Growing Up an Itinerant Vendor
On a balmy day in early April that heralded the arrival of our carnival season, my father drove me to Savin Rock, the Coney Island of Connecticut, for a ride on the fanciest merry-go-round I’d ever seen. It was housed in its own Italianate pavilion instead of roaming under the open sky. Next door was a penny arcade with a kiss-o-meter and a gypsy fortune-teller doll and pinball machines galore. He waited for me to finish my couple of rides. Then we strolled along Beach Street, the main drag of the amusement park, and I waited while my father “cut up jackpots” with the few concessionaires who opened before Decoration Day.
I thought that these fellows were less adventurous than we carnies because they’d stay at this spot all spring, summer, and fall! When we did see one or two of them elsewhere, it was only as far away as the Connecticut fairs. I knew that Ernie Panico’s cover-the-red-spot technique couldn’t rival my father’s; that Freddy Gallipolli, with a knock-over-the-milk-bottle game, would never be more than 40-miler because of his stay-at-home family. I didn’t even bother being “on the earie” until I heard my father say: “We’re going out on the road a week from Thursday, Colbert’s Fiesta’s opening on the 29th in Attleboro.”
Then I said a little prayer to Gabriel, the angel of travelers, and Christopher, the patron saint: Please don’t let Sister Marcella make me stay in school.
Ever since I was born, my folks had taken me with them, traveling through New England with carnivals. I was a wise child. My mother taught me how to read and write the summer before I entered kindergarten. My father taught me how to spell, syllable by syllable, Con-nect-i-cut and Mas-sa-chu-setts and the longest word in the dictionary, an-ti-dis-es-tab-lish-men-tar-i-an-ism. At Savin Rock he took me around to the concessionaires to show them how smart his little girl had become. They’d bet a nickel that I couldn’t spell the name of the state we were in, and they’d get more than their money’s worth when I rattled off every New England state I’d traveled through. Still they’d bet a quarter that I couldn’t spell the longest word in the dictionary. I had no idea what antidisestablishmentarianism meant and neither did my father, but I could spell it faster than some people could say it. And I’d pocket my money while my father beamed at me.
School, though I couldn’t wait to escape from it, had opened up new worlds for me. My first-grade teacher, Sister Dorothea, was fond of a chapter in history called “The Age of Exploration.” She spun the globe on her desk to show us the earth turned on its axis and was as round as a beach ball. I’d come to class certain that the world was motionless. Only carnivals moved through it constantly, aided by road maps that we carnies kept in the glove compartments of our automobiles, maps that my folks had trouble refolding after I’d opened them every which way for easy viewing of the section we were traveling through. Though mountains and their elevations were duly noted, and the roads that climbed up and down the mountains were colored red, green, or blue, everything looked flat.
No wonder Sister Dorothea told us: “Everybody laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round, they said ‘You’ll sail off the edge of it.' Instead this Italian explorer discovered America. And that’s why we celebrate Columbus Day with a parade.” Though why that holiday should mark the end of the carnival season she just didn’t know.
My father said, “After Columbus Day we’ll be ready to rest. So we’ll rest for two weeks. Then you know what happens?”
“We’ll be ready to start out again!” I shouted.
“Right. But the only thing we could do is go down south because there are no carnivals during the winter in this part of the country. And we have to stay up north to take care of Grandma.”
On gray, blustery days in New Haven, when I was beset by restlessness for the road, my father would tell me again and again, “We’ll have to wait till spring.” Then he’d tell me one story after another, and I’d listen hard, as if we both knew that stories were what we needed to see us through the long, housebound winter.
“Did I ever tell you how I went to Yale?” my father would ask when he was getting ready to talk about those early days on the streets and the roads. As far as I knew, no one in my family had gone to college, not yet. And my father had dropped out of the seventh grade. But I knew he liked to begin his stories with a question, as if life on the road were a riddle that nothing but the telling of it could solve.
“My Dad and I worked street corners near Yale College, selling frankfurters and peanuts and candy bars from the back of a truck!” I laughed at the very silliness of the idea: a man as smart as my father didn’t need to go to high school, never mind college. He had educated himself. He went to the New Haven Free Public Library and read all the newspapers from surrounding towns.
“I found out that you could work almost five days a week,” he told me. “There was always something going on. There were big ‘Eye-talian’ celebrations in Woodbridge and Bridgeport and Westport and South Norwalk. There were half a dozen circuses that came to New Haven, and in those days circuses had parades. There were outings at Harugari Park and boat races between Yale and other colleges in Derby on Saturdays in May. And there were street fairs and country fairs and cattle shows and police department field days from Decoration Day right up through Columbus Day!”
My father would climb on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle with the sidecar, my grandfather would jump in his truck, and they would go. If one of them broke down, the other would stop and take the frankfurters and rolls, the peanuts and popcorn and candy bars, as if they were running a relay race to their destination. And when they finally got there, I guess you could say that they won because they sold everything that hadn’t jumped out of the sidecar when my father went over a bump.
It was in the wintertime too, when I was on Christmas vacation from school, that my father sat at his desk in Grandma’s dining room and tried to figure out how much income tax we owed. At the top of the form, on the line that asked for your occupation, he’d printed in capital letters that were easy for me to read: ITINERANT VENDOR.
“What’s that mean?” I asked, though my mother had told me not to pester him. I’d never known my father to be anything but a carny.
He explained, “It’s just another way of saying ‘Traveling Salesman.’” Then he had to add: “Uncle Same believes all carnies are thieves, so even though we pay our taxes, it’s better not to mention that we’re carnies.”
As a young man at liberty during the 1930s, my father truly was an itinerant vendor. Peanuts and popcorn were the bread and butter of his business, but unless he had “the ex,” the exclusive privilege to sell it, he had to have a variety of lucrative sidelines. And he had to travel out of state. There were too many fellows who were selling the same midway food, and in Connecticut at least half a dozen of them were our cousins.
Now I suppose my Italian-American family believed that peanuts and popcorn and candy floss and apples were the native foods of the New World and that selling them was the only road to prosperity. But my father was the only one among them who ventured beyond his home state. He was the only one who had what it takes to become a carny. In order to make sure that the customers came to him, no matter how much competition there might be, he flashed his stand with any number of eye-catching novelty items.
He sold fur monkeys I high hats having a barrel of fun with their kewpies, celluloid feather-dressed dolls with silvery high hats and parade canes and red-painted shoes; funny buttons that said “Let’s Jazz,” “Kiss Me, I Am Kosher,” and “Caught at Bear Mountain”; miniature charm knives, the world’s smallest pistols in the world’s smallest holsters; and, because 200 cubic feet of highly flammable hydrogen cost $3 and a tank of U.S. government –monopolized helium was $30, the world’s most dangerous balloons.
But I do believe my father had the only free act that ever appeared in a peanut, popcorn, and candy apple stand. The star of his show was a little rhesus monkey on a tiny trapeze. My father always began this story with the question, “Did I ever tell you about my monkey named Roebuck?” It didn’t matter whether I answered yes or no. I was going to have to listen once again to a story he’d told me so many times in virtually the same words that I was sure he had it written on his mind.
“When I had the peanut, popcorn and candy apple concession with Bushy’s carnival,” my father would say, “I had a location at the entrance of the midway, and not too far away from me was the merry-go-round. So when the people came to the carnival they’d let the kids run in and get a box of popcorn and a ride on the merry-go-round, and they’d sit in their cars and wait for the kids to get finished.”
“One winter, Jim Flynn suggested to Bushy, ‘Don’t put the merry-go-round up front. Put it way in the back. That’ll make the marks circulate on the midway.’ So the first week of the season, Bushy put the jenny in the back and left me up in front with no customers. Now I had to try and figure out how to attract people so I could do some business.
“A few days later, I took a ride to Benson’s Wild Animal Farm in New Hampshire, where they had monkeys for sale. At first they wanted me to wait until the season was over, but I told them, ‘I need one now, or I’ll be out of business by then.’ So they sold me a little rhesus monkey for $35, and they put him in a small wooden cage. I put the cage on the front seat of my truck, and while I was driving back to the carnival, the monkey would look at me and I would look at the monkey, and I don’t know if I was more afraid of him than he was of me.”
“I would’ve been afraid!” I said. “He might’ve bitten you.” I knew a thing or two about monkeys from Mrs. Van Pelt, a lady who had Roman targets at the Connecticut fairs and kept two monkeys in her house trailer. We carny kids weren’t allowed to play with her “babies” because one of them was vicious. When Mrs. Van Pelt wore sleeveless dresses, I could see where the monkey had sunk his teeth into her fleshy arms.
“Well, that happened to me, too,” said my father. “But first I have to tell you that after we got back to the lot and the monkey ate a few meals, he got to like me.”
“I’d built a small trapeze and fastened it to one of the rafters in the popcorn stand. I tried to train Roebuck to sit on it and swing. It was against the law to keep an animal in a food stand, but I had to take a chance because it was either that or go out of business.”
It took my father three weeks to get Roebuck to sit on the trapeze and swing. And when he did, he was surrounded by a crowd of people who bought peanuts and popcorn and candy apples to eat while they watched the free show. “Some kids would do anything to be near the monkey: They’d bring bananas. They’d throw pennies. And Roebuck would catch quite a few of them.”
“How much did he make?” If he made more than my salary, 25 cents a night and all the pennies, I vowed to ask for a raise.
“Oh, he made about a nickel a night. Ten cents at a kiddies’ matinee. We were in Pawtucket, where they spoke only French and I learned to say, ‘Ooon ba-white de popcorn poor deez cents!”
My father’s accent made my French-speaking mother laugh her head off whenever he came to that line in the story.
“What did you do for Roebuck’s costume?” I wondered. Mrs. Van Pelt dressed up her pets in doll clothes and slum jewelry that they chewed to pieces. I couldn’t picture my father’s monkey in anything but the sequined suit of a trapeze star.
“A friend’s wife sewed a jacket and pants that I used to put on him just before I got ready to swing open the awnings,” my father said. “A town kid gave him a small straw hat to wear, and it was when I was trying to put it on him one night that he bit me. I slapped him in the face with the back of my hand, and the next day he had one of the biggest black eyes you ever saw on a monkey. Then I had to think up an alibi. If the town kids ever knew I’d hit the monkey, they would’ve had me arrested.
My father had slapped my face too, just once, for answering him back. It happened so long ago, I would have forgotten about it if my mother didn’t constantly complain. “Your father lets you get away with murder! He’s afraid to hit you again because he almost knocked your head off your shoulders that one time.” But what did my father say when the town kids asked him, “How’d the monkey get the black eye?” He told them, “He fell off the trapeze.” And they believed him. And when the kids would ask, “what’s the monkey’s name?” he’d say, “I’m Sears. He’s Roebuck,” and they would laugh.
Now my father had bought the monkey the third week in June, and when it was a couple weeks before Labor Day, he was getting ready to the go to the Goshen, Connecticut, Fair. His only problem was that they had a food inspector who came from Hartford, and he was very strict.
“If this inspector from Hartford knew I had a monkey in my truck he would close up my business. I had to find someone to take care of Roebuck for the six weeks of the Connecticut fair season,” my father said. “I couldn’t think what to do. Then I saw an advertisement in the New Haven paper – a lady was interested in buying a monkey! I don’t have to tell you what happened. I sold Roebuck to her.”
He’d seen Roebuck only once after he’s sold him. “It was in the middle of the winter. And there he was with a fat belly. Evidently the woman fed Roebuck every time she looked at him. And he didn’t get any exercise because she kept him tied so he wouldn’t swing from the chandelier in her dining room. Roebuck wasn’t a little monkey anymore. He was all grown up.”
Though my father had bought and sold Roebuck more than ten years before I was born, I felt as though the monkey was my long-lost brother. I just knew that he missed the peanuts, popcorn, and pennies as much as I did when we stayed from October through April in my grandmother’s house in New Haven, away from the free-wheeling life of the carnival.