On Dennis’s neck and forearms were five tattooed names, some of which were his children’s: Cassidy, Sophia, Brittney, Alec, Patrick. He said he didn’t remember how he got two of his other tattoos, one of which is an anchor that he did not get during his time in the Navy. When Dennis took off his sunglasses I saw that his eyes were bright blue.
The carnival at which he was working was a colorful cluster of rides, game stalls, and food stands in a parking lot behind a small mall near campus. I first spoke with him just outside the carnival’s fence. I explained that I wanted to interview a carny. He told me about CarnyTown.com, a social networking site for carnies. “It’s just like MySpace,” he told me.
You have to be a member of CarnyTown to view its content, so I joined, listing my carnival location as where I went to high school. Indeed, CarnyTown looks and functions like a primitive and ugly MySpace. One feature of the website is a section called “Carny Lingo,” which is a very long list of definitions that members can edit. I read the whole list, and among these I found the user-created entry for “Carny”:
“A person who has traveled with a carnival, normally for at least a full season. Concession owners, show owners and sideshow folk prefer to be considered ‘showmen or showpeople.’ The term Carny has been cast as a negative term in the last few years, but a lot of showpeople wear the name Carny as a desirable badge.”
“There’s a lot of kinds of people working here,” Dennis had told me. “You never know who you’ll meet. Could be some fuckin’ ex-millionaire out here.”
Dennis works at the Balloon Pop. It’s not a hard game to win. Dennis gives the player three darts, and the player must pop three balloons to win a prize. According to a posted sign, prizes can be traded up as follows:
3 SMALL = 1 MEDIUM
3 MEDIUMS = 1 LARGE
2 LARGE = 1 JUMBO
2 JUMBOS = 1 CHOICE
Dennis says that Balloon Pop is a “hanky-pank,” a game where every player wins a prize every time. The balloons are not very far back and the darts are sharp, and when an adult or child misses altogether, Dennis does one of two things:
Sometimes Dennis says, “Oh, I didn’t see that last one,” and gives the player another dart. Once I saw him do this four or five times for an adult who kept missing. Other times, Dennis tells the player that if they say “pop” when they miss then he’ll still count the balloon.
Dennis makes people feel complicit — that they’re on his side as he cuts them in to a good deal. He makes them think they’re getting something for free, but it’s just the first part of a tactical funnel that I witnessed many times over.
He can afford to give away prizes easily because he buys them in bulk. He wants to get people to play again, to continue up the chain of exchanges to win a bigger prize, because that’s how he makes the most money. If a Medium prize costs $5, then a Large costs an additional $15, so a Jumbo will ultimately cost $40 and a Choice $80. The prizes are stuffed animals, with tiny snakes in the Small bucket and giant bulldogs, frogs, or pillows as the price increases. When players leave his stand, Dennis shouts, “There’s a winner winner winner!”
Dennis had several racks of stuffed-animal prizes lining the walls of his stand.
“I’ve gotta get more of these, they love them,” he said, pointing at a row of blue plush dogs with big, sad eyes. He said that the good prizes vary depending on the location, but people always like this toy. He showed me a dog and I felt its fur. It was very soft.
“People like this feel,” he said. “Bears, huskies, moose. People see a moose on the $20 row, they want to win it.” He pointed at a row of pillows with the Playboy logo on them. “These pillows are hot.”
Dennis decided to move all the snakes from the Small bucket into the Medium bucket. After a child won one, Dennis turned to me. “I will tell you the price of this one,” he said. “It’s twenty-five cents. That’s the only thing I feel bad about.” The boy’s parents had paid twenty times the snake’s actual price.
It was a bright, warm day and many groups of people were ambling about the fenced carnival grounds.
After standing next to Dennis for a while I decided to get involved in the action, so I began blowing up balloons and wrapping the ends around screws affixed to a board at the back of the tent, making sure the surface was mostly covered. My lungs hurt from the blowing, which was harder than Dennis made it look. He could do it in one breath, holding them with one hand, but I strained with two hands and sometimes couldn’t get the balloon to expand. I wondered if my absurdly puffed cheeks looked silly to the customers.
Dennis worked in a tent made from a metal frame and a primary-colored plastic-canvas covering. There was a small thigh-high barrier separating us from the midway. Sometimes, he explained, he’ll step over the barrier and approach someone who looks particularly promising, but it’s bad conduct to steal a potential gamer from an adjacent stand: “Overreaching. It’s an unwritten rule. There’s an invisible line.” Thus he has a few different lines he shouts to passersby to try and get their attention, all of which I witnessed many times over.
“Hey, you let ’em play, I’ll let ’em win!” he shouted to parents with children.
“Teddy bears! Teddy bears!” he shouted to parents with smaller children.
“My prizes won’t pop!” he said to children who had won balloons.
“Waaaait a minute,” he said to adults. (“I picked that off a black dude down South,” he told me.)
“Win one for the wife!” he said to older adults, couples. After one couple didn’t respond, Dennis shouted, “Win one for the neighbor’s wife!” and the man frowned, still walking.
“She don’t want a little stuffy, she wants a big stuffy!” he said to a man and a woman with a stuffed animal. They didn’t stop, and he said to me, “You hear what I said to him? She wants a big stuffy!” He laughed and looked at me to see if I was laughing too. I laughed when he looked at me.
I learned how Dennis looked at customers. He said he looks for men with girls, because they spend the most money, usually trying to win the girl something. He also said that some people feel guilty when he calls them over and that’s why they play.
Later he told me, “It’s kinda like getting laid. You get told no thirty times, then maybe you make a few bucks.”
To our left, a man in a sports tank top and a baseball cap slammed the Striker with all his strength, and the bell rang. He and his girlfriend walked over to Balloon Pop. His arms were large and she was already holding one stuffed animal; they seemed to match Dennis’s ideal, I thought.
The man paid $5 and then threw the three darts in quick succession, forcefully and accurately, popping three balloons. Dennis let his girlfriend choose a prize (she picked one of the sad-looking blue dogs) and gave the man another dart. He seemed about to play again but then thought better, shaking his head once and handing the dart back, leaving.
“There’s a winner winner winner!” said Dennis.
Another couple arrived, played, paid, and left. Dennis said, “Coulda gone for more. Soon as I saw that fifty, I got a woody. That’s called looking at people’s poke: They come up, I look right in their wallet.”
Dennis often brought up sex in relation to his trade. One woman he remembers came in two days in a row, trying to win a hat for her daughter. But she kept losing, Dennis told me, “and on the third day she came in and said, ‘How ’bout I take you out back, do a little something.’ I just gave it to her. I coulda got a blowjob for a $5 hat. But I didn’t.” He looked at me. “Some of these Jumbos, a lot of these you can get laid for.”
Dennis says he actually spoke fluent French until he was three. He was adopted by French parents and only met his birth mother four years ago. He is forty.
Outside of the carnival Dennis works as a composite technician, fixing fiberglass in subway cars and yachts. He has done this since he finished Navy Service in 1990. “I’ve got a killer resumé, dude. Got my DD-214 with me, my high school transcript, my references. All with me.”
Dennis says that working some cities is rough. “But,” he told me, “Being white in a black neighborhood, if you’re a carny, they don’t mess with you. Carnies have a reputation, and some of them have friends or relatives who are carnies.”
He’s done carnival work in Florida, Massachusetts, Maine, and New York, and every year he comes to Middletown, Connecticut with the Coleman Brothers. He works most summers on Martha’s Vineyard, where he makes a lot of money.
“The kids there have no value for money,” he said. “You got kids walking around with hundreds of dollars, and they spend it all. That’s the place to go, dude, I’m telling you right now.” He seemed to want to impress me. He said he has friends who have taken money off of Chelsea Clinton on several occasions. I wondered if this was true. “Last year,” he said, “we were hoping for Obama.”
He’s had people spend hundreds of dollars over several days, trying to win the expensive prizes. “Sometimes I catch what I call ‘dummies,’” he explains. “They dump it all.” I asked which people usually spend the most, and he said, “I can tell by their shoes. The poorer people are, the more fun they have. People with more money tend to have less fun.” He pointed out that I was wearing Vans but said that he shouldn’t judge. I am not sure what he meant.
“Would you feel bad about taking people’s money?” he asked me. I said I would probably have to work at it for a while before I felt okay. He said, “I’m about to run some people up. Forty, fifty dollars. I used to feel bad, but, you know, when people come to the fair, they’re not gonna leave with any money. If I don’t take it, someone else is gonna take it. It’s my paycheck. That’s when it changed for me.”
Dennis swept up popped balloons so people couldn’t see how well he was doing. “The only thing I ask is that you don’t say anything about the money. You could be counting how much I’m making with each game. That’s known as ‘clocking.’” (CarnyTown.com’s glossary lists no definition for “clocking.”) He wanted the other carnies to think he was making less money than he actually was, so that he didn’t seem like a threat. He had me leave a few times, insisting I take short breaks, and I later realized that he had been preventing me from clocking him.
He asked me how much I thought he’d made so far, and I guessed about $250. He thought for a moment and said, “A little under two. You’re getting it.”
I stayed for a while longer. Then, after shaking his hand I stepped over the short barrier for the last time. I said thank you and that he had been very helpful. He said he had been glad to do it.
“I have a high school diploma,” he told me. “I still have all my teeth, and I wash with soap and water. I’ve been interviewed for articles, and I try to give carnies a better name, reputation. Maybe with an article, you can change some of the things people think, let them know about the real carnies.”
He paid me five dollars in singles for my help, even though I’d told him he wouldn’t have to pay me. I walked around the carnival and paid three dollars to ride the Ferris wheel, which turned very quickly. From the top I could see the whole carnival: the river, the booths, all the people below. After the ride I had two dollars left.
Originally published in Volume I of the 48 Hour Magazine.