In my ongoing struggle to make ends meet(this rarely happens, but I try), it seems I have hit yet another obstacle. I am no stranger to hard work or bad times, it just seems as though sometimes I just seem to get the short straw in the draw more often than the winning numbers in the lottery. What kind of luck is this? Of course, my odds of winning the lottery would significantly increase if I actually played, but that is another story.
I am generally a positive person. I always pride myself on being self-sufficient, independent, and a hard worker. I always look at the glass as half full. ( We all know it is both, but bear with me, here.) I thank God and I am grateful and I never want to be the type of woman who does things to get by that one may see as illegal(in most states) or immoral. It is just times like these that have me so angry or desperate that I can see why people can be so easily persuaded to follow that path of the easy way out. I see why people get discouraged. I know there will be bad times, but sometimes I just think that I would have seen enough bad times to be able to have a string of good ones.
Luckily, due to my optimistic attitude and my lack of desire to be a “kept” woman or a “woman of the night”, or to be forever in the welfare line, I have a skill set that helps me to be able to choose a way to make some extra money that will help me out and get me out of this hole I have found myself in.(Thanks to some ungrateful, non-paying ex roommates and ex friends I tried to help even though I probably needed the help as well. See where a good heart and a guilt trip will get you?)
It seems that twice this month I will be making the phone call and going back (TEMPORARILY!) to the carnival. Yes, the carnival. I was once a carny. Actually the old saying goes ” One a carny, always a carny”. I am beginning to believe this to be truth.
This all goes back to the 90’s. The Parish Fair (County Fair for those not from Louisiana) always comes to town the first week in October. It was always the big to do around here and the kids would always get one or two days off from school that week for the event and it was full of fun and food and farm animals. The typical County fair in the country.
My best friend at the time, Brenda, told me that she always worked the fair during that week and I was surprised. I didn’t know you could do that. Well she did work it that year. I saw her in the dozer game giving change to all those poor souls trying to win more quarters and other prizes about to be pushed over the edge by the mechanical bulldozers. She made decent money for her efforts (palmed a little extra behind the owner’s back) and procured her little girls some stuffed toys as a treat for missing mom for a few days.
Well the year passed and I thought nothing of it. Fall came back around and I was staying with Brenda and her husband at the time and we all found ourselves unemployed and broke. Her husband had work, of course, but he barely managed to keep afloat in those times. Brenda said we should go work the carnival and her husband could make a little money setting up or tearing down the rides and still keep his day job.
This sounded like an okay plan to me. We arranged for her mother to keep our children and even have them overnight because we would be in for some long nights and early days. I had no idea carnival work was this strenuous but the long hours on your feet will catch up to you if you are not used to it.
She ended up again in the dozer booth, giving change and helping the guy stock the machines. I was introduced to Gayle. She had an easy job for me. I was to stand with this woman under a tent with three swimming pools and have kids pick up ducks and win a cheap toy. I have forgotten this woman’s name, but I will always remember she was the first person to enlighten me as to the meaning behind 420.
Well that week in about 1995 was the longest week of my life. I was tired. My feet ached. And I missed my little boy so much. He came to the fair one night with the babysitter and I cried because this was the first time I had ever not seen him in two days. I gave him a toy and let him play with the ducks and then back to work to bring in that cash.
I have never seen so much cash fall through my hands. I wasn’t brave enough to “palm” any of that cash as Brenda had suggested. I just knew people would know and I would be called a thief. I made a couple hundred bucks and that was my first job. I was what they called “spot help.” I helped out, or filled in at the spot they were playing for that week.
I vowed then and there I would never do that again. The money helped me out, but I am not certain I was paid the correct percent and the hours were too long for me. I could not understand how they did it week after week. Setting it all up and working all week and then tearing it down. Then moving the very next day to the next spot and doing it all over with very little rest. Not to mention the living conditions some of them had. Not a life I would have wanted. No sir.
Flash forward to the early 2000s. I had already had my oldest daughter, she was still a baby. My son was a bit older now and my hubby and I were having some financial trouble. Somehow it got suggested that I work the fair. Come to find out his parents and he used to live on the fair grounds years before as caretakers of the place and he and his mom used to work with the carnival as well.
The same family had owned the carnival and played our spot for years and he knew a lot of the older carnies. Well, because we needed the quick cash and I felt like I could do it just one more time.
I was able to procure a job in a rabbit game. This game is simple. You toss a ping-pong ball towards a swimming pool with floating bowls. If your ball stays in one of the bowls then you win a rabbit. This game required less of calling people in to play because most of the people would gravitate towards you just to see the bunnies hopping all around and then you just convince them to play once they are there.
This was another long week. My feet ached, my back ached, and I lost sleep that I still haven’t gotten back. Luckily the hubby was able to look after the kids and he even brought them up to fair a few times and let them have some fun. His friends from the past let them ride a few things and they got to pet the bunnies and throw a few ping-pong balls and mom brought home a couple hundred dollars at the end of a very long week.
I, again vowed that was never going to happen again.I needed the money. I got the money. I was done and over it. I should have learned then that you should never say never. That lesson took me until 2014 to learn, but that is another story for another day.
Well along comes 2008 and I find myself in a very unique position. By then I had my third and final child and my hubby ( we have since divorced) found himself behind bars for about 3 months. Contempt of court the judge called it. I think it was more like, let me use you to prove a point to these others in my courtroom. Well, with the breadwinner behind bars, more financial difficulties building, and the possibility of a move I was sure in a tight spot.
Luckily, I was able to get out of our purchase agreement, sell one mobile home, purchase another one, and move myself and my children into the new one all on my own. I had the utilities hooked up and all was fine. I was just waiting for my “man” to get home when this lovely thing called an electric bill came due.
It was still about three weeks till he came home and I had no job and was at wit’s end. It just so happened to be around the first week in October and I had to find a way to pay this bill. So, reluctantly, I drove out to the fair grounds on a Monday morning because I knew that some of them would be arriving then. The earlier you go, the more likely you are to get a job. You would be surprised at the locals looking to make quick cash for the week.
I pull up and see an old man with a golf cart walking around and staking out the ground. I walk up to him and tell him I am looking for work this week and done this twice before. He simply tells me to come back at four o’clock, which I did. He put me to work with his son in another”duck pond”. This time it was not a four-sided tent I had to share with another person. I was in a double-sided booth with a metal tank of ducks floating in front of me and toys and inflatables hanging behind and around me.
I was thankful for the job and the fact there would actually be a place to possibly sit down. I was confident that I would make the little over 200 hundred bucks I needed to make the light bill. I helped them finish setting up and blowing up the inflates. I “flashed” my “joint”. (Put the stock out in my booth to invite people to play).
We were to open Tuesday night and it would be busy because that was always family night. I was told since I was a newbie, or green, and only spot help I would get paid 15% of what I brought in. He paid his regular guy 20% and I was okay with that.
I thought those first two times were long weeks. I barely remember them fully. I remember working, I remember missing my children and I remember meeting people and being tired.I remember that it was also a bit fun and I learned. I also remember only making about a couple hundred dollars at the most.
I will NEVER forget this week in all my life. This was the most tiring of all the weeks I have ever worked for the carnival. My feet and body ached. My throat burned and I lost my voice. My babysitter at the time who, thankfully, was living with us was a lifesaver.
I drove back and forth each night praying I would not run out of gas. My boss, who was nicknamed “Toughie” would ask every night if I needed a draw. I was so hesitant because I knew I had this bill due and I needed that big paycheck at the end of the week. But, gas and cigarettes were needed and a few sodas as well. I took only what I needed and worked hard all that week.
I called them in and used my voice and the fact that I was a local and made everyone I knew play my game. I blew the duck call and never left the joint unless necessary. I held it till I almost wet myself, in fear that I would miss a “mark” and not make that money.
Finally the fair had closed on Sunday evening and it was time for tear down. I helped George( the man working the other side) tear down this duck pond and pack everything up. The duck pond was merely a trailer that unfolded and was pulled behind George’s “house” by a dodge truck. George slept in a homemade camper shell on the back of this truck.
We also had to help the boss tear down his balloon store and his father’s (The old man with the stakes that gave me the job) basketball game. Everything had a place and packed away in a certain way. After all that was done, the boss went to his camper to figure my pay, minus all my draws. My daughters and my babysitter waited with me to go home. They were up way past their bedtime, but were just excited to see how this all worked and to be with Mom after a long week.
He comes out and calls me over to the side and gives me a wad of cash and sticky note showing me how much money I had turned in. I was shocked! Not only I had managed to make the light bill. I had made myself over 900 dollars that week!
He said I was a natural and that I was a carny. I laughed and said, No, not me. I can’t travel. I have an old man and kids. I had responsibilities that I had to attend to and I could not work like this week in and week out. I didn’t know how they could do it. He assured me not all spots were this busy or stressful. Not all spots opened on Tuesday and not all spots closed school and opened early during the week.
His sister even chimed in and asked if I was coming along, that she had a bunk room if needed. I politely declined and thanked them. Not before giving him my number and a permanent number if he was ever in this area again and needed help. He may even call me next year. He said I even did better than George, who was his regular employee.
I told him I would let him know next year and that I was going home and going to bed and rest for the next week. I was tired. Sick. No voice left at all and simply relieved to be able pay a bill and have some money left over in my pocket.
He called me some weeks later and said he needed help in a town a little over an hour away. My hubby was due to be home within that week. We made plans for me to work the first night, drive back home and pick up my hubby the next morning and we would grab our camper and work the rest of the spot. I could use another big check like that.
I only managed to make it that first night. I broke down on the way home. Had to get a ride back home and then back to my truck the next day and fix it. I told him I was sorry but I couldn’t make it back but I appreciated all he had done for me.
The next year I gave him a call a few weeks before the fair and told him I would be interested in working our fair that year again. I could use the extra cash and the kids loved the stuffed animals they would get. He then approached me with the idea could I possibly drive to another town the week before and work that spot and our home town fair as well. My hubby agreed, hooked up our camper and my son and I (he was 16 by then and had his own experience with the carnival) went to work in a new town.
The hubby said he would take care of the girls and be back to pick us and the camper up on Sunday night. I worked that long grueling week. Then came back and worked our home town. Two weeks back to back of two of the biggest county fairs on their route and I was whooped. But, looking back I don’t think I was ever as tired as that one week the year before.
My son stayed on with them. Traveling after our county fair and finishing out their season. He camped in tent and helped the old man and the boss man out with all they needed.
One day along the route my son calls me and is all excited. “Mom! You are not gonna believe this. Do you think you could come to Port Barre and work the Crackling Festival with us? ” This was their last spot and then he would be coming home for the holidays. This is the same spot I had only worked the one day the year before.
“Why? ” I ask . I am curious to know why they are shorthanded all of a sudden. George had gotten into an argument with another carny and was stabbed. He was in the hospital and would be there for quite some time.
Well, again, the hubby agreed and fixed up the back of the pickup with a camper shell and a mattress. I had a coffee pot, extension cord and a 5 gallon bucket to serve as a bathroom. This was going to be an adventure. I worked that week and was beginning to recognize some others.
Again, the boss called me a carny and told me I was a natural. Again, I denied being a carny and thanked him for all he had done and for the opportunity and we packed the truck up and left.
I decided the next year to only work our local fair, as I have every year since. And every year I say I am not working next year and every year I am told I am a carny. I deny the label and say I am just spot help and life goes on for a few years in this way. The week of the fair gets a little easier on me as the years go by and I learn more and more of the carnival culture and lifestyle.
Sometime in May of 2014 the hubby and I decided to split up and I am again thrust into the workforce. We are sharing the children and still sharing the same residence but things are getting tense. I have to see his new girlfriend and him on a daily basis and this is quite stressful. ( I don’t want him back, but really?) Then on top of this he has a problem with me dating and actually had the audacity to recommend I stay home with the kids and let him take care of all the bills and me as well. (What planet is this idiot from? And what type of idiot was I to reproduce with him?)
This went on for a while. Suddenly I was done. I wanted out. I wanted my own place and my own home and not to have to be sharing it with him. I wanted my own privacy and to be able to come and go without being questioned endlessly by a man who had no business knowing my business.
I was no longer working and I was running low on funds and desperate to get out. One day I am going through the contacts on my phone and run across “Toughie”s number in my phone. On a whim I give him a call and see what is up. He tells me where they are and how they are doing and such. Tells me where they will be and says he may give me a call at another time.
About a week later, when I was truly at my wit’s end, I get a call and he asks if I can be a few hours away in a coastal town by Monday. I agree and pack my bags and have the ex and his woman drive me down there and commit to travel the rest of the season with them.
I traveled and lived the carny life from late August until November of that year. I met so many people and renewed some old friendships and got to know others a bit better. I worked hard. I learned more. I felt like I was at home. I fit in and was having fun along with learning more about myself through all this. I no longer denied being a carny. I embraced it and felt joy and freedom and pride.
I missed my kids terribly and saw them as often as I could when I was close. I learned how strong I was. My physical limitations diminished as did my weight. I gained confidence and learned how to live with as little as possible and to be as grateful as I could for as little as I had. I had found myself and my youth which I had lost being the mom and “old lady” that I was for the previous 17 years.
The season ended and I bid farewell to all my friends and prepared to take the money I had put away and start anew with a new job in a new place on my own terms. I rented a place and got the job . I spent the holidays with my kids and was doing okay for a while. I had a relationship start and falter then end. I lost this job, and lost my place and was forced put my stuff in storage and move into my Dad’s while working the new job I had just found.
This job was great, until the hours started fade, the car started to break down and the bills kept piling up. I felt like a hamster spinning her wheels and I didn’t fit in anymore. I missed some more than others and was asked many times to come back and constantly said No. I was home and I was done.
The weather began to warm a bit. My hours were dwindling and I was thinking I just need a little more time to save a little more money. I got the phone call. Was I ready again? I declined, because I had appointments and obligations and was just not prepared to leave my children.
My appointments came and went. The small amount of money ran out. The car had all but died on me. I was again running on empty. I made that phone call. My things were already in storage. I was already living out of a suitcase at my Dad’s house. I could be living like this but making money if I was on the road.
Again, with apologies and kisses to my babies I was dropped off by my ex about an hour away to work again with the carnies. I traveled the entire season. I learned even more. I replayed spots from the year before. I played the spots they always bragged about. I lived in a tent for over 7 months. I survived rain, storms, ants, and such other atrocities I won’t even mention. I would sweat, I would freeze. I worked hard and lost more weight and renewed old friendships and built new ones.
I survived the entire season. I am proud of myself. Not many people can do this type of work. It can be physically draining. It can be stressful. You have bad spots, you have good spots. There are (rarely) rain-outs, working in the rain. Setting up in the rain. Tearing down in the rain. There is drama, arguing, fighting, making up.
I called us the traveling trailer park.Gossip abounded and stories were told and you could see them unfold before your eyes. We may not have the same neighbor each week. But we are the same group each week. I am a carny. It is in my blood. I love to travel. I love to see the people. I love the work ethic. But, I miss my family and my garden tub and shelter from the weather.
I made a promise to my girls not to go back out again. I intend to keep this promise. I just know that now I miss certain parts of it. Things have happened and there are those I don’t want to see again. But, I do know that if they are close enough and it fits my schedule I can make some extra money.
It looks like I am going to be doing it again. I am not traveling. I am not going back out on the road. But, I think, twice this month, I will spend a week working and having fun and making some cash to help myself to reach my goals.
“Once a carny, always a carny.”