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Back and Forth
When one peers into the deepest rifts of society, several obscure characters emerge - venture past the stage lights, the smoky neon signs, the light hearted conversations at a dinner party, one will find the beings who make things work - those who surrender the idea of the "American Dream" for the greater good (or, perhaps more appropriately, the greater bad), or, in the simplest terms, those who go straight to the dessert buffet, skipping the main course. For the purpose of serving the rest of us, perhaps; to ensure that in the midst of the chaotic nature of existence, a funnel cake may appear, or that glory and eternal fame may be attained in the form of a giant zoo animal or a mini bike. It must be something greater - the travelers, the drifters, those born-again, those lost-again, those broken and empty, those fixed and full.... Society is very peculiar, anyway; it seems to coagulate and tangle at the most opportune of moments, spitting out brilliance clouded by circumstance and false pretense. It's a peculiar thing, humanity; and even more fascinating is that many humans build their lives around studying each other, existing for one another, loving, giving, caring. The reason why is not really clear, and it never has been; some cling to religion, others music, drugs, or whatever; yet, sometimes, people just drift along, not pursuing much at all except comfort and experience, for experience's sake alone. I traveled a small town a few years back in pursuit of such individuals. I wound up at a carnival, and, not knowing where exactly to start, I jumped right in, asking for an interview with the man in charge (unsure of the appropriate nomenclature); tape recorder at the ready, I was led past some trailers and smoking generators by a harrowingly thin woman who had an emerald stench hung about her, which I later found out was a deceptively cunnning defense mechanism in a precarious carnival environment. Before I knew it, by sleight of providence, I was shaking hands with a man who would inexplicably change my outlook on things - I'm still trying to figure out how. I never did catch his name, this man; but somehow, he didn't really need one.
`A cigarette hung from his mouth delicately, moving harmoniously with his lips, a baton conducting the story. Smoke hung in the air, blue wisps, tangling webs that seemed to fade into time itself, floating momentarily, then not exactly disappearing, but dissolving into something that wasn't there, like the smoke was just liquid and the existence enveloping us was a dry washcloth. When he cackled, his lips parted menacingly, but I didn't feel threatened; rather, I felt empowered, welcomed even, as if he were saying "Come along, this isn't so bad. It's not so bad. It never is." His yellowing teeth were not disgraceful around here - they were a badge of honor, a testament to decay, an indication that the smile wasn't for himself, but for those who can't anymore - for whatever reason.
Ash began to fall like snow from the tip of his cigarette. The lack of an ash tray seemed to explain the surface of the wooden table between us, which was dotted with chips and nicks and burns and scratches displayed proudly like scars from battle. The lamp provided some respite from the awkward darkness that curled itself around us, sometimes letting cordiality slip through fleetingly, then closing off the connection again; the faded peach of the extension cord glowed in the dark, snaking its way through the dried bits of grass and peanut shells which littered the ground beneath us. The faded yellow of the nylon tent smelled of musty pork fat and tobacco smoke; the man in front of me, ironically, smelled of Camel No. 9's and sweaty barbeque. He was smoking Marlboro Reds. Still, I smiled. He spoke with a Southern drawl that seemed to drip into one's ears like cheap whiskey mixed with molasses.
"We didn't used to talk much in those days, the Smiths and myself. The Smiths were those two brothers you saw walkin' in of course - the black hair, with the girl hanging on his side, that's Tim, and his brother Paul, he woulda been standing kinda off to the side by his lonesome, not sayin' much. Real thin, that Paul. That's them, though. Two of my best workers, the Smith boys." He took a drag of his cigarette. Calculating, but not definite - a southern drawl was there, but precision was too. "The thing I like about the Smiths, you must understand, is that they carry themselves with an air of humility, so you can really tell they mustn't have gone to church much as boys. They don't know how to dress up, really, them two. But I heard some interesting stories come outta them two. You wouldn't believe. Interesting stories outta them two. Took me two years to get them boys on the right track, but it happened, and it was worth it - two of my best workers, the Smith boys;" he paused to take a drag, twitching his hand, but he didn't, instead gazing at me with a fixed stare, and his eyes narrowed, and he leaned forward only a little bit; it dawned on him that I was actually interested in what he was saying. "My momma once told me that I'd stay simple pretty much my whole life - not that I believe that I'm a simple man, or that it's a bad thing to be a simple man, it's just that I seen so many folks all around me change so much, get real complicated and such, before losing themselves entirely, and they become something else. Not that I'm a simple man; my momma just must have seen virtue in it, and that's worth some sort of token, ain't it?" I nodded yes. He cackled a bit; a flash of his yellow teeth caused me not to recoil, but instead made me more intent, filled me with furious desire for the narrative to continue. The way he spoke struck me as odd; he was genuine - he meant everything he said, no plastic coating or silver lining. He took me back to my youth, really; it was like conversing with a grandpa who was determined to get his point across accurately, and make it stick before he croaked (which, of course, could be any day). And yet, he lacked any sort of urgency or slovenly manner - he just was, and for all he cared, he always would be, dead or alive.
"A lotta people, see, they look at me, and they think things, and they sense things, perceiving and what not. Quarreling in their heads, you know, always, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, til there's bout no more swing left in 'em. And when they reach that point, people (myself included), they gotta think to themselves, 'I got it all figured out, now. I can go on home;'" His tone was tainted with a shift, a slight sense of urgency, as if he were excited about recounting these thoughts to me - thoughts that seemed deeply perused over before surfacing, like he was picking volumes off of an old shelf. "But for me, home didn't come easily - and I don't say home in the traditional sense or nothing, I mean solace, whatever you wanna call it. Happiness, some might say - I personally think the term to be overused, beaten to a pulp. But don't get me wrong - I'm here to make a living just as well as the next son-of-a-b****. It's just... People go around living their lives thinking happiness should be beaten outta them like dust from a rug, instead of letting the mud settling on them, caking and drying. It's all around us anyway, so it's got to settle somewhere. No use in chasing rain clouds if you're thirsty. No use at all." He paused, gazing for an instant at the cracks in the tent where the evening was slowly slipping away. He continued, starting to mention something about a desert, but a commotion outside stopped our conversation short. He grimaced and shook his head; his stubby fingers suffocated the end of his cigarette onto the table, which let out a solemn hiss before its faint glow was completely extinguished. Incredulously yet assuredly, he indicated for me to follow him, and we sauntered on outside.
A synesthetic feeling hung in the air, as the exuberance of the lights cradled me and those around me; a certain hollowness seemed to remind me that I was here once, and not just here, not physically, but anywhere; I was a child, I became awake, happy and aroused by flashing lights and smells that now slightly revolt me. The faint laughter of children hung in the air, a far cry from what lay ahead of them - their lives; the hookers, the gamblers, the criminals, the priests, fashionistas, authors, poets, physicists.... Thoughts began to float through me.... We all were here at some point, and yet, we never were, for things never exactly stop, and existence is forever susceptible to change - and everyone goes through the same thing, of course; it's just a matter of relativity and perspective that determines how one handles it. I came here expecting disappointment, expecting people to treat me like the outsider I was, and still am; but I was in a place forever polluted by outsiders, for these people, these carnies have built their lives around strangers, forever moving, forever the paradoxical visitors, and forever uncertain of the road ahead. Ten thousand thoughts raced through my mind, and as I followed the man from the tent, the "boss," for lack of a better word, ingratiated me by doing nothing at all. He sought not glory, nor fame; he just walked on ahead, anticipating another situation in which he was needed - just filling his role, accepting himself, accepting everything. Differences matter not to a man who's exposed everyday to the passerby: the lawyers, businessmen, druggies, drug dealers, drug busters, the ghost busters, the housewives, the lowlifes - they all had value, at least in some way. It was not humility that I was experiencing - it was the calm realization that life is better without pretense. Twain once said, "Don't let schooling interfere with your education," and such a notion, in all my years of travel, has never been more apparent than in the man walking before me. He seemed intelligent enough, and yet spoke of no degree, no college, no aspirations. He just moved along, satisfied, happy enough to be alive. And for that, I will forever envy him. You can either spend your life learning about people who did things, or, more easily, just do things. In that sense, the pursuit of knowledge becomes more of a roadblock than a motivator. The fulfillment one gains after becoming knowledgeable can only come after one gives up the pursuit, after all.
The source of the commotion became clear when we approached a sobbing woman who displayed no acknowledgement of recognition upon our arrival; nonetheless, she held a sobbing child in her arms, no older than four, maybe five, and a carnie was yelling choice obscenities at her and her beloved, something about how there were no refunds. The man from the tent, the boss, began to yell something at the carnie about "burning the yard," and not paying attention, and some other things. I stood silently at the side, awkwardly absorbing the way people interacted around here - I wasn't used to such an unconventional workplace. I didn't feel superior; only weird and selfish for thinking that these deceivingly menial workers were once my classmates in elementary school, were once great in their own right, and still are... Differences are fickle, and not very constant. I looked around; fried cakes, booths that were plainly money vacuums, bright colors. I felt dizzy. I didn't really know why.
The woman had apparently been holding her child on the counter of the booth as he threw a baseball at a target, and in the excitement of the toddler's toss, the woman had somehow slipped and dropped her child inside the booth; he was fine, but the situation somehow ignited a flurry of conflict. The carnie yelled that he had a right mind to “kidnap the little snotrag,” and he seemed like he would. To the boss, the possibility didn't seem to far off, and maybe even justified. The carnie kept implying that the incident was a stunt to steal money or prizes. The stuffed gorillas hung from the top of the booth innocently, their eyes blank. Nonetheless, the boss stepped in, patted the woman congenially, and kindly asked her to leave. He pulled some crumpled bills out of his pocket to refund her. And that was that. As she walked away, he turned to the carnie and cracked a few jokes about women being inconsiderate, and about children being worthless. He didn't mean any of it; at least, he didn't seem like it – he was just connecting with his employee, and that was enough. It's how he seemed to run things: a little here, a little there, some fine tuning if needed. Arguing only led to conflict, and he certainly wished to avoid conflict. He relayed that he treated abrasiveness like a nuclear bomb, only using it in absolute necessity. “That there was Arnold. Just Arnold, no last name, if you can take my word for it. Says it on his license and everything. Picked him up roundabout Little Rock, looking for a job or something. He didn't have much experience, but he doesn't put up no front. Doesn't ask for much. Hot temper though. He wouldn't hurt a fly. He loves talking like he would though – and that's that. Some people, they get like that as the years go by. Thinkin' about fighting more than actually doing it. It's a very defining characteristic,” he laughed.
We didn't walk back to the yellow tent, traveling over to a chain link fence instead, a ferris wheel not twenty feet away. I asked him a bit more about how he ran things, how the carnival business was doing, some other deflated things. None of it mattered, and I knew it. We were just gazing up at the ferris wheel, where children laughed, where teenagers cursed, the adults falling somewhere in between. The larger-than-life wheel spun, stopping and slowing in exact intervals, its bulbs casting light across the grounds indifferently. The man lit up another cigarette, his zippo clicking against the faint breeze, something illusory yet unfalteringly realistic. He mentioned something about the smokes killing him, and how life itself was bound to kill him anyway. “I've lived. I've lived a hell of a lot longer than most things on this earth live. The birds, bees, flowers, trees, all that. They die more often than we do. But they all come back. They always do. And when they don't, when they become extinct and all that scientific stuff, it's hard to lament their absence for too long. Call me inhuman and what not, it's just how I tend to approach these kinds of things.”
I didn't think too much of it at the time, but as I sat and listened to the recording, the man's simplicity struck me as unique. I sit here in my cluttered office, pressed on time as usual, a thousand worries in my head. But this story is not one of empirical data, or arguments, or of a life-changing journey into a developing country. It's just a petty attempt at humilty, an imperfect rendition, an attempt to copy, if you will, the nameless man who so precisely and effortlessly lives his life the way he sees fit – the way that is enough for him. Don't call it happiness, or fulfillment, or anything like that, because he probably wouldn't agree with you; he just values the simple things, his own present existence, not overtly concerning himself with things that don't fall onto his own path.
On that September day, the short interview ended with a few kind words, a firm handshake, and I was on my way, in my little car, on my little journey. Living. Moving. I tried to learn something from the experience – which, contradictingly, was nothing at all. But I couldn't find much. Just simplicity. No noise, nuisances, worries, or guidelines, or anything like that. Just some sort of beauty. People who lived, who traveled and set up booths and rides just to entertain some people, some children, some businessmen, or whoever else for a day. The carnival is just a fleck of dirt in the road for most people's lives, as they traipse across the space-time continuum – and the carnies know this. The feeling is there, at least.