THE BLOG
06/11/2013 03:53 pm ET | Updated Aug 08, 2013

Child Specter Appears Nightly at Carnival

"I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father's protection."
Sigmund Freud

A single child specter follows me in carnivals amid unruly mobs of children.

Each show night I go to work my ride, I see kid legions plus one specter. She stands out on the midway as if in a spotlight and all the other kids are running around in dark stage light.

My daughter turned eight a few days ago. I came hitchhiking back from New York to Chicago to see her after my former mother-in-law e-mailed that my daughter was missing me deeply.

I'm following traveling carnivals from coast to coast for a year, writing essays about America from the road.

I'd say this is a personal haunting, but I think it is another common experience shared by carnival workers with children of their own.

There is a running, bouncing dynamic in a child's happiness, which takes on an even higher pitch with mobs of children. It's an incalculable, elusive zeitgeist that darts between people in the moments of shared happiness.

It's inexplicable but something so deeply human. Blind people, having never seen a smile, smile. It's a contagion that carnival workers all say they feel.

Yet many carnival workers grew up in unhappy families and as adults don't see their own enough.

They grew up orphans, foster kids, juvenile delinquents or victims of abusive parents.

Seeing happy children every night must be an elixir at times for those once unhappy kids.

As for me, every running, laughing, bright-eyed child I see reminds me of my newly-minted eight-year-old daughter in far-away Chicago.

I feel simultaneous twinges.

Sometimes I look at kids about her age, I see her in them, and it hurts.

Other times, I think - I love one of these too.

My parents are carnies

Carnival workers whip out their cell phones to show you a picture of their child. Or they'll tell you they often call or text their kids from the road.

Others bring their kids along with them in the carnival. At Butler Amusements in California, Robert E. had two daughters and two sons in different units. At the Chicago carnival I'm at now, several children of the owners say they want to be in the business and travel jump to jump.

Some children of carnival workers are raised on the road, missing key grade school and high school years. As a result, I met several who cannot read, including a carnival supervisor.

Last night, I met a 36-year-old Alabama carnival worker who proudly told me he was texting his three-year-old grandson.

A 40-year-old Chicago carny told me he has seven grandchildren. He became a dad at 12 years old and his daughter a mom at 12 years old.

In California, Mexican migrant carnival workers typically said they were working in America in order to send money home to their wives and children.

One of the older Mexicans at the Butler Amusements, Joshua, was perhaps the most shining example of this child empathy.

When a mother of three could not afford all-ride passes for her kids and began leading them away crying, Joshua left his ride, opened his wallet and paid the $75 for wristbands. That's almost two days wages.

He never mentioned the gesture to me, I heard it from the ticket woman who said it brought tears to her eyes.

The Englewood neighborhood in Chicago is known as one of the toughest and some of the street kids are real hustlers.

One child, I guessed to be under 10 years old, actually summoned fake tears to try to get a free "Dumbo" ride from me. For fear of being fired, I said no. Even though I knew it was a con, I felt like a crumb.

But I later saw the kid running around the carnival going on rides, his tears worked with the real carnies.

Still, carnival workers aren't just lonely parents longing to be with their kids.

Numerous workers I've met have been working off-the-books at carnivals in order to avoid child payments. They declare themselves homeless, without any income, to avoid detection by authorities.

Some just disappear off the grid.

A Pennsylvania carny I talked to this week said his girlfriend in Florida is pregnant and he can't wait to get his fiancee pregnant because pregnant girls are sexy. He seemed to have no wish for fatherhood other than that pregnancy period.

Cell phone call from a tree

Before I left New York I was on a nightly cell phone call with my daughter, who loves to play in the dogwood tree outside her apartment.

I asked her what she thinks about when she climbs up into the tree. I used to climb trees and dream all afternoon, I told her.

Her school district emphasizes writing and diary keeping. She recently bought a diary so I told her she should write about what she thinks about when she's in the tree.

Silly thoughts. Funny thoughts. Pretending what she might be when she grows up. Or just looking out over at the roofs and over the roads.

She came up with the idea of calling me from the tree, I worried she might fall but she assured me "I'm an expert."

Then came the call.

What are you thinking about, I asked.

Long pause.

"I'm thinking about what I'm thinking about," she laughed.

It's not so silly, I said, writers are always watching themselves think. That's what you are doing, I said.

"I'm thinking about what it would be like to be a dolphin trainer. Would the training be hard?"

Somehow, I'm on the other end of the phone and yet on the ground looking up into the tree at my sparkling, darling girl.

I finally saw her last week after an all-night tear-down of my Chicago carnival. I imagined that I'd show up at her birthday celebration a dirty, smelly mess after hitchhiking 800 miles.

But the carnival tear-down supplied my apparition as a muddy, archetypal absentee father returning from the road.

I gave her presents bought at the carnival, a blow-up pink dolphin for the beach and a plastic necklace with a dolphin that changes colors. She named the necklace dolphin "Colorful."

My parents said she got better presents but when she got home she raved about her carnival dolphins. Dad's hat was so dirty. He said I've grown.

I already knew it but the haunting goes both ways, another carnival specter follows her.