Carnies: “Life Was Harder on the Outside”
Carnival workers travel a rough road, but they like the freedom of the highway. The still of night is torn by the clang of steel as the midway rides are erected. Although they laugh as they work, most are cold tired and hungry. Some do not have adequate clothing to ward off an unexpected autumn chill; many have not slept or eaten a decent meal in over 18 hours. When the rides come down, they will be on the road again, heading for another town, another sea of faces, and another day in the life of a “carnie.”
This is another photo essay I photographed on my own time while working in South Carolina. Assigned an allotted 30 minutes to “grab a feature photo” of the county fair for the newspaper, I talked to a couple of carnies about dropping by to hang out and take pictures later that evening after I finished my shift. I continued to “drop by” every evening until the carnival packed up and left town. I then followed them to their next stop, some 50 miles away and spent the weekend there to finish up the story. It was an adventure.
Timmy James rests for a minute while loading heavy steel frames onto a truck. After working the carnival all day, he and everyone else must tear down the rides through the night and into the morning as they prepare to head to the next town. This photo was taken at about 2 in the morning. The work is extremely difficult and dangerous.
In labor, friends comfort a carnival worker, as she is about to be loaded into an ambulance for a trip to the local hospital. The people in the background are carnival workers waiting in line for breakfast before the show starts later in the afternoon.
“It’s easier here, says 28-year-old Lisa with her boyfriend Curtis. She describes the carnies as her family. She likes the lifestyle better than the “outside world,” because people don’t discriminate. “People are very accepting here,” Lisa says.
Curtis makes his way from the modular trailer he and Lisa rent from the carnival owners, to the cantina for breakfast. The rent for the small one room trailer is high compared to his hourly minimum wage. He and Lisa forgo electricity, and heat and water because they can’t afford it. Often times they must choose between getting a motel to take a shower once a week or saving their money for food. Most of the carnies use the bathrooms at local businesses to wash themselves at the sink.
“I wanna warn you youngins.” Said merry-go-round foreman and carnival preacher Papa Doo,” marriage is a terrible thing; cause there’s plenty of women and guys. It makes it easy to cheat. But I’m gonna be watching y’all, so you can’t be acting like carnies no more.” Carnies Jerry and Trish, both 18, who had been dating for about two months, ride the merry-go-round during a traditional carnie wedding. “This merry-go-round is gonna go around three times. If you change your mind about this, you can get off. But once it goes around for the third time, it’s too late. You’re married.” The wedding, though not legal in the outside world, is a special moment for the carnies. The couple slips on their brass wedding rings, kiss and go back to work.
Lisa visits with her boyfriend, Curtis’ ex-girlfriend as she changes the diaper on the child the two had together. A bit of a ladies man, you might say Curtis gets around. Still, Lisa and the ex-girlfriend get along well and help one another.
Mattie set’s up the ride that ended the life of the former ride foreman. As Mattie described the accident, two metal cars, weighing several hundred pounds each, dropped loose and struck him on the head killing him instantly. Though being a ride foreman, or “first man” is worth a little more money, Mattie wasn’t happy about achieving his new status over the death of a friend.
As the nightly temperature drops to 16 degrees a group of carnival workers huddle in an unheated cargo trailer drinking cheap wine and beer while smoking marijuana to lessen the bite of the cold. When the weather gets nasty, some of the female carnies that don’t “have a man” exchange sexual favors for the opportunity to sleep with truck drivers in their heated cabs. They are labeled “lot lizards,” by the others.
Taking his dog along for the ride, Lewis drives a friend to a nearby truck stop where the two will get a hot meal. Lewis is one of a few carnival workers who have a car, so he is in high demand when someone needs a ride. Without a steady work position with the carnival he follows the show from town to town getting work when he can. He sees himself as a survivor, resigned to the realities of his hard life. “When things get really bad, you make fun of it. You can’t let things get you down because you know things could be worse,” he said.
Carny or Carnie is a slang term for a carnival employee, as well as the language they use. A carny is anyone who runs a “joint” (booth) food stand, game, or ride at the carnival.
Call – The act of yelling out slogans and interacting with passers-by to attract business.
Greenies – Employees hired at a new location that are only temporary.
Lot “Lizard” – Describes a carnie (usually female) who has multiple sexual partners, or one who tends to “sleep-around” or cheat with other carnies on the lot.
Mark – A target for swindling, especially ones whose gullibility has been demonstrated. Derived from the covert use of chalk to mark the backs of especially ripe targets.
Midway – Center strip of the carnival where the games or rides are located.
Ride jock – Someone who operates the carnival rides.
Townie – Any local person “towns-person” working city or county owned concessions at a fairground.