Thursday, March 24, 2011

Life as a Carny

Whenever someone hears I have worked on the carnival, their initial reaction is, “Wow! That must be pretty exciting! You must make a ton of money!”

Well, it is exciting; and no, you do not make a ton of money. Sometimes you don’t even make a comfortable living! It is the nature of the carnival.

I remember as a little girl going to the Trinity County Fair in Hayfork, California. I played the balloon game and won a small ceramic elephant. I loved it! I kept it on my dresser for years!  And whenever the carnival was at the local shopping center my grandmother would take me.  We always rode the rollercoaster.  We had no fear! Oh, how I love a good rollercoaster! 

I was introduced to my first real carny when I was 18 years old.  I was talking to a friend from church on the phone when she said, “Hey, I have this really nice boy I want you to meet! I know, I’ll call him, he can call you, and you two can go out!”  I said, “But… but… but…”  Too late! She had already hung up.  Fifteen minutes later I got a phone call.  “Hello, is Linda there?”  “May I ask who is calling?”  “This is Paul Larson.”  Conversation ensued and we made a date for the next night. 

We didn’t like each other very much.  But we continued to date the rest of the winter. He hit the road in April and we only talked occasionally on the phone.  Next winter we started dating again. At one point we got mad at each other. Didn’t think I’d ever hear from him again, which was OK with me. But he finally called and we went out “one more time.” Wait, something had changed.  I kind of liked him!  In fact, I was falling in love with him. The night before he was going to hit the road we were sitting in the car talking. He said, “Are you really crazy enough to be my wife?”  I said, “Yes.”  And thus, at the age of 19 I got married and began my life as a carny.

Our first spot as a married couple was the fair in Chowchilla. I learned how to set up and slaugh (tear down) a joint (the game). I learned how to hustle the marks (ask them to play the game again). I learned how important it is to know where the donikers (bathrooms) are.  I learned that sometimes the jenny (merry-go-round) plays larry-kadodie (stupid) music.  And most importantly, I learned to spee-iz-eak kee-iz-arny (speak carny).  Yes, carnies have their own language.

Paul and I owned carnival games.  We had a punk rack, one-ball, cork guns, watch-a-la, goldfish, bear spindle, and derby. There were also various and sundry other games that we would occasionally use in a pinch.  We called our business "Acorn Concessions." Paul always drove Dooley (the Chevy 1-ton dually pickup) and towed the derby. I would drive Cindy (a chassis-mount camper on a Chevy 1-ton long wheel base) and towed the watch-a-la trailer, which contained all the other games.  No, I never drove diesel; it was something I never aspired to; however my friend, Judy did as she and Ken had rides to get down the road!

Carnies are a world all unto themselves. They do not let in 0utsiders easily and are a very close-knit community. You have to prove yourself.  If you are new to the carnival you are a “40-miler,” meaning you will never travel more than 40 miles from your home.  But sometimes 40-milers surprise you.

One summer we had a bunch of college kids show up that wanted to work to make extra money for college. And what an amazing bunch they were! Doug, Linda, Jack, Cathy, Barry, Zeke and Barbara all worked for us for many years. Well, until they were done with school and moved on with their lives.  Doug and Linda are now married, as are Cathy and Jack.  Zeke is a lifelong bachelor. We still keep in touch on occasion. Barbara got married and moved to Australia.  Barry, well, we’ve just lost touch. 

We all had close friendships and raised our babies together. Ken & Judy had Gordon and Kelly; Sam & Gail had Spring and Ashley; Bill & Kathy had Richie and Shanna; Mike & Linda had Lenny and Leslie; John & Debbie had John Jr. and Jerry; Paul & I had Eric, Jon and Megan. All, except for Megan, pretty much grew up on the carnival together.

When Eric started school I would not go on the road until summer (we were living in The Valley at the time), but occasionally I would make weekend trips to whatever spot he was playing that week and work one of the games.  After we moved to Sacramento I would work with him most weekends when he was close by. Sometimes I would just go and spend the weekend just because. However, there was always that six-week stretch during the middle of summer when I would not see Paul at all.  Lots of phone calls and tears kept us in touch.

As the years rolled by the season became longer and longer; I eventually got a position working for the San Juan Unified School District and no longer went on the road. But we always had the 3 months during the winter where we made the most of our time together.  Our holidays were always the best.

On June 8, 2007 Acorn Concessions ended. That was also the day Paul died.  He loved the carnival.  He was at his favorite spot (Menlo Park) doing what he loved most (getting ready to open and start hustling the marks).  We should all be so lucky to be surrounded by those who love us and doing what we love most when we leave this world.  It was the end as I had always predicted. 

I continue to keep close contact with all of the carnies who have been friends over the years. It is good to sit around and cut up jackpots (tell stories). It helps us remember.


  1. Great read. You're a remarkable person. Safe travels and enjoy!

  2. Wow, thanks for posting that little bit of history--very interesting! There's a lot I don't know about the family, being one of the youngest cousins. I didn't realize you and Paul were so young when you got married! I look forward to learning more about you :)

  3. Glad to share some of the family with you, Michele. :)