So our trip to New Albany, Indiana began as a trek for a laid back, classy local winery and ended with the coolest connection of our trip.
After a light dinner at River City Winery, we decided to walk around this mostly empty, but pretty and well-planned downtown. Only a few streets wide and long, we were turning back towards our car when we noticed what appeared to be a small coffee shop on the corner, no distinguishable markings other than an unlit neon coffee cup hovering above its entrance.
We took a few photos, and started back down the street when we remembered a key piece of advice offered by our great friend Veda at our going away party – (paraphrased of course) “always have a piece of pie at a local diner – you’ll never regret it.” So, we turned on our heels and headed back down the street.
When we shoved open the door to the cramped, not-so-spotless, age-worn 10-seat hash house, we did so with a bit of apprehension as it was clear that we were outsiders. Though polite, and welcoming, the Little Chef’s history-smeared walls rarely saw new upholstery seated on these 10 stools.
We ordered two coffees and to fulfill the “pie” requirement, ordered the only thing that approximated a dished dessert – a pineapple upside down cake – and sat a moment to reflect on the day. Seated next to us was a quiet man in his sixties smoking full-flavored Cherokee Kings and polishing off his early-evening breakfast. Over the next few moments, a couple other locals uneventfully popped in – one for coffee and the other for a chicken fingers order to go and seemed not to notice us, but obviously knew one another.
We briefly got a couple questions answered as the chef/waiter/bar tender/bus boy Robert finished up the to-go order.
“Built in 1957. Had five owners I think, Diane’s owned it the last 5 years worked here 25 years before that.”
Then, as we were finishing up our pie and preparing for our drive back to the state park, in walked Bill. Cowboy, as we found out he had once been called, was an unshaven retiree who arrived on a three wheeled bike, outfitted for collecting aluminum and bottles from the alley-cans. He was wearing a too-big “Cotner for Prosecutor” shirt, oversized pants pulled tight with a belt and a brown/green stetson fedora featuring a tiny metal man hanging above the center brim that, like him, had likely seen better days.
As he got settled and ordered a sweet tea, he mentioned his hips just weren’t cooperating, and I decided I would ask about the significance of his hat, which got us talking.
He told us his age (71), discussed his preference for hats, and told us about his bike. Then he told us proudly that he was a retired carny. For those, not in the know, a carny is often used as a derogatory term for a full-time traveling carnival worker who was either a none-too-smart con-man, or worse, potentially dangerous. Which is why I was surprised he was so boastful about his former career choice.
Soon after his pronouncement, another similarly appropriated man popped in. He had long, peppered brown hair collected in a quickly established pony tail tucked beneath a leather Harley Davidson hat. His arms were tattooed, and he wore a shirt proclaiming “Never Fear, Grandpa’s Here!”
Bill introduced Pappy simply. “Here comes another carny now!”
Once Pappy sat down, conversation really began to flow. Pappy and Cowboy shared with us, in no particular order, the following stories – each followed by a short one-liner that neatly bookended their point.
- Pappy and his identical twin brother were born on his grandfather’s circus carousel – and “he’s been going round and round ever since”.
- Cowboy who is a slight 5’5″, had a carnival girlfriend who stood 6’3″ and filled out at just over 240 lbs – which I mentioned put all the “good stuff right at eye level,” but Pappy continued “When he went toe-to-head his head was in it, and when he went head to toe, his toes were in it.” In addition, Cowboy’s ferris-wheel partner was 7’1″ and over 300 pounds and his girlfriend was less “scarcely 5 foot.”
- Pappy’s father was a full-blooded Arapaho Indian, and his mother was Italian – “which makes me an “A-WOP-aho.”
- Pappy who was a surprising 86 years old, had a grandfather who lived to a documented 117 years and his father to over 105 – “I still have to live for another 25 years to keep up my end of the bargain” he said while lighting into his 5th pack of hand-rolled cigarettes for the day.
- Pappy came from a family of 17 brothers and one sister and claims to have fathered 26 children “that he knows of” – when Victoria gasps he explains that it was “them women’s fault, they shouldn’t have taken him so serious, when he was just ‘pokin’ fun’!”
Finally, the two of them shared that in addition to “Kizzarney,” together they speak 5 languages in addition to “American” (which is of course not “English as we all know”). But wait, hold up! “Kizzarney?” What the heck is that? Kizzarney as we learned was a secret language established by carnies that was used to keep the patrons in the dark about their conversations. The language is similar to Pig Latin, but apparently comes in three separate dialects (“East and West Coast circuits and a hybrid in the middle”) throughout the United States.
Cowboy and Pappy have hung up their roustabout belts and settled in Southern Indiana, but they’ve experienced the country by train, by foot, by thumb and often by circus caravan. A life so free and so exciting is something that few of us could comprehend from our office cubicles, but these guys have done it, and have the stories, tattoos and shared experiences to prove it.
If we can meet even one Bill or Pappy each week, this trip will be a monumental success.