The Magnet 0017 — Hey Rube!
Interview with an early 1900s circus worker, plus Adrian Tomine's graphic memoir, how to handle mistakes, and a good writer's trick
Interview with a late 1800s circus worker
When I was in high school, I worked on a carnival that traveled around rural Colorado and Wyoming. I manned a basketball game, which was called “Mini-Hoops.” It had been called “Basketball Toss” but a couple of years before I started working there the Rocky Mountain Strike Force raided the carnival. The agents measured the diameter of the hoops and found them to be smaller than regulation basketball hoops. They told the carnival owner it was fraudulent to call them “basketball hoops” and so he had to change the name to make it clear that the hoops were smaller than normal. I worked on the carnival for two summers and got to know a lot of people who had worked in carnivals all their lives. They had great stories, and they also used fascinating jargon. Ever since my stint as a carny, I’ve been interested in sideshow, circus, and carnival culture.
Carny jargon goes way back. The Folklore Project (1936–1940) was a U.S. Works Progress Administration (WPA) project to collect the life histories of almost 3,000 people in the United States. In July 1938, writer A. C. Sherbert visited retired carnival worker W. E. “Doc” Van Alstine in the Jefferson Hotel in Portland, Oregon, and interviewed him. Sherbert described Van Alstine as looking “younger than 88. His hair is iron-grey, face oval, dark complexion, medium height, rheumatic — walks with difficulty. He always wears an old-fashioned black, derby hat, with wide, rolled brim.”
In the interview, Van Alstine describes his career as a carnival worker, using colorful carny jargon:
I recall the thrill of thrills when a clown — circus folks call the funny men “Joeys” — said, “Hey, lad, run out to a butcher shop and get me a pound of lard.” The Joeys used lard for taking off their “clown white,” or make-up. I was so excited at havin’ a performer actually speak to me that I couldn't say yes or no. But with the ten-cent piece he give me clutched tight in my fist, I run like lightnin’ to the nearest butcher shop. Boy, oh boy, was I happy!
I well remember when I goes back to school after my four days with the circus. I cut quite a figger among the handful of bumpkins that was my schoolmates.
Bein’ with a circus made me a hero among them youngsters, and did I glory in it. I knew I'd have to stay in school awhile longer — I couldn't help myself, but in the back of my head I know that when I got a little bit older I was goin’ to join up with a circus and be a showman for always, and always.
He also describes violent fights between carnies and locals (known as a “Hey Rube”):
A “Hey Rube” is practically unknown today. A Hey Rube was a fight between the circus folks and the town yokels. These ruckuses used to came regularly every so often in the old days. Many of the Hey Rubes was started by folks figgerin’ they was’t gettin’ all the circus advertised; if the stupendous wasn’t stupendous enough, the gigantic wasn't gigantic enough, the colossal wasn't colossal enough, or the “largest in captivity” wasn't large enough, the town folks felt like they had grounds for a fight. Another common cause of Hey Rubes was because petty thieves, purse-snatchers and pickpockets, followed circuses from town to town. The circus got blamed for what them slickers did, but they was nothing they could do about it. When the crooks hit a crowd too hard, and too many people got plucked, the town folk got together and tried to take it out on the circus people. Pretty near every Hey Rube I ever seen ended with the town folks comin’ out second best physically, although the circus usually lost out financially. Lawsuits always followed a Hey Rube, and circus people had no chance for a square deal in a prejudiced small-town court
I was in a Hey Rube in Lincoln, Illinois, once. It was one of the toughest battles I ever seen. The town boys was coal miners and some of the toughest customers I ever seen. We strung out in a circle around our stuff and stood ‘em off with “laying out pins” and whacked ‘em with “side-poles,” finally giving ‘em the run, but they sure could take it.
Conversation between Seth and Adriane Tomine
I’ve been an admirer of Adrian Tomine’s work ever since Carla and I discovered his self-published Optic Nerve mini-comic in the early 1990s. We met Adrian at a San Francisco Bay Area comic convention in 1993 or 1994 and bought one of his sketches, and he gave us permission to use it for a running column in the zine version of bOING bOING.
Adrian’s latest book is The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, published by Drawn & Quarterly. It’s an autobiographical account of Adrian’s experiences promoting his books at book signings and conventions, and the loneliness of being on the road.
Earlier this year, the cartoonist Seth, another artist I greatly admire (his latest book is Clyde Fans), had a wide-ranging conversation with Adrian over Zoom. They talked about the “humiliation” of being a cartoonist, the experience of being an alternative cartoonist vs a mainstream cartoonist, the “mortification” of book signings where only two or three people show up, the difference between U.S. and European fans, growing older, using traditional drawing tools vs modern tools, following the thread of your interest, and working in solitude. It’s an hour long but it seemed to go by very quickly. Watch the video here.
How to handle mistakes
Wikimedia’s Meta-Wiki has a good five-step guide for how to deal with making a mistake in public “based on considerable experience making and observing mistakes in the Wikimedia movement.”
Here’s a summary of the five steps:
Step 1: Don’t pretend you didn't make a mistake.
Step 2: Examine the reasons why you made the mistake.
Step 3: Decide what you are willing to do to avoid repeating the mistake.
Step 4: Apologize “as clearly and crisply as possible.”
Step 5: Fix the mistake.
How to play Five Card Nancy
In the late 1990s, Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics, invented a game called Five Card Nancy. To play, make a deck of cards from photocopies of single panels of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy comics. “Only prime Ernie Bushmiller Nancy strips will do, say from 1946 onward,” says McCloud. Each player draws five cards from the deck and takes turns laying down a card, and the players discuss whether or not it’s a good fit for the previous panel. The goal is less about winning and more about making interesting Dada art with your friends.
ADVICE FOR WRITERS
Having trouble with a piece of writing? Try composing a letter
A writing tip from author/editor Paul Tough, who has been an editor at Harper’s and The New York Times Magazine: “One editor’s trick I started using a while ago is to ask a thwarted writer to start off by writing me a letter on the topic. What comes out is often much more fluid, funny, on-topic, and well-structured than a formal magazine article.”
This reminds me of The Whole Earth Review’s writer’s guidelines for reviews: “Write your review. Then write us a letter explaining why we should devote space to your item. Throw away your review and send us the letter.” When I was an editor at Wired in 1993, I was in charge of the reviews section and I used the same guidelines. And when I was an editor at Make in 2004, I used them there, too.
Hachiko bus in Shibuya
I saw this tiny bus on a warm summer evening in 2018 in Shibuya, Tokyo and quickly snapped a photo of it before it zoomed away. It’s called the Hachiko bus, and was decorated with images of the famous golden brown Akita dog of the same name. Hachiko was born in 1923 and would accompany his owner every day when he walked to Shibuya station to take a train to his job. Hachiko would wait at the station all day until his owner returned in the evening. When the man died, Hachiko continued to wait at the station for nine more years, until he passed away. Today, a bronze statue of Hachiko is a popular Shibuya meeting point.
Stuff you can buy with my art on it
I've been posting photos of my creatures sketchbook on Instagram and quite a few people have asked if they can buy prints, shirts, mugs, etc. with the sketches on them. So I opened a store on Society6 where you can shop for my creature stuff. Right now there's a good sale going on. The clock is $20, the mug is $12, and the framed print is $27.