Living eight months of the year out of a suitcase, with only a small cubicle in a mobile bunkhouse to call home, would be a lonely proposition to most people. However, in the world of the carnies, while they don’t have a lot, they do have each other.
Their job has changed little over the years, and to excited fair-goers anxious to munch some mini doughnuts or experience the latest stomach-churning ride, these people are for the most part invisible.
That is, of course, with the exception of the stall minders who testily challenge other males to demonstrate their prowess with a sledgehammer, darts or basketball — a traditional right of passage for many young men.
But this particular night — like most others — as the crowds begin to thin, the bright lights of the rides grow dim and the screams of the kids fade, the employees of West Coast Amusements look forward to the end of another long day.
In the parking lot of the South Okanagan Events Centre, barely visible behind the big rigs that haul the equipment, are the staff dormitories.
Arranged in a circle, this is their community, where neighbours sit around after work, share their stories of the day’s events, argue, laugh and sometimes get into a scrap or two.
But unlike the usual town setting, with their nomadic, gypsy lifestyle and few belongings and little privacy, there is a very strong bond.
“We’re family, like it or not, there is just no other way to describe it,” said Johnny Iannone during a break from his barker’s duties on the midway.
A university graduate with long grey hair and beard, the child of the ‘60s is a bit of an anomaly among his rougher looking counterparts.
“But in as much fun as we have, there is a lot of pain being carried by individual souls that creates a real dichotomy,” he said. “We try to be happy and joyful by day so the people have fun, but at night sometimes we party a little bit too much and fight about this or fight about that.
“But you have to remember, you’ve got a whole big family here and families fight, but the next day it’s over. We don’t carry that over, whatever we fought about last night is not brought back the next day.”
He feels for many of the employees the carnival is a form of healing for a difficult childhood because it brings back memories of the happier times of growing up.
Vanessa Chin is another “carnie newbie,” who at age 32 is dealing with her own special issues and she agreed with her friend’s assessment.
“It’s totally family, absolutely. We’re all here to make people laugh and have a good time because that’s what we got to do when we were kids,” she said. “Every day is different and there is a lot of camaraderie. You’re a team, you’re a group, you’re a unit, and everybody works together and you look out for each other.
“Everyone cares, no one is ever really out on their own.”
Having worked the carnivals in the ‘90s in England during her teens, Chin decided to give it another go round this summer, but has no plans for the future.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be doing this, I don’t even know what I’ll be doing next week. I’ve always travelled ever since I was little,” she said, pausing a moment before adding: “I guess I’ve never liked to stay in one spot too long.”
Ron (definitely not his real name) has worked the carnival circuit for over 30 years and is more the stereotypical carnie — the one some parents caution their kids about.
A chain smoker with short brown hair, muscular, tattooed arms and a limited vocabulary, he is quick to dismiss any fuzzy warm feeling or romantic nature associated to the work.
“It’s a f—— job, and you do what you have to do to survive, that’s all I know,” he said. “I guess you do make some friends, but not many people stick around long enough. They’re lucky if they last a season, that’s because most of them don’t like hard work.”
About his life and the trials he’s faced: “none of your business,” is the curt reply.
Iannone agreed there are people like Ron who sometimes give the carnies a bad reputation, but for the most part, he feels the good things they do far outweigh the bad. He regularly has parents thank him for helping make the fair a happy memory for their kids, just as it is for them now.
“I mean call this what it is, nothing but Chinese swag, but the children don’t know that. They just see the prize, and seeing those little eyes light up, that’s what it’s all about,” he said.
And in the end, this particular carnie doesn’t measure his own worth by the things he has or where he lives, but rather by the number of smiles he puts on faces, wherever that may be.