A Snake Story

by Slim Price


At Coney Island, one of the perks I had was living in the building that housed the show. It made me kind of a cheap night watchman, I suppose, but not having to pay rent made it ok. The building was a three-story monolith with all the nooks and crannies anyone could hope for which was fine except for one time. Backstage, among all the stuff it takes to take care of a show and its people was where the snakes lived, in large heated boxes.  Boas are most healthy in a warm, moist environment, and the boxes kept the temperature a cozy seventy-eight degrees. At the time, the snakes were my total responsibility, and I was the only “handler”(translation: strong and dumb).


One morning, early for a sideshow, the boss woke me up, furious!  One of the snakes was missing, and since I was the only one there in the building, as well as the only one who could have taken the snake to sell, I was “guilty.” In fact, I hadn’t taken the thing, nor would I. I told him this and of course he wanted to know where it was. Looking at the snake box, I saw that it might be possible for him to “nose” open one of the corners at the top. While it seemed unlikely, the snake was still gone.  After looking “everywhere,” I saw a crack behind the box in the wall between the backstage area and the area under the stage. Although it looked too small, it was the only place the snake could have gone.


At the Coney Island show the stage was a little more than chest high and the area underneath was used for very dead storage. Set up on bricks to provide ventilation spaces, the majority of space was taken up by old rolled-up canvas sidewalls. The entrance to this area was through a small hatch at the front of the stage, with an opening only about two feet square, just enough for me to wiggle through. The only light under the stage came through the hatch. I crawled in and started moving canvas and sure enough saw the last couple of feet of the snake’s tail with the snake entwined through the brick passages. Snakes are expensive, and they bite! They are only fed at about three week intervals, and are docile after feeding for about two weeks. There was a message here for me! (Boas are not venomous, but it is very common to get a serious infection from a bite. In fact, a female handler who was a friend of mine almost lost part of her hand and did lose a lot of feeling as a result of a bite.)


Brilliantly recognizing that pulling on this snake’s tail was counter-productive, I reluctantly let go and went to find John Henry, who had just come to work. John had wider shoulders than I, was strong as an ox, but was terrified of the snakes. So, I “overlooked” telling him that we were going to crawl under the stage to get one. I just told him that we needed to move some canvas. Move it we did. The plan was to move enough of the bundles so I could get the snake’s head located and drag the thing out of there.  How hard could it be to find twelve feet of snake?  Finally, I saw enough of the body in the beam of the flashlight to know where it was and told John Henry to shift a couple of the bundles out of the way. That’s when he saw the Boa!  It was impossible for John, as big as he was to get out of that hatch in one move.  No one told him that, so he vanished like smoke, without touching, I think, any part of the opening, and possibly without even touching the floor!  By then, enough of the snake was exposed for me to get a grip on it and nurse it back into the cage, to everyone’s relief. Now, more than forty years later, I hope John Henry has forgiven me.  I doubt it.


I remember a young man, my age, named John Henry, who looked like he owned that name. In Ohio, once, our whole crew stopped at a diner on the highway, and John was refused service because he was black. We just left the place, not making trouble out of respect for him. It was the first time I had this experience, but sadly not the last. We were sometimes furious with each other, but always bonded to each other and to the show. To announce yourself to another carny, it was enough to say “I’m with it” and you were accepted. Until now I never thought of carnies as a brotherhood, but I suppose we were.


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