Coney Baloney OR Under the Big Top

10:32 August 13, 2018
By: Phil LaMancusa

It’s summertime, and to myself and others of a certain age, something is missing in our immediate future; it entails having a summer without an amusement park. And no, not a Theme Park—I’m talking about a park that’s like a hot, sweaty walk on sawdust: a warm-water drinking fountains, girl-watching, fast food smelling, permanent roller coaster, bumper cars, kiddie rides, dart throwing at balloons, Tilt-a-whirl, Tunnel of Love, Fun House, cotton candy, corn on the cob, sloppy hot dogs, and brain-freezing slushy drink kind of amusement park—one with Merry-Go-Rounds, calliopes, Tea Cup and Wild Mouse rides. They close in the winter and open in the summer, and they’re run by folks who live a life that none of us have ever seen and wouldn’t understand, much less be able to survive.

It’s summertime, and, to myself (and others of a certain age), something worth waiting for may not occur, yet we still wait for it: a state fair, a traveling circus and/or old-fashioned carnival. They occur too infrequently and are not visited often by us, but abide in our collective consciousnesses as the places we want to run away from home to. They feature tight rope walkers, clowns in tiny cars, a master of ceremonies, trapeze artists, strong men lifting weights, and women in shiny bathing suits spinning from ropes clenched in their teeth. In my day there were freak shows with bearded ladies, Siamese twins, and Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy. These amusements came with obligatory obnoxious refreshment stands, souvenir outlets, and tents visited by adults only. “Step right up and see Little Eva do the Dance of the Seven veils; she walks, she talks, she crawls on her belly like a reptile! One tenth of a dollar, one thin dime…”

There are carousels, Ferris wheels, fortune tellers, and water pistols that you shoot at a clown face and that blow up a balloon. Kewpie dolls with painted faces awaited the guy that could take that hammer, hit that bell, and “win a big something for the little lady.” 

And always somewhere not far off, there was a group of trailers where the workers and performers camped—the carneys, riggers, prop hands, and the roustabouts; the unshaven guys who sold you dimes to toss at plates that you could keep if your coin would just stay put, or who handed you that rifle to shoot at sitting ducks; and the tobacco-chewing women who pyramided milk bottles for you to throw baseballs at: “Step right up!”

 Big Luke—six feet four with a bushy beard and a big grin, about three hundred pounds in faded overalls—was one of these folks. I ran into him (literally) when I was part of a commune here in New Orleans. He had worked offshore several times, been an oyster fisherman, a carny, a pot salesman. He stayed up late, got up early, and knew the names of all the bikers at the Seven Seas bar on St. Philip Street (just off Decatur). He knew how to tie knots, tell jokes, fix nearly every damn thing ever made and could scare the heck out of anybody just by rising to his full height. He knew how to fish and cook and could drink any grown person under the table. He was also a born storyteller. He rode freights, smoked and drank and caroused, and died earlier than I, although we are the same age (and I’m still goin’ like the Energizer Bunny). He garnered permanent friends and temporary lovers and was in and out of many of our lives here. It would be hard to make up a character like Big Luke. 

I dread the loss of characters here. I want to continue to see sword swallowers, mimes, flower sellers, magicians, musicians, and that hapless, helpless, homeless, lovable guy that holds court on the corner of St. Peter and Royal Street. I want to continue to see Clarence selling his Bananas, muttering Bill and little Johnny running errands for merchants to keep the wheels of commerce greased, those ever-smiling gaslight mechanics at Bevolo, Pedicab peddlers that singsong our visitors, ice cream hawkers selling cool, and the honest men of a certain age that actually want to shine your shoes.

The shopkeepers in the Quarter and their staffs are at once funny, honest, cute, good-humored, gregarious, and a little bit nuts; I love them all. What we need is a Ferris Wheel. I mean it. And a roller coaster. 

Picture it: We have the French Quarter—that’s already almost an amusement park; we’ve got the weather, the shops, and eating places, and the fortune tellers and artists, right? All day long and into the night we have mule and carriage rides, tour guides and mimes, pirates, zombies in old-fashioned dresses, pickpockets, sharpies, and the occasional huckster, complete with Three-card Monte or the tricky 3 Shell Game and disappearing pea.

Let’s just go for it. We have an aquarium, insectarium, shopping mall, and all that room, from the casino to Jackson Square. We already have an RV park behind the welcome center for the carneys. Or better yet . . .  Armstrong Park! The theater (which is underutilized) can be THE BIG TOP!  with three rings and the whole works!

I’m telling you, we have a huge (a HUGE!) economic opportunity here; when I finish this paragraph, I’m going to write the mayor. Unemployment will drop to new lows. There will be second lines every night with fireworks. Our schools will have a whole new curriculum. We could stay open year-round with our weather. Street vendors would have a field day. You could clean up being a sanitation worker. 

And a good time would be had by all. 

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