Fear and Loathing in Santa’s Enchanted Forest

Fear and Loathing in Santa’s Enchanted Forest

We were somewhere around Bird Road, on the edge of the Palmetto, when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…” and suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and driving around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down toward Santa’s Enchanted Forest. And a voice behind me was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”

The lunatic in the backseat was my attorney, Dr. Gonzalo, who sat shirtless with his hands laid heavy on a thick attaché case that we had filled with a profane amount of drugs for our trip. We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers…and also a dozen or so miniature bottles of tequila and rum, a pint of raw either, and two dozen amyls.

Dr. Gonzalo and I did not need all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can, especially when the drugs are expensed by the publishers at the Plantain and you get to add the residual narcotics to your own personal collection. I couldn’t be expected to return unused drugs to the various dealers we met throughout the day, after all, and was certainly not going to hand them over to the lowly administrator who approved our binge who was, I heard, hoping at least some of the contraband (probably something light like the marijuana or the downers) would be returned to her custody. Even the thought demonstrates a stunning lack of experience dealing with hardcore drug fiends like Dr. Gonzalo and myself.

My editor had sent me to cover Santa’s Enchanted Forest, a hellhole of a holiday carnival that he described as filthy and depressing when it was new 25-years-ago and told me to write a story about the authentic underbelly of working-class entertainment in Miami that he could use to juxtapose the paper’s coverage of Art Basel and the decidedly luxury audience it attracts.

When I arrived at Tropical Park I was shepherded  into a massive parking lot by dozens or hundreds of teenagers, all of whom stared at their phones as they blindly pointed plastic lighted sabers and directed us toward a piece of partially flooded asphalt. As I prepared to exit the vehicle, Dr. Gonzalo, clutching the attaché case, spastically handed me a little brown bottle of liquid. “Take this. You won’t need much, just a tiny taste.” Already seeing spectrals around his terrifying head from the acid, I declined to taste what I knew was pure ether that we picked up during our drug hunt from an elderly Dominican man somewhere around Eighth Street. “Take it,” he insisted. I hesitated. “As your attorney, I advise that you take a hit of the god-damn ether!” he screamed. Who was I to disagree with professional advice I thought as I poured a capful of ether onto my handkerchief and huffed the fumes. 

It was about a half-mile trek from the parking lot to the fair, a distance that is all but insurmountable while crippling around on devil ether, a substance that makes you behave like the village drunkard in some early Irish novel: Total loss of all basic motor function, blurred vision, no balance, numb tongue. Lucky for us, the saltshaker of cocaine provided enough of a boost that we were able to stumble the 20 yards or so toward the cavalry of vans outfitted with green florescent strips to caravan fairgoers to and from the parking lot.

We paid the $1 charge to the driver and were escorted at a snail’s pace toward the entrance of the fair. Several minutes or days later Dr. Gonzalo and I, along with a set of parents escorting a leashed child, left the van.

After paying  the $31 fee to enter the park I began to feel the initial drop in my stomach that is the natural consequence of mixing blotter acid with cocaine and other narcotics, and ran toward a porta john to liberate the Tai food that had occupied my stomach. As I ran into the makeshift bathroom I shouted for the meth-addled bathroom attendant to get out of the way, which, because of the narcotics, must have sounded like I was speaking in a Pentecostal tongue. As I began to dispense I could hear the attendant mutter to himself that this was the United States and that I should be speaking English; a statement which offended me, but not enough to risk confrontation considering my inebriated state, the large amount of narcotics I had on my person, and the growing feeling of guilt I had for having made this man’s night much worse with my sick.

Santa’s Enchanted Forest is divided into several sections, all of which are uniquely terrifying to persons on high-dosage narcotics. The first thing you see when you enter the park is about a quarter-mile of themed nativity scenes featuring repurposed 1980’s mannequins dressed as Grinches or Santa Clauses or what appeared to Dr. Gonzalo and myself to be devilish children standing over the mantle of a slain family.

The nativities are largely ignored by most of the fair’s guests who are eager to get to the skill games and amusement rides that occupy the park’s larger areas, but it took Dr. Gonzalo and I over two hours to get through this initial area, partially because we had stopped for a spot of poutine and a pesto crepe made by a trio of deaf mutes that would later send me reeling back to that porta john to make its attendant’s night somehow even worse. Dr. Gonzalo and I were also delayed on nativity row by a magic show performed by a middle-age magician in a soul patch named Greg who peddled plastic wands to children between tricks. Dr. Gonzalo and I both thought the show was surprisingly entertaining – an assessment that may not be completely unrelated to the LSD we took that caused trails of light and sound to emit from Greg’s plastic wand and top hat.

After the magic show, Dr. Gonzalo and I nicked a candied apple from a chubby unsupervised child and bummed several cigarettes from a couple of teenage mothers we found smoking as they pushed their strollers toward a giant lighted Christmas tree emanating reggaeton. “Are you pregnant?” Dr. Gonzalo asked one of the girls as she handed him a smoke. As was expected, the young woman was offended by the question and told the good doctor that she was not pregnant, a claim he doubted so much that he told the girl that the redness of her cheeks (which was an affliction of rosacea she likely had since birth) was a surefire sign of pregnancy. “Get that checked out,” he said to her as we stumbled toward an obese carnival barker.

The drugs started to wear off by the time we reached a row of skill-games and we had both assumed that our relative sobriety would be an advantage to us before we spent $130 on tries at various ring-toss and ball-related games without success. Dr. Gonzalo and I took another handful of colorful pills (of who knows what content) and several dabs of pot oil along with a cap of mushrooms soaked in the blotter acid and continued toward the amusement rides.

We had purchased an “express pass” on the Plantain’s dime and were able to cut the sometimes hundreds of fairgoers waiting in line on the various nauseating inducing coasters that occupied the fairground. It was at the top of the tilt-a-something, as Dr. Gonzalo spoke to me in Spanish about Santeria saying something that I approximated as “KILL THE BODY AND THE REST WILL DIE”, that I spotted a community of trailers just beyond the fair’s boundaries that I felt might provide me with some grand answer. When Dr. Gonzalo and I arrived back at earth we purchased a snip of lemonade which we cut with the rum we had smuggled in and made our way toward the trailers.

The trailers, it turns out, are where the carneys that operate the park’s rides and games live during the two months that the park is in Miami. As we approached the community I grew paranoid that we would be caught trying to peak behind the curtain, but reminded myself that we probably looked intoxicated enough to project the appearance of belonging.

We searched through the community of trailers and noticed several children playing together and surmised that they must be the kin of the type of nomads that put on the same fairs we all fondly remember but mock from our youth without ever thinking of the amazing amount of planning and manpower that goes into coordinating events on that scale. As I swallowed the realization that the caricatures who made their living on the carnival circuit actually made a living and provided what was probably an unconventional but interesting life for their families, I saw a caricature that I recognized: Greg the Magician.

I approached Greg and introduced myself, telling him I had enjoyed his show and that I was a journalist sent to cover the fair. Sensing, I assume, some opportunity at publicity, Greg invited me into the trailer he shared with Tammy, his magician’s assistant, and Lucy the Spider Lady who, I was told, gives the appearance of having eight legs through a complicated arrangement of mirrors of her own design. For the next several hours Greg, Tammy, Lucy, and I chatted about the economic and social realities of life on the road over drinks and cocaine as Dr. Gonzalo snored heavily from the corner sofa. Life with a carnival,  I learned, was not easy nor rewarding in the conventional sense, but it provided a life of unique experience which, I realized late into the evening, is what many carneys value.

At around dawn my eyes re-opened when the initial warmth of the sun kissed my face from Greg the Magician’s window. The group of us were all cuddled close and in various states of disrobe and there was a stench that occupied the room that provided me evidence of at least part of our evening’s activities. I woke Dr. Gonzalo and the two of us left the magician’s trailer. As I left I appreciated the poetry of  the experience and hoped that it was as unexpected and unique an encounter for Greg, Tammy, and Lisa to have bedded a journalist and his attorney as it was for us to have three carneys.

As we hiked what felt like several miles back to our car I watched the sunrise extend over the now-stationary Ferris wheel and walked past several members of the fair’s custodial staff who, at this point in the season, were likely no strangers to all types of characters making the long-walk-of-shame from carney village to the parking lot. When we could finally see our car Dr. Gonzalo began to laugh crazily before turning around and then back several times.

“What the fuck is the matter with you?” I asked impatiently, ready to go home to clean off the sex and sick from my body that had accumulated over the last 12-hours. “We forgot the god-damn drugs in the magic man’s trailer.”

“Let’s just leave it there,” I told him. “The price of admission.”

By Duke Rual