My brief career as a carny

Here’s a quick little story from the archives of yesteryear.  It’s about a job that I’ve never put on my resume.  Enjoy!

Gonna take a little trip back in time.  Kinda like an episode of the Wonder Years.  Or Quantum Leap without all that “saving people” crap.  

The year is 1992.  I’m 15 years old. It’s a crisp, cool autumn so this means it’s time for the Warner, NH fall foliage festival.  That’s the only kind of thing you celebrate when you’re in NH. A change in the seasons. “Hey, it’s…uhh…not summer anymore” “Woohoo! Let’s throw a parade!”

It’s a classic carnival/fair scene.  Rickety looking rides, bad fried food, and of course rednecks.  And the same games they don’t have names for that we’ve all seen over the years.  Throw-the-rings-on-the-bottles, shoot-the-fake-ducks-with-the-airgun. They were all probably built in 1920.

So I’m walking around checking it all out. This was years before I spent time in San Francisco and New Orleans and at least 5 years before I experienced the wonder of getting lost in the Boston Museum of Art.  At this point in my life a rickety carnival was about as culturally sound as I could get.  

I walk by the throw-darts-at-the-balloons game and the guy running the booth, a portly bearded redneck type, calls out to me:

“Hey kid, you wanna make $20?”

Looking back, not really the best way to start a conversation with a minor.  But at the time $20 was a lot of money to me. (And frankly, it still is.)

So he gives me his pitch, “Look, I gotta split for a little bit.  Can you take over for me for about 30 minutes?”. I thought, stand here for 30 minutes for $20?  Yeah, fuck it. I said “Uh, yeah, sure.” Keep in mind that this is before I developed my keen vernacular and ability to say “NO”.  I was a teenager after all.

He lays out the instructions. “People pay $5 to throw the darts at the balloons and they’re supposed to hit them to get one of these,” he says gesturing to the ugliest, cheapest Teddy Bears I’ve ever seen, hanging on the saddest display I’ve ever seen.  They kind of looked like Yogi Bear after he got hit with a lawnmower and Elmer-Glued back together. Most likely they were stuffed with some kind of horrible industrial by-product that would probably cause blindness if ingested.  

Alright, easy enough.  “Now here’s the thing,” he says leaning in close, indicating he’s about to tell me the important part, “Whatever you do, don’t let anyone win.”.  

I ask the perfectly sensible question: “What am I supposed to tell these people exactly?”  He says “Doesn’t matter, just make shit up.  Tell ‘em they were over the line.” This is a long way to go for $20, but back in those days that was a CD and a meal at Burger King.  I was on board.

The guy goes off, and I’m on my own.  A few people come by and give me $5, throw their darts and miss.  Nobody can win this thing. They basically gave me $5 to come by and hang around with me for a couple minutes.  I may be biased but personally I think I’m worth it.

Then the moment of truth came…a little kid and his parents came up to play.  They put down $5, I give him the darts, and let him have at it. The kid wheels back, determination in his eyes.  He had a look that indicated that ‘Eye of the Tiger’ was playing in his head. He let’s go of the dart and Bam! Nails it on the first shot, doing what no one was able to do.  

Now at that point the carney’s voice echoed in my head. “Whatever you do don’t let anyone win”.  Then I saw the kid. We all knew he nailed that balloon and I could see victory in his eyes. What was I gonna do?  Tell him he was over the imaginary line that I just made up to keep this shitty product in stock? No way, padre. I’m not gonna be a dick.  Fortunately for the kid with the golden dart arm, Santa Chris has come to town.

Obviously, I let him win.  I gave him his prize. The ugly-ass busted up Teddy Bear.  I might as well have handed him a Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Award, his smile was so big.  I made that kid’s day.

Eventually the guy I was covering for came back reeking of what I now know as pot and whiskey.  Most likely not even good whiskey. I collected my $20 and we parted ways.

The next day I was back and I saw him again.  He calls me over, just like the day before. “Hey kid, I forget to pay you yesterday.  Here you go!” And hands me a $20 bill. I could have corrected him but when you hand over $20 to a teenager, you’re never going to see that money again.  So I made a total of $40 for 30 minutes.

If there’s a moral to this whole thing it’s that the man won’t always let you win.  You pay your dues, play by the rules and he’ll still burn you. It happens all the time.  It’s certainly happened to me. The people in charge will always find a way to screw you just to screw you.  

But if I ever end up covering the man’s lunch break?  EVERYONE will be a winner. Cheap Yogi Bears for EVERYONE.

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