People who know me well also know that the seemingly normal life I lead is only part of the picture.
There is indeed another, very substantial part.
You see, my sister and I (and a few other kids we knew growing up) are part of a rare and dying breed that most people have heard of but not known personally: we’re carnies. We’re not the true-blue full-blood carnies, like the ride jockeys who pace the metal platforms, waving people in or sit at the controls in plastic rain covers for 15 hours a day and sleep on cardboard mats under trucks at night. We don’t operate games or hitchhike from city to city. We’re not the type who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. But despite the lack of affiliation, we did travel alongside them and we shared at least part of their story.
It wasn’t too long ago that it was every kid’s dream to run away and join the circus, particularly if said kid didn’t appear to have any other positive option on the horizon.
Things have changed, with the advent of readily-accessible Business degrees, but the dedicated–or desperate–few still remain.
I was a carnie only by proxy; my family owns a concession company (concessions being the food you eat at the fair). We’re fairly legendary in Canada, even achieving cult status in Vancouver, BC. We weren’t associated with the actual carnival; we operated independently, as do most of the other concessionaires out there. We traveled all summer, sleeping in a 5th wheel trailer with very limited space, a puny 5-gallon water holding tank, and only modest temperature control. It was every kid’s dream; up till 4am or later, sometimes getting to sleep in till noon, living on the fairgrounds next to brightly-lit rides with pounding music, chocolate milkshakes for breakfast, burgers for lunch, and pizza for dinner. We got to walk down 1 or 2 streets and see all of your friends in one shot. We had connections, which meant that we could get through gates for free and get our food at a discount. It’s good to be king.
Nothing comes without its challenges. The lack of privacy, 5 minutes of hot water at any given time, the noise, the violence, the threatening unfriendly environment, the cold nights, the hot days, the incessant pounding music, the crazy or trashy people with no standards and no shame, the smells of urine and trash and the fruit of an upset stomach episode, the dirty public restrooms, the stress, the long hours, the high tempers, the circulating viruses, and the longing for our own beds at home and cuddling with the cats.
I wouldn’t have traded my childhood for anything, though. To hear everyone else talk, summer rocked the free world for two weeks and then sucked the big one for two and a half months while everyone, bored and getting on their parents’ nerves, essentially waited around for school to start back up.
I enjoyed being in a new city every 2 weeks, making friends, visiting local malls, eating good fairground food. I liked putting away my keys, my driver’s license, and checkbook/credit cards for the summer and abandoning ship for three months as I went on a carnival safari. I liked writing home or calling my friends, laughing it up with some hilarious story. I liked hanging out after close and shooting the breeze with the rest of our crew. I enjoyed abiding by a code that only traveling fairground workers were aware of. I liked participating (innocently, of course) in part of the underbelly of the fair, those inner workings like walking the back ways and visiting the employees-only cookhouses that the public was completely oblivious to.
Today, I got to man the school’s booth in one of the tents at our local state fair. Our own fair is nothing to write home about, but it is decent size, even if much of that space is largely wasted. Once our shift was done, we were guilt-free to move about the fairgrounds, and we did exactly that. For old time’s sake, we walked the midway.
Then it hit me.
The sights, the sounds, the two different stereo systems each blasting different songs at the same time. The bells ringing, the toy guns rattling rapidfire, the voices over the microphones, the strobe lights, the blinking lights, the colored lights, and so much more. My special senses and dopamine receptors were bathed in a buffet of stimuli and pleasure and neurologically-looped memory that all came flooding back.
I tingled with delight.
It was grand.
I was surprised at how long it lingered, how long I stayed in that role.
I remember, when I was about 9 years old, I watched a young woman slump to the ground against a fence in the back alley behind our 5th wheel on a bad acid trip. And I’m grateful that I had such a relatively unsheltered background–I mean, to my parents’ credit, they protected me from most of the really raw realities that might’ve been too harsh for a young kid to process and deal with.
But at the same time, I got to see real life, and all of its depths and ugly places. I also got to ride the waves of excitement and adrenaline. My senses had every single stimulus which to feast on, and they were gratified in every way. I’ve been there and done that, and I have plenty of T-shirts to show for it. My life is much richer for it. I have none of the typical complusions that plague the average American. I really don’t care to drink or use drugs, because I know I’m not missing anything by not doing so. Truthfully, I wouldn’t want to be disappointed, because I know that substance indulgence would fail to recreate anything close to the picnic I had as a child. It just wouldn’t measure up.