I left Saint Pete Beach with a couple of bucks in my pocket. I’d been working at the John’s Pass Marina for minimum wage, living with Roberta and Ed for no rent. But, by the end of each week, I was pretty much down to nothing.
I wasn’t heading to Sarasota, and I surely wasn’t heading to Ringling Brothers Winter Quarters, but, it still took me a couple of days to cover those 60 miles.
The first night I ended up in some god forsaken town on the Gulf Coast without much going on. At that time, and this was a long time ago, I knew that if I went into a restaurant, and asked the line cook if I could clean his griddle hood for a meal, he never turned me down.
I knew that was one of the worst tasks in a restaurant, and if I offered to do it, it was good for something. Sometimes I was offered a job. This time, I wanted to travel a bit farther than 33 miles, so I cleaned the hood, ate my meal, and headed on my way.
Once I’d rolled up my sleeping bag in the morning, I headed south with no particular ideas. I think I would have kept heading to Key West. I was ready for pretty much anything but looking forward to pretty much nothing.
I got a ride in an air conditioned Lincoln. The driver asked, “Where are you headed?”
I didn’t know how to answer his question. I knew I better find a way to make a few bucks. “I’m looking for some work.”
“The circus is in town this weekend,” he told me. “They’re always looking for help.”
So he dropped me off at the end of a road, in front of a small stadium in a pine grove outside of town.
I walked up to a trailer whose sign read “Rosie’s Circus Diner, The Greatest Hamburgers on Earth”. I peaked in the back door and said I was looking for work.
I didn’t know until much later that the 4’ 8” woman who was cleaning the counter was Rosie. I didn’t know that Rosie had gotten her start as a kinker, spinning by her hair in the spotlight, high above the center ring. I didn’t know that Kenny had taken her away from that life and brought her into the glories of making hamburgers, selling Coca Cola, peanuts, and cotton candy. I hadn’t met their daughter, who’d grown up sleeping under the counter between shows, as her dad sold a few cokes above her, to the folks who were hanging around the arena.
All I heard were the first words she ever said to me in her thick Eastern European accent – “You hired.”
I spent the weekend selling Cokes in the seats. I learned that you did best if you could run the rush, and work the grind. If you gave up after most of the Cokes were sold, you missed a good bit of sales. I learned to keep walking around the bleachers looking people in the eyes and shouting “Hey Ice Cold, Hey Ice Cold”.
I left the circus after the four day spot. I didn’t particularly think I’d come back, But, back then when I was a kid, it was a good way to make a few bucks traveling money. They didn’t ask your last name. They didn’t ask where you were from. But at the end of the weekend you could leave town ready to buy lunch, instead of having to clean a griddle hood for a meal.
Today I heard that Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus is folding up the tent for the last time. I guess most of the folks I knew are gone, Birdman, Baltimore Mike, Shakey Jake, the Delaney brothers, probably Kenny and Rosie too. I’ll always appreciate the opportunity Rosie offered. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’ll reminisce about times butchering the seats or performing under the lights in the three rings.