Two in the Mouth
There is something alluring about summer at the county fair with the lure of a bustling midway lined with carnies that heckle and taunt you for the opportunity to win stuffed animals for your girlfriend. The unique sights, sounds and smells are un-parallel to any other event. Nothing can match the thrill of the stomach-churning rides as light diesel fumes fill the air in competition with the aromas of deep fryers. Who can resist the cotton candy, funnel cakes, cheese curds, mini-donuts, anything on a stick and things fried that you never thought about frying. Carnivals can be likened to the make-up of a clown. Clowns at first glance look fun and exciting but as you look closer, there seems to be a dark underbelly that can make a clown seem eerie and spooky. Leaving the security of the main dirt walkway of a fair is like walking down a dark alley in Chicago with many unknowns that make you hastily turn back towards the light. Yet year after year we find ourselves walking amidst the dirt underneath our feet to our childhood roots as we breathe in our surroundings and feelings of times past.
Carnivals historically began as holidays in Rome in the middle-ages, where it is believed that our beloved “street food” originated. Fayre- the archaic spelling of fair was mostly used from the 15th to the 17th century before becoming fair as we know today. Carnivals and fairs developed into small businesses which ran for short periods of time. These businesses grew and became international trade places. The American county fair was established in the early nineteenth century when agricultural crusaders in the northeastern United States organized local exhibitions to promote modern farming. Typical events included livestock judging, exhibits of new agricultural implements, and plowing competitions. In 1893 Chicago was the home of The World Columbian Exposition, otherwise known as The Chicago World’s Fair. This was the catalyst for the development of the traveling carnival. This fair had an area that included rides, games of chance, freak shows and burlesque entertainment. The carnival was a place for common folk to abandon their mundane lives and catch a glimpse of the wildly unknown. After the Chicago World’s Fair, traveling carnival companies arose and began touring the United States, hiring locals along the way. Due to the type of acts featured, coupled with dishonest business practices, the traveling carnivals were often looked down upon. Girlie shows, fortune tellers, freak shows, and other attractions common to the carnival eighty years ago have been either completely phased out or are a rare feature of the carnival. Today, modern traveling carnivals play both state and county fairs and spend a few days or even weeks bringing memories to both communities and families alike.
Through the innocent eyes of a child the excitement rests within the colorful sights, sounds and smells; waiting in line to buy the tickets, and finally- that summer when you are tall enough to meet the height restrictions. As an adult going back to the local carnival, we bring back with us a heightened awareness of the shifty carnie. The allusive carnie is a mastermind of trickery, reeling us in almost on a dare to beat them at their own game. Their reputation precedes them as there was a time when these seedy operators found someone who they could entice to keep playing their “rigged” or in carnie terms “gaffed” game. They would then “mark” the player by patting their back with a hand that was draped with chalk. Other game operators would then look for these chalk marks and seduce the individual to also play their gaffed game.
“When I started 99% of the people I worked with were hustlers, con-men, and criminals. They ran flat stores that never gave out a piece of stock unless it was to the local heat’s wife; the ran add-up games, gaffed joints, and would try to get a man’s last freaking dollar if he could. At night the lot was full of rolling craps games, home-made hooch, and ladies making few extra dollars the ‘old fashioned way’. The men that worked the carnivals were hard men and some of them down right mean. Beef were not handled at the office, they were handled inside the stock truck, or behind the donnikers.” ~ Carnival Warehouse
In essence, the carney himself is a part of show business. They recognize the stigma attached to their name and have an innate way of playing the crowd. Carnies create an illusion for all of us fairgoers. In this regard the carney is a master craftsman who is selling an intangible product in the form of entertainment. The carnies pride themselves on the ability to ensure fun for all ages. Like a clan of modern gypsies, traveling carnival workers, who come from as far as South America, arrive in a new place each week and will ensure the set-up, operation and teardown of the event. Unless you are a carnie in Florida, where there are year round fairs and employment, these workers travel roughly seventeen weeks a year from spring to autumn with an ever-changing roster of carnies that live, travel and work together. These operators are unique community of people who slave away their summers for a pittance, and an enigmatic family that provides a small sense of security and blankets many of them with far more than just a wage.
Carnivals explore the countless inlets to American culture and push the envelope of seduction. These nostalgic events allow our younger generation to be a part of a provocative tradition and for the older generations to feel uninhibited once again. As county fairs circulate back to our communities it allows us to feed our addictions of years past with a gritty take on an event we can’t leave behind. The cultural identity and national pride strewed throughout each county fair is like taking two in month as we inhale the memories and societal imprints from one of our favorite American pastimes. – written by Erika Johnson