I met a lot of carnival workers at the Western Idaho Fair. I talked with workers at amusement rides, funhouses, the ring toss, the rubber ducky river, and a goldfish game. I also talked with an off the clock worker, whose T-shirt prominently displayed the word “vagina”. They all said the same things: they were on the road working hard for people they love, they felt misunderstood by the media and their customers, and they thought they could be fired if they agreed to be interviewed.
After getting permission from the carnival’s administration, I met Lori, who answered my questions with increasing candidness. And, the more we talked, the more I learned. For example, Lori explained that a carnival runs like a shopping mall with retail spaces: one large managing company, with smaller sub-contractors running groups of games and employing their own staff. She works for one of those contractors, managing several classic fair games, the kind from which you might win a stuffed animal.
To me, the fair feels like an oversized helping of Americana- it's classic but a little confused; bright. It's flashing, colorful fun with an edge of disfunction. Lori is enthusiastic about the importance of the fair. “I think that people should come to their fairs. Not for my income, but to support their economy," she said. "This is your state fair. That means the money from that fair goes into your city- it improves your roads, your streetlights. And if you look at cities, fairgrounds were usually the oldest parts of town and the first things built. They are the reason a town was able to thrive. People canned jams and jellies. People built quilts, they sold their animals, their livestock. And they still do to this day. So if you want to support your city, come to the fair."
HOW DID YOU START WORKING FOR THE CARNIVAL?
The fairs I’ve done for 29 years, with Butler Amusements for 13 years. I was going to college at the University of Oregon, I needed some money, the fair was in town, and it just happened perfectly where my school term was ending and they were leaving town and I left with them. That was 29 years ago.
WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU?
It’s changed over the years. Every decade, something different. My priorities completely change. I’m 43 years old now. When I was in my twenties: money, stability, planning for the future. Of course that was what was important to me! In my thirties: relationships, friendships and family. Now it’s all of the above, and my health. A lot of people take their health for granted and they really do feel immortal. But let me tell you, once your 41st or 42nd birthday hits, and it hurts to get out of bed, you probably should have taken better care of yourself. And my friends' health is important as well. I’m a mother hen. I’m always saying: “you shouldn’t eat that”, “you shouldn’t smoke that”, “here’s a potassium pill”, “here’s vitamin C”, “here’s a multivitamin”.
WHAT DO YOU WANT?
That changes too. My season starts in February and ends in November. I spend the winter months going to conventions, looking at merchandise, looking at different game ideas, and doing a little socializing. This part of the season, I really just want to get off the road and live a comfortable life. Pay my bills and things. At the beginning of the season, it’s a little different. All you can think of is getting out there, giving 120% of yourself every day, ten months, 16 hours a day.
WHAT IS A COMFORTABLE LIFE, A COMFORTABLE WINTER, TO YOU?
That means the bill collectors don’t call, my pantry is full, my refrigerator is full, I don’t have to take a loan out to buy Thanksgiving dinner or to buy Christmas presents for my friends and family. That’s comfortable to me. Not buying a new car, not upgrading my wardrobe. In my business, I meet a lot of the general public, a lot of coworkers, a lot of people in different businesses. And it seems they all want to keep up with the Jonses. They will work their asses off for their car payment. Or for a five bedroom house for a three-member family. You could really learn a lot by watching somebody poor.
WHAT DOES THE FAIR MEAN TO YOU?
Hmmm. Gosh, that’s a loaded one. You’ve got to remember, I’ve done several aspects of this. I’ve done the office, the games, I spent ten years inside a water game. I’ve watched people grow up. There’s a family who comes ever year- the Nordbergs who come to the fair in Boise four or five times, they always look for me. Their son, Dave, when I first met him he was 10 years old. He’s 19 years old and getting ready to go to Boise State. A lot of people don’t realize what a joy it is for us to watch their three year old pick up a duck and win their first prize. Or finally be tall enough for that ride. And that happens every five minutes.
DO YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF A CARNIE?
I am! I’m a carnie. And I’m a showman, I’m in the show business. And I’m also a person. I’m a homosapian. I’m several different things. I’m a college graduate. I’m a high school graduate. I’m a traveler. I think people on the outside world feel comfortable calling us carnies because they don’t know any different.
WHAT DO YOU WISH PEOPLE KNEW ABOUT CARNIES OR PEOPLE WHO WORK AT FAIRS?
That we’re people, just like them. Chances are pretty good that if your fair opens at 10 o’clock in the morning and closes at midnight, that the person you see working is doing exactly those hours, every day. Just bear with us. The people who come to see us have hard jobs, have difficult bosses, had difficult duties. So do we. Also, I would like them to know that their fair is not the only fair. We come from other cities, and we bring that city’s money with us to your city’s economies. We need tire, insurance, groceries, need to do out laundry. They might hate seeing us come, being we are brining Sacramento’s money here, since we just played the state fair there. We leave here, we are taking some of this money to Blackfoot, Idaho and we are going to spend it there.