Carnies are a different breed. Without a doubt.
I worked 10-12 hour days at the Alameda County Fair for two weeks straight with only one day off. But, it was an amazing experience.
Despite feeling like a walking zombie most of the time because of the extensive hours, I have a whole new appreciation for the people who work at carnivals.
Most carnies live out of a suitcase for two to three weeks at a time. They’re on their feet for hours and hours and don’t complain. They meet new people every single day and it’s their job to sell you whatever product they’ve invented, collected, or been contracted with. It’s a crazy life, but it’s what some people love. Here are some of the people I met:
Niki – the woman I worked for. She is a genuinely sweet and hard-working woman. She designs most of her jewelry herself and then has them all handmade in India. Her pieces are absolutely beautiful.
Michelle – She sold geodes, rocks, crystals, and more next to our second booth at Exhibition Hall C. She has a real passion for what she does, and shared little bits of her life with me. It’s amazing what people will tell you when you ask and actually want to know.
Tim – He shined a penny for me. Tim sold Carnu-B car wax right down the aisle from the Niki Trends booth, and is easily one of the best salesmen I’ve ever met. I’m pretty sure he could sell you bellybutton lint. I have no idea how, but he is really that good.
Ed – A sweet man who has 75 $3 nautical-themed shirts from WalMart. He randomly would surprise me with peanut butter sandwiches, and on the last day of the fair, he brought me and Niki ice cream with a million rainbow sprinkles.
Johnny – The person I ran into often. Literally. His booth was right behind Niki’s, so I actually crashed in to him every day that he worked. He is a minor-league football star who has always wanted to be an artist. He is one of those people who makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the room whenever you’re talking to him (which is hard to do at a carnival, considering there are literally thousands of people).
Mike - He sold these ridiculously cool hose nozzles that I always wanted to buy. Granted, I live in a studio that has absolutely no need for a hose, let alone a cool nozzle, but he was an amazing salesman. When we were almost completely done with the fair, I asked him how he could he could work at carnivals as a living, and his answer amazed me. He compared it to being on the stage for me – he said that he loved perfecting a pitch like I loved to perform. He said it took time to get it just right, and that his version of applause was a sale. He said that he came out of retirement because being a salesman was what he loved to do.
I actually put Mike last because I think he’s the carnie that taught me the most. For some reason, I assumed that because he lived a life on the road that his life must be bizarre and out of sorts, but he told me that he had a wife at home in Oregon (a 10+ hour drive for him) that he’d been married to for 43 years. He had kids and grandkids, and in his free time he loved to fish and go camping. I asked him how he could constantly be gone from his home for months out of the year, and he told me that the people at the carnival were his home. He said they were like his actual family. The moment he said it, I knew what he meant because I had developed a bond so quickly with the people I mentioned above.
So, now that the fair has been over for a few weeks and now that I’ve had time to breathe again, I’d like to say that I really do believe that you can make a home wherever you go. I know I did. To all the carnies in Exhibition Hall B at the Alameda County Fair, thank you for teaching me about family in all of your strange, unconventional ways.