The following is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir – Moments of Grace.
I was tired of begging for money on corners or in front of the Tastee Freez at the end of my block. I will never forget the looks people gave me when I asked them if they could spare any change. Pity or disgust, never anything in between. I switched from begging to making up various lies about having to catch a bus or buy my Mom a present for her birthday. Whatever heartfelt shit I could come up with. After awhile, I couldn’t take the looks from the lies either so I stole a few paint by numbers from the arts and craft store, painted them and sold them to old ladies at the park and ice cream shop for a buck a piece. A real bargain for a budding Rembrandt. I even had a hustle where I offered to clean the parking lot of the Tastee Freez for a burger and a shake. The guy who owned it was always cool but sometimes I’d show up and his parking lot was spotless. So I’d toss trash everywhere then offer to clean it up.
Create the problem. Sell the solution.
One time he caught me throwing napkins everywhere and that was the end of the burger and shake train. So now what? As I stalked the hood for a new hustle, I spotted the carnival setting up. I loved going to the carnival. The neon lights. The sounds of the rides going, people screaming with laughter and most importantly the girls. We would follow them around, throw them “looks” when they turned around and try to spit as much game as we could. Always on the hunt for the prettiest girls to hit on, get numbers and hopefully more. Most of the girls in Berwyn would let you stick your hand down their skin tight black stretch pants or up their shirts, the older ones at least, which I was always good at getting. I was 14 and it was the summer before my freshman year at high school. I was already “seeing” two seniors who were on their way to college, falling for one pretty hard even though I lived alone, had no parents and was hustling to eat.
While they were setting up the rides and booths, I approached a guy that looked like he just finished tuning up Gregg Allman’s guitar and asked if they were hiring. He pointed to a long haired skinny biker working the booth where you pay a buck to throw a few softballs at three lead bottles.
If you knock them down you get a prize. His name was Daryl. He said he’d pay me 20 bucks to work the rest of the night and 60 bucks to work tomorrow and Sunday 10am to midnight, but only after I convinced him I wasn’t a narc. He gave me his dirty apron and showed me how to set the bottles up. He was going to leave me alone to run the booth and “call out” to get as many folks to try as I could. He had to focus his time on more important tasks like smoking shitty brick weed and trying to fuck high school girls behind the big rig that pulled The Super Slide.
This particular carnival was for Italian Fest so everybody was rocking sweat pant cut offs shorts during the day, with greased back feathered mullets (some permed or heavily curled) then at night the Z Cavaricci pants came out, rolled up at the bottom with Zodiac shoes and white socks. The men wore satin jackets with the Italian flag blazoned across the back with their names in cursive across the top with “wife beaters” underneath. The woman wore the same jackets, usually their boyfriends, with tank tops themselves and black stretch pants that clung to every thick inch of their pasta filled bodies. Their bangs were sprayed straight up. We called them Statues of Liberty because the bangs jutted up so high. The men slathered themselves in Draqoir Noir cologne with little gold horn or crosses clasped to gold chains dangling around their necks. The car of choice was IROQ Zs, Monte Carlos or Delta 98s with the handheld swivel lights mounted by the drivers side door mirror. Fuzzy Dice dangling from the rearview.
Daryl came back to the booth at midnight. His face turned white.
“What the fuck happened to all the stuffed elephants?” He hissed.
“People been knocking down these bottles left and right man. I don’t know what to tell ya.”
“The fuck they are, man. It’s impossible. You set ‘em like I showed you?”
“I dunno, I just set them up.”
“Fuck man, you gotta pay attention in this life, man. We’re not here fucking around. I gotta pay for them elephants. That comes outta my pay. A normal motherfucker woulda’ beat your ass but I ain’t cruel. I’ma take 20 off your pay tomorrow and that’s being cool. Now look here…”
Then he showed me how to set the bottles up the right way so nobody wins. You can knock down two but never all three. The real point of the game is to make you think and feel like you’re almost winning every time so you keep trying and most importantly, spending more money.
A sucker and his money are soon parted. The game is rigged for you to lose so be on the right side of the game.
I showed up the next day and Daryl gave me a warm Budweiser that I drank out of a plastic cup. Girls I knew from school passed by, giggled nervously and waved. I felt like a king, a bartender or the bouncer at a great club. What more could a 14 year old ask for than run the bottle booth at a carnival! Well, I was actually about to find out.
Sunday night rolled around and they started breaking down rides and booths.
“You ready?” Daryl said.
“For what?” I asked.
“To head to the next town. Chesterton, Indiana, then we’ll move through the south until we hit Florida and can’t south no more. Then do it all over again.”
“You want me to go with you guys?”
“Hell fucking yeah. You proved yourself these last two days man. Chicks don’t wanna stare at my fucking old ass anymore. They wanna get that pussy juice going for your young ass. I seen a few moms get wet for you too. You can be the future of this carnival.”
The future of the carnival? Didn’t expect to hear that when I woke up that day. Everything about that made sense. I wanted to travel. Uncle Matt had given me Kerouac’s “On The Road”and it grabbed me by the throat.
“I think I gotta go to high school,” I blurted out from a place of reason I didn’t know existed.
Daryl studied my face then dropped the hammer – “You ain’t lived ’til you got a blow job on the Tilt-A-Whirl…”
Holy. Fucking. Shit.
A blowjob on the Tilt-A-Whirl. That would be like telling a 40 year old “you never have to worry about money again and you’re kids will never die.” That’s the weight a blowjob on the Tilt-A-Whirl carried to a 14 year old in the heat of his 8th grade summer. But again, that voice of reason blurted out…
“Thanks man, but I think I’m gonna check out high school. But if it sucks, I’ll try and find you.”
“Suit yourself, man. But opportunity only knocks once.”
Then he strutted off, oddly enough toward the Tilt-A-Whirl. It was a long walk home back to my lonely apartment. Every time I came inside the building, I’d walk past my mother’s door and wonder where she was. Was she alright? Was Pete beating her? If he was, was somebody getting in there to make sure she’s okay or calls the cops? I finally made it upstairs to my apartment. It was starting to smell. I never did my laundry because I ran out of detergent months ago. I showered at the pool. There were so many mice running around inside of the walls, it sounded like it was raining. I laid down the my bare mattress on the floor. I’d taken the sheets off weeks ago after they started stinking from sweat. But now there was a brownish yellow outline of my body on the mattress from where I had sweated through that. I laid down and stared up at the ceiling hoping I hadn’t just blown the opportunity of a lifetime. I finally fell asleep and morning brought fresh ideas and fresh hustle. And to think… I almost traded in high school for a blow job on the Tilt-A-Whirl.