Screams and soul music are Bo Brown's soundtrack. Perched comfortably on a metal folding chair, his back rests against a towering monster tagged with the menacing moniker Cyclops. But his attention never shifts toward the swinging, spinning pendulum behind him or the happy-fearful exclamations emanating from the ride's safety-barred seats.
Instead he faces forward, watching the ebb and flow of potential patrons entering and exiting the gates of the Exchange Club Fairgrounds. Through heavy-lidded eyes, he watches cars cruise by, slowly searching for a place to park and anonymous faces reflect the colored lights of the midway beyond. After all, the faces and the street scene beyond are new to Mr. Brown, while, after 42 years as a carny, the candy-colored chaos of the carnival has become old hat.
They are the invisible backbone behind every Ferris wheel erected in an empty shopping center parking lot. They are the tearers of tickets and the proud new owners of dollar bills wagered on softball-throwing skills. They are a secret society, a covert culture with unique customs and courtesies built around long hours, sleepless nights and an untreatable addiction to the open road.
It is a physically demanding lifestyle, where heavy lifting, longs drives and sporadic sleep are the rule rather than the exception.
"It's hard work," says Eleanor Wible, a four-year employee with Drew Exposition. "Don't ever believe it isn't. There are days when you have to be up and running the rides at 10 and won't shut down until 12:30 that night. Then you have to break down and travel to the next town. If you're lucky, you might get four or five hours of sleep. If you like going 24, or 36, hours without sleep, there's no problem."
So why do it?
"Because it's exciting and wonderful," Ms. Wible says with a laugh.
Cindy Wesley has been with Drew Exposition for 17 years. She says the long hours, extensive traveling and limited time off during the show's high season between April and November often lead to the formation of an ad hoc community developing on the midway. Among the lights and rides the careful observer can find conflict and resolution, romance and heartbreak. She says that it's common for carnival workers to proclaim that they will not return the next time the show hits the road, but that need to connect with people who have shared the unique carny experience always brings them back.
"When it comes time, in April, to go back out, all those people will be back out there ready to go," she says. "Sure, they get tired out there on the road, but this is a big family. It's hard to leave. And so, when it's time to go back out, there they'll be."
For many carnys, the initial attraction of carnival life is the opportunity to travel and the prospect of a steady paycheck. Sidney Thompson, an 11-year Drew veteran who oversees the operation of the expo's sky-scraping Century Wheel, said he never expected to be a lifer, but that the carnival has a way of sinking its hooks into people.
"I took this job because it was available when I needed work," he explains. "But the more I learned, and the more I got paid, the deeper my roots grew here. The thing is, I've been traveling all my life. It's what I like to do. And while it can be hard on people who are married and have children, it's kept me free from getting married and having children."
For Michael Prince, an enthusiastic young Boston native who graduated from high school with aspirations of becoming a chef, the sense of community, the paycheck and even the travel are mere icing. For him, the thrill of watching a ride rising from a grassy lot, then pulling the levers and pressing the buttons that bring that ride to life, are an almost inexplicable thrill.
"Controlling a ride is awesome," he says. "It's a thrill. That's the carnival, that's what it's all about. All these people come here after doing the same things day after day and for a few minutes, I give them a break. That's what I love about this."
Mr. Brown says the biggest battle a carny faces is never with a stubborn piece of equipment or physical exhaustion, but with public perception. For many, the idea of a carnival worker conjures up an image of the unwashed and unwanted, a seedy underworld populated by people perpetually on the road. And there are people out there, Mr. Brown says, who are unwilling to accept the far more mundane reality of carnival life.
"Some you try to educate and some, well, some are just stupid," Mr. Brown says with a sigh. "The truth is they have their thing and we have our thing. We put pants on one leg at a time, just like them. We eat and sleep, just like them. We don't stretch out in the dirt at night. I go to bed in an $80,000 trailer. It's my home, just like they have a home. A lot of people think of this lifestyle as very different, but it's closer than they might think."
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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