he following is a chapter from the 1927 novel
. Author Jim Tully lived what he wrote. An orphan and a hobo, variously employed as a chain-maker and a boxer, he wrote—in books like this one,
—stories of the absolute lowest stratum of American 20th-century society. But his work is not littered with pathos and tragedy. It is life-affirming, muscular, and funny as hell. It makes you think that being a teen hobo working for the circus in the early 1900s would have been a blessed existence, despite its vagaries and hardships.
Charles Willeford, our oft-claimed favorite writer and a fellow teen hobo, once wrote an introduction to an edition of Beggars of Life. It’s worth quoting at length here: “Jim Tully was a short stocky man, without much neck. His arms and shoulders were powerful, and he was physically strong from driving tent stakes, making chains, fighting, and hanging on to the iron ladders of fast intercontinental freights. His kinky red hair, too thick to be combed, resembled Elsa Lanchester’s electrified hair in the movie Bride of Frankenstein. A cheerful, cynical stoic, he believed in nothing—or so he claimed—and in no one other than himself… Tully was a road kid who found a way to get off the road. He learned how to write.” No less an authority on writing-for-the-people than journalist, editor, and essayist H.L. Mencken was an early supporter of Tully, publishing him in his legendary magazines the Smart Set and the American Mercury. Mencken said, “If Jim Tully were a Russian, read in translation, all the professors would be hymning him.” Tully’s style—quick, brutish sentences; short bursts of paragraphs—is a secret granddaddy of both Hemingway and American minimalism decades later. Tully did have broad success, moving to Hollywood and becoming, strangely enough, a tabloid-style journalist covering the film industry. He befriended and worked for Charlie Chaplin, then wrote a bio of Chaplin that ended their friendship. It was from Hollywood that Tully also wrote his best books, all of the aforementioned pieces that look back on the more colorful and dangerous life he’d had as a younger man. Of those, Circus Parade is one of the best. A little background on what you will encounter below. Bob Cameron is the owner of Cameron’s World’s Greatest Combined Shows, the seedy traveling circus for which our hero works. The Baby Buzzard, nicknamed for her appearance and her demeanor, is his wife. To be “red-lighted” is to be ejected from the traveling circus by being tossed from its moving train as it goes from one town to the next. In this chapter, the circus folk go to battle with the regular citizens, all of whom are known to them as “rubes.” We have preserved Tully’s original grammar and spelling choices. To update them would strip the story of an essential part of its character. There were some people with Cameron’s Circus whom the corrosion of years could not rob of fine qualities. But the greater number were thieves, liars and embryo eggs. Desperadoes known as “cannons,” “dips” and “guns” followed us to every town. Women, faded, beautiful and wanton, lovers of their own kind, and men-loving men, all trekked with Cameron’s, living generally with the ethics and filth of gypsies. Each and all of us, shrewd or stolid, traded upon the imbecilities of human nature and had contempt for it as a result. Honor, to us, was a word in a dictionary. A group of whining morons with the cunning of foxes were ever at our heels. They were known as “Monday men.” As the family washing was generally done on Monday, they would steal it from the line and sell it to those it might almost fit. All about was the odor of long unbathed bodies; and clothing stiff with perspiration that had turned white like salt. We had struck a “rainy season”—the nightmare of circus life. With insufficient heat in dripping weather, the same clothing became soaking wet and dried on our bodies. We forestalled pneumonia with rot gut whisky and lungs that pumped hard with a zest for life. For the most part we clung like animals to that which we accepted without a thought. The high class gamblers and crooks were known as the “Bob Cameron men.” They consisted of the ticket sellers, card sharks and dice experts. They gave ten per cent. of their earnings to Cameron. He mistrusted and hated all of them. But as he paid them no salary, and they were a source of revenue, he had a thief’s toleration for his kind. They lived in a car of their own. The “Square Johns” were the canvas men and other laborers. They were given the name with complimentary contempt because they worked hard. The vast majority of them were potential crooks whom labor and stolidity had made submissive. The spielers worked in league with the “dips” or pickpockets. Whenever a large group of rustics would assemble the spieler would say, “Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, we aim to run an honest show—but as you perhaps know there are thieves in high and low places—and dishonest people may follow us—just as you may have dishonest people right here in your own fair city. Hence and therefore—I warn you to watch out for your pocketbooks and other valuables.” Immediately rustic hands would feel for purses. The pickpockets would watch where the hands went, and follow after. Slug Finnerty was the chief spieler. He had lost his eye in a brawl many years before. The empty socket was red and criss-crossed with scars. He was deeply pock-marked and stoop-shouldered. His ears had been pounded until they resembled pieces of putty clinging to his bald and cone-shaped head. An ex-bruiser of the old school, he had served five years in a southern penitentiary for a crime unspeakable. The boy was injured internally. Slug was the money-lender and the leader of the gang of crooks. The Baby Buzzard despised him. She was the one person with courage enough to greet him with a snarl. He once called her a “damned old bag of bones” in the presence of Cameron. The owner of the show turned white, then red, then walked away. After this incident it was always said that Slug knew where Cameron “had buried the body.” Our meaning implied that Slug knew of a murder or other crime that Cameron had committed in some part of the world, and that Cameron was afraid he would tell. At any rate, Slug had been with the show for many seasons. He was said to be the greatest short-change artist in the canvas world. He robbed every citizen who did not produce the exact price for a ticket. When making change he had a habit of turning his empty socket toward the victim. It was a ghastly sight. It had the proper psychological effect upon his victim. He had a trick of folding a bill in his hand. He would count both ends in the presence of a patron. In this manner a ten dollar bill was made into twenty dollars. Another unerring method was the “two-bit short change.” He would return change of a five dollar bill by counting “one-two-three-four” swiftly. By the time he had counted out three dollars he would say—“and four—there you are.” The customer having heard the word “four” so often would conclude that Slug meant four dollars and pocket the change—short one dollar. Always near Slug was the “rusher”—a man who kept the patrons moving swiftly, once they had been given their change. Slug was an adept pocket-picker. He could slug and “roll” or rob a drunkard in record time. Hence his nickname. It was all he was ever known by. He was also a past master at the manipulation of loaded dice, marked cards or the shell game. His earnings at the end of each season were on a par with Cameron’s. He was always ready to loan money at fifty per cent. interest. Cameron would always turn the employee’s money over to Slug. They divided the interest and all other profits. The two men hated each other. Most of the borrowers of Slug’s money spent it for liquor or cocaine. As long as they owed Cameron or Finnerty money they were not “red-lighted.” Slug was a furtive bootlegger in the dry sections. He would give the alcoholics a few drinks, and once their appetites were aroused he would then sell them more and loan them money with which to buy it. Rosebud Bates was always in the clutches of the one-eyed Shylock. His mania for musical contraptions kept him penniless. He had joined the show in a small Colorado town in the early spring. He was a trap drummer. Decidedly effeminate, with a pink and white complexion, the strict moral gentlemen with the show at once became suspicious of Rosebud. With no evidence upon which to base the charge, they immediately called him a “fairy.” The accusation stuck. Our world was brutal, immoral, smug and conventional. We had unbounded contempt for all those who did not sin as we sinned. Rosebud’s parents had spent a great deal of money on his musical education. He could play many musical instruments. His passion in the end became a trap drum. Finnerty called him Master Bates. At each greeting he would say, “How are you, Master Bates?” amid laughter. Bates would blush and remain quiet. Rosebud would spend hours in imitating the whistle of a locomotive, the song of a bird, the roar of a lion, with different musical contraptions. He was always surrounded with noise-producing instruments. One extravagance had cost him three hundred dollars. They were a set of tympanis or “kettle drums.” He had seen the instruments in a store in Dallas. So great was his passion that he borrowed the money off Slug at fifty per cent. interest. Rosebud could juggle his drum sticks as he drummed. This was one of the features of the parade which Cameron quickly recognized. Those who called Rosebud effeminate were correct in their judgment of him. It was in an Oklahoma town. Our canvas roof quivered under the heat of the sun. He told me of his ailment. “You won’t tell no one, will you?” he pleaded. “No—I’ll not say a word,” was my reply. He looked doubtfully at me. “You know they’d run me off the lot if they knew.” “I know—and they’re not a damn bit better themselves—look at Finnerty—he’d be the first to slug you. But Jock would understand—you could talk to him. He’s been through hell and back agin.” “But I won’t talk to him now,” was Rosebud’s hesitating answer. “I’ll just buy a lot more instruments and forget.” He polished a drum stick. “Playin’ a trap drum’s better than blowin’ your heart out on a wind like the clarinet, anyhow. Those poor devils in the band have to play when their mouths are all sore. I’ve seen ’em blow fever blisters right through the instruments—and all for fifteen dollars a week,” he grunted. It was our second day in the city. Life was easier when the circus played three days in a town. Release from pitching the tent and traveling gave us a chance to rest. We looked ahead for many weeks to such three-day periods of rest. “What causes it, Rosebud?” I asked, coming back to the one question. He looked plaintive, with drawn face. “I don’t know,” he answered slowly, “I’ve heard a lot of reasons. I never did like girls as far back as I can remember. Then when I got older it got worse. I used to like to nurse when I was five years old. It got so it was my mother’s way of rewarding me for being good. It never failed with her. I didn’t get any nourishment—just the sensation. Mother never understood. I didn’t either—then. And now of course I can’t tell her. She teaches Sunday School and belongs to a club in Denver.” I became Rosebud’s friend and talked to Jock about him. “Please don’t say a word to anyone,” I begged of Jock. “Not me, kid. I won’t say a word. It’s Rosie’s own business.” Jock’s words and attitude toward Rosebud gave me more sympathy for Rosebud and helped strengthen my early tolerance for the vagaries of sex. The Baby Buzzard was kind to Rosebud. Whether this sprang from a sense of hatred toward Finnerty or a generous impulse I could not tell. The third day came in a drizzle of rain. Finnerty was in a sullen mood. The audience was small, which gave him less chance to short-change the patrons. A surly oil worker claimed that Slug had short-changed him. Slug was indignant at the charge. With persuasive tongue he apparently proved to the man that he was wrong. After the man had gone Rosebud appeared with his drum before a small tent a short distance from where Finnerty was taking tickets. The rain had made the drum heads damp. His sticks lacked the usual bounce and slipped out of his hands several times as he tried to juggle them. Finnerty leered across at him—“Master Bates! Cut out that damned noise!” Rosebud disappeared at once, murmuring to me, “Some day I’ll break a drum over his head.” The rain still drizzled before the evening show. The oil worker who had been short-changed in the afternoon now stood near Finnerty’s ticket wagon with a half-dozen other men. Finnerty shouted with pleading voice: “Step right up, Ladies an’ Gentlemen! Here’s your tickets—the show is about to start.” The clouds hung low and black. The rain drizzled faster. Seven other men joined the group which watched Finnerty. The short-change artist acted as unconcerned as possible. A voice louder than the rest exclaimed: “We’ll tear down the God damn tent!” I looked in the direction of the voice. It was that of the man who had been robbed by Finnerty of less than a dollar. A feeling of impending trouble came over me. Rosebud joined me. “There’s a dozen big guys out in front,” I said to Rosebud. “It looks like they’re goin’ to rush Finnerty.” Suddenly there was a crash. The oil workers charged Finnerty in a body. Finnerty just had time to shout the menacing “Hey Rube!” Instantly the circus grounds were furiously alive. To distinguish themselves from the “rubes,” a few members of the circus began tying white handkerchiefs around their necks. The code was—not to strike a man with a handkerchief about his neck. The method failed to work in this fight. The men became too vicious. Men ran in every direction. It was like the beating of tom-toms in African hill country. No longer were the circus employees prowling members of organized society. They had forgotten that Bob Cameron cheated them. Facing the common enemy every man from Cameron down picked up a “staub” or tent stake, the upper end of which was encircled with an iron band. More than a dozen other men joined the “rubes.” “Cut the ropes an’ drop the tent,” a “rube” yelled. The rubes thought the ropes alone held the tent. They were mistaken. They ran with knives and slashed at the canvas sides. They cut the ropes which were tied to the stakes. Women and children screamed and fainted. Some crawled under the side-walls of the tent. The clouds lowered. The wind shifted to the west and rose in velocity. A streak of lightning jagged down the sky. A roar of thunder followed. Finnerty’s blue ticket wagon was kicked to pieces. Two men grabbed the money drawer and yelled, “We’ll teach ’em to rob our buddy—we will.” Others screamed as they ran around the main tent with knives. Soon the side walls had been slashed to ribbons. The leader of the mob, a heavy and agile man, yelled above the roar of wind and rain, “Rush in there fellows an’ cut the main guy ropes—we’ll slump her in the middle—we’ll teach these crooks to rob us.” Cameron and Finnerty stood near where the cash drawer had been. They fought valiantly in the midst of enemy and friend. Benches were upturned in the main tent, the center pole toppled, and soon the vast canvas crumpled like a wet rag, the wind whistling around it. Boards, maul handles, quarter poles, every instrument imaginable was used in the frightful welter. Rosebud had not taken time to put his drum away. A club crashed through it and made an explosion as of thunder. Rosebud heard the noise and fell wailing over the broken drum. A man grabbed him by the collar and yanked him upward. “You God damn murderer,” Rosebud screamed as he turned around and jumped toward the man. Both of his hands stretched outward like the paws of an angry cat. His fingers became stiff as his nails dug bloody gashes in his antagonist’s face. The man fought furiously and soon Rosebud fell backward, his head hitting the hard sides of his drum. He sighed deeply and lay still. The man turned from Rosebud to join his comrades in a combined attack on Finnerty and Cameron. With a catlike spring he grabbed Finnerty around the throat. Together they rolled to the ground, heavy fists thudding. Finnerty, a blood-streaked madman now, threw his right fist upward. It crashed against his attacker’s chin and he crumpled near Rosebud’s body. Finnerty stood like an immense one-eyed gorilla about to spring and snarled between oaths, “Come on you, God damn rubes, and meet your master!” A man circled behind him with a club. It went upward and downward while Finnerty dodged. The momentum of the intended blow threw the man off his feet for a second. Before he gained his poise Finnerty walked in close, his teeth grinding, his tongue licking the blood from his battered upper lip. His two fists struck with horrible precision on each side of the man’s jaws. The head went backward as if pulled suddenly with a rope. As he fell unconscious Finnerty kicked him twice in the groin. Still enraged, Finnerty then pounced upon him and drove his fist straight downward. The blow covered the man’s entire face with blood. “Look out, Slug,” a voice yelled, and now the bloody monster turned swift as a tiger. Two men engaged him in battle. Their fists crashed against his face. He fought them both viciously without moving backward. The band stand toppled over. The two men had placed the money drawer in the stand while they returned to the fight. The coins scattered everywhere. Many, more eager for gold than battle, scampered after it. Cameron had fought near the end of the stand as it fell. Then, seeing money scattered on the ground he rushed madly at those who tried to pick it up. Jock had by this time come upon the scene. He charged into the fight. Seeing Rosebud unconscious, he carried him out of the fracas. Someone, whether stake-driver or Rube, had crashed a club against Cameron’s head. He waved from side to side, but stood up under the thudding impact. Another blow caught him across the back. A man of seventy-three, heavily ruptured and wearing a truss, he sank downward and remained on his knees by a tremendous effort of will. Then, too weak to remain in that position, he rolled over on his back and made an effort to pull his truss and the heavy weight upon it into place. Rising, he clutched at his groin with one hand, and swung a “staub” with the other. At last, fully conscious, but unable to move, Cameron lay still and blasphemed. His oaths could be heard above the noise of the conflict. “Come on, boys,” he yelled, “we can’t let the God damn ratty rubes lick us.” A man kicked at his face. He rolled over, groaning with pain, and protected it with his arms. Jock rushed up yelling to the man, “Come an’ battle a man that’s on his feet.” The heavier man rushed Jock but fell writhing from the effects of two blows delivered far below his waist line. The general noise and confusion attracted the women. The Strong Woman rushed at the enemy who retreated before her. She moved about, an infuriated four-hundred-pound giantess, her hair streaming, wet and bedraggled in the rainy night. Finnerty, now battered beyond recognition, fought on, though too weak to take command. It fell to Jock who was soon joined by the Baby Buzzard. “Hello Betsy,” shouted Cameron upon beholding her as she slashed at the enemy with a long black-snake whip. “Tell Goosey to bring the elephants,” Cameron yelled. Soon two elephants charged across the lot, each holding the end of a thirty-foot pole. Cameron lay in the path of one of the elephants. The Baby Buzzard tried to drag him away. Cameron crawled out of danger on his knees. Goosey rushed the elephants through the crowd while friend and foe scampered before them. They retreated with curses and moans. The enemy rushed off the lot pursued by Goosey and his two elephants and a roaring crows of circus roustabouts. They barricaded themselves in a small rickety barn. It was soon completely demolished and its occupants beaten until they were unconscious. Silver Moon Dugan, the boss canvasman, gathered his fighting forces and entrained the circus. An engineer hauled it to a place of safety on a far siding. Lights were dimmed and the train guarded until the chief despatcher gave us an engine and the right of way. Cameron’s loss was several thousand dollars. Finnerty had gained eighty cents.