Saturday, May 21, 2005

The following is excepted from Corn Fests and Water Carnivals: Celebrating Community in Minnesota by Robert H. Lavenda, which I would highly recommend purchasing if you have any interest in this past week's topic:

The first sign that something is happening is when the campers and a recreational vehicle arrive in town, followed by a caravan of trucks carrying trailers, equipment, and rides folded up like great gawky birds. The carnival has arrived in town. Young men step down from the trucks. The owner steps out of the RV. He does not have to tell them much; they have been doing this all summer, and maybe a lot longer. The men wear blue jeans and dirty T-shirts; some have tattoos on their arms. They need shaves, and their long, greasy hair flows from underneath caps advertising Harley-Davidson or Led Zeppelin. It looks as though they have been on the road a long time.

The rides start going up - Tilt-a-Whirl, Ferris wheel, Hurricane, carousel, kiddie rides. Electrical cables snake all over the ground, leading to generators. The generators cough a couple of times and then roar to life. A ticket booth goes up. The sides of trailers are lifted to reveal carnival games - ringtoss, shooting gallery, frog pond, darts and balloons. Several women are arranging the prizes and setting up the cigarette boxes, the bottles, the frogs, the little cranes. Cotton candy and popcorn stands, soda pop and minidonut machines, go up. One man who appears to be in his thirties has a large crescent wrench, a scowl, and grease all over him as he tries to fix the gears on the Tilt-a-Whirl. It is taking him a long time. Another man goes over to help him. Finally, they are done. Guardrails and low fences to keep people away and in line for the rides are in place. The carnies disappear-some to campers, some downtown, and some to the high school, where the locker rooms have been opened for them so they can clean up.

The carnival is ready! It opens tonight, and the festival starts tomorrow. For the past two weeks, carnival tickets have been on sale in town, and posters have been up for nearly a month. The local paper has been running articles about where tickets may be purchased and how much cheaper they are when bought in advance. But sales have not been great. People are ambivalent about the carnival.

They have always been ambivalent about the carnival. There is even a classic American musical that hinges on that ambivalence - Carousel. But now, things are even worse for the traveling carnivals. Once, they were central to summertime entertainment, carrying with them hints of disorder, sleaze, and danger, along with the exciting rides and the opportunity to play games of chance. But in today's Minnesota, permanent amusement parks like Valley Fair or Knott's Camp Snoopy, as well as Indian casinos, the state lottery, charitable gambling, and drugs and crime, have removed much of the allure of the traveling carnival. Liability insurance, drug laws, and state licensing have each had a part to play, too.


What the traveling carnival brings is a sense of danger and raffishness, of the exotic and the out-of-control. This is conveyed through the people who work for the carnival. They are regarded as tough, mean, dangerous, and possibly even criminals on the run. The carnies encourage these beliefs through their scruffy appearance. They refuse to give real names, preferring nicknames; and they scowl and talk tough, threatening people who try to take their photograph. Sometimes what people believe about them is true, but the tough image also keeps people at a distance so that the carnies can do their jobs. Students who have worked with me on this research have observed how many young women are attracted by the carnies, sometimes even talking about running away with the carnival when it leaves town. The lure of the carnival is strong. It simultaneously provides anonymity and family, allowing its people to create themselves as they wish, to play, to travel, but mostly to break free. For adolescents, especially young women who feel that they face little more than a tough time in a small town with no jobs, the same old boring people, and no way out, the carnival represents freedom.

The drawback to this image is that it attracts the police, who watch the carnies carefully. Worse, the image also brings out the young men with a little beer in them ready to prove how tough they are by getting into fights with the toughest men who come through town, the carnies. Sometimes the carnies are ready to fight, but usually they are not. In 1985, the townie-carny fight in one of the towns I studied resulted in a group of young men beating up a lone carny in a local bar, where he had gone to have a beer and relax after the carnival had closed for the night.

At a meeting of festival organizers in Montevideo in 1984, some local women told of an incident the year before, when one of the carnies robbed a store and knifed a local youth. After the meeting, a police officer took us aside and explained that the young man who had been stabbed was mostly scared. The cut was not too deep, he said, and the offender was kept in Montevideo for a while. He spent part of that time at the officer's home, where the officer and his wife got to know him. He could not read or write, and he had felt that he was being attacked by a whole crowd of young men and did the only thing he could. The officer was quite sympathetic, but, of course, the impression of carnival people held by most of the townspeople was probably closer to that of the women who had originally told us of the incident.

Paradoxically, such incidents make the carnival and its people much more interesting. They add a strong note of "them" to the festival-and not a good "them" like the out-of-town tourists that communities like to attract - but they are necessary for the festival. They make the good people of the community think better of themselves and the choices they have made in their lives, but they also add a note of exciting disorder to what is otherwise an orderly festival held in an orderly community. After an entire year of order and fellowship, the lure of the carnival is almost overwhelming to many people.


Now the carnies are in their element. At this point in the evening, being tough, slightly threatening, and rude are competitive advantages. Many of the carnies, male and female, game operators and ride operators, are masters of the come-on, the carefully chosen line to attract the unwary. This is not the stereotypic, turn-of-the-century "Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, to see the seventh wonder of the world." Some of these people are so good that their marks do not even know they are being fed a line (which, of course, is the whole point). Even researchers are not immune. In 1987, Deborah Green, a student, interviewed and observed one of the ride operators.

This man looks like he would be in his 30s but he shows me his I.D. and is actually 26 He has a kind of weathered look, with long hair and beard that I assume to be intentionally misleading. His I.D. picture, taken only 6 months ago, clean shaven and with short hair, looks much younger than his age. He closes the door of a plane ride on three males (16-18 years old) and yells at them: "Shut up. Don't say a word."

One male says, "Mums the word."

"But you can scream if you want." They laugh.

I ask him how long he has been an entertainer.

"I've been a carny for 10 years."

"But you entertain them as well as give them rides."

"It helps them while they are up on the rides. If they are afraid of me they don't think about being afraid of the ride and it keeps them from puking. It also keeps them sitting in their seats the way they are supposed to, because these rides could be dangerous. I had this kid one time standing up and I had to kick him off." I ask him if he has a lot of problems with high school boys.

"Some, but nothing I can't handle."

He tells me that the carnies do all their own maintenance on their rides; putting up and taking down, greasing and fixing them. He worked the game booths up un- til 6 months ago: "That's how come I act so crazy." I think that is how he learned to be such a smooth talker. "I'm writing a book of poetry. I only went to school to the ninth grade, but there are famous writers who didn't need school; you know that guy who wrote Romeo and Juliet."

"You mean Shakespeare?"

"Yeah, he only went to the third grade."

"Oh, I didn't know that. What do you do during the winter when you can't work for the carnival?"

"I go up to the mountains in Montana."

"How about money?"

"Don't need none. I hunt and fish. I love the outdoors. I have my own cabin up there."

"I'm asking you these questions because I'm studying social control, and there are a lot of different ways of controlling people."

"Oh, I have my own control."

"So I see."

He talks them into believing he is tough, but could be their friend if they listen and do what he says....

He also says to me, "Hope you're not upset because I don't have the pin you gave me." (I gave him a "Number 1 " pin earlier that day after riding the Hurricane for the best ride at the carnival. It made my connection for the interview.) "I gave it away to this retarded boy when he was crying because his parents wouldn't let him ride, then he smiled all the way out of here."

"Good, that's great."

The ride operator's rhetoric is interesting here. His "line" to the teenagers at the beginning is an example of the practical uses of intimidation and humor; he can keep the ride running efficiently only if riders follow the rules. His explanation of this strategy makes the interview sound entirely informational. But at the same time, he finds several different ways to tell the interviewer that he is tough, that he has power.

Most striking is the way he seems to be manipulating the interviewer. This begins when he suddenly speaks of writing poetry. The interviewer has already identified herself as a college student, and the ride operator seems to be using that information as he directs the conversation. He might actually write poetry (it seems that everyone does these days), but even if he is not a writer, poetry would seem to be an attractive subject to a college woman. He certainly would not be likely to start talking about poetry with a police officer wandering about the carnival. He is also implying that his lack of education does not mean he is not creative; she may go to college, but he writes poetry. He follows this with the romantic image of his isolated cabin in Montana and his ability to live off the land, and then comes the rhetorical masterstroke at the end.

At the end of the interview notes, it is the ride operator, not the interviewer, who raises the issue of the missing button. What could be more sentimentally heartwarming than the story he tells her? The tough carny with the heart of gold, giving the button to a mentally handicapped child whose parents refuse to allow him on the ride. What better way to get the sympathy of a friendly college woman? It could be true. But it could also be part of the constant creation of self, the attempt to fit with whomever one is speaking to, that is part of the freedom and joy of the carnival life.

It is getting late now, close to midnight. The sparse crowd looks a little older now and maybe a little rougher. Sometimes, fights break out late in the evening. The joy of ilinx, vertigo, the whirling giddiness of the carnival ride, seems reduced late in the evening, and a sadness seems to pervade the carnival as the carnival workers, tired now, perhaps disappointed, stand at their stations, waiting for the night to be over. Finally, the motors are shut down and the lights switched off on the last rides. Several have been off for nearly an hour. The game shows are closed down. Some of the carnies slip downtown to one of the bars or another for a drink. Many head for their campers, some alone, others hoping that the whispered words and meaningful glances exchanged earlier in the day mean that they will not be alone for long. The carnival is over for another night.


Blogger andrew said...

I knew a guy (so did you) who carnied for a summer and said it was nonstop bad drugs and bad sex, pretty much both indiscriminate.

4:29 PM  

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