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Things I Learned as a Naked Carny

When you make your living stripping as part of a traveling freak show, you quickly acquire a set of questionable life skills.

by Tristan Risk
04 September 2016, 2:10pm

Me, at work. All photos via the author

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada

Last year, I fell in love with a sideshow performer. As many can attest to, love makes us do odd things. The more he talked about performing strange acts of bodily harm for an audience, getting lost in midway games, and moving on to the next town every ten days, the more actually I wanted to give up the comforts of home for life on the road.

This summer, one of the largest Canadian touring carnivals happened to have some room on its lazy circuit across the country, so we packed up our own little ragtag circus/sideshow into a converted bus, and made our way across the western provinces. Inside our retired festival whip were six bunks: three for our showmates, one for our albino boa constrictor's aquarium, and two more for a rotating group of carnies that would rent in lieu of a bunkhouse on the carnival lot.

As you can surely imagine, we tended to draw stares when pulling up to buy gas, loading in or out of a venue, or parking anywhere slightly residential. The "Dragon Wagon" as we dubbed it, made her major maiden voyage with minimal incident—aside from the bus doors blowing open outside of Calgary, calling for us to tie them down so we could keep driving. (After experiencing this minor mishap, I encourage everyone to either join Boy Scouts or a Japanese rope bondage class—competent knot-work is a valuable life skill to master.)

If someone asked me what midway life was like, I'd liken it to a cross between prison, summer camp, and being a stripper. To the patron, it's a family-friendly fun environment that lends an afternoon's distractions. However, to the workers, under the bubblegum-friendly veneer, exists a set of complex social rules. It's anything but safe or clean, but once you get the hang of it, you realize that if society ever crumbled, and came down to mob rule, you'd probably fare well after a summer of being a carny. Like summer camp, you never know if you'll run into old friends or foes, and just like in stripping, it's hustle, hustle, hustle. Having navigated through most of a summer as a touring circus/sideshow performer, festival mermaid, novelty salesperson and midway games worker, I have a brand new set of questionable life skills to share.

ON LOT JUSTICE

There is a strict social hierarchy in place that is unspoken. It's not pretty, but the place polices itself, much in the same way the mob operates. When someone shows up a little too drunk to work, rather than bring it up to any larger authority, the ride and game owners deal with it in-house. Sometimes I would get pulled in to cover a game for one of these too-boozy carnies. This locks you in for lengthy hours, unable to leave for breaks. It's also how long-standing beefs can get started, which fire back and forth like the Hatfields and the McCoys until one of the larger bosses steps in and settles everyone's hash.

I'm not sure if that makes me feel more safe or more on edge—I thought it best to keep my head down, my nose clean, and just observe the posturing behind the scenes. But if it resembled anything, the affairs of state with regard to the midway lay somewhere between Oz and Game of Thrones for drama. Like Trailer Park Boys with more rides and fried foods.

Tools of the trade

EVERYONE LOVES A FREAK

I used to be fairly socially awkward at parties, unsure of how to break the ice and loathe to make small talk until I started doing sideshow. Turns out it's easy to get strangers' attention when you're nearly nude, on fire, or draped in a large reptile. Our onstage sets give folks a chance to see strange physical feats up close. When you live primarily in a YouTube culture, the prospect of seeing a sword swallowed or someone balancing on a rollabolla atop a longboard of nails in person gives a vicarious thrill that no online video could reproduce. We have the habit of making selfies a little more interesting, #whatdidyoudolastnight and so forth. But now I have garnered enough tricks that I can enter any party and stir the pot by asking if they want to see a strong woman demonstration.

YOUR TIME (AND COLON) IS WORTHLESS

I came onto the midway part way through the season in Winnipeg, and was told I needed to help with set up. I wouldn't be paid, but it would increase the percentage of my commission on games, which was fairly small to begin with. At the end of the spot, if I didn't help with tear down, I'd not be eligible for a jump draw—a cash advance which most carnies use to get from one town to the other. A common reason for not giving a full payout is so the workers don't take their cheques and drink them right away before the next town.

Between draws and the points system, this helps to keep the carny folk always just barely equalling out, always indentured their employers. Breaks are every two hours for one hour, stretching working days from 10 AM to midnight, which skirts around labour laws, but ensures everyone is always vaguely exhausted from long days. After having to pay for their lodging (either hotel, bunkhouse spot or in someone's van), their own travel, as well as food on the road, it's difficult to keep afloat. One winds up eating on lot most of the time, at either the commissary or else on the midway. We pay carnival prices for carnival food, and it tends to eat up the last of our paychecks. However, after day two of a corn dog diet, I went on a mission and stocked up on bagged salads from Walmart, which turned out to be a godsend and spared my poor colon having to process ten straight days of deep-fried foods.

LEARN THE LANGUAGE

Like prison, the carnival comes with its own lexicon. In fact, since a fair number of the employees who work the carnival have spent some time at Club Fed at one point or another—you hear jail slang on the midway. I have since learned that you never call someone a goof, squid, or a rat, unless you are willing to take the impending shitstorm that accompanies it.

The older carnies might haze a newbie by asking them to go get the "board stretcher," "the key to the midway," or a "left-handed screwdriver." This is usually requested in a barking tone, sending the fresh meat all over the carnival on a fruitless search for an imaginary item. When they return, empty handed and frustrated, they are then informed that there is no such thing and then told to get back to work.

Other carny terms include:
Fin = $5 bill
Sawbuck =$10
Double = $20
Half chip = $50 bill
Yard note = $100 bill

TAKE YOUR SHOWERS WHEN YOU CAN

I went from not wanting to shower outside of home or a hotel room to lathering up on lot and letting the rain rinse me off, to bird baths in truck stops, and sponge baths at festivals. While shaving one's legs in a moving vehicle isn't yet an Olympic event, trying to do it and not accidentally skinning yourself with a Mach 3 razor is something of an art form I'm now a dab hand at. Lesson: when someone offers you their home to shower in, you take it. You take it, bring in your fluffy towel, your exfoliator, and maybe even hair dye for touch ups. You grab that offer with both hands, and get it in a mercy lock. If you do this, you will be much happier, and fairer of personal odor.

I got used to sneaking into the bathroom at Walmart and trying to discretely bathe in the sinks and do my dishes whilst not calling too much attention to my appearance, which, if it were the morning after the show could mean that I had leftover clown drag on, or if I was in my carnival uniform (yes, there is a uniform, which is the first job I've ever worn one) getting harsh side eye. That being said, the desire to be clean trumps the potential for appearing on People of Walmart. Although, if that did happen, I'd likely try and use that as promo... 'See the fabulous circus sideshow sensation... As seen on People of Walmart!'

Carny breakfast

PROFESSIONAL CATCALLING

I am a modern woman. I'm no stranger to being catcalled, and it sucks. One ignorant comment can throw off my entire day. Now, imagine a job where not only are you encouraged to cat call your clientele, it's expected. It's called "calling them in." You try whatever vocal technique you can in order to grab the attention of the public.

Depending on the day and who showed up wasted, I'd switch back and forth from being "The Guesser" where I would (literally) guess people's ages, weights, and birth months, over to a sling shot game where patrons would fire soggy Angry Birds toys into holes in canvas behind me. Sometimes I worked "The Volcano" where it wasn't impossible to win... just really, really difficult. The only thing remained the same in each game was the same mandate: call as many people over to gather a crowd around your game, then extract all of their cash out of their pockets though the game.

It wasn't fun, it's wasn't pleasant. But the longer I did it, the better I got, and I saw my social boundaries slowly fall away. This is not a good thing. I had a little bit of a moral crisis when I found myself urging young impressionable children to go and fetch some money from their parents so I could play with them. It wasn't unlike the days I spent as a stripper when one would hustle for private dances. The aggressive people who browbeat the patrons in going for a dance were the most successful, and if you didn't keep up, you'd be going hungry. One had to shout the loudest, and draw the biggest crowds to get the best response. By the end of the third day, my voice had dropped two octaves and I was reduced to growling in a Lauren Bacall voice over my microphone to lure folks over, with something akin to a phone sex operator voice.

MEET CARNY PETE

In our travels, we headed through Golden, BC where we met up with a legend from the old days called Carny Pete. To other carnies he was just Harmonica Pete, but there you go with the human need to label folks. Carny Pete regaled us with stories of salty road dog carnies. Back then, the carnies sounded like Beetlejuice, their voices weathered by dry air, stale beer, too many cigarettes, and hours of "calling them in" to their attractions. Now, there midway is worked off less of a rogue's gallery and more with independent artists, like myself. Pretty soon there won't be anything left of the old days except memories of the old timers, and the reactionary safety regulations put into effect due to previous workers goof-ups.

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