Constable: A year of hitching rides and carnival jobs in search of astounding stories
Barrington writer sees a carnival of lives
In search of astounding stories for his book, "American Oz," journalist Michael Sean Comerford of Barrington spent a year trekking 21,570 miles, mostly by hitchhiking across North America as a modern-day Odysseus. Facing trials of hard labor and staving off the wrath of carnies, he worked for traveling carnivals and spectacular state fairs across 10 states.
"I'm a part of this story. I'm not imagining what they're going through; I'm experiencing it," says Comerford, who learned the carny lingo and how to construct and tear down amusement rides and Midway games, bunked with roommates and bedbugs packed into tight trailers, slept outside despite worries of being eaten by bears in Alaska and alligators in Florida, ate out of trash cans when hungry enough, talked to literally thousands of people, cried and laughed with those he got to know well, and developed a gift for avoiding fights.
To unearth the stories, Comerford traversed the continent in 2013 and 2014 by thumb, rail and bus, from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Veracruz, Mexico, and from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.
The idea of harvesting tales from carnies came to Comerford at age 25, when he spent some time working at a carnival that had set up camp in Cody, Wyoming, and wondered about the workers.
"They seemed to me to be secrets living on the road," Comerford says.
Now 61 years old and the survivor of a glorious, dangerous, lonely, exhilarating, joyful and life-altering year, Comerford knows their secrets.
"We aren't stabbing anybody," assured a man known as Ugly, who told Comerford about the heroism of being a hobo hitching rides on freight trains. "But if they (mess) with us, we'll stab them."
When a car of passing teens in Butte, Montana, threw a full can of soda past his head and yelled, "Get a job!" Ugly and his pit bull gave chase with no hope of catching them and no plan if he did.
"That," Ugly said, after giving up the pursuit, "is what turns us into stabbing hobos."
During the years when he graduated from Marquette University, earned a master's degree in journalism at Northwestern University, and studied and worked in Europe, Comerford rode his bicycle from Barrington to each coast and to New Orleans, hitchhiked behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany, and stowed away on freight trains.
"It's a relatively dangerous thing to do," Comerford says. "And a blast."
Comerford says people chose that life with low pay, unhealthy conditions and high stress because they love the freedom and the chance to bring joy to children. Men who are trying to make a life after prison, single moms, a lady who never had children of her own -- all gushed about making the games and rides a glorious escape for children. Many of them wept as they told Comerford how they joined the carny world as teenagers, running away from abusive childhoods.
"Their real home is on the road. There are no state fairs now, so they have no home," says Comerford. Sunday was scheduled to be the last day of the Illinois State Fair, if COVID-19 hadn't shuttered the carnival business.
Comerford writes about the ugliness. "I ran out of words to describe drunk," says the writer, who didn't partake in the booze or drugs shared by his fellow carnies and spent many early morning hours writing at local diners. He explores racism and the unfair treatment of Mexican migrant workers. During a winter off-season surprise visit to Veracruz, Mexico, Comerford found his old co-workers and says he now has a better understanding of how hellish work conditions with traveling carnivals "was paradise for them." Every one has a story.
"None of us are just carnies," Comerford says. He learned how to make kids squeal while riding the mechanical elephants on the Dumbo ride, how to "hypnotize" men and women into thinking they'd win a big prize tossing softballs into a laundry basket, and when it is OK to give away rides to needy children.
"One of the great privileges of being a journalist is meeting people who astound you," Comerford says. He is comfortable with people, no matter the circumstances.
As a reporter, he's garnered bylines for the Daily Herald, the Elgin Courier, the Barrington Courier, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News, the Budapest Sun, Budapest Business Journal, the Prague Post and the Moscow Times. He's dined on caviar in Budapest, eaten at Maxim's in Paris, was the one who christened his father's 60-foot yacht "Seanchaí" -- Gaelic for storyteller, has visited nearly 100 countries, studied with Buddhist monks in the Himalayas, danced with Imelda Marcos in the Philippines, and won a heavyweight boxing championship as a student at University College Cork in Ireland.
A divorced dad with a 15-year-old daughter, Grace, who wrote her first book ("The Power of Purple") at age 10, Comerford breaks into a grin as he describes that time she visited him while he was working at the Minnesota State Fair. He's back in Barrington for now, but he's comfortable being on the move.
"I was born on the road," Comerford says. His parents, Gordon and Alice, were high school sweethearts from Wisconsin who got married before they drove to San Diego to begin Gordon's Navy officer career. "I was born nine months and one hour later. I could have been conceived on Route 66," says Comerford, who has three younger sisters.
His family lived in 11 places, from California to Washington, D.C., as his father transitioned from the Navy to a finance job with IBM and a home in Barrington to a career as an executive for Motorola. After graduating in 1977 from St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights, where he was a 6-foot-5 starter on the basketball team, Comerford majored in political science at Marquette University.
Even though hitchhiking is illegal in most states, Comerford's background put him at ease. He talked about everything from Russian literature to lepidopterology (the study of butterflies) with the diverse cast of characters who gave him rides. They include "an Arctic Circle teacher, an Arkansas preacher, a Chinese cook, a balloon clown, a magician, a denturist, an environmentalist, an FBI bureau chief, two Navy intelligence officers, a nuclear engineer, a pizza delivery driver, authors, cops, drifters, hillbillies, hippies, mechanics, miners, refugees, religious zealots, rodeo riders, truckers and a former wolf who became a man," Comerford writes.
Comerford's book title, "American Oz," brings to mind "The Wizard of Oz," where a girl named Dorothy embarks on a magical journey to a fantastic world with amazing characters only to be stunned to discover she was at home all that time. In his quest for astonishing stories, Comerford has wandered the world, mingled with misfits and millionaires, and vows to keep looking even if the most astonishing stories are his own.
"My background didn't hold me back because identities shift in carnivals," says Comerford, who was known as Crocodile, Cowboy, El Grande, High Street, Mike Love, Slim and The Priest during his carnival odyssey. "I'd be privileged to be called a carny."