Growing up in the South as a trailer park little girl in the sixties without the benefit of wealth, class and privilege did not lend itself to many opportunities. Still there were the occasional chances for fun and adventure. One such opportunity came around at least once a year, usually in the fall, when one of an assortment of traveling carnivals would setup in a parking lot of one of the local strip malls. These traveling carnies were not like the big events held at the State Fair Grounds with acre upon acre of rides, the big fairways with their vendors, and multiple tents housing the exhibits of winning calves and blue ribbon jams and jellies produced by future generations of farmers. These were the small carnies with only a single Ferris wheel, a tilt-a-wheel, and maybe a small locomotive for the smaller children to ride. Of course there were still the games of chance, side-shows, and an assortment of vendors selling funnel cakes, cotton candy, hot dogs and corndogs on a stick. Any kid starving for release would be drawn to such an event, just as I was drawn to the glitz and glimmer of the carnival and the chance of having just a little fun. Ironically, I had a father who was extremely intelligent and logical to a fault. Being one of the “lucky” ones, I had a dad who could see through the glitz and glimmer of the attraction; he was always pointing out to anyone who would listen, the core function of such an event is to relieve you of your hard earned money. So year after year during the greater part of my childhood my pleas to go to the carnival fell on deaf ears.
Finally, at the age of seventeen, I found myself living on my own as an emancipated minor after a strong-headed argument with my dad. I was a senior in high school going to school during the day while working third-shift every night at a manufacturing plant to support myself. This time when the traveling carnival came to town, I would be on my own with a little of my own money in my pocket. Despite my father’s counsel, I was going to the carnival. I was going to have some fun for a change. I was going to ride the amusement rides, eat cotton candy, and yes, even try to win a stuffed animal in a game of chance because at the core of my being I am, and always will be, a kid at heart. I was sure my father’s cynicism was unwarranted; no one was going to cheat me. The rides were safe, surely I was smart enough to take care of myself, or so I thought.
At first I did enjoy myself; I rode a few rides and walked the fairways perusing the various attractions. I paid to let the guy try and guess my weight and height for a prize; no surprise, he was dead on, five-foot-six and one-hundred twenty-five pounds. Finally, I stumbled upon a game of chance, a shot at winning the big stuffed animal. In 1976, it was not like today, stuffed animals were expensive, or relatively so. The minimum wage was just under two dollars an hour. If you could find a large stuffed animal for sale it would usually cost you more than a couple of days pay at minimum wage. Realistically, the only place you could get a stuffed animal if you were poor was to win one at a game of chance at the fair.
The kiosk boldly declared: “YOU TO COULD BE A WINNER FOR JUST A DOLLAR AND A LITTLE TIME”. The Barker out front waived his arms and pleaded with me to give it a go, ‘Be a winner!’ he said. He was a fairly large man with burly arms and a scruffy beard. This guy was the real deal, the real McCoy, the redneck prototype. He wore a baseball cap, blue jeans and a tight T-shirt that showed tattoos on his bulging arms, only the hardcore types sported tattoos in 1976 South. This guy had the look of someone who had faced tough choices in life. The type of choices one makes as a result of circumstances beyond a person’s control; choices that make you smarter if you survive despite the wear and tear. When he looked me in the eye, I knew he was someone who knew something, but he wasn’t sharing it with me or anyone else. He had a mark.
The particular game of chance he was barking was based on numbers. For only a dollar, the mark had the chance to spin a wheel that would land on a number, “a point” on the wheel. The object of the game was to either (in one spin) land on a number high enough to win the big prize, the three foot stuffed dinosaur hanging from the top of the kiosk, or spin again for just one more dollar hoping to accumulate enough points to win the big prize, a dollar at a time. Of course if you didn’t win the big prize, you were awarded a consolation prize based on the number of points accumulated for all spins when you decided to quit or when you reached the twenty-five-dollar limit, whichever came first.
“Not to worry!” declared the Barker “Everybody is a Winner”.
I laid down my first dollar and spun the wheel. The wheel spun around and around passing the big numbers on each pass, ultimately landing on “2”.
“Not to worry!” declared the Barker again (as if reading from a script or my mind). “For just another dollar, you can spin again. Maybe you’ll land on the winning number and the big prize. Everybody’s a Winner”.
I was hooked; I laid down my dollar and spun the big wheel again. No prize. I had a cumulative score of “4”.
The Barker pleaded, “Just another dollar; surely this spin will win you the big prize.”
“They” say a sucker is born every day. I suppose “they” are right because I laid down one hard earned third-shift-dollar after another. And with each spin of the wheel, the numbers ticked by two, three, seven, twenty watching as the wheel finally settled down on a number yielding me no prize spin after spin.
Each time the Barker decrying, “Just one more try, surely you will win the big prize.”
By the time I reached twenty-four dollars, I finally had enough points to have a shot at victory. The odds of winning were in my favor, or so I thought.
The Barker urged me on, “Just one more try- If you don’t win, I’ll buy you a beer” (guess he didn’t notice I was only seventeen). “Not to worry!” the Barker explained, “The most you can spend is twenty-five dollars.”
I pulled the last dollar from my faded jean’s pocket and laid it down in front of the Barker. The wheel spun around and around finally coming to a slow stop.
“AHHH, SURPRISE. I DID NOT WIN!”
The Barker reached behind the stall counter handing me a small stuffed animal, “Here’s your prize” with feigned “remorse” for my loss.
My small stuffed animal was a tiger, a portent for the future. It wasn’t much to look at, hardly a consolation prize at all. Twenty-five dollars, twelve hours of third-shift-work at minimum wage, a heavy price indeed to pay for such a small creature. Instead of the three-foot-tall Pink Dinosaur, the big prize, I had “my tiger”. “My tiger” was small, about 10 inches long, just the right size to fit neatly in my arms. Instead of the lush fake fur like the kind kids love to bury their heads in, “my tiger” was made of cloth with painted stripes.
I was inconsolable, furious. I had made a fool of myself. I had taken my chances, trusted the system, the Barker, believing in the better nature of people. I could hear over and over again the words of my father in my head “It’s just a means to separate the working-poor from their money.” I stormed away from the kiosk pondering my losses, my stupidity. How did this happen? It just wasn’t fair. What could I do? That guy “took me”. That big dumb ox took me for everything I had. The tangled thoughts were raging in my head. I felt used, vulnerable, and yes, angry. The feeling of being taken as a fool, a dupe, was driving my anger. What could I do, I pondered, as I walked around the fairways paying little to no attention to the carnival events. I sure wasn’t enjoying myself like I thought I would. I thought to myself “I know I’ll get a job with the carney and then lounge around all day collecting my pay for doing nothing.” That will fix them, I thought to myself. But then again, I knew better. The carnival wouldn’t hire me. Even if I got a job with the carnival they would make sure I worked hard at minimum wage all day, or I wouldn’t get paid at all. I also knew deep down that’s not how I am! Doing something like this would make me dishonest just like the Barker. So “they” were right, two wrongs just weren’t going to make things right. Besides I was angry because of the way I had been treated, not because of the money, or the long hours I’d worked to earn the money, or because I didn’t have a big Pink Dinosaur, I was angry because I was cheated and deceived. My ego was bruised. I’d believed in the better nature of people, I believed in life and people, I had faith. Surely, life wasn’t as bleak and dark as I’d been told. I was very angry.
I continued to walk the fairways contemplating how I was going to deal with my bruised ego and disenchantment. I walked around the carnival pondering my fate. I considered that it might be best to forget the whole sorted affair-lesson learned. Then it came to me: “My Twenty-Five Dollar Tiger.” I was proud of “my tiger,” I would share my bounty, my winnings with everyone. I would showoff “my tiger” to everyone! Everyone should get to see “my tiger”. This is it I thought to myself, I know it!
With my plan in place, I ventured to the nearest concessions stand and politely asked for a piece of notebook paper and pen. The lady behind the counter kindly smiled at me, which made me feel just a tad better. She handed over the paper and pen. In bold capital letters I wrote: “TWENTY-FIVE DOLLAR TIGER”. I slipped the ribbon from around “my tigers” neck and carefully tore holes in the notebook paper. I slipped the ribbon through the torn holes, retying it back around “my tiger’s” neck so that it draped down in front of its legs like an advertisement. With the sign in place, I proudly strolled through the carnival, up and down the fairways, proudly displaying “my tiger” to every person who locked eyes with me.
Occasionally, someone would stop and comment on “my tiger”, and I would proudly explain the circumstances of how I came to acquire such a “fine” tiger for the small sum of only twenty-five dollars. After strolling through the carnival for about an hour, I settled myself down right in front of the kiosk where the Barker first lured me in. I waited. As potential customers stopped to consider the game of chance, I proudly pushed “my tiger” out front while pointing to the kiosk and explaining the circumstances of my good fortune.
It didn’t take long, less than ten minutes. The Barker appeared before me materializing as if out of nowhere. He angrily yelled questions at me “Why was I standing in front of his game of chance”? “What was I doing”? “Why was I here”? I tried to explain to the Barker I was proud of “my tiger”. I told him: “I love “my tiger’”. I kept telling him I was going to show it to everyone. The Barker grew angrier by the moment. He began pacing back and forth as business at the game of chance slowed to a snail’s pace then stopped. I thought to myself “my plan is working, he is just as angry as I had been.” Furiously, he sought to resolve his dilemma. Then the Barker pulled five bucks out of his pocket and shoved them hard against “my tiger” sitting gently in my arms. He yelled at me “I told you I would buy you a beer, here, take it”. I let the bills fall to the ground floating slowly down one by one. I explained to the Barker “I’m underage, I can’t drink.” This was beyond the pale for the Barker. He screamed, “I’ll call the cops on you.” I calmly responded “Go ahead. I’d like to show them “my tiger.”” Failing to make me go away and watching his business fall away to the point of nothingness, the Barker stormed off leaving me in front of the kiosk with “my tiger.”
Thirty minutes or so went by without a single mark being taken. I had their attention. The Barker returned once again angrier than ever. He bellowed at me “What do you want?” I quietly turned and pointed to the big Pink Dinosaur hanging from the top of the kiosk. The Barker turned to a man behind the counter who shook his head “yes”, Okaying the deal. Apparently, he too had a boss. The Pink Dinosaur was taken down from the top of the kiosk and tossed angrily to the Barker who in turn shoved it at me yelling at me to “Go Away”. I grabbed the big Pink Dinosaur and proudly moved along down the fairway.
It felt Good, Real Good. I FELT GOOD. It didn’t matter to me that I had finally come to possess the big Pink Dinosaur, the object of my initial affection; it felt good because he hadn’t taken me for a fool. He hadn’t duped me and cheated me in the end. I had stood my ground. The big burly guy with the stealthy look in his eyes hadn’t made a fool out of me this time. I still had my dignity. I had survived. I had handled the whole ordeal by myself. I had gained some measure of self-confidence at the ripe age of seventeen. The experienced carnie had failed; I had beaten him at his own game! Me, a little “girl” had won. I wasn’t a fool, or should I say at least I wasn’t a fool this time.
I didn’t keep the big Pink Dinosaur. It wasn’t the real desire once the game began. I gave the Pink Dinosaur, which I affectionately named OP, to some of the kids in the trailer-park where I lived. The look of joy on their faces was exactly what I imagined was the look on my own face when I saw the Barker shove the dinosaur at me with the realization he had been beaten at his own game.
Throughout the years, I have reflected on the scenario of “The Twenty-Five Dollar Tiger”. It always seems to be relevant. Over and over again throughout my life, I have found myself pitted against some “burly guy” dead set on beating me down. In the South if you’re a “girl” without the benefits of wealth, class and privilege, you’re a target. Women from working-class families have little opportunity in this society. Oh no, “they” say “you can’t do that”! The American dream is not an option for you. Girls raised in the South at the bottom of the social ladder, affectionately known as “GRITS”, have only one path; choose a career path designated for women such as teacher, mother, maid, or waitress or “else” be prepared for a fight from all of society. Girls raised in the South, GRITS need not dream or even try to improve themselves, their family, or others. You are what you were born to be, an object. You are advised to just settle down and make the best of your fate. If you do reach for the stars be prepared for all of Southern Society to be in an uproar against you! Life-long friends, family members, and all of society will be obstructionists standing in your way saying “Oh, no, honey, didn’t you know?” Girls raised in the South are not allowed to dream, period end of story.
For the past fourteen years I have tried, tried and tried again to practice law as a legal professional and representative of the disadvantaged in the state of Alabama. No surprises here, I’ve had no success. I finally realized duh, slapping my forehead with the palm of my hand, “what did I think conservative meant.” It’s been a very painful experience. It’s as if the big “burly” carnie guy is standing in front of me again saying “TRY AGAIN” everybody is a winner here! Of course GRITS without the privilege of wealth and societal status need not expect more than a consolation prize in life if anything.
I have watched this political season with intense interest. I have found myself reflecting over and over again on the “Twenty-Five Dollar Tiger”. It has been one of the nastiest political seasons I can remember in my lifetime. Political stories based on fact-less innuendo lodged against one candidate affects the poll numbers while the other candidate could “shoot someone on Main Street” and they’d still vote for him. Society seems to be ultimately divided along a very distinct line. One group follows the political cultural line that tracks with an individual’s satisfaction with their position in society based on chance of birth. This group seems to have a sense of satisfaction and “ENTITLEMENT” based on chance of birth such as gender, race, class, religion and/or wealth. The other group believes in success based on hard work, ability and merit. If it’s all decided at birth, where is the incentive? If wealth, race, gender, religion, and/or national origin at the time of birth determine your chance of success in life why bother, why try, why work? Just give the big “burly” guy your hard earned working-class dollars, and step-up to the wheel of chance. Let the Barker of Life spin the wheel. Pay your money and take your chances. Vote for someone who’s had every advantage at the pinnacle of society; be a good little “mark” and play the game of chance. Then you can take your consolation prize and move on.
On the other hand, maybe there is a better way. Maybe America is about something bigger and better, equality in a democratic society. I thought I learned my lesson that day. Throughout my life I’ve worked hard, done my best, helping everyone I could along the way. I’ve happily taken my chances and made my stand while proudly displaying my “Twenty-Five Dollar Tiger” over and over again! “My tiger” is more my style anyway, plain and simple, no frills. Will this election prove me wrong? Only time will tell if “my tiger” will be helpful in turning it all around. I am worried that money buys it all; I sincerely hope not, I hope democracy survives!
IM WITH HER, I’M WITH HILLARY!
Copyrighted ELISA S. RIVES 2016.