank out of convenience since the railroad ran straight through the Fairgrounds.

That story became an urgent urban legend that changed through time and retelling, but the fact of the boy losing his life at the State Fair put the fear of Carny workers in the all of us: Fun could lead to an early death. Each year, we began to see those fairway workers in a different light — they were strangers and not like the homogeneous everyone else around us — and they were rough and tough and often crude, and we were to be careful around them at all times.

Comparing our lives, and our friends, to those carnival workers was the beginning of the tempering of the children of a naïve Nebraska into more cautious, and more suspicious, world citizens.

Leaping forward many decades — I have discovered the New Carny, the modern, odd-man-out — who brings the same sort of gut-level human disconnection and crudity and fear to bear upon the innocents among us:  The Itinerant Street Vendor.

Living on the East Coast, you have people selling you stuff everywhere you walk and sit and you cannot avoid their aggressive pitches.  Some sell you junk from a truck, others food from a street corner and some hold court with art from a table in a park.  You don’t mind the regulars you see every day, but the people trying to quick-sell you something brings the same “Carny Feel” that pings one back to the dangerous temptations of the childhood State Fair.

There is an uneasy urgency in these broken people looking to get healed with the money in your pocket.  They appear unable to hold regular jobs, or keep regular street hours, and their personalities are wounded and seeking and easily disruptable.

Dealing with the New Carnies is always an adventure.  Will they pop off on you?  Will they be kind?  Will they take your dead body and stuff it into a sealed train tank car and send you off along the dusty rails to the next town?  Sometimes suspicion can be a helpful alternative to a Midwestern friendliness — that was forged into you with hammer and a backbone — without any forethought to the danger awakening around you.

6 Comments

  1. The only ones to whom I pay any mind are the ones who sell used books, because they will often have a treasure and not even realize it — I bought Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen — a first edition — for only a buck once. So awesome.

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      1. I’ve found that the area around NYU has a lot of really great booksellers — they’ve been at it for years and largely have superb collections. They also seem to be more good natured than sellers that seem to have gotten their books from, say, free book bins that people abandon on the street. (You can always tell it’s the case because you’ll see a bunch of computer books that are hopelessly out of date. Yeah, sign me up for that MS-DOS primer!)

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    1. It certainly is a different life choice to spend your days on the street. It must change your perspective and modify your daily, ongoing, immediate, needs in ways that working a 9-5 job inside a building would not.

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