Before you get the wrong idea, I should probably specify: I was never a carny for a living, nor was I ever part of a travelling fair, going from city to city. Though the number of people who do this has dwindled drastically over time, there are many, many folks in this world who still do, and I was fortunate enough to get a taste of carny life for three brief periods in my teens.
My first real job -- ever -- was running games at the Canadian National Exhibition (The Ex) in Toronto for Beasley Amusements, which also runs the show over at Centre Island, a mini-theme park for families with small children. After my inaugural summer at The Ex, I shuttled over to Centre Island for the ensuing summers, also running some of the games there. At the time, it was a means for me to make teenage money. You know the kind: money that just disappears, spent on ephemeral crap. For some of the others around me, though, this was a living, and there was a handful of people who worked year-round in amusement parks. I don't think I really realized that at the time; I just assumed this was transient work for everyone.
It was a blistering hot August day when I arrived to pick up my "uniform," which was basically just a polyester-jersey T-shirt. This was a few days before The Ex officially opened, so rides were still being constructed. Half-built roller-coasters and rides stood gleaming in the sun, with construction workers dangling from precipices, hammering in bolts and securing pieces of metal. Despite the open air of The Ex, I always remember the smell of cigarette smoke -- in my memory, almost every worker smoked. And in 1995, you could still smoke on the job. It wasn't unusual to see workers casually exhale smoke near children. Amazing how I wouldn't even blink back then, but it would be so taboo now.
I was given some basic training, and then thrown to the wolves. I had a fanny pack filled with $100 in small bills and change (the toonie didn't even exist during my first summer, so it was all loonies and quarters), was given a microphone, and told to get to it. At the start of the day, the pack weighed a ton, and as a scrawny teenager, I had to lug my body to my post. There were three games I could be assigned to: water gun race, Bingo, and the birthday game. There was also the camel race, but that was only for "advanced" employees. I can still remember the guy with blonde dreads running that game, and all the female employees swooning over him.
Bingo was the worst and by far the most depressing, since the massive tent (the biggest one at the CNE) was always crammed with people vying to win some dinky prize. The job in there was to distribute Bingo cards to people, which was excruciatingly boring. You also had to clean up after people, which meant picking up garbage and clearing those (usually full) tinfoil ashtrays. When I was able to run the water gun race or the birthday game, I at least had a microphone and some interaction with people. While there were the hotheads ("Come ON. This game is SO rigged! I want my money back!"), most people were friendly.
I'll be honest: I hated when children played any of my games. I hated it. Do you have any idea how heartbreaking it is to watch a child lose? Funny, I'm still afraid to admit it now because I'm worried I'll get in trouble, but I can't recall the number of times I gave a child a prize, even though he lost. I suppose I don't have the mettle to be a true carny, someone who can look a six-year-old in the eye and say, "Sorry, kid." I forked over so many stuffed animals to kids, I often worried that someone would find out.
In some ways, working as a carny was incredibly formative. As a journalist, I can say that confidence is key, especially in the entertainment industry. If I didn't have those three summers where I was verbally accosting strangers on a microphone, I can't say with certainty that I'd have the same fearlessness now. It truly is an art -- being able to bring someone in who has absolutely no intention of playing, and getting them to part with their money. I got better and better at it as the summers wore on.
There were definitely downsides: taking place in Toronto summers, it was hot. Like stupid hot. There was also the one summer where wasps decided to take up residency in one of the games, so I spent my days living in fear and swatting them away with a broom. And you may not realize it, but currency is very, very dirty. After eight hours of handling cash and coins, the palms of my hands were soot black, and that is no exaggeration.
The most memorable aspect, though, was the camaraderie among the staff. It was like a collection of misfits; some were teenagers like me, but others were in their 50s and 60s, long-time veterans of The Ex. Others were retirees, and a select few were lifers, people who would join up with an amusement park and travel with it. They were the real deal. They would disappear after their shift into the trailers behind the rides and games, not to be seen until the next day.
That's really where the heart of carnivals and fairs lies. Next time you're at the CNE, or at any fair, try to sneak a peek behind the lights and kiosks. You'll see a collection of grey, nondescript trailers with electricity cables running along the ground like tree roots. At the end of the day, that's where I'd return my fanny pack and sign out. I'd walk out of the trailer with blackened hands and see groups of people -- the real carnies -- sitting in circles on patio chairs, often laughing and having a good time. I got to know some of them a little bit over the three-week run of The Ex; a strange breed, to be sure, but nice and full of stories to tell.
Like this one, only better.