Who says you have to wait until the sun goes down to have a good time?
"Let's go to Garnett's," offered my good friend, Ronda, ex-co-proprietor of the recently departed Ruby Room and Day Drinker play-date on the discussion of our next venue. "It's kind of a rough place, though. At least it was when I was there last. What do you think?"
Hmm. In that case, we'll need protection of the just-in-case kind. Enter Greg, living legend (his words) and ne'er-do-well (ours). We readied ourselves for a day of possible brutality and troublemaking.
On a rainy morning at 7 a.m., you'd miss Garnett's Rite Inn if you weren't looking for it. The sign on the side of the building looked as if someone had thrown rocks at it, for a long, long time. We pulled alongside two cars in the back parking lot. One was in the handicapped space. As we made our way to the back entrance, a herd of feral cats ran out in front of us. That's when the door opened.
"Good morning!" said a large, seasoned citizen, clad in a gray sweat suit with pink tennis shoes and very obviously missing her two front teeth, "Bit chilly out, don't you think?" She was escorting a man with a cane to the passenger side door of the car in the handicapped space. "Hold on, Walt, I'm gettin' it for you." She looked back and waved to us, "Have a nice day!"
Um, rough did you say?
Inside, Garnett's was warm and comforting. "Wow, this place is a lot cleaner than I remember," Ronda said, surprised, her eyes darting around the room. Suns banners hanging from the ceiling, a pool table (sans rips in the felt), matching tables and chairs, a fake ordinance over the bar that stated, by law, one needed to be nice to the bartender. Hardly the stuff of Roadhouse. We bellied up to some wood.
"Good morning! What can I get you?"
That's Laurie. She's been a bartender at Garnett's for eight years, but change the backdrop to a veteran's hall or a church bake sale and she'd fit right in. Big smile, bright eyes that said she was glad to see you. Good people. She works the day shift at Garnett's six days a week.
"I like my boss," she tells us of her extended career, "he comes in once a day and leaves me alone. Not like those other types." She makes a whip-cracking gesture and laughs.
We order our usual, Bailey's and coffee, still waiting on the presumed rough stuff. Greg goes commando and gets a shot of sambuca with his java. Good pours all the way around. I come prepared for our morning sloshing with a six-pack of donuts, "fresh baked" from the Circle K down the street. They taste like wadded-up pieces of underwear, but I'm snarfing them down all the same. Ronda and Greg won't touch 'em.
For now, we've got the place to ourselves, but Laurie informs us that at 9 a.m., she needs to put The Price is Right on for the regulars. We decide to take advantage of the juke. After discovering that the Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow duet "Picture" is the number one play, Greg pays extra for the deep cuts and soon, the three of us are singing Frank Sinatra and Hot Chocolate songs at the top of our lungs. We hardly pay attention to the guy in the black ballcap and sunglasses walking in and taking a seat next to us. We do, however, notice the second seasoned citizen of the day walking in with a small, gray and white dog.
"That's Bitsy," he illuminates, sitting the pooch on the bar stool next to him. Its fur is as white as the hair on the guy's head. "She comes in here with me every morning." He takes some treats out of his pocket and feeds them to Bitsy, "I just caught hell from my vet, though. He says she needs to lose some weight."
"Rough place, my ass," I say to Ronda.
We pet Bitsy until she's had enough and starts growling. We retreat to our designated stools and Ronda starts to make nice with the guy in the black ballcap sitting next to her.
"Mornin'," she says, "You must be one of the regulars."
"Nope. This is my first time here. I've been living out of my car for the past two weeks but I'm movin' into a hotel downtown today. It's $120 a week plus utilities. Pretty good deal."
He's tan, really tan - less so around his eyes, where sunglasses used to sit. He's wearing jeans and a red, untucked plaid shirt with a leather vest. He looks...hardened. Is this the "rough" we've been waiting for?
"What do you do?" Ronda asks, in barely a whisper.
"I work for the carnival. Been workin' for 'em for 29 years, since I was 16 years old." He informs us matter-of-factly, taking a big swig of his...Diet Coke (?)
"I don't do the drinkin' stuff in the morning," he notices we're watching his every move. "Too risky. I wait until nighttime."
If someone had taken a picture of us at this point, we would have looked like two girls hearing their first ghost story, or meeting an astronaut, or seeing Shaun Cassidy at the mall. Greg stood quietly next to us, pretending not to pay attention. After a slight pause, and the liquid courage of two rounds of Bailey's and coffee, reality sets in and we proceed with an all-out barrage of questions that would answer our every carny conundrum:
Q: Why are you in Phoenix? A: (pause) Q: Are you on vacation? A: (pause) Yeah, I'm on vacation.
Q: Did you ever do drugs? A: Yeah.
Q: Have you ever been in jail? A: Yeah. I spent five years in the Wyoming State Pen. Got me for possession of twenty pounds of marijuana they found in my car, but it wasn't mine, and I didn't know it was there.
Greg (suddenly speaking up): What were you, smell-blind? A: (No answer to this.)
Q: What was prison like? A: Horrible. I pulled out all of my teeth to punish myself. Didn't do it myself, but I had the dentist do it. It was stressful. I was on medication the whole time.
Q: Have you ever been married? A: Yeah. I was married for ten days to a woman I knew for five years.
Q: What happened? A: She cheated on me. She said I was abusive, but all I did was get mad one night and throw some tent sticks at her.
Q: Tent sticks from the carnival? A: Yeah.
Q: What's the worst thing you ever saw at the carnival. A: (pause) Kids trying to get out of the rides when they're moving. Q: Really? That's the worst thing? A: (longer pause) Yeah.
Q: Where does the carnival go? How often do you work? A: You wanna know? I'll go out to my car and get the schedule for you.
Whew. Time for a breather. Somewhere in our line of carny questioning, we found out his name was Stacy. The much-needed break gave us just enough time to spy a sign on the wall advertising bloody Mary's on special for $1.75. We ordered a round. Spicy, like Stacy. Spicy Stacy the Carny. Dude was rough, all right.
When Stacy came back, he proudly showed us his work schedule for the carnival. For most of the year, he worked in Missouri, Kansas and Kentucky. He told us it was a good job ($400 a week) and that he was on the "A" team, meaning he got to set up the more complicated rides.
Oddly enough, he had photos of all of the carnival rides on his cell phone, and as he showed us each one, he named it, categorized it, and explained how easy or difficult it was to set up. He then took out his wallet and showed us a weathered picture of four people standing, stone-faced and lined up against a wall.
"Those are my brothers, and that's my sister," he points to a plump girl with '80s-style hair and a scowling face, "We're from International Falls, Minnesota. We're half-breeds. My mom's white and my dad's black. I'm not in the photo 'cause I was in prison at the time."
Upon mentioning to Spicy Stacy the Carny that he looked young for working at a carnival for 29 years, he proudly peels off his leather vest and plaid shirt to reveal a black tanktop and a sizable pair of guns, both of which he flexes proudly.
"Do you want a donut?" we ask, not knowing quite how to respond to this display.
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"Not with this body to take care of." Spicy Stacy the Carny replies, flexing his arms again and laughing. "You girls take care."
And with that, he grabs his plaid shirt and leather vest and walks out of the bar. Taking the only roughness we had experienced that morning with him, leaving us to Bitsy, Laurie, Hot Chocolate and the sheer goodness that is Garnett's Rite Inn.
Garnett's Rite Inn 4134 North 7th Avenue 602-279-6086