It seemed so perfect on paper. I would write a smart-ass column trading on the negative stereotypes associated with carnies. I would ask them if they had any advice to kids going back to school this week knowing—just knowing—that most carnies are wicked losers whose grim stories serve as cautionary tales to youngsters to stay in school.
And here was the really brilliant part:
The column would be published after the New York State Fair had ended. Most of the carnies would have left town by then, thereby greatly reducing the chances that any carnies would actually read the column and respond by double-dosing on the crank and murdering me in my bed with a Whack-a-Mole mallet.
In defense of my preconceptions, carnies do suffer from a woeful public image. A Google search of “carnie” and “arrested” yielded 3,790,000 results, including a New York Daily News account of a traveling fair worker accused of terrorizing Florida homeowners by climbing on their roof and executing a number of bodily functions best left unspecified here.
I will also say that the first carnie I encountered last week left me encouraged that my column concept was on target. He was running a balloon-dart game. I asked him if he had any advice to kids returning to school. He shook his head “No.” I tried again, this time asking merely where he attended school.
“Oh, God,” he said. “I don’t even remember. It’s too early to be asking me questions.”
It was 10 a.m. Yet as I worked my way down the Midway, a funny thing happened on the way to high-concept (or low-concept) journalism. Most of the carnies I interviewed had at least graduated from high school and a few even claimed college degrees. All professed to enjoy what they do, and they told me that working the fair was a lifestyle choice, not a necessity. To my horror, they sounded genuine.
Howard Hina said he got excellent grades at Central Technical High School and studied history at Auburn (now Cayuga) Community College and at SUNY Geneseo. Now 60, he was happily working the Beer Bust game, which requires players to break two beer bottles with two baseball tosses. “When I came out of the service, this is what I chose,” he said.
His advice to kids going back to school:
1. Remember, there’s always next summer.
2. Aim for the center of the bottle.
It’s the weakest part.
Then there was Rusty Goff who was running “Knock ’Em Off.” Rusty has 20 years of carnie work under his belt. He got out of it five years ago to take a job as a sign maker in Jacksonville, Fla., but here he was back in the booth as a favor to a friend, using vacation time and not the least bit regretful about the two decades he spent on the road as a carnie. In fact, he often misses the jokey atmosphere of show life vs. the more straight-laced environment of a job-job. Would a college degree have given him more options? Undoubtedly, he acknowledged. But everything worked out.
“My mom’s happy with me, I’ve got a house, a job. I can’t complain.”
Again and again, I heard versions of the same story.
Harley Moore, 58, from a small village in Maine, hated high school and dropped out. He did fair work in the 1970s and worked a few other jobs but drifted back to the games eight years ago. This time he did it right: He owns his own trailer/booth. His game is Cork Gun.
“I don’t get rich, but I make more money than I would at a regular job,” he said, adding that at one fair he made $22,000 in 10 days. More typically he makes about one-fourth that.
I don’t. If Harley left me second-guessing my own life choices, Ashley Winder made me want to swallow a cork gun. She, too, was running a balloon-dart game. Was she desperate and miserable? Noooooo. She told me she has a degree in nursing from North Carolina State University, which I suppose kicks the snot out of my journalism degree from Western Washington University. Whatev.
She said she loved school but she has no tolerance for a conventional 9-to-5 existence. She said her husband, Sergio, also a fair worker, own a home in Mexico—how special for them—and they love everything about road life: The people, the money, the travel. Her college loans are paid off. Most irritatingly, she exuded the confident air of a woman who isn’t a slave to convention. She knows what people tend to think about carnies, and she couldn’t care less.
“You just have to make smart choices, smart decisions in life,” she said. “People think you can’t do it because you’re a carnie. But you can.”
Arrrrgggghhhh. Kids, here’s the deal: Stay in school.
Don’t stay in school. What do I know?