Photo by John Nizalowski
The Carnival Journey
by John Nizalowski
I could see it from my front yard, down there on the river bank where the land was flat and smooth and lined with cottonwoods. The Ferris wheel, a great mandala of electric lights, turned majestically in the cool desert night. Next to the wheel, twin rockets spun on a steel axis, rapidly pursuing each other in their circumscribed heavens. The rattle of a miniature roller coaster drifted across the plain, along with the clanging of bells and the screams emerging from the more extreme rides, all of it faint with distance.
This was the carnival that arrived magically every year on my daughter’s birthday in Delta, a small ranching town in western Colorado. While she was dreaming inside the century-old white clapboard house about the past day spent riding the floating teacups, the merry-go-round’s cherry red horse, and the three-story slide, I was outside, watching the distant, spinning lights, remembering carnivals past.
When I was a child, the carnival showed up every year too, but not on my birthday, since no carnival would ever do business in upstate New York during February, a time when rivers freeze as hard as Arctic iron and ice sheaths the bare branches. Instead, my childhood carnivals occurred in the soft summer nights of June or July, when the oaks and maples are rich in foliage, and the Owego River runs low and slow through Newark Valley, the rural town I lived near until I started college.
And yet, while these carnivals did not appear on my birthday, several did arrive during important transformational periods of my life, and continue to do so. According to Carl Jung, when we go through major personal shifts, both internal and external, we ride our dreams and waking fantasies into the realm of the collective unconscious, where we encounter archetypal figures that help us complete our current metamorpho-sis. A number of times when I was under-going a pivotal change, a carnival provided the outer imagery that manifested the mythological symbols stirring within me, much like the mysterious Magical Theater in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, which reflects the inner world of the novel’s main character, Harry Haller, a seeker of truth in the cabarets of Weimar Germany.
Photo by John Nizalowski
One of the carnivals that fulfilled this role took place the summer after I turned thirteen. At that time, I was becoming acutely aware of my sexual energies. Also, just before then, I had been in several fights at school with a tall, muscular hill-country teen who took an intense dislike to me for, as far as I could tell, no reason whatsoever. Altogether, I was in quite an emotional stew.
As usual, the carnival was the main feature of the Firemen’s Field Days, an annual event that raised money for the local volunteer fire departments. That year, the Field Days were being held at the Trout Ponds, a park at the edge of Newark Valley. Lying at the bottom of a small bluff, the park consisted of a stream, rolling green lawns, and several small lakes surrounded by groves of ash, maples, and sycamores.
That year, my father and I went to the Field Days on a Saturday night, and as we drove down the tree-lined road leading to the Trout Pond, I could just make out the carnival, with its game booths, Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, and other rides, their lights turning and shining in the darkness behind a maze of leaves and branches. The sight made a deep impression on me. I had recently become an avid reader of Ray Bradbury’s fiction, and so the carnival had different connotations for me than, say three years earlier, when my excitement grew from the rides and the chance to win a giant stuffed giraffe by throwing red wooden balls at stacked white clubs. Now the carnival held the promise of magic and adventures in the realms of the bizarre. I half expected that Mr. Dark from Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes would show me the world’s most beautiful woman in her glass coffin, or the Illustrated Man would order me to gaze at the blank spot on his fabulously tattooed body and I would see my tragic future. As it turned out, I did indeed have an adventure, though it had little to do with Bradbury’s shadowy phantasms.
When we reached the bottom of the bluff, my dad parked the station wagon and we entered the carnival grounds. With a squeeze to my shoulder, and a gruffly jovial “have fun,” he took off for the fireman’s beer tent. In those days, Newark Valley was a “dry” town, and so the sale of alcohol was not permitted. Thus, the firemen’s beer tent, exempted from the law as a charitable enterprise, was the closest thing to a local bar Newark Valley ever had. And since it happened only once a year, all those locals who enjoyed the company of fellow drinkers would gather to seize this rare moment.
Unfortunately, my dad, in order to finish weeding in the vegetable garden, had waited until the light failed to head out to the carnival, so it was already late evening by the time we arrived. The crowds had thinned considerably, and the rides for smaller children–the twirling tea cups, miniature train, and kid-sized army trucks–were all shut down. Wandering the grounds, I could find none of my friends, but I went on several rides anyway. Still, with no one to share the experience, I quickly tired of the Ferris wheel, the whip, and the spinning rockets. A stroll through the rows of carnival booths produced similar results. None of the games of skill pulled me in, even the air rifles, which were my favorite. Indeed, a scattering of booths had already closed.
Finally, feeling restless and bored by the carnival, I wandered off along the stream as it crossed the park grounds. I’m not certain now what drew me on, but the night was certainly magical, with a gibbous moon illuminating the waters as they rippled over a bed of small, rounded shale stones. With distance, even the carnival regained some of its attraction. The garish sounds became muffled, and its gyrating lights grew softer, more mysterious.
Following the stream, I soon entered the forest. The moon lit a faint path that led deep within, so I quietly left the water to take the trail, which angled off into a tangle of maples, oaks, and ash. The trail began to fade out, but I kept going, the tree trunks becoming wider, the dead leaves thickening underfoot. Beyond the layered matrix of leaves, streetlights from the town at the top of the bluff shone through like mist-obscured moons.
Hearing a sound, I suddenly stopped. Off to my right, deeper in the woods, I could just discern two shapes in the dappled moonlight. Curious, I slid through the trees to get a closer look. Within maybe five, six yards, the shapes resolved into entwined arms, naked skin, a torso. Two teens were making love in the forest. She was lying on the leaves, her short skirt bunched up around her thighs. He was still dressed in t-shirt and jeans. As they kissed, he ran his hand slowly up her leg. The scene startled me, but I kept still. From behind me, the muted sounds of the carnival hung on the cool air. The moonlight shifted as the branches creaked in a mild breeze, revealing different aspects of the lovers’ movements. The leaves above rustled. The boy and the girl were silent.
Abruptly, I became sharply aware that my presence there was wrong. Without rattling the leaves at my feet, or snapping a dry stick, I shifted my position and walked out of the woods as quietly as a salamander slipping under a stone.
In the time I had been gone, the carnival had wound down even further. The merry-go-round horses stood still in mid-stride, the octopus had ceased its gyrations, the paired rockets hung frozen against the moon-bright sky. Over half the booths were now closed like sleeping clams. Like a hungry ghost, I kept picturing the young lovers in the forest, with their slow movements shifting between clumsiness and grace. Aimless, I wandered up and down the lane of darkening booths and around the soundless, shadow-filled rides. A bitter disappointment at having arrived at the carnival so late set in, and in desperation I set off for the beer tent.
Passing through an entrance formed from rolled and tied flaps, I found a strange and sad echo to the real beer joints my father occasionally patronized in Owego, the nearest “wet” town to Newark Valley. Under the tan canvas roof, about thirty men stood around in clusters of threes and fours, their heads illuminated by a line of bare incandescent bulbs strung across the tent’s high ceiling. A makeshift bar formed from an old door set on two sawhorses occupied one of the tent’s corners. A squat, balding fellow with a stained apron manned the bar, and past him sat an aluminum keg in a large tin wash-bucket filled with melting chunks of ice. Next to the wash-bucket, five empty kegs marked the day’s drinking achievements. A stack of waxed paper cups rested on the bar, awaiting the beer to come.
Next to the bar, a great plywood disc, decorated as a roulette wheel, hung from a wooden platform. As the wheel spun, a series of pegs sticking out from its rim clacked loudly against a wooden flap nailed to the contraption’s frame, the staccato sound slowing with the wheel. A cluster of men were gathered in front of a high-legged table facing the wheel. They would take turns placing bets and throwing a set of darts at the wheel, hoping to hit their chosen number and color. The man running the wheel was compact, well-muscled, and wore tight jeans and white t-shirt with a pack of Lucky Strikes rolled up in the sleeve. His blond crew-cut emphasized his sharp features. I recognized him as the assistant scoutmaster of my Boy Scout troop, and almost shouted out a greeting, but I cut it off, realizing this wasn’t the time or place. Instead, I walked over to my dad, who stood in the middle of the tent’s large, open space talking to two friends.
As I walked up, he nodded to me and turned back to his companions, a pair of heavyset men in overalls and work boots. The conversation–all about fertilizer, alfalfa, and crop rotation–quickly lost me. So I watched my father. He had an odd gesture of nodding his round head with quick, short jabs led by his tight, grey moustache. It was his way of indicating assent and encouragement, a mannerism that said, ‘Yes, keep going, you’re so right.’
After about ten minutes, my father downed the last of his waxed cup of beer and turned to me.
“Done with the carnival?” he asked.
“That was rather quick.”
“Well, most of it’s shut down.”
He nodded. “I’m going to have another beer, and then we’ll head for home.”
“All right,” I answered after a pause. I was hoping we would go right home. The still warm tent smelled of stale beer mixed with sweat, my feet were sore, there was nowhere to sit, and I certainly did not want to hear any more about alfalfa bailing.
While my father and his friends drifted over to the make-shift bar to order more beer, I looked around for some way to kill time. About the only activity in the tent worth watching was the roulette wheel, so I found a spot where I could watch both it and the dart throwers.
The group before the wheel had dropped to three men, and only one of them was throwing. The spectators–two scrawny, denim-clad fellows with bony cheekbones and sharp noses–seemed to be brothers. The shooter, who was downing a lot of beer, was taller, heftier, the angles of his face concealed by puffy cheeks and jowls. He wore a short-sleeved tan shirt and a brand new pair of blue jeans. It cost a dollar to throw three darts, and the buck was the bet – two for one. The shooter was shooting round after round. With every half-dozen sets or so, one of the brothers would run over to the bar and buy the shooter a refill. His eyes were shiny, his stance unsteady.
My assistant scoutmaster was still running the wheel, and even though, like a carnival barker, he was keeping up a stream of encouraging banter, his stance was slouched and his voice had lost its volume and crispness. Clearly, he had been manning the gambling contraption for a long time and was waiting for the long night to end.
But the shooter and his gang were far from done. He had developed a sure-fire method for winning. After declaring his color and number, he would wait for the wheel to slow a bit and then throw the dart with a violent snap of his wrist. The missile would then carve a sharp curve through the air and strike the wheel’s outer edge. With this technique, the shooter was hitting his chosen wedge of the wheel nearly three out of four times, and his dollar bills were piling up.
This went on for maybe twenty minutes when the shooter gave the feathered projectile a truly crazy spin. The dart arced wildly through space, sailed past the wheel’s edge, and stabbed the wheel spinner in his left thigh.
Abruptly, everything stopped. There was the dart, looking strange and out of place as it projected from the man’s leg. The shooter froze, looking shocked and confused. Abruptly, my scout leader’s face transformed into an enraged mask as a trickle of blood formed around the dart’s metal shaft.
“You son of a bitch,” he roared. He lunged for the shooter, but before he could reach him, his leg gave out and he collapsed. The bartender and another man grabbed him under the arms and dragged him past the wheel and out of the tent.
“I’m gonna kill you,” he shouted as the tent flaps cut him off from view. “You goddamn bastard!” Muffled by the canvas and the damp night air, it was like a curse uttered from the underworld.
For a moment everyone stared silently at the tent flap through which the wounded man had vanished. Then a babble burst forth, men describing to each other what they had just witnessed. I could hear the shooter declaring in a surprisingly loud and clear voice, “I didn’t mean it, I didn’t.” In a far corner, someone laughed. Meanwhile, my father looked around until he spotted me. Crossing the tent to where I stood in stunned silence, he told me it was time to go home.
All the way back, as the rural blacktop highway rolled into our headlights like some dark river, I kept seeing the girl’s bare thighs, the dart sticking from the wounded man’s leg, and the small circle of blood forming on his jeans. When we arrived, I went right upstairs to my bedroom. As was usual in the summer, the room was hot despite the open window and the spinning fan, and I had trouble falling asleep. When I did, the night’s carnival images shaped the long night’s dreams, unleashing the archetypes of sex and violence, creation and destruction, from my deep unconscious.
Three decades later, I was no longer the child who looked forward to the annual arrival of miniature rides and colorful tents. Instead, it was Ursula, my eight-year-old daughter, who waited in anxious anticipation for the carnival, the one that magically appeared every year on her birthday.
At that time we were living in Delta, a small western Colorado town built on ranches, apple orchards, and sugar beet farms. Of the three, the sugar beet farms had entirely faded away, and where once there had been a series of ponds holding rotting beet husks and other stench-producing waste from the sugar processing plant, there was now a broad lake fed by the clean waters of a Gunnison River tributary and a grassy park with cottonwood trees and smooth lawns. It was here, every year on May 18th, Ursula’s birthday, that a travelling carnival would erect its backwater wonderland.
From our front yard we could watch it setting up on the banks of the Gunnison River, past the Southern Pacific rail siding and the grain elevators’ twin white towers. It was an especially delightful sight at night, when I would lean against the rough bark of the yard’s massive catalpa tree and watch the Ferris wheel make its grand rotation, its spokes outlined by flashing lines of blazing light. I could also see the great disk of a ride called the Flying Saucer, which would heave itself from the ground like a failed rocket launch, spin for a time with red and orange electric fires, and then plunge back to earth. When the cooling breeze blew from the Gunnison, I could just hear the shouts of the riders and the bass thump of the canned rock music.
Usually the day after the carnival had set up, I would take Ursula and her sister Isadora, two years younger, to play in the carnival’s magic spaces – with its popcorn vendors, cotton candy weavers, and ring-toss hucksters. And, of course, there were the rides. My daughters were too young to take the truly wild rides, like the colorful steel benches that fling and snap you through the air in frantic, cyclic motions, or the great wheel that spins so rapidly the centrifugal force plasters the rider against the metal walls while the floor drops out. No, the girls, blond and lithe like sky-sprites come to earth to explore the world’s delights, would enter instead the carnival’s tamer devices – the merry-go-round’s plastic horses galloping in a perfect circle to recorded calliope music, the dragon-shaped miniature roller coaster, the fifty-foot-high multi-track slide, and the giant metal strawberries that moved in a stately dance. There was even a portable fun-house with stairs that moved from side to side, floor nozzles that startled with sudden bursts of air, a mirror maze, a tilting floor, and a cylinder that tumbled the girls like ragdolls in a slowly turning dryer.
Photo by John Nizalowski
But year after year, their favorite was the Ferris wheel. The best time to take it was at dusk, so that as we rose in the great creaking machine, the silver-painted girders making a clever pattern as they passed on either side, we could look across the western landscape – the dark rise of flat-topped Grand Mesa to the north, the mysterious uplift of the Uncompahgre Plateau to the west, and to the north, the Gunnison River snaking past in the last light, embraced by cottonwoods and Russian olive trees. But the real treat was the array of lights, beginning with the ones on the Ferris wheel itself, long fluorescent tubes in many colors arranged along the wheel’s circular grid. Then, surrounding the Ferris wheel, there glowed the carnival’s lights—red, yellow, blue and white, spinning and flying and rotating with their rides. Finally, beyond the carnival lay the lights of the city, the houselights, streetlights, and headlamps of the cars streaming past on U.S. 50, heading for Grand Junction or Montrose or McClure Pass. All of it rising and setting with the stately turn of the wheel, creating a feeling of careful, circumscribed flight.
Ursula especially loved the Ferris wheel, and she would ride it–sometimes with me or her sister, sometimes alone–six or seven times before our night at the carnival came to a close, for she was mesmerized by the wheel’s cyclic journey, which landed you back where you started, transformed by delight and a quarter of an hour older.
Nevertheless, the day arrived when Ursula made her final Ferris wheel journey.
She had just turned ten, and was experiencing many significant life changes. Her mother and I were living apart and heading for a divorce. Also, we had moved out of our Delta house with its big glassed-in front porch, its maze of old rooms, its mysterious attic filled with forgotten furniture, and the big catalpa tree from which we could watch the carnival rides blossom across the river flats. Now my daughters and I lived on the ground floor of a small duplex in Grand Junction, a mid-sized city forty miles north of Delta. Still, on the day when Ursula turned ten, we decided to follow tradition and took the trek to the lost world of her birthday carnival.
We drove there on a bright Saturday afternoon, heading south through the shale hills that roll like ocean waves between Grand Junction and Delta. To the east, the basaltic ramparts of the Grand Mesa rose into a blazing white sky. To the west, the sun was a sliced-lemon smear of light behind high, thin clouds. Scattered clusters of antelope stood in the dry, curving spaces, and ravens played in a stiff west wind. This wind worried me as its gusts rocked the car and stirred up dust devils, miniature tornados that tore at the salt brush and sage.
Sure enough, when we reached Delta and turned into the park between the river and the town, the wind was cutting through the carnival, blowing in sand from the arid stretches leading to the Uncompahgre Plateau. Straining to escape, the red and blue and yellow banners snapped in the gale. Many of the concession booths were boarded up, and half the rides were shut down and motionless, machines defeated by the elements. Here and there, groups of sullen teens and blank-eyed families drifted around the nearly empty grounds, seeking something to do.
And yet, to my surprise, the Ferris wheel was running, so we fought our way against the wind to the great steel ring leisurely rotating against the white sky. Scared off by the wind, Isadora didn’t care to get on, so Ursula rode alone. Tall and slender, she carefully placed herself down on the aerial bench, and the operator–a tough, heavyset man in machinist’s overalls and grease-stained denim shirt–clicked the safety bar into place across her lap. Back at the controls, he threw a great steel lever and set the wheel ponderously turning. I watched as Ursula rode up into the glaring sky and descended back to earth, a faint smile on her face, her long blond hair whipping in the gale. I pictured what she was seeing as the wheel moved, the town she had called home for seven years dropping beneath her feet and spreading out before her – the riverbank where she had skipped stones, the drug store with its ice cream counter, the century-old brick library where Tin-Tin waited patiently on his shelf, and even, perhaps, a glimpse of the old house and its beloved catalpa tree, its two-story white clapboard structure now occupied by strangers. The wind whistled through the wheel’s struts, the gusts rocked the seat back and forth, and the wheel revolved, bringing Ursula visions of her lost world.
Fairly soon, the operator started manipulating various levers, and the great wheel slowed. The journey had seemed shorter than usual. There were only a handful of riders, and Ursula was the last one to get off. After the operator helped her down, he hooked a chain across the gate. Despite this, she held out the right number of tickets to ride again. The operator glanced at her and shook his head.
“I’m shutting down,” he said in a gruff voice. “Too much wind.”
As if she hadn’t heard him, Ursula stood for a time holding out the tickets. Finally, she turned away and stepped down the stairs from the short wooden platform with its closed gateway to the Ferris wheel. Upon joining her sister and me, she still possessed her tight smile, but as we began to cross the half-abandoned carnival, she began to silently cry.
It would be ten years before we returned to the carnival’s sacred grounds, a decade that brought many changes to our lives. I was in a new marriage, and my wife Brenda, who had fully embraced the role of step-mother, was a key figure in helping my now-grown daughters navigate the transition from high school to college. It was at this moment of metamorphosis that we made an eight-hundred-mile pilgrimage to a carnival, ending our long exile from its wondrous realm.
I have a cousin in Claremont, one of the many cities that surround Los Angeles like planets circling a massive star. One winter, he and his wife invited all of the descendants of grandfather Nizalowski to spend Christmas Eve at their home in homage to the grand fêtes held on the family farm over forty years ago.
In Polish tradition, the big celebration of Christ’s birth is held on Christmas Eve, and the Nizalowski clan followed this tradition in a fine old-world manner. The night would begin with the drive from home down a long valley, and then up over a forested hill and into a hollow where my grandfather’s farmhouse waited, its windows pouring yellow light onto snow-covered fields.
After parking the car and picking up our offerings of food and presents, we passed through a door topped by a spruce bough and entered a place of wonders. Inside, it was all steam and the aromas of good food: cabbage rolls, silvery smelt, mushroom soup, potato dumplings, green beans, and apple pie. Prepared by my mother and my Aunt Jenny, the entire feast was meatless, a Polish custom for the Christmas Eve meal. After setting our covered platters on the kitchen table, there would be the greetings and the long, impatient wait while the final preparations were made.
At last the long dining room table would be set, and we entered as if into a shrine. The windows were pure black by now, and as they mirrored the room, the old glass distorted the reflection. Pitchers, bottles, and great platters of food covered the wooden table, a vision of wonder and plenty, a gift directly from the hands of Žytnimatka, the ancient Slavic goddess of grain and the field.
All my relatives on my paternal side, including their spouses and children, took their places at the table, with grandfather Nizalowski at its head. Even though everyone was plenty hungry, there were important rituals to perform before we could eat. My grandfather, tall and wiry in his perpetual bib overalls, and my father, stoutly solid with his neatly trimmed grey moustache and hair, would stand and they would break between them a large, flat rectangle of unconsecrated communion wafer. My grandfather would say a prayer in Polish, and then the two would circle the table while each of us would stand, break off a tiny piece of wafer, and receive a brief kiss on the lips. My father’s kiss always felt scratchy because of his moustache. Then we would place the wafer piece on our tongue, feeling it melt away into nothingness.
After this ceremony, the feast would begin, first the mushroom soup, followed by the main dishes. I tended to load up on pierogies, the potato dumplings, because they were my favorite. When I reached my late teens I also took part in the drinking, beer, vodka, and rye in abundance. After the feast, there were Polish Christmas carols to sing, historical subjects to examine, and political arguments to wage. Outside, the moonlight illuminated the snow-draped fields and the bare tree branches afire with frosty crystals. In the barn, according to legend, the farm animals could speak for just one night.
Finally, as the hour grew late, we shouted our farewells, packed the car, and headed over the icy hills for the small red-brick Roman Catholic church at the edge of town. Inside, the priest in his finest robes would celebrate midnight mass before a white and gold cloth-covered altar, the whole chapel ablaze with candles and filled with singing voices accompanied by a humble organ.
This is, sadly, a lost world, and our contemporary gathering in southern California could not match it. But we did our best, drinking mulled wine instead of beer and vodka, and eating pesto pasta instead of mushroom soup. But my brother Ed, sister Jean, and cousin Bob made pierogies according to my mother’s beloved recipe, and we sang Christmas carols in both Polish and English, accompanied by Edris, my cousin’s wife, on piano; Robert, Edris’s son, on guitar; and Isadora, my youngest daughter, on violin. Instead of an icy moon illuminating the snow-draped hills of the Alleghany Plateau, the golden sun poured in over the San Bernardino Mountains, setting off flashes of light along the palm leaves and sparking the marigold patches ablaze. And no ice rimed the green lawn.
The day after Christmas, we decided to take a drive to the sea. Our troop of young teens and middle-aged adults piled into two cars and took a freeway west from Claremont, and after an hour we turned onto a two-lane road that climbed a series of switchbacks over the ridge that separated Los Angeles from the ocean. As the houses dropped away, the land grew greener, the foliage more dense. Now and then, we would pass small ranch houses with unpainted barns and pens with goats, chickens, sheep, and horses, distant echoes of grandfather’s farm.
We began to descend a series of tight curves, like the course of an ancient, meandering river, and the cool air that poured through the open windows smelled at last of the sea. About a third of the way down we made an especially sharp hairpin turn, and there it was below us, the Pacific Ocean, a shimmering expanse stretching beyond the western horizon.
After a final stretch of twisting road, we reached California Highway 1 and turned south. With the sea to our right and the grey coastal cliffs to our left, we drove through a series of gentle, ocean-hugging curves, and then pulled off at one of the many small beaches that line the coast between Santa Barbara and San Clemente. By this time, solid grey clouds covered the sky, and the sun was a wan silvery coin. Despite the chill wind blowing off the sea, we rolled up our jeans, took off our sneakers, and strolled on the wet sand. Pelicans cruised the surf, their wings curled over the crests. Occasionally, one would dive into the surging waters to emerge with a fish. Inspired by the pelicans, Isadora waded waist-deep into the surf to retrieve a piece of driftwood that was about the length and smoothness of her arm and as blond as her hair. Cheers from her extended family greeted her as she emerged from the sea gripping the stripped branch in her left hand.
With the attainment of this trophy, we all piled back into the cars and continued south, searching for a place to have a fish supper. Several times we stopped at promising possibilities, but every restaurant was either too expensive, too crowded, or lacked indoor seating, and we wanted to get in out of the chilly early-evening air.
After several discouraging stops, we came to a bend in the highway where the houses and businesses between us and the sea vanished, and there, in the far distance, all lit up like a gaudy battleship, stretched the Santa Monica Pier, its Ferris wheel and roller coaster ablaze with electric fire. After a quick cellphone conference, we decided to head for the pier, since it would certainly offer an affordable seafood restaurant. I was very excited by this decision, for I had always wanted to visit the Santa Monica Pier, which I’ve long viewed as the archetypal carnival that stands at the continent’s end, like a monument to the gods of amusement. And here we were, serendipitously making the pier the day’s final destination.
Photo by John Nizalowski
In 1916, the Santa Monica Pier became the site of an amusement park when German-born manufacturer Charles I.D. Looff created a world-class carnival with roller coaster, arcades, and the Looff Pier Carousel, a forty-four-horse merry-go-round that operates to this day. The pier park reached its apex in 1924 when its new owners, the Santa Monica Amusement Company, built a titan-sized roller coaster named the Whirlwind Dipper and the La Monica Ballroom, which, at 15,000 square feet, was the largest ballroom in the American West. However, unlike the Looff Pier Carousel, both of these structures are long gone, victims of the pier’s declining fortunes, which reached their lowest point in 1983 when severe storms destroyed much of the pier. Fortunately, the people of Santa Monica rallied to save this West Coast icon, and its reconstruction was completed in 1990. Six years later, Pacific Park opened, the first full-scale amusement park on the pier since the late 1930’s. And so, the Santa Monica Pier, hovering over the sea like an enchanted city, once more became one of America’s most cherished carnivals.
Even though I had never been there, I felt I knew the pier well through certain beloved novels and movies. For instance, in Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, the character of Laird Brunette runs shuttles from the fictional Bay City to his gambling ship the Montecito. Chandler based Brunette on mobster Tony Cornero, who in the 1930’s used the Santa Monica Yacht Harbor, which was right next to the pier, to run shuttles to his gambling barge anchored past maritime limits. The scene in which private detective Philip Marlowe prowls the Bay City boardwalk at dusk, preparing to have a confrontation with Brunette in the Montecito, is not only a beautiful evocation of the Santa Monica Pier, but is also one of the finest passages in 20th century American literature. And although Ray Bradbury’s Death is a Lonely Business is set in nearby Venice just days before its pier was torn down, his amusement park descriptions vividly conjure up the Santa Monica Pier in the mid-1940s.
And then there are the movies, like Night Tide with Dennis Hopper as a seaman who falls in love with femme fatale Mora, a Santa Monica sideshow attraction mermaid played by Linda Lawson. Or They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? with Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia, who play a desperate couple participating in a Depression-era marathon dance held in the deteriorating La Monica Ballroom. And best of all is Quicksand. Set against the pier’s arcade and rides as they appeared in 1950, this film noir features Mickey Rooney as a garage mechanic who inexorably slides into a life of crime.
These novels and films were running through my mind as we drove toward the pier and found a place to park. A short walk, and we stepped off the street and onto the pier, past the magical sign that reads: “Santa Monica—U.S. 66—End of the Trail.” Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, John Steinbeck and Grapes of Wrath, Jack Kerouac and On the Road, “Get Your Kicks”: It all ends here, on the pier’s worn, grey planks.
The dying light, like a vein of silver shot with turquoise, hovered on the ocean’s horizon. Below, on the beach, a scattering of barefoot people with their jeans rolled up still sought joy in the half-lit sand, running from the surf and assembling altars of driftwood to Poseidon.
Photo by John Nizalowski
But we were here to worship the god of carnivals, not the sea. Ahead of us, yellow, blue, and red neon tubes flashed on and off to the rhythm of the surf. We passed incandescent booths of chance, air rifle, ring toss, and clacking roulette wheel. A game arcade spilled electronically produced sounds of angry guns and roaring engines into the hot dog scented sea-salt air. With a clatter of rails, rollercoaster cars soared into a dark space outlined in dazzling lights. And through the great windows of a century-old stucco building, we caught glimpses of the Looff Carousel, with its brightly painted horses and mirror-adorned axel, while above, the Ferris wheel turned in its traditional majesty.
While exploring the pier, we found a fish restaurant run by a Korean family, and we all ordered great meals of broiled shrimp, grilled tuna, breaded cod, fried potatoes, and clam chowder. When we were done, we strolled once more under the newly-born California night, and I felt time being focused by the vast, multi-faceted, many-colored lens that is the Santa Monica Pier. A half century of my life was manifested on that boardwalk suspended above the sea: my wife, my daughters, my brother and sister and cousin, all those carnivals from the tree-shrouded Fireman’s Field Days to Ursula’s birthday celebration out there on the Gunnison River flood plain, all of it brought together under the dim stars and glittering lights here at the nation’s far western edge. For this was the final carnival, the completed metamorphosis. At the pier’s end I could just make out the curling waves’ phosphorescence. At my back, the city lights encrusted the hills with uncounted white diamonds and the occasional ruby. It was truly transcendent, the climax of decades.
In the end, as the western horizon settled into complete darkness, my wife slipped her arm in mine, and followed by my teenage daughters, we began the final walk back to our waiting car. My carnival journey was complete.