After graduation from high school, I had relatively little plans. I had aspirations to enroll in college the fall of 1991, however, during the summer I had nothing going on. Nothing. Nada. Up to no good. You know the saying, “Idle hands are the devil’s playground. No statement could be truer than it was for me that summer. I got caught taking my dad’s truck to an ex-boyfriend’s house who was no good for me. My parents were disappointed in my behavior. Finding a summer job seemed an unlikely prospect in the small town I was from.
The morning following being caught at the forbidden ex-boyfriend’s house, my parents informed me that they were shipping me off to Paso Robles to get a job at the California Mid-State Fair. I was being given a one-way ticket to get my shit together. My grandmother picked me up the next day. My grandma, my cousin (who is one month younger than me), and I would be taking a road trip in Grandma’s motorhome to stay with my aunt and GET A DAMN JOB already! I was not happy, yet I did not have a choice.
When we arrived in Paso Robles, we got an early morning start to apply for jobs at the fairgrounds. My aunt had some “connections” and the three of us got jobs working at the Hot Dog on a Stick trailers. My cousin Gene and my grandma Freda were in one trailer, I, in another. We spent eleven days covered in the grease of footlong hot dogs and the sticky-sweet smells of freshly spun cotton candy. It did nothing for my nineteen year old oily complexion. We worked 12 hour shifts, with a lunch hour and a few “smoke breaks.”
The stories people tell of the carny life? Well, I can say they are all true—mostly. At least, that was my experience in the Hot Dog on a Stick trailer. I learned the sad, humble life of a 6’8 man that went by the name Stretch, that bore a homemade tattoo of a heart with a sword through it that said, “MOM” in big, bright reddish-pink letters and dawned a southern drawl that lisped through gaps in the spaces of his mouth where teeth should be. We were strictly forbidden by ourselves from the areas where the true carnys quarters were. To say there were shady characters would be understated.
Imagine your 70 year old grandmother leaving your grandfather to join the carny life. Surely, it was something of a scandal in my family to behold. Yet there she was, in all of her glory, schlepping hot dogs, pickles, cotton candy, and sodas. The scandal was heard through the pay phone when I called my parents. Grandpa was not assumed with her antics.
I heard the jokes about the “footlong hotdog” and it seemed every male that came to my window that summer swore theirs was bigger than ours. It was enough too much information, myth or legend that made my young brain explode. Thankfully, no one attempted to prove their claims. Thankfully, no one attempted to prove their claims to Freda, my grandma.
Freda, Gene and I slept in my grandmother’s motorhome. After a 12 hour shift at the greasy dog trailer, we fell into the foam bed of our temporary home sweet home, parked in the driveway of my aunt’s house.
At the tender age of 18, my uncle bought Gene and I beer whenever we wanted. In fact, even when we did not want. We met a friend of my uncle’s with a checkered past that won 6.3 million dollars on the California Lottery that owned a limo. He asked me to be his chauffeur because he wanted a blonde limo driver to cart him around. The family spent a few nights at a local lake, waterskiing by day and up to no good at night. I went to see the Nelson Twins play at the fairgrounds and spent my lunch hour perusing the halls of the fair. For 11 days, I was bound to my own devices and nothing more.
I should add that we followed the fair tour from mid-state California to Ventura, California, and to the L.A. County Fair. Follow along for part II to come later.