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Lives of the Carnies

Photos by Virigina Lee HunterIt’s been raining for three days in Indio, a hard spring rain that’s turned the beige concrete houses on one side of Arabia Street the color of a pork chop left too long on the counter. On the other side is the Arabian-themed Riverside County Fairgrounds — a series of Quonset huts and faux mosques, livestock pens and the Shalimar Off-Site Betting Center — home of the annual National Date Festival. Date palms 80 feet tall line both sides of the street, and when the wind blows, they bend, giving an unimpeded view of the Ferris wheel, a hundred-foot-high ring of pulsating light that tells the surrounding community the carnival is in town. Though the Datefest does not open until tomorrow, the carnival starts tonight: Valentine’s Day. It’s the first of the year for Butler Amusements, the biggest operator of carnivals on the West Coast; by midsummer, Butler will have four separate units simultaneously on the road, a combined work force of 1,500 carnies — not counting temporary help — putting on shows from Southern California to Central Washington. The company, which bills itself as the “Cleanest Show in the West,” runs 60 shows a season and owns more than twice as many rides (128) as its close competitor Ray Cammack Shows, whose clients include the L.A. County Fair and the California State Fair. For the past two weeks, hundreds of Butler-affiliated vehicles have pulled off Highway 111 to build the midway, on and around which carnival workers eat, sleep, defecate, socialize and eventually entertain visitors. While the era of the superhighway would seem to have made obsolete the fantasy of running away with the carnival, the reality is, that’s how most of these carnies got here. Take Brenda, who has been with the carnival only 10 days. The rain has finally stopped, and she stands in the center of the midway, combing the hair of a guy in a ROCK 107.5 T-shirt. This is not a savory job, as his hair is as matted and greasy as something pulled out of a clogged drain.

Darting for dollars

“Hold still,” says Brenda, whose own, bleached hair is striated brass, gold and platinum. “Shit,” she says, giving ROCK a shove. “You got bugs.” “Do not,” he mumbles, and reluctantly lumbers off. “You do, too,” she calls after him. “And that was a new comb!” This is Brenda’s first carnival. She’s in her 40s, bony, with sun-leathered skin and twitchy eyes behind tinted plastic sunglasses. She’d been living at a mission when the carnival pulled into town. “I went to [the unit manager] and tell him my situation and tell him I was wanting to work, and so he helped me,” she says. She’ll be in a Candy Land concession, selling hot dogs, soda and popcorn. “I’m gonna clean and serve the people and smile.” She lights one cigarette off another, and simultaneously gnaws at the inside of her mouth. “I’m going through a divorce, and I just saw the carnival and decided to get with them, as family,” she says. “It gives you hope. You don’t have to live under bridges. They try to give everybody a job, and everybody tries to treat everybody right. No cussing, no messing up in or outside, or you’re immediately fired. Everybody gets drug-tested; they don’t pass, they gotta go. It’s helped me.”

The Great Zucchini

Though Brenda says she’d like to travel with the carnival all season, her hope is to get back to San Bernardino. “That’s where my husband’s at. Right now he’s getting Social Security; he’s got emphysema, he’s sick.” She takes a deep last puff of her cigarette, and nods at the small, gray-faced woman beckoning from Candy Land. “I was a dental assistant, and I had a good life, good life,” she says, heading off for her first shift. “I hope to get back some day. I just slipped a little bit, now I’m coming back on track.” Hang around the midway during the day while the carnival is readied, and you’ll understand the literal meaning of “stayed too long at the fair.” The rides and games show the stress of the road — and so do the carnies: Most of the workers washing down booths or bagging cotton candy look as though they haven’t showered for a few days. Sweatpants are stained, sweatshirts splotched with circles of motor oil, and there’s evident truth behind the fairground joke What do you get with a roomful of carnies? A full set of teeth. In short, everyone looks poor. Which they are: Ride jocks earn between $150 and $250 a week; and renting a bunkhouse — the sort of portable dressing rooms actors use on location — will eat through $200 of that a month. During the nine-month season, if a carny does not splurge on a motel, there is zero solitude; there are always people on the other side of the bunkhouse wall, or waiting their turn in the john. While one can save a little money buying food from local markets and cooking on a hibachi, most take their meals from the cookhouse, which dishes out diner fare at bargain prices: pancakes for $2, stew for $3. Carnies without funds can run a tab. What is lost in money and privacy is made up for by a seemingly contradictory combination of freedom and job security. If a carny keeps his ride in good repair and his nose clean, there’s no way he’s getting fired, as the carnival is always shorthanded. In fact, it needs to hire in every town it pulls into; a few hours before the Indio opening, a dozen local teens, wearing Anthrax T-shirts and sporting mullets, pile out of two Butler pickup trucks. They have been brought in to restock game booths and touch up paint, but when no one immediately tells them what to do, they head for the mounted rifles at the Shoot Out the Star booth and start squeezing the triggers. Over in Kiddie Land, another set of new Butler employees — four Latino men with neck tattoos, an old white guy with a liver-colored nose, and two woman of indeterminate age, one with shoes clearly too big, the other with a wool cap over her eyebrows — are being shown how to seat children on the rides.

 

Riding "Big Eli," The Eagle 16

“Watch where your hands be; you got little girls riding,” a veteran tells the new carnies. “Always keep your hands where parents can see them.” She directs the group to the Jumping Jumbos, and tells them to get on. One of the men doesn’t want to. “You’re too scared to ride?” she asks. “That’s all right.” The other trainees board, and as the flying elephants rise, they wave like children and squeal. The woman in the cap laughs behind her hand because she has no front teeth. The biggest ride in Kiddie Land is the Eagle 16 Ferris wheel, 60 feet high with more than 3,000 light bulbs. Brad and Rick have to change every one of them. How long does a spin on the Eagle 16 last? “About three minutes,” says Brad, who joined the carnival last year. “People tend to get sick if they go any longer,” says Rick, who’s in his 50s and has been with Butler since ’91. “But sometimes we go shorter or longer. It’s all up to us.” Do they have to balance out the riders? “Absolutely,” says Rick. “And if they don’t weigh out, we have them drink more liquid.” They keep up the repartee. “Customers will try to psych you; they’ll ask if you’re having a nice day when they know you’re not,” Rick says, just before Brad mentions that the look on a woman’s face when the wheel drops down is “the same as when she orgasms.” They’re a regular Abbott and Costello, if Abbott had a complexion darkened by axle grease and poppy seed–size blackheads, and Costello were a buff 41-year-old dude recently out of jail. At 4 o’clock, the Kite-Flyer is given a test run for cameras from a local TV station. As a little dog yips at stuffed Pooh bears hanging from the eaves of the Go Fish booth, the first riders of the season trickle in, mostly young moms pushing baby strollers, and packs of skinny teenage boys, who rattle the barriers around the rides and look to see if someone is going to tell them to stop. This is not the carnival’s magic hour — one can too easily see the rides’ many coats of paint, the flimsy-looking construction of the Fun Haus, the cigarette butts on the ground and paper cups crushed into the topiary — but the midway gets exponentially better-looking as the sun sets. The rides churn up; the lights flash on; calliope music does battle with Eminem’s “Without Me” and the boom of a fun-house hardy har har har har! More visitors arrive, falling or not for the entreaties to toss a ring, test their strength, scale a ladder, pitch a dime into a spray-painted fishbowl or chipped water goblet in order to win it. Riders board the Vortex, the Zipper, the Flying Bobs, the Spin-Out, and from all corners of the midway starts the teen scream-a-thon that is high soprano in the carnival’s cacophonous opera. The Datefest opens slow and easy the next morning. Game operators scrub down booths, and concession-stand workers spin cotton candy, while senior citizens mill about a hangar where a simulated supermarket displays regional agriculture: kumquats and limquats and more than 20 varieties of dates. In a small outdoor manger, Sourdough Slim the Yodeling Cowboy plays his red accordion. “I thought the kids would like this song, but it turns out, their grandparents danced to it,” he tells the crowd of 10, and launches into an ululating version of “Proud Mary.” The carnies were at their posts early. It wasn’t a long commute for Brad. “I got my stuff laid out under a ride,” he says. “It’s a big old comforter, blanket, big old sleeping bag. I sleep better than anybody.”

 

Earl "Butch" Butler: "The ridesdon't have personalities, it's thepeople who sell this show."

It’s 10 a.m., and Brad is on his first break of the day — he and Rick trade 90-minute shifts — having a cup of coffee and basket of onion rings at a picnic table in sight of the Eagle 16. “Man, I have a blast running that machine,” he says. “Rick and I are gonna set it up and tear it down 40 times this year. And we’re going everywhere, I mean, Vegas and Portland and Boise — some of these places are just incredible — Santa Maria, Phoenix.” Last year, he was just out of jail (he declines to say for what), and homeless here on the streets of Indio. “The carnival had just come; I walked up and [they] hired me on the spot,” he says. “There’s a lot of responsibility on that ride. You gotta set the tone. If you’re not friendly and nice, the people will eat you alive. If they see you’re there to genuinely help them and genuinely give them fun, it travels all the way through the whole line, because they see what you’re doing, and they study you.” Being studied appeals to Brad, who says he taught tennis all through the ’90s for $65 an hour. “I was working in Fort Lauderdale, for the Hyatt and Marriott. I brought up a lot of kids. There’s no one that knows how to handle kids like I do . . . And what I do here, it’s the same thing, just different language. Only I’m not teaching. But then again, I might be teaching people demeanor or something, you know?” Brad grins. “Do you know Chris Evert? I do; I worked for Jimmy Evert. Pier 66, at the Hyatt, gets these billionaires coming on their yachts. I’m talking people like Gary Busey, him and his girlfriend; he was out there hitting balls over the fence with a cigar hanging out of his mouth, hundred-dollar tip every time.” And then there was Brad’s own girlfriend. “She was beautiful, Serbian-Canadian. Her dad was an immigrant from Yugoslavia, entrepreneur, very, very, extremely wealthy.” She died in a hit-and-run accident. “After she was killed, I flipped out; I tried to kill myself in Vegas. I drank a bunch of whiskey, a bunch of beer; I took the whole thing of pain pills. I woke up the next day. I got rid of my condo; I had $131,000, and I blew it. There was one day I spent over $50,000 gambling. I wish I had some of it now, because I earned every nickel of it. I know Kathy rolled over in her grave to see how I reacted. ‘You stupid son of a bitch!’ ” Brad drags a few onion rings through a pool of ketchup. “I didn’t even go to the funeral,” he says. “She got hit outside of Niagara Falls. Ontario. We used to go to the Sky Dome all the time, in Toronto. Ah, that place is phenomenal; it’s the only stadium hotel in the world. It’s a huge dome, and it’s a hotel, too. You can get rooms where you can see the Raptors game. It’s the most phenomenal place on the planet . . . My favorite breakfast in the whole world was this skillet breakfast; it’s got home fries, bacon, sausage, ham, green peppers, onions, tomatoes, cheese. ‘Where do you want to stay, Brad?’ she’d say. ‘Oh, let’s go to the Sky Dome. I want breakfast.’ ” Brad pushes the onion rings down the table, where they become breakfast for a bunch of bottleflies.

Carol sends in the clowns at the water race - The Equalizer.

“It’s a totally different lifestyle here,” he says. “I used to be really ashamed of myself out here last year. You’re labeled out here, ‘fricking carny,’ you know? A lot of women don’t like the thought of going out with a carny or whatever, but I ain’t had no trouble. And I cooked during the off-season. Most people collect food stamps, go camp out in Yuma, and waste a life. I worked, put money in the bank. I made the best of my situation. I lifted weights; I’m so strong right now, it’s unbelievable. I guarantee you there’s not another carny out here in the physical shape I am. Check this out.” He flexes and admires his calf muscle. “Yeah, I probably won’t be here next year,” he says. “Still, I came back on my own terms; I came back because I wanted to come back. And they welcomed me. The money ain’t all that good, but, hey, compared to all the fun I’m gonna have and all the fun I’m gonna give?” By noon, it’s 95 degrees, and the air is strung with fat from colossal onion rings and Kettle Corn, deep-fried Snickers bars and bratwurst, churros and calamari, Hot Dogs on a Stick, gyros, egg rolls, funnel cakes, barbecue, nachos, curly fries, and “the best pies you’ll ever eat!” “In this business, anybody with ambition can get somewhere,” says Kelsey, one of Butler’s unit managers. He stands by a Sno-Cone booth, answering calls on his Nextel. “[We’re] always looking for people who are willing to work, and that’s the whole thing.” While Kelsey doesn’t look like the other carnies — he’s spruce in a sport shirt and Dockers — he, too, got into the business the old-fashioned way. “My wife divorced me,” says the 46-year-old. “This was the ’70s, when the woman took everything. I just started hitchhiking. One of [Butler’s] drivers, hauling a ride to another spot, picked me up and asked me if I wanted a job. I was 25. My first job was as a ride operator; I was foreman of the Skydiver.” Unlike most carnies, Kelsey saved his money; he now owns a ride, several games, and a house in Northern California, where he lives with his new family during the off-season. As for carnies’ bad rep, Kelsey says it’s mostly myth. “Everybody — well, not everybody, but a lot of the public — thinks carnival people are scum; they’re all drug addicts, the whole thing. But it’s not that way at all. They’re just people who want to work. And a lot of these people out here, they can’t handle a 9-to-5 job. If I had to work in an office, forget it, I’d go nuts! Look at how many suckers there are out there. What, 70, 80 percent of the people working in the United States hate their jobs? If you can find a job you love, which is the name of the game, you got it licked. “But you gotta like people,” he adds. “If you don’t like people, this is not the job for you. Entertaining the public, that’s what we do. I mean, we don’t get paid like movie stars, but we entertain a lot of people. Millions.” “Idon’t think there’s any bigger [carnival] in the world,” says Earl “Butch” Butler, owner of Butler Amusements, sitting behind a huge desk in his air-conditioned office at the back of a double-wide trailer. Butler, 62, has been in the business since age 13, when he joined his father in operating games on several carnivals through the Midwest, and is the former president of the Showman’s League of America. “I look at Christmas as being the top event of the year, and I try to do that with my carnival,” he says. “All the rides kind of glitter like a Christmas tree, and the excitement that we give people, we’re trying to make it feel the same way as Christmas. They get a lot of thrills, and presents and toys, and win prizes and that type of thing.” In addition to playing Santa to 15 million visitors annually, Butler — who is also as big as Santa — takes care of the steady stream of employees who file in with a question or a form that needs signing; the high school seniors to whom he gives college scholarships; his four grown daughters and their spouses, all of whom work for the carnival; his current wife, who works as his administrative assistant; and his ex-wife and her new husband, office manager and fun-house owner, respectively. And then there’s OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to deal with, and state inspections, and the competition. But the biggest part of the carnival, he says, “is the people, [and] a lot of them are like kids, you know. In a family, you have a large variety, and in some cases we have to be the mother and father and give direction. Some of these kids haven’t had good directions, and they’re not even insulted when you tell them, ‘Go get a haircut; go shave.’ They won’t get any money unless they shave and they’re clean. “You shouldn’t have to do that; these are grown people. A lot of the kids are from broken homes and have really been knocked around pretty hard, and they find a community here where people are working together, and we try to pat them on their backs and tell them they’re doing a nice job, which they are. They’re keeping their rides clean, and some of them don’t even know how to clean. I went out there yesterday, and they’re cleaning down there, and up above it’s dirty as heck, and I say, ‘Didn’t your mother ever teach you how to clean? You start at the top!’ You just have to work with them. We sort them out and try to help them, and usually it works out pretty well. “When we come into town with a fair as large as this, we’ll have to hire an extra 50 people. You put to work some people who haven’t been working for a while; it’s a helpful thing. And then we do drug testing, so everybody on the rides are all drug-tested. That’s only been the last three years or so, and it’s helped. We lost three or four people that we wished . . . that we really cared about. It surprises you sometimes. “The rides don’t eat or have personalities, it’s the people who really are what sells this show,” he says. “We make memories that last a lifetime, and we want them to be good, safe, friendly memories; we work so hard at that. You don’t find longhairs out there, you don’t find beards; I’m pushing so that I have a better appearance. Maybe I’m going beyond what some people think I should do, but I feel like the carnival’s somewhat got a strike against us before we come, so I’m trying to put it on a better scale.” On his break from the Eagle 16, Rick walks past the main stage — where Paul Revere, wearing the same Revolutionary War outfit he wore in the ’60s, and his current band of Raiders play “Cherokee People” — and directly to the trailer that sells lotto tickets. He buys scratchers and plays keno, winning $8 and losing $12. During the course of his 90-minute break, he will visit the lotto trailer three times. “I have nothing else to do with my time and money,” he says, one eye squinting from the smoke of his hand-rolled cigarette, smoke that’s left a hazel streak in his push-broom mustache. “After work, I’ll drink beers, or not, and if there’s a casino in the vicinity, I might go.” Last night, he lost more than $100 at Fantasy Springs Casino. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. Rick continues across the midway, past the vendors selling machine-made dream-catchers and black-velvet paintings of Indian maidens; past where a magician billed as the Great Zucchini tries to sell a chubby boy a retracting dollar bill. He stops in the shade of the fairgrounds’ Taj Mahal Building, where a few little kids turn somersaults on a patch of grass. “The only thing I know about carnivals is Butler, and I got no reason to move on,” he says, smoking continuously as he watches the kids. “I’ve had people ask me why I’ve stayed. My reputation spreads around. In the carnival business, people know who’s who. They see how you operate and know what I’m capable of. There are not a lot of Ferris wheels; it’s a select few who operate them. I’m probably the best at it in the country. You have to coordinate its weight, move it around, make sure people aren’t banging and screaming and yelling; you have to deal with disgruntled customers, fixing the ride, maintaining it. There’s a whole lot of stuff involved, and that’s what I do.” As with Brenda, Brad and Kelsey, Rick’s coming to the carnival was precipitated by hard times: He says he found his wife with another man. “I left the house in Hartford to my wife and kids; I didn’t want them growing up in an apartment building. Then my divorce came, and I couldn’t maintain financially,” he says. “I got to Santa Monica on New Year’s Eve. I’d had $1,800 in my pocket a couple of weeks before, and now I had $1.80. I walked into a restaurant, had a glass of champagne, and wondered, where am I going to sleep tonight? I wound up in a culvert with a couple of panhandlers, and spent the winter in a shelter. Butler was coming through for the [Oxnard] Strawberry Festival, and I went for the setup, and thought, a year, what the heck. I had nothing going. People come [to the carnival] with stories: Something happened, they’re not getting ahead with an occupation, they don’t want any neck breathing or clock punching. The carnival has its regimen, but if the weather is nice, it’s okay.” Though he sprang for a bunkhouse this year, Rick usually camps out. “I slept outside for nine years. I camp out under the rides. Kids come running through and wake you up, but that’s the way of the carnival. I pulled out four teeth myself; you got no time for pain out here. The strong go on, and the weak fall to the side. Some people can’t handle the crowds and the heat; they’re not really built for mechanical things, but they have no place to go, so they come here and don’t survive. I’ve put a half-million people on this ride in 10 years, and only a handful of complaints. I’ve saved people from emergencies and hydraulic malfunctions; I’ve grabbed seats and stopped them from flipping.” Listening to Rick talk about his prowess with the wheel is like watching someone keep a bubble afloat by blowing on it. “I’d like to go to a living situation that wasn’t just survival. I have plans beyond the carnival, but I don’t think they’ll ever occur. I’m a fine-arts artist, still life. I had a painting in the New York Graphic Society; they print all the great artists that ever lived. It was called Floral Still Life, and it was under my real name, Ryszard Ploskonka. [Note: The NYGS has no such painting or artist currently listed.] But I had an injury and couldn’t hold a pen.” What sort of injury? “I can’t talk about it,” he says, and casts a look meant to insinuate some lingering danger or mystery, a look that says, I was important, but circumstances prevent me from going into detail. “I’m one of the best artists in the world; my painting was printed with Renoir, Monet, Rembrandt. And I don’t even sketch at all now. My life absolutely, totally changed. Right now, I should have a studio with a clientele paying $10,000 for my paintings; experts valued my work at $1,000 at the time. And I didn’t need motivation; I just painted. “I wanted to be successful for my children, so they could live well and be proud of themselves. They know what I do for a living now, and they’re proud of it, I guess. How many people know someone with the occupation of a Ferris wheel operator?” Rick pauses, and watches the kids run away, toward a rocket ride. “I lost 20 years of my art,” he says. “That’s more a loss than I’ve provided anyone with the Ferris wheel. The gallery contacted me two years ago, wanting to know what I’m doing. I didn’t want to tell them I was sleeping outside with a paintbrush. My whole life has been disassociated. Holidays, birthdays . . . early on, yes; now, it’s not happening. I cut all ties, but I had no choices. They weren’t going to be tied up again.” It’s time for Rick to get back. “I don’t want to die here with this piece of equipment,” he says. “I want to die with a paintbrush in my hand. That’s who I am.” Underneath a full moon, the Datefest’s production of Scheherazade is under way. On the outdoor main stage, before a crowd of perhaps 2,000, a troop of relentlessly peppy performers belts out “Arabian Nights” from the movie Aladdin, with dance moves worthy of the Osmonds. On the outskirts of the field, amid overflowing trash cans, a few beery guys are passed out in the grass. Teenage girls cruise the midway in halter tops, hugging themselves, too invested in looking cute to put on a jacket. A few families stop in to wave night-night to the baby animals in the stinky petting zoo; other sleeping children are carried by their parents straight to the parking lot. It’s been a long day, one that for most won’t be repeated until the carnival pulls into town next year. For others, the year is just beginning. “I need some players, I need some shooters,” says Carol, who works the booth closest to the exit — a last chance for fun. “The more players we get, the bigger the prize,” she sings. “Grab a gun, let’s water race!” Less than 5 feet tall and probably 90 pounds after eating a bunch of bananas, she climbs on the counter. “Someone has to win,” she says, and shakes a giant Sponge Bob at three young boys, who step up to the pistols. “I’m a showman,” says Carol, as she fixes balloons onto the metal nipples that poke from the mouths of the game’s ceramic clowns. “You give me $2 and I’m here to entertain you for five minutes. That’s the whole thing.” She sets the timer, the bell starts blaring, and the kids fire their guns. “I love the water race because it’s an equalizer,” says Carol. “One time, I had a whole line of rodeo riders who thought they were hot stuff. Little girl 3 years old won. Ha!” The littlest boy’s balloon pops. Carol hands him a tiny stuffed dog, and urges the boys to play again, to try to trade up for a better prize; they do. “I have eight kids,” says Carol, replacing the balloons, setting the timer. “When my youngest was 18, I had empty nest and I’d never got to travel. I went to the California State Fair and helped out, and just thought I’d do that fair. That was 13 years ago.” A different kid wins, and the boys take off. “Me and my husband travel by truck, with our cat,” says Carol. “And we stay in motels, too, when it gets too hot — for the cat’s sake.” “She’s worth $2,” Carol calls to a pair of young lovers; she oinks a fluffy pink pig in their direction. They laugh and walk on. “I don’t know how long I’ll keep doing it. I really enjoy it,” she says. “I have people bring their kids to the fair each year and especially look for me. You watch these kids grow up — it’s like having 10,000 grandkids. The only drawback lately has been the mood of the country; people are more cautious. But they still want to have a good time.” Carol once more replaces the balloons. “Come on, I need a couple more players, who wants to play?” she calls. “Water race, water fun.” A late-arriving family steps up; Mom props her son on her knee so he can grab the pistol. Carol sets the timer, and the bell blares.


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