We met Freddy in Gibsonton, Florida. It was a warm September morning and he had just finished a breakfast of fried eggs and chopped beef at the Showtown Restaurant and Lounge. He was chatting with a man at another table who held a fork in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other.
What brought us to Gibsonton?
My husband and I were recently on a road trip through Florida. We were traveling north on the Tamiami Trail from the gulf towards the west coast when we spotted the restaurant. I had read about this curious town of Gibsonton on the once touristy "trail". In the 1940's carnival and circus workers began to winter here and I wondered who might still be left. Showtown seemed like a place to meet some locals. It may be mostly a bar, but we lucked out. At 10 am, it was open for breakfast!
Don and I sat down and studied the menu. I had a feeling the man in the bright yellow shirt might have some suggestions. He did. " Chipped beef on toast with fried egg." He answered as he rubbed his large stomach, held in place by suspenders. I placed my order and then spent the next 90 minutes hearing Freddy's stories of carnival life.
Words of Wisdom
Freddy has been associated with the carnival world for about 55 years. He used one of the many wall murals (by local artist, "Brownie") to share some of his thoughts. He pointed to the this image, depicting a symbolic collision between numerous carnival and circus wagons. There's obviously some friction between these two cultures and Freddy was quick to remind me that a carnival worker labors many more hours than a circus worker. However he also shared the difference between going to a circus and going to a sporting event. "When the folks leave a sporting event, half go home losers. When folks leave a circus, everyone goes home a winner."
Freddy got into carnival life with an older brother who was involved in a monkey circus and later made big bucks with cotton candy and balloons. Freddy ended up doing everything from work with snakes to Hillbilly Acts...whatever that is. But he couldn't stop emphasizing the pros and cons of hard work and travel. He took pride in all the different cities he "knew". Even though his view of the city was through the carnival visitors. He described Detroit as the scariest city. Once he tried to break up a gang fight, but one kid "who wasn't even old enough to drive" killed another with a letter opener.
Why He Loves Gibsonton
Freddy said in two months the town will come to life again with wintering workers. It's clear he was looking forward to that. Freddy has a lot of friends here. He said the lack of zoning laws makes it a great place for folks who have a lot of equipment and trailers to store. He said he could never live in some small town with a lot of rednecks. He obviously views his fellow carnival workers as worldly. "They've traveled and seen places." He said, with great pride.
Freddy told a drawn out story about Grady Stiles who once lived in Gibsonton. He went by the stage name of Lobster Boy because his hands and feet were fused into claw-like shapes. He and Grady were friends and Freddy would carry him to the phone to make booking arrangements for his side show tours. In the early 1990's Freddy suggested Grady purchase a cell phone to make his bookings. He feels a little guilty about that advice because the convenience of the cell phone lead to Grady reuniting with his first wife. Grady's handicap didn't prevent him from abusing this woman and she ended up hiring a boy in Gibsonton to kill Grady. Freddy feels pretty bad about that, but he seems to enjoy telling the story. Freddy even got to be in City Confidential when TV crews came to Gibsonton to film an episode focusing on this odd story.
In the future, I'll forget all the details of your long stories and all the characters you spoke about. But I think I'll remember how bonded you were to people who shared your kind of work and your town. All workers suffer job stress, but how much harder when your job moves from place to place. I'm glad you have a place you can call home!
To celebrate my birthday in April 2012, I decided to reflect on the past with a different kind of list. I've met a lot of people in my 55 years, but I'm going to stop and remind myself about the strangers I've met. These are people I met by accident, not through friends or work. For some reason, these strangers dropped into my life. Even though we may have only spent a few minutes together, these people have never been forgotten.
Each week, I'll spotlight someone I met in the past, who in some small way, made me stop and think.
Remember 55 Strangers