1001 Nachts: a Fourteen-minute Journey from Absurdity to Mindfulness

Freak show posters.

I knew the carnival was there, but I couldn’t yet see it. Rounding a long curve at twenty miles-per-hour, around the northern perimeter of the CoolSprings Galleria, with the interstate running parallel on my left, I looked up at just the right moment, and through a break in the tall trees, I saw flashing, colored lights. The lights formed a number and a word: “1001 Nachts.” At first, a tiny spark of excitement rushed through me, provoked by the sight of a carnival ride–a vestige of childhood perhaps, one I wouldn’t have expected to feel as an adult. But there it was, the old excitement: even though I wasn’t going to ride anything or play any games, or even treat myself to some wayward, deep-fried confection, the little surge had come. Second, I wondered why the word nights was in German. The original collection of stories known as The Thousand and One Nights, as you probably know, was written in Arabic, so it had to be translated into something, right? But why not English, for an American audience? Here are two theories: either the ride originally operated in Germany, OR . . . somebody thought “1001 Nachts” sounded more exotic. My measly Google research yielded nothing, so I’ll go with the latter of those theories, a choice allowing me to good-naturedly mock the ride maker’s naming decision while still appreciating the imagination that went into creating this magic-carpet simulating ride.

1001 Nachts

It was 4:45 on a Wednesday afternoon, so I didn’t expect a bustling crowd, but what I found was no crowd at all. In fact, there were no visitors anywhere, except me. There were people milling about, but it soon became clear they were  all employed by the amusement company–each one had on some color variant of the same digitally-embroidered polo shirt. Rides spun with no one on them; appeals to play games were directed solely at me. It was a bit surreal. Finally, someone informed me that the carnival didn’t officially open until five, though I was free to stroll through the premises and be harassed by game operators. I was only a few minutes early, but early nonetheless. It was opening night, and no one was there yet . . . but me.

From an actual conversation.

Some of the game operators wore headsets, the purpose of which apparently was to let them speak to customers without yelling. I found this out after I’d only barely entered the loop, before I’d made eye contact with anybody. “You ready to shoot some hoops?” It took a couple seconds to find the source of the question. Then up ahead, some thirty or forty yards, standing in front of a basketball shooting game, a young man was smiling at me. It seemed ridiculous he’d solicit my money from that distance. But it didn’t seem to matter to these hi-tech carnival barkers whether I was near them or far away. Indeed, a few minutes later, a woman spoke to me via headset from a mere four feet, which was kind of weird, like talking on the phone to someone who’s in the same room. She demonstrated how to stand a bottle upright with a ring-on-a-string so I’d know the secret and all I’d have to do was give her a few dollars and then I’d have my pick of any of the stuffed animals hanging from the canopy’s ceiling. Something I found hilarious, though, was her response when I told her no:  she said, “I understand.” Why this was so funny, I’m not sure. I guess because it was such a real-world answer to a situation that was inherently absurd. It surprised me she didn’t keep pressing. Maybe she too sensed how uncomfortable this one-on-one interchange with a headset was. I moved on, passing through the shadow of 1001 Nachts, which soared atop its flat post, sometimes lit, sometimes not.

The highlight of my solitary, earlybird, parking-lot carnival stroll would have to be the freak show tent. I never expect to see this in modern times, except for maybe at Coney Island, where a legitimate historical–albeit quirky and gloriously anachronistic–culture surrounds it (though to Coney Island’s credit, I’ve noticed the gentler term “sideshow” often used in place of “freak show” in their promotional literature). The phenomenon of the freak show evades the flailing and grasping tentacles of political correctness, somehow; the whole idea of profiting off labeling people as “freaks” seems like it would be an intolerable subversion in our society. But nevertheless, at the very back of the carnival, a red and yellow striped tent stretched wide across the pavement, its facade covered in various classic freak-show style posters, testifying to an uncharacteristic laxity in the aforementioned political correctness.

The posters on the tent might’ve been as much decorative as they were informative. I couldn’t tell from the posters what was actually inside the tent versus what may have been merely a set of freak show tropes, included on the facade for simple effect. There’s no way all the things advertised were really in there: Chupacabra, Bigfoot, a unicorn, Dolly the Two-faced Cow, and the Eight-Legged Freak–all under one roof?! Come on now! (Save something for the other freak shows.) But I do love the freak show aesthetic–part Victorian, part Vaudeville. It’s a look that stubbornly has never changed with the times. Maybe because, every generation, no one can believe it’s still here.

He’s in there . . .

A dry-erase board near the tent’s entrance provided clarity: there was definitely a fire-eater and a sword-swallower inside (the same person, perhaps?). While I was taking pictures, a slump-shouldered and heavily pierced man in a tank top shuffled by and disappeared into the gloom of the tent. A minute or two later, I could see him sitting in there, on a metal folding chair. I wondered if he was the sword-swallower. He was watching me, which was more awkward than creepy. I had the sense he was no freak at all but a regular guy, just waiting for his shift to begin. In that minute, he was the subject of his own life, but when the show began, that’s when he’d transform from man to freak–from subject to object. Questions like “did he choose this life or did it choose him?” ran through my mind. And I guess I could ask that of any carnival worker. It’s no secret those jobs are few people’s idea of desirable. Yet we’ll always have those jobs, and we’ll always have the people who work them–thoughts which remind me of the importance of kindness. It’s easy to look down on people whose job it is to beg strangers to compete for prizes they don’t really want, prizes that probably aren’t worth the money spent trying to win them–stuffed animals that not even kids really care about. But behind that solicitous carnival worker is a person who probably wonders how they ended up there; a person who feels they have no other option; a person trying to stay sober; a person who’s lost everything; a person who never had anything; a person who’s alone; and yes, probably one or two who actually like what they’re doing–people who find freedom in the transience of it, in the camaraderie of it (I witnessed this in those few minutes before the place opened); people who enjoy helping others have fun, and certainly people who don’t get hung up on whether a sign reads “1001 Nights” or “1001 Nachts.” So in addition to me reminding myself to be kind, here’s another reminder I got from my fourteen-minute-long carnival-wandering experience: people are more than their jobs. I wish there was a Netflix documentary profiling carnival workers. I think it would be fascinating.

As I was returning to my car, other people had begun to arrive. A woman took a picture of her daughter posing with raised arms in front of the Ferris wheel. I can only imagine that photo ended up on social media, complete with witty hashtags and links to various family members’ accounts. 50 Cent’s “In da Club” was playing somewhere; it seemed to be coming from the basketball shooting game. A worker near the front was mouthing every word. I drove out the way I’d come in, and just before the carnival disappeared behind the trees, I looked in my rearview mirror, and you can probably guess what I saw, hovering high above where the carnival used to be: 1001 Nachts.

Alan D. Tucker
Content writer, essayist, and novelist.

 

**For a truly, um, “unique” story involving the ride in the first paragraph, 1001 Nachts, click here.

Fads Grow Sillier with Age

The little-known Cezanne “Self-portrait with Lifeguard Tank Top,” circa 1885.

Fads are often silly from the start, and yet they grow even sillier with age, some of them degrading entirely to pure nonsense (think tight-rolled jeans). One of the sillier fads I embraced as a kid was the lifeguard tank top shirt. It must’ve been about 1984, give or take a year–the start of a period which, spanning the entire second half of the eighties, I’m realizing was seminal in the development of who I am. The seeds of lifelong interests were sown in those roughly five years. Memories I have from that time rank among my favorites. There was a magic in that long corridor between ages eight and thirteen that I didn’t identify then–though I certainly felt it–that is becoming clearer with age. An innocence on the verge of experience. The mystery of girls deepened, resulting in some killer crushes. Music became a vehicle for any emotion or memory I might have had, and it did so with increasing intensity–any music I was into, in fact, from Huey Lewis and the News to 3rd Bass to Guns N’ Roses. What I now know to be a budding self-consciousness, was to me then an expansion of the horizon itself, and the awkwardness and heartbreak were as necessary as the triumphs and thrills.

At that age, I also became increasingly image-conscious, which sounds a little shallow to the present me, but at the time, it somehow fit: blissfully ignorant of social class, the idea I could wear a certain shirt and be part of a certain group held a charming simplicity. I didn’t know any better then; I see the folly of that view only in reflection. What I did know was that the world (for me) was getting bigger; that the teenage years looked exciting and grownup; that things were now either “cool” or not, and to be “cool” was everything. Even if it meant traipsing sunburnt down Panama City Beach in a tank top with the word lifeguard printed on it in red letters.

Alan D. Tucker
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist

The Breeders in a Beater

I used to find scary faces in the glovebox pattern.

In every memory of the front view of my childhood home, my dad’s 1978 Ford F-150 two-tone brown and tan pickup is parked in the street. It’s not because my dad stayed home all the time–he maintained a long workweek for most of my youth–but because I can’t separate the truck from my memories of growing up. My brother and I both learned to drive in that truck, and we both left our marks on it, some of which remained indefinitely. Yet even as a self-conscious late-stage teenager, long after appearance had begun to matter, I was never too proud to be seen in the beat-up truck. In fact, I excelled at finding excuses to drive it, one of which involved 90s alternative band, The Breeders.

Different wheels, but the same kind of truck.

Imagine a lonely northwest Tennessee town in winter. It’s night and the brown grass and busted-up concrete of vacant lots lends a desolation to the sideroads off the main drag. Behind and around the big-block headquarters of the local paper, the shadows are deep, as they are around the Bakery Thriftshop across the street, its facade like the whitewashed walls of an abandoned warehouse. This is all seen from the road, where the 1978 Ford cruises along. It may or may not be 1993, but the teenage boy driving the truck is most certainly me. I had my own car by now, so I’m not sure why I was in my dad’s truck–perhaps mine was in the shop, I don’t know. Memory’s not yielding this detail. What memory does yield, however, is the music I was listening to: the album Pod, by The Breeders. The old Ford had a cassette deck, but I was all 1993-modern with my compact discs. My solution was to set a boom box on the seat next to me, but for this to work, I had to have enough D batteries. Did I buy the batteries that night, or did I find them at home? I don’t remember this detail, either, but it’s likely I bought them, because nobody keeps enough D batteries lying around to power anything. Or maybe they were C batteries. Whatever they were, I went through a lot of trouble to listen to The Breeders. No one was with me, and I had nowhere to be, but when you’re young and restless and have a driver’s license, sometimes you just have to get out, and if you’re going to get out, you’ve got to have music you love. So I traveled the sideroads, alone and looking for signs of life, while Kim Deal sang “When I Was a Painter.”

Alan D. Tucker, MA
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist