The life of a carnival worker is one often shrouded in secrecy.
They’re a group of people who consider themselves to be different from everyone else in the world—the “marks,” as they call them. And we consider them different too—whether or not they are.
They have their own rules and regulations, even their own language.
Because of this, non-carnival workers often wonder about their lifestyle, so they turn to the recurring “carny” stereotypes instead.
The media perpetuates those stereotypes, often portraying carnies in a negative way, such as with a “The Simpsons” episode showing a carny as manipulative and untrustworthy.
Fairgoers are drawn to the flashing lights of the Midway while at the fair, but they often shrink or belittle the people in its shadows—the ones who are the backbone of the carnival.
The traveling lifestyle
Lewis Jones (not his real name) one of the carnival workers who runs a game in the Midway at the Indiana State Fair, has worked at North American Midway Entertainment for 20 years.
In 1995, Jones’ mom died, and he fell into a depression. He abandoned everything he owned to hitchhike across the country.
“I started doing this and never looked back,” Jones said.
Jones sleeps on one of the two bunks in a room behind one of the games in the Midway, so he is constantly on the fairgrounds. He doesn’t always have a roommate, but when he does it’s either his best friend or his fiancée.
“My own privacy is very important, even though it’s hard to get,” Jones said.
After the Midway lights go out, and the games have been prepared for the next day, all of the workers stay on the grounds or right outside. Sometimes, they go explore the city they’re staying in.
Another worker, Harry Smith (not his real name), who sleeps in the trailers right outside of the Midway, said he and some of the other workers will go find rivers or ponds to hang out at if they can.
“It’s hard to leave sometimes because we don’t have transportation, but it’s nice to see what else is around,” Smith said.
If he can’t get off the grounds, Smith said he explores the fairgrounds, because he doesn’t usually get a chance to during the day.
Kept away from family
All around, the life of a carnival worker isn’t an easy one—Jones hasn’t been able to visit his sister in seven years.
However, after he leaves, he hopes he can visit her.
He’s the middle child and is close to the two siblings and family he still is able to see. However, the rest of his family has disowned him because they don’t approve of him being in the carnival business.
He also doesn’t get a chance to visit his grandkids often, usually only once a year, but he currently hasn’t seen them in two years.
Because he isn’t able to see them often, he mails them presents when he can. His most recent gift was a T-shirt to his grandson, who has autism, which read, “Autism is my superpower.” Jones was so proud of finding it for him.
He hopes to step away from the carnival life after this season is over because it has just become too hard for him. He’s had two broken bones and a heart attack during his time as a carnival worker.
Jones also just got engaged, so he wants to go back home to spend more time with his fiancée and the rest of his family.
Even so, he has no clue what he will do with his life after he leaves—his job is such a huge part of him.
“I love it, I love it, but I know it has to come to an end,” Jones said. “It’s a pain in the butt and a headache, but once it got in my head, after like the third year, I didn’t want to do anything else.”
In Johanna Vasek’s research paper “Dirty Work on the Midway: Examining Stereotypes, Discrimination and Self-Identity of the Carney,” from Warren Wilson College, she said some of those stereotypes include labeling carnival workers as “dirty, untrustworthy and criminal.”
“I have found that the majority of people who know what a [carny] is automatically associates them with popular stereotypes of this kind,” Vasek wrote in her paper.
Those stereotypes then stigmatize the worker and open them up to discrimination from those around them, according to Vasek.
Some discriminate with comments, while others just tend to avoid the carnival workers, not wanting to associate with them, she wrote.
In “The Life of the Carnival,” an essay by Ruby Jenkins of the Missouri Folklore Society, posted on the group’s website, Jenkins talks about the separation carnival workers experience from the rest of society.
“… [The separation] constructs part of the magical illusion that carnivals have,” Jenkins wrote. “If carnivals did not have the strange allure of the fantastic, the otherworldly and perhaps even of the sleazy, they would not be a carnival.
“Carnies took what excluded them from society and used it to form their own society.”
Carnival workers have a distinct pride in what they do—part of the reason why they tend to keep to themselves, Jones said.
“It’s a different world out there,” he said. “You can’t wait until the carnival gets there, but when we do, you want to talk bad about us. Then you don’t want to see us leave.”
These negative stereotypes carnival workers combat come from previous generations of carnival workers and a past that has been tainted with scams and scandals, Vasek said in her paper.
“Before the first half of the 20th century, the carnival was considered an illegitimate business, scamming the local fairgoers with rigged games, taking advantage of the competitive attitude of the public,” Vasek wrote.
But despite changes made to clean up the carnival business, like requiring background checks and drug tests, the stigma remains, Vasek said.
“Carnies today typically acknowledge the influence of history upon their image. In response they have either accepted this fact and decide to live with it or they recognize the need for action to change the perceptions people have of them,” she wrote.
Jones said, in his game, he is not there to try to rob anyone.
“You will win a prize,” he said. “I’m so psyched to give prizes out. The games aren’t rigged. Every game can be won, there’s just a trick to them.”
Watching him coax children and adults in, it’s clear he wants them to win. He gives kids another chance if their first try flops and gives them little hints on the best way to win.
One big family
Especially because of the negative view the public has of them, carnival workers tend to stick together.
They spend so much time together on the road, they become a close-knit crew, Jones said.
“We have our drama and all that, but we’re a big family,” Jones said. “A lot of these people I’ve known for years.”
His best friend, whom he met through his job, is going to be in his wedding, and his son is nicknamed after Jones.
“We’re real tight,” Jones said. “I love everybody out here.”
After the lights of the Midway shut off and the last straggler leaves the grounds, the carnival workers gather in small groups around each other’s games or rides, chatting and enjoying being done with work after another long day.
Once the cleaning and setting up for the next day is done, they make their way back to their trailers or bunks. Some turn in for the night, some hang out until the early hours of the morning.
Regardless, while they are on the road, they are each other’s family and friends, the ones who are always there for them when others can’t be.
“I’m going to miss them all,” Jones said. “I’ll never lose touch with them.”
Kara Berg is a writer for BSU Journalism at the Fair, a group of 30 students telling Indiana’s stories from a trailer somewhere between the cheese sculpture and the state’s biggest sow. This Ball State University immersive-learning project works for elephant ears.