-carnival games aren’t scams any more, as I’ve mentioned, but there is definitely some shady shit at carnivals sometimes. it really depends who is running things. my asshole boss brandon is guilty of a lot of shit that the other bosses wouldn’t do.
for one example, in my bottle break game we have like 100 beer bottles to break for prizes, but brandon also puts up a champagne bottle with a twenty dollar bill attached to it (as a brief aside on how stupid people are, I’ve had people spend sixty dollars at my game trying to break the twenty dollar bottle). now, this isn’t a scam. human throwing force can break the bottle at that distance. there are people out there who can throw hard enough and accurately enough to break it. those people are currently employed as pitchers by major league baseball teams. everyone else is fucked. I’ve had college pitchers come to my game and nail it three times in a row with 90mph pitches and nothing happens to it.
I’m not really cool with this. but, I don’t mind taking people’s money in the end, because my conscience is clear. I never tell people about the money bottle to get them to play, and if they ask about it I tell them they can’t possibly break it and they shouldn’t try. when even the carnie is telling you you can’t win, I guarantee you can’t fucking win. if you try anyhow, you deserve to lose some money.
one of the shadiest things he did involved Nessa’s game, though. he told her one day “the lights in a lot of these light-up bouncy balls have gone bad. try to get rid of them first, just don’t give them to kids who have their parents with them. if the kid comes back to complain about the broken toy, get him to play again and trade it up.” needless to say, Nessa told him to fuck off and didn’t give out any of the broken toys.
-a lot of carnies are hard to place politically on the left/right scale. most of them seem fairly christian, but at the same time cops hassle them all the time so they don’t like cops. I guess overall I’d say most of them are right wing, but with glaring left wing exceptions in their personal beliefs due to their unusual lifestyle.
one of the most interesting examples of this was an older man who worked the joint across from me for a week. he was always complimenting the people on their jesus shirts, and I got the impression he was pretty evangelical, but then at one point a college guy came up to him and asked if he could buy some weed (everyone thinks carnies are drug dealers. generally, everyone is correct) and instead of being offended, he pointed him in the direction of the right carnie to buy weed from. so weird!
-here’s a question: what’s the proper response when people say “you look like you blank”?
the one that I get most is:
“were you in the military?”
“oh, you look like you were in the military.”
what the hell am I supposed to say to that? I don’t know if its the tattoos or the good posture or the thousand yard stare or what but people always tell me I look like I was in the military and I have no idea what the reply is for that. the only thing I can think of is “thank you?” but that doesn’t sound right. and besides, even if that were the right response, I wouldn’t be able to thank someone for such an offensive compliment.
“you look like you surrender your own morals to others, and then commit murder.”
so usually when people say that it leads to an awkward silence.
then, a lot of people, including one of the carnies the other day, ask if I ride a motorcycle. I say no, and then I get the same “oh, you look like a biker”. again, what should I say to that? for one thing, anyone can ride a motorcycle, so saying you look like you ride one is meaningless. I guess, in my general experience, it means they are saying:
“you look like a middle aged man with a paunch who thinks he is a lot tougher than he is”
and that isn’t really a compliment either.
finally, when we first met some of Tony’s carnies, one of them looked at us for a second and said “do you guys smoke weed? you both look like tokers”. this one I chose to take as a compliment. I’m not really in favor of weed, but I am in favor of people doing drugs in general, so its close enough to a compliment that I’ll take it.
-saturdays are brutal. you wake up early to replace everything that got messed up in the business of friday night, then usually the carnival is open 12-14 hours, during which if you are lucky you will take one five minute break to pee. then as soon as the last person leaves, you tear down the entire carnival. despite how big some of them are, amazingly they come apart and leave no sign of ever being there within about four hours. then everyone takes a nap for a couple of hours if you’re lucky, and you head to the next town, getting there midday sunday. setting up a carnival takes much longer than breaking it down, so you do that until about midnight sunday. then, at long last you finally sleep.
-people say that the country/the south is full of nicer people and cities/the north are all rude and mean. I’ve fought this belief before in this blog, because its is bullshit.
It bears mentioning, while in Arkansas, I was walking down the road to the store from the fairgrounds one night and a guy pulled over and asked if I needed a ride. I must admit, this never happens. its hard enough getting a ride when you ask for one, people certainly never just offer them. so this, and other things I saw while I was down there, kind of let me know where this myth of nice people in the country comes from.
but whenever something like this happened I was very aware of the fact that it was only because I was a young white man in normal looking clothes. if given a choice between living in a place where people are either treated very nicely or lynched, or living in a place where everyone receives the same benign unhelpful disinterest, I will happily chose the latter every time.
-they stuck a second guy in my joint with me for some of our larger towns. this pissed me off, because it cut into my money. the official explanation was that if I got too busy and couldn’t take everyone then they would lose customers and money, and these towns were busy enough to warrant two people. in reality, my busiest night on my own I did almost a thousand dollars in business, while my busiest night working with another guy our combined figures didn’t come close to that, so we were definitely never busy enough to need a second guy. I did my best to estimate and as far as I can tell on average they made an extra ten bucks a night by having a second guy, while I lost eighty bucks a night by having a second guy.
you see, not only did I have to split some of my money with this guy, but he also decreased the overall money to split. every guy they put me with sucked at the job and I often saw them scaring off customers that I know I could have landed.
the worst, however, was in a town called mountain home. brandon took a liking to some fifteen year old kid. I think the frat boy in brandon liked the kid because he was fat and cussed a lot. frat boys are very amused by fat cussing kids, right? so, he was too young to work, but brandon put him in the joint with me anyway. the kid thought it would be fun and he was gonna get a couple of stuffed animals at the end of the week since they couldn’t legally pay him. so this kid, working for free, knowing everyone in town, stole a ton of customers and didn’t even make money for it. brandon technically, was supposed to be working the joint with me that week, so every so often he came by and took the kid’s money and put it in the stack of money he’d “earned” that week.
-people prefer their carnies scummy. when I don’t shave I do better than when I do, when I am kind of rude I do better than when I’m a gentleman, and in general people just seem to want me to fit a stereotype that amuses them.
a lot of people walk by my game with all the empty beer bottles on the racks and ask me if I drank all of them. when I’m honest and say that we just get them from bars, they look disappointed and leave. when I say “yeah, every night we all get drunk and then put them up in the morning” or when I joke “yeah, it took me almost an hour to drink all these!” people give me this knowing nod like “ha! you silly alcoholic carnie! I’ll play your game if you try not to piss your pants, drunky!” and I get a customer.
-I had assumed that carnies would mostly be free-spirited gypsy types or punks or whatever, but as I said most of them are christian right wingers. however, we also pick up local help in each town that doesn’t travel with us. that was another chance to get cool punk kids involved, but again that doesn’t happen unfortunately. our local help turns out to mostly be ICP fans with juggalo tattoos.
so, they aren’t much good for talking to either, since they mostly just brag to you about the last time they got really drunk and punched someone for no reason. its weird. still, sometimes they are good for a laugh. one of them came up to me at my joint in Jonesboro Arkansas and said:
“my girlfriend just sent me a text saying she’s gonna tackle me when she gets to the carnival”
I’m not sure why he’s telling me this, but I start to say something along the lines of “that’s sweet” since it sounds like she’s flirting with him. but before I can say that, he goes on:
“that bitch better not try to tackle me. I got fuckin mace on me. I’ll mace my old lady so fast!”
at which point I gave up on the conversation and went to have a cigarette.
-mexicans love my game to a confusing degree. I never even have to call them, they get to me faster than I can even open my mouth. at first I worried the language barrier would lead to more disputes about the rules and what counts as a win, but usually they don’t even seem to care about prizes, they just really wanna buy like six games and smash the fuck out of some shit. all of this seems to prove what I was already pretty sure of: mexicans are totally manly, unlike stupid gringos who would rather throw balls than break shit.
-I stand on a giant pile of shattered glass, under a huge banner that says “break a bottle!” but people still ask me “what if I knock it over? does that count? or does it have to break?” god that pisses me off. at first I put on my best retail slave face and politely explained that yes, you have to break bottles to win at bottle break, but by our last week i just didn’t give a shit anymore so typically when someone asked I would just point up at the banner while hocking up a big disgusting gob of spit on the ground.
-speaking of my last week when I didn’t care anymore, I had some ditzy girl and her boyfriend come up. she said to him “don’t bother, look at the prizes, they don’t have any panda bears”. I was just trying to be friendly to them so I said “yeah, I suppose we are somewhat deficient in the panda department”. this seemed a clear enough statement to me, but in her horrible ditz voice she shrieked “what’s that mean?” and I’d had it with the job and had it with dumb southerners so I just found myself shouting “it means we don’t have any fucking pandas!” and they both scurried off.
I almost felt guilty, like maybe I overreacted, until someone told me she had probably been looking for stuffed pandas because the panda is the mascot of one of the local campus sororities. so now I wish I had been meaner . . .
-jenny and brandon are currently at the “denial” stage of getting divorced. that’s the part where everyone on earth except you knows that you’ll be getting divorced soon. this generally made things pretty awkward, since you never knew when they might explode at one another, but they were sure to do it five times a day.
the worst case, however, came when they decided to have a thirty minute screaming match just when brandon had gotten inside my joint to check on something. when customers started arriving I tried shouting at them to get out of the game so that people could play, but they either couldn’t hear me or didn’t care. so I ended up spending at least a half an hour just shrugging at customers and asking them to come back later.
it was less than ideal.
-if a carnie gives you a good deal, don’t play. I can give people extra balls or change the price or whatever I want if I think I can make money. if I give someone a special deal and they win I get in a lot of trouble, but if I give people good deals to make money without losing money then the boss doesn’t care. so, at this point I’ve seen hundreds or thousands of people play my game. usually after a person’s first throw I instantly know if they are going to win something that day or not. so, the better a deal I offer you, the more convinced I am that you have absolutely no fucking chance of ever winning. so remember folks, if the carnie gives you a good deal, you aren’t going to win.
the one exception is, since I want a woman to win my damn game, I have started telling every woman who goes by that if she wins I’ll pay her back twice the price of the game from my own pocket. that deal is real. and yet still they won’t play . . .
-I hate to mention balls humor again, but it also comes up in another way. my fake southern accent isn’t perfect, so the way I say bottles and the way I say balls sounds almost the same. as I found out when another carnie came up to me asking why I had just shouted “which of you ladies wants to come over here and break my balls?”
-so, might as well discuss the money from being a carnie.
we were sort of misled on what our percentage would be, so our first couple of weeks we calculated what we were bringing in (they told us not to keep count of what we brought in. they told us it would look suspicious. we told them that saying that was suspicious and we counted anyhow) we figured out that we were making about the same as stripping, although for about 50 times more work. when we first got paid and found out our actual percentage, it turned out we were making a bit less than half as much as stripping, but for 50 times more work. this almost made us quit, but we wanted to have the experience and it was only for six weeks so we decided to suck it up and deal with it.
the money you make as a carnie, when you look at what you make in a week, sounds like a decent amount. until you realize that, between the carnival itself and other things like setup, teardown, repairs, etc, you tend to have a 70-80 hour work week with no days off, ever. when you divide your week’s money by your hours, you have the depressing realization that you actually make significantly less than minimum wage.
another shady thing they did was they told us not to discuss our percentage with other carnies. needless to say, we broke that bullshit rule too. it turned out some of our friends were making less than us, some were only getting half the percentage we were getting. we couldn’t figure out any logic to who was paid what, other than just the idea that they pay each person as little as they think they can get away with for that person.
still, vanessa and I avoided the worst part of the carnie money system. a lot of the guys who travel with them are on a system where they get paid in one large sum at the end of the season. in the mean time, the bosses give them a ten dollar a day advance on their income so they can eat. of course, at carnival food prices and with no other options, ten bucks leaves a lot of them hungry.
do you remember in history class, hearing about how mining companies used to pay you in special mining money that you couldn’t use anywhere else but the company store, and pretty soon they ripped you off until you weren’t working to make money, you were working to pay back your debt to the mining company? well, laws got rid of that shit back in the 1800’s, but not for carnies apparently.
our friend Mike, who I mentioned in an earlier blog, was one of the hardest workers in the group. he took a major role in all the setups, takedowns, repairs, etc. but we don’t get paid for any of that. we just get paid a percentage of what our game makes. his game did shitty for several weeks, and I was there when they told him that he needed to do better before the end of the season because as things stood he owed them money.
how the fuck are you going to tell someone who works an 80 hour week that he isn’t earning enough to make up for the 70 dollars you gave him that week? how are you going to tell a man that he has been working for the last four months and has zero income to show for it? I didn’t blame him when he disappeared without warning that night and never came back.
-in jonesboro they had just this year decided that carnies weren’t allowed to smoke in their joints because of some kind of PC bullshit. this did not work for us. our shifts are often 12 hours long and when we aren’t working we don’t get money so we never ever take breaks.
and one hundred percent of carnies smoke. for some reason I always end up in jobs where everyone smokes. there’s no such thing as a stripper who doesn’t smoke, either. about ninety-eight percent of bartenders smoke, but the two percent that don’t smoke are shit at their job and I refuse to drink anything a nonsmoking bartender makes me.
so, everyone smokes and no one takes breaks, so the rules began to shift throughout the week as people got more creative and less polite. originally we had to leave our joints and go out around behind all the trailers. by day two, by consensus we had agreed that just going slightly in between two joints was far enough back. then we figured that just taking one step out from behind our counter should count as not being in the joint anymore.
my joint has nets on either side of it to prevent stray balls from hitting people, by the end of the week my version of the no smoking rule meant that I had to stick the lit side of my cigarette out through one of the holes in my net. the burning part was outside! that counts, right?!
-so, another brandon story. he was working the beer bottle joint for a while. a group of 7 or 8 year old boys were playing because he was egging them on and calling them weak and such.
one of the boys had a prize already from another game. brandon bet him his toy that he couldn’t win the next game. the kid lost and brandon actually took his toy away, forcibly. then he made that kid and his friend pay for like seven more games trying to win back his own prize.
I had been busy with customers on the other side of the joint so at first I hadn’t noticed what was going on or thought maybe they were joking around, but at this point it sunk in what was going on, so I yanked the toy out of his hand and gave it back to the kids. I didn’t say anything else to brandon because I knew if I tried to say anything I would lose control and beat the shit out of him, so after I told the kids to run off I just went back to my side and went back to work.
fuck brandon is an awful person.
-none of my bosses ok’d my sales plan. I figured out the best possible way to sell my game but they didn’t see it that way. tell me that, if you saw a guy in a bloody loin cloth standing in front of a booth screaming “bwaaaah!” and smashing beer bottles over his own head, you wouldn’t be compelled to go play his game!
-if 13 year old boys are the best customers, college boys are the worst. I said some of the 13 year olds would grow up good, and some would stay aggressive cocky douchebags forever. well, the ones that stayed douchebaggy are the ones who still play my game at college age. they are every bit as easy to milk for cash as the 13 year olds, but now they are drunk and they get really pissed off when they lose.
one group in particular, started off nice, but they kept coming back to play more games throughout the night, and I think drinking more as well. I was joking around with them, doing them favors like giving them extra balls, they won a couple prizes, they had no reason to complain. but they kept going for that fucking champagne bottle. I told them from the beginning it wouldn’t break. every time they handed me more money I said don’t try it, you won’t win. but they blew like a hundred dollars trying to break the damn thing and then got really pissed at me.
for the most part, its been handy having been a stripper because it makes me a good carnie. in this case however, having been a bartender and a bouncer came in handy instead. the last thing I needed was a fight that would lose me customers for the rest of the night and probably lose me my job. I’m not a big guy but I know how to talk. in this case I figured I’m a tattooed guy in a job where everyone thinks you’re a criminal, I might as well use that stereotype, so I said “back off, I’m not going back to prison for punks like you.” and the bluff worked.
I had been tempted to be even more colorful and say “back off, I raped bigger dudes than you in prison” but at the last minute something told me perhaps that line was a bit too far. anyhow, it worked and they left, but after that I started just being a dick to any customer in that age group right from the start, so there was no chance of anyone else taking my niceness for weakness. it sucks when you have to do shit like that.
-this one guy we traveled with ran the funnel cake truck. he was about 80 years old and had been doing it for years. he also had speakers coming out of his truck so that he could do this weird sales pitch every fifteen minutes. imagine the most feeble, monotone, emotionless old man voice you can. throw in just a touch of pedophile (no pun intended). now imagine it saying things like “best funnel cakes on this side of the mississippi. funnel cakes are yummy yummy yummy for your tummy.” it was really bizarre. apparently at some point you get too old to put any kind of variation or feeling into your speech.
but his best known one was when he’d say “two days until the fair is over and we go. and you’ll be standing all alone. without a funnel cake. oh, what a terrible feeling.” it was almost disturbing to hear. but, it did become a running joke amongst the carnies, like “you better win this next poker hand, bobby, or you’ll be standing all alone without a funnel cake.”
-carnies seem to be fairly regressive when it comes to gender roles. even though jenny grew up as a carnie and brandon has only done it for a few years, he is still in charge. women, in general, aren’t allowed to do much or any of the hard physical labor, even though much of it is well within the limits of what most women could do. nessa got pissed about this a lot.
-a few years back I was reading something about tribalism, and various modern things that are still run in a tribal system rather than a hierarchal capitalist one. one example given was that some carnivals are essentially run as tribes, with everyone sharing equally in profit and work, and with choices and leadership spread widely with a lot of consensus. this was one reason I was curious to try it.
while I did see some evidence that things used to be more that way, and some troupes are more that way than others, the company we were with was not really at all remarkable in that way. our company was very corporate, with very few people at the top who did very little work and made a great deal more money. I can’t honestly say that this shocked me, but, just like the secret anarchist society in a cave somewhere that I was hoping to find while we were hitchhiking, I was sad not to find it.
likewise, I went traveling partly because I couldn’t bear how much of my life was burned away on killing time, or silly amusements, or pointless drudgery. I’ve tried lots of different ways of life in an attempt to find a way to live wherein every moment is meaningful, whether it be work, play, or whatever, so long as it has a purpose. as the situationist movement used to say, to “live without dead time”. none of the lives I have tried thus far have come close to this, probably unattainable, goal, but being a carnie is perhaps the furthest. as a carnie, a great deal of time is spent waiting, killing time, thinking about things that aren’t happening yet. so, philosophically, it isn’t a very alive way to live.
another reason we travel is to just learn about other ways of life, both for the learning itself, and in my case for the stories. being a carnie quickly lost its appeal in that regard after our third week, since we already felt quite sure that we had learned all that we needed to know and seen all that we were going to see. now we were just going to keep doing it over and over again. endless repetition, even of something we enjoy, was less appealing once there was nothing else to be learned.
-so, we left the carnival before the end of the season. it was partly the way they kept fucking with our money. it was partly the fact that several of our friends quit already. it was partly a lot of things. but about 90% of it was the fact that we absolutely couldn’t stand the management, especially brandon. I’ve already told several brandon stories, but there are dozens more. I could bitch about the bad management at our carnival for pages, but I feel like that would be boring for the reader, and since I’ve already left I no longer feel the need for such a catharsis. so, I’ll try and limit it to a short list of examples to show what I mean.
brandon would never give details in any of his instructions. he would shout “get me a piece of wood!” and if you asked what he needed it for he would tell you to just do it already. then when you came back it would turn out it was the wrong kind of wood for the purpose he needed it for and he would yell at you about that. then he would shout “pick up that thing over there!” and sort of swing his arm in the direction of seven different things. as you picked up wrong things, one after another, he would get louder and angrier, shouting “no, I said pick up that thing!” but never ever specifying what thing before finally sighing and coming over to pick it up himself.
nessa would often spend three hours repeatedly asking tony to unlock the air compressor for her so she could blow up inflatable toys. he would repeatedly put off doing so, until three hours later he would come by to yell at her and demand to know why she hadn’t blown up any inflatables yet.
if the bosses told you to be up at nine that could mean one of two things. either you would get up at nine and then find that none of the bosses woke up until noon, or you would be rudely awoken at eight by a boss demanding to know why you weren’t up yet.
brandon made no distinction between work time and off time, and tried to act like a boss 24 hours a day. this meant that even while playing poker with other carnies, or out at a bar, he would still try to give me orders or demand that I fetch and carry things. he also tried to give orders for work that had nothing to do with the carnival, like fixing the sewage line on his trailer.
he had a massive addiction to painkillers that made him either half conscious and useless at work, or angry and cranky from withdrawal, depending on the day. I heard him trying to score cocaine off a 15 year old customer at his joint. he ignored safety procedures if they didn’t have to do with his own safety (e.g. “the shovel is all the way over there, just scoop up the broken glass with your hands” “we are in a hurry to get driving, put the sway bars on my trailer hitch but you don’t need them on yours”).
one day when brandon wasn’t making much money in his joint, he went to one of his employees’ joints that was doing better and made him switch. then, when that employee finally got a customer rush at the bad joint, brandon made him switch back. when he didn’t think I was looking and he was too lazy to walk to a trash can, he would just drop garbage in my baseball buckets.
he warned me once “make all your money before eight pm while we’re in jonesboro. after eight the carnival fills up with niggers.” (incidentally, I had no trouble selling games to these “niggers”. as a matter of fact, that was only one of a number of ways in which they almost seemed like real people. someone should warn him that they appear to be learning how to walk amongst us, pretending to be human!)
before a 14 hour shift they once told us we weren’t allowed to take a five minute break to buy food because it was going to be too busy a night, then brandon left his joint empty seven times that day to buy snacks.
the carnival has pet rats for one of the joints, and on one jump they forgot to put them in the proper trailer to take them to the next town. they said we had to put them in our trailer, and when we asked if we could put down newspaper first they said there wasn’t time. our bed smelled like rat piss and shit for the next week.
one day it was over 100 degrees and humid. I didn’t manage to get any water for about six hours so finally I passed out. when I came to and went back to work they told me I was being lazy.
brandon had a weird thing about control and trying to be some kind of alpha male. when all the carnies went to the lake, people kept offering to take the wheel of the boat so he could try water skiing, but he always got really offended, shouting “no! I’m the captain! you hear me? the captain!”
at one point we had just gotten out of the drive through at mcdonalds and they forgot to give him napkins. he proceeded to go on an extremely angry twenty minute rant about the jew conspiracy to save money by never ever giving him a napkin anywhere he goes.
and perhaps most damning of all (perhaps only to me, in my weirdly prioritized mind) brandon is one of those guys who buys cds and then only listens to the tracks he has already heard on the radio. he would put in a nine inch nails cd and every time a song came on that he didn’t recognize he would scowl and change it to one of the three hits that had been on the radio. god I hate people who do that!
ok, no, I don’t think anyone else will see that as the most important one, come to think of it. anyhow, that’s just a short sampling of why our bosses were so intolerable that we had to quit a job we enjoyed.