Life in a carnival

For the carnival worker, transience is permanent
Friday, July 23, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:39 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

The sounds of the Boone County Fair are surprisingly chaotic, considering that this is supposed to be a fun, relaxing event. The constant hum of carnival ride motors is punctuated by the hiss of compressed air or the shrill scream of a child in the throes of either terror, ecstasy, or both. Every once in a while, the chatter of machine gun fire erupts out of a gaming trailer. It’s the carnival game where contestants are given an air-powered machine gun that shoots BBs and are challenged to the task of blasting a red star out of a paper target. If they complete the task, they are rewarded with one of the cheaply constructed stuffed animals that hang like over-ripe fruit from the walls and ceiling of the trailer.

On the top of the trailer, a brightly lit picture of a gangland -style slaying runs the length of the car. In it, a gangster in a slick suit and hat fires a Tommy gun at rivals as they pour out of a 1930s Studebaker-type car. A voluptuous, scantily clad woman in a red dress screams as the men getting out of the car step over their dead companion, so they too will be shot. It’s a bit too “Untouchables” for this “apple pie” family affair.

Michael Adkins is in control of this particular carnival attraction today and business is slow. Maybe it’s because of the violent picture that looms over him. He alternately sits, stands, and paces next to his trailer, always keeping a cigarette lit. Adkins has been a carnival worker for 10 years, and got started in the industry as a last-ditch effort. “I was out of work. I needed a job,” he said. His reddish-brown, leathery tan has probably seen and felt fairs even hotter and more humid than this, but he keeps a white towel on his shoulder to wipe off the sweat from this oppressively hot day. His red and white sneakers match a red tank top and red baseball cap, with the logo of his employer, Lowery Carnival Company on it. For some reason, fairgoers are more tempted to try their luck at other contests, and Adkins has the look of a man that would like a bit more to do with his time, but he doesn’t work too hard to attract people to his trailer. After all, it’s at least 95 degrees outside.

So for now, Adkins has little to do, but that won’t be the case for long. In between the basically sedentary work of a carnival staff member lies lots of travel and transience. Typical for Adkins is the schedule of the next few days: tear everything down Saturday night, leave on Sunday, and set up again at a different fair on Wednesday. Adkins can expect this migrant schedule to continue until November. It started in March. Adkins has been with Lowery for less than a year, but can’t remember how many carnivals he’s done with them. “Probably more than 30, “ he said.

During the day, Adkins and other carnival workers usually go into town to get necessities of civilization. Wal-Mart is often an important destination. Once their trailers are set up, there isn’t much maintenance. For Adkins, a break means a Mountain Dew and a phone call on a co-worker’s cell phone. At night, after the carnival is over, another venture into town might take Adkins and his co-workers to local bars and nightspots, but usually they stay in. “Most of the time we play cards. That way we know we can stay out of trouble,” he said.

On the road, home is a trailer of bunk beds parked behind the carnival; a situation Adkins says can make for a volatile work situation. “You’re going to have your days when you just get mad at everybody or somebody gets mad at you. You’ve got a bunch of people right here, working together,” he said.

Adkins spends the vast majority of his time living in or working on or around trailers, but this seems to be typical of the environment. At the Boone County Fair, everything comes in on wheels. Beyond the rides and games, all the food vendors are parked, and livestock wait in the wings of show barns in trailers. Even the main entertainment stage is a trailer. Apparently, this fun is meant to be temporary, to be whisked in and out of town at the call of a grandstand announcer. However temporary the county fair may be, Adkins’ station in life as a carnival worker is not temporary. He plans to do it, “until my body can’t take it anymore.”

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