At the risk of sounding like someone who drinks warm milk and calls sweaters cardigans, some of my best childhood memories come from the fall fair. The smells from the food carts, the squeals of delight coming from the rides and the bravado of the midway all serve to relive both stress and cash from families all across America. However, behind the twinkling lights and bright colours lies a mystery. At every ride, game, and food cart there stand the most interesting people, the Carnies (Carnival workers). In society the Carny is viewed with derision and a half smile. His often times shady appearance and gruff manner is decidedly at odds to the excessive cheer of his profession. Who are these people? Where do they come from? These are the questions I set out to answer when I joined the travelling carnival.
I admit the job itself was not hard to get. A quick Google search before the summer led me to a list of carnival companies in the greater area. After a few quick emails, I was directed to a meeting place on the outskirts of the city. Upon arrival I was as you can imagine, pretty excited to meet the crew. I was not disappointed. Let me first start off by saying that these people were some of the warmest and most welcoming I’ve ever met. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at a picture. These people had names like Tommy boy, old Pete. Taking the prize for best Carny name was one short, stocky man named Buddha who looked exactly like, well Buddha.
As luck would have it, Buddha seemed to be one of the leaders of the operation. From what I understand, there is little to no formal chain-of-command in the Carny game. Seniority was what mattered and to hear Buddha tell it, he had that in spades. If fact when I looked around the site, I noticed about half the guys there had to be over 40. Most were men, unshaven and in need of a haircut, with big beer bellies and swarthy attitudes. I used the word swarthy in the same way you’d describe a drunken pirate which I’m dead certain some were in a previous life. They were loud, crude and covered in tattoos.
To this day I have never seen such insane pieces of ink. One extremely skinny guy sported a flaming carousel of death which stretched the full height and width of his stomach. He seemed to have a lot of respect in the group collective. Another had a classic pinup girl displayed along his side, but with a twist. This pinup girl was doing a standing full 180 degree split with nothing on. Let me be clear, nothing was left to the imagination.
My first night was eventful. The beds were arranged inside mobile trailers sectioned off into little cubbies which contained a bed and shelf. After much searching I was led to one of the trailers and was told that’s where I’d be sleeping. When I opened the door I noticed that it was already occupied. Clothes, blankets, and other more suspect items littered the floor. When asked, the foreman shrugged and told me that they hadn’t seen the guy in two days. Knowing that I had unintentionally annexed the bed and property of a wayward drifter, his response did nothing to console me. The next part of the night was even more bizarre.
I had just finished storing the drifter’s things and unpacking my own when the trailer began to rock back and forth. Judging from the intensity of the shaking and the rustling noises that accompanied it I quickly identified the source of the disturbance as someone vigorously masturbating in the next bunk over. When I asked next morning about the sheer openness of these events, especially given that most of the employees had a bunk-mate in the same cabin a them, I was simply told, “It’s hard to break prison etiquette”. However, at the time I was content to drift off peacefully as the swaying motion of a masturbating Carny rocked me slowly to sleep.Over the next coming days I got to know the people and the carnival itself quite personally. I learned how the midway games aren’t actually rigged (the ring toss is really just an optical illusion disguising a nearly impossible angle to ring the bottle) and how the health standards of the candy stands leave much to be desired (trust me those candied apples have seen some shit). I learned how to smoothly operate dart throwing game and shamelessly shout thinly veiled innuendos to attract passersby. I even had the good fortune to meet a young Carny harlot endowed with exceedingly large breasts matched only by her exceedingly low-cut tops. So that was nice. And finally I got my answer to the question, where do Carney’s come from?
To be frank, many come from exactly where you’d expect. I would love to be able to sit here and tell you that half the group were out of work philosophy majors and the other half wrote screenplays about the current state of the American dream but it just isn’t true. Do you remember that guy that was operating the spinning tea-cups and covered in what looked like prison tattoos? Well guess what, he got them in prison. Yes, from the anecdotes and personal histories I collected (remember these are extremely open people) the rate of previous incarceration among my Carny brethren was quite high. Others had spent a lot of time in youth detention centres or panhandling beforehand. Many of the younger ones were from broken homes and some saw the carnival as a sort of surrogate family. But for all their shadiness and personal eccentricities, I’ll admit they were a pretty close knit bunch.
To be fair not all the people there were sob stories. A portion of the rides were owned independently from the parent company. One lady whose swagger, dress, and bedroom eyes may have inspired the word cougar back in 1930 had worked as a bartender for years until she had made enough to buy three midway games outright. One young guy with a personal history of drug use, poverty and mental health that would have devastated the average Joe said that the opportunity to travel from the east coast to the west coast three times before he was 25 was better than any job in the world. Another even stranger encounter from a guy who until quite recently was homeless still makes me think. In his own words “I used to panhandle and all I’d do is ask people for money. I loved it because I got to meet new people all the time and often saw people at their best. Now working for the carnival I basically do the same thing, but I get to give something back whether it’s a prize or just the experience of the game.”
Despite the warm attitudes of the Carny folk or their thought inducing monologues I knew pretty quickly that it was time to leave. The shady nature of the work, showering in Carny gray water up to my ankles, and the dead-eyed stares during drinking hours all convinced me that I had swindled my last Rube. True to Carny fashion I woke up really early one morning and high-tailed it out of there without telling a soul. If it taught me anything, as tacky as it sounds it really doesn’t matter what you do, but how you do it. God bless the carnival.