The Short-Sweet Life of a Teenage Carnie
I've never joined or worked for the circus. Can't even remember going to one as a kid but must have as an adult with small children. I just don't remember one. Maybe I've blocked it out. I know zoos are a drag. I get bummed seeing the animal prison cells, even the ones that try to look like "natural" habitats. I know--and the animals do too--that they are NOT free. It's unnatural.
But I did work in a carnival on Long Island for a couple weeks when it was in town. I don't recall where it was, some place for it to spread out over a good square half mile or so. I want to say at the Islip Speedway or maybe at the Farmer's Market grounds, but those don't seem to jog my memory. Yet I can see that carnival in my mind's "movie" reels.
The booth panels were coarsely painted royal blue, where the tickets were sold and pay checks were picked up. The rest of it was a winding affair: serpentine rows of small squar-ish booths, tents, food stands and rides. I worked a game booth. The floors strewn with straw partially hid the dusty dirt floor beneath.
Actually, I worked a few games: the balls thrown at wobbly flat wooden clowns with painted white faces that only took three balls to knock down three clowns. They defied the laws of gravity and never seemed to fall all the way down. I also worked the ping pong ball toss in the ceramic cups that alchemically caused ceramic and lightweight plastic to create super bounce. And then there were water pistol shooters to knock down ducks or rabbits passing back and forth. Hardly anyone won, so I mostly collected quarters.
I remember smelling popcorn around me and on my clothes for two weeks solid. I was 13. I just learned to drink coffee, creamed blonde and sugared sweet. That summer, I also found a boy who liked me. I don't remember his name though I'm sure it started with an R or an M. He was cute, brown short hair with a bit of curl in the tresses. He kissed me and put his arm around me a lot, claiming his own. I was thrilled to have attention paid me--my company desired.
He would visit me at the carnival. We'd get coffee on my breaks, and he'd walk me to and from the carnival. We'd go on rides sometimes after my shift, though for the life of me I must not have had much of a will to survive, having seen how those rides were assembled and by whom. No one looked to me as if they were long into their parole, even with my young, naive eyes.
And when the carnival started packing it up, I looked for the guy who asked me if I wanted to earn a few dollars manning the booths, to no avail. I checked the blue wood paneled booth with the door sign "administration" or something official like that, but I was told to come back. I did. Twice. And then I brought my mother, who I watched stomp up the two stairs to the booth window, her arms flailing in threatening gestures and her shoulders pulled back. I couldn't hear the exchange, but she came back with cash.
Ah, the short, sweet life of a teenage carnie.
Huntington Beach, CA
Pamela Gerber is a college English instructor, freelance writer, editor, wife, mom to daughters, caretaker of aging parents, who lives and writes in sunny Southern California.