Game agents control the tubs game with their hustle. Earlier this year a New Hampshire man lost his entire $2,600 life savings on a tubs game.
"O human race, born to fly upward, wherefore at a little wind dost thou so fall?"
Dante, "The Divine Comedy"
I got no game. I don't do drugs. I don't sleep with whores. I'm no fun.
Alighieri took this like a joke tricks tell themselves.
He's a black man in his early 20s, broad shouldered with bright eyes, and solid gold teeth along his bottom row. He might be considered handsome. He loves clowning with the crew and free-style rapping.
He's a great carny agent who can run-up a mark and he's a pimp.
"I'm going to take you... out tonight. I'm going to drive by the hotel and pick you up and we're going out. You and me."
A half dozen carnies are watching the exchange during set-up on a bright, hot day along the Super Midway at the State Fair of Texas, the biggest state fair in America.
Alighieri treats me like a trick who doesn't know what he needs - just how he plays marks at his joint.
When he picks up a ball, he calls himself, "The Tub Thug."
In the bucket game customers toss a ball into a plastic tub. Game agents control the game by palming a ball and leaving it in the bucket when they want a ball to dead-bounce.
The best agents are good at wetting the appetite, the come-on, the flirt.
Away from the midway, he's a pimp who runs his north Dallas girls from wherever he is working in the country.
Now on his home turf, he's Dallas pimp royalty, aka "Sir Tey the Great."
"What do you want. Anything you want, $100 an hour. I've got light skinned girls. Hour-glass figures. They'll do anything you want. Anything. You like whips, chains, domination?"
We are pinning bright, yellow, stuffed "Despicable Me" minions to hang before opening.
I was a challenge. He could see something there. A tell.
Hookers and gamers
Prostitution on carnival road is a good fit.
On van rides to and from work, at the hotel or truck stops, carnies are pointing out the hookers and commenting on them.
Out of a sense of friendship, a hotel roommate recently offered to clear out if I need some time with a local hooker. At least two others on my crew brought streetwalkers back to their rooms in the last few days.
I knew a Northwestern University transportation expert who said long-distance truck drivers are harder to find since AIDS and the crackdown on prostitution at truck stops.
Without prostitutes, he maintained, the road is too much for these men of flesh.
Still, the "tell" Alighieri saw in my eyes was desire of a different kind, for a story of a night with a carnival pimp player. For a night, as he puts it, "selling salmon and peeling bananas."
Many writers and artists I admire wrote about this part of human desire.
Stephen Crane's first novel was, "Maggie: Girl of the Streets" and he lived with a madam. Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Victor Hugo and Hemingway all drew prostitutes into their art. (At the other end of the spectrum, Dante wrote about "courtly love" and his unconsummated love of Beatrice.)
A universal reaction among gamers is the excitement as they talk about their hustle. Their hustle calls the mark in. Their hustle runs up the tab. Their hustle leaves the mark broke.
A synonym for prostitute is hustler.
Easy prize at impossible tubs
A few days ago, Alighieri sat on the counter top and under the awning of his tubs during a lightning storm and told me he wants to become an L-7.
Then he took his forefinger and thumb on each hand - forming an L or a 7 - and put them together to make a square.
He's living a fast life and the brakes could be a 10-year stint for pandering. He wants to take a hard right.
He met a woman on the carnival circuit in "Cali." She's "way older" in her late twenties, has a child and a good job.
He'll miss the girls, the clubs and the "mollies," a pure form of ecstasy in a powder or tablet. He'll miss being "fresh," with $1,500 in his pocket and driving the streets of Dallas a carny pimp player.
"I'm the greatest at pimping, what are you the greatest at Mike," he proudly said.
All this he says he'll miss but he also wants to miss the bullet, all those things he loves "makes me a target."
So he dreams of becoming an L-7 square saved by the love "of a good woman."
That life is so close. It's just a commercial driver's license and a clean drug test away. Be a trucker, with a home and a family.
Get out of the Dallas hood, where the game is all around.
"I need a fresh start. With some money. A good woman. That's not bad is it?"
Walking away from the life will be tough and yet as easy as winning a bright, smiling prize at his impossible tubs.
*Alighieri is an alias.
This is my ninth month working in traveling carnivals coast to coast. I've been living on carnival wages so I've hitchhiked more than 12,000 miles from California, to New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska and back. I'm finishing the state fair season with jumps in Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Texas.