“The best way to know life is to love many things.” -Vincent Van Gogh
“Maybe another best way is not to take apart friggin’ fair rides at 3 in the morning.”
Here’s the classified ad that started this:
EMPLOYMENT-Help wanted to disassemble amusement rides, Mon Sept 1, Oregon State Fair Carnival Site in Salem at 10pm. Must be 18 or older, must have valid I.D. & social security #, some heavy lifting and climbing req. Apply in person at Carnival Employment Office by Pink Gate. Cash paid at end of job.
My dad saw it and tore it out. I’ve just moved back from Massachusetts a few weeks ago, have no job, no plans, two degrees in literature, and am living in my old room. So what the hell.
Monday night I put on some old cords, undershirt, black hoody, and running shoes and drove down to Salem. I get there around 10. I go to the wrong exit and give a woman who just moved here from Montana a ride. At the park gate (the pink gate), there’s a sizable crowd. A hard luck group; the kind you might find at the horse tracks, in a bar at 2:00 in the afternoon, or just wandering downtown. Lots of moustaches. I make up my demographic group. They take people as needed, so it’s just standing around for a while. A few are sent away because they don’t have proper ID.
People get restless and complain about the two women who are supervising. One woman is wearing a bandana, the other a “Hugging Machine” T. The men call them “two women with authority,” and go on to talk about how kids don’t want to work (“Work’s supposed to be hard. You’re lucky if it’s not.”), sexism (“Women go do a job just as good as any man.”), getting laid off, ex-girlfriends (“Fuckin’ women.”).
It’s like standing around at the docks in On The Waterfront, waiting to be picked. It’s funny how I’m happy (sort of), when I get called up. We fill out a brief application. It asks if we have any limitations (heavy lifting, climbing, etc.). We go in around 11 with a squat, mustached guy in a tie dye t-shirt. He tells us to get hard hats from the bucket. “Just grab one. They’re all fucked up.” Mine has no lining.
Four of us go to a ride called the Mardi Gras, which looks like some kind of fun house. The guy there (what do I call him? Carny? Boss? Ride jockey?) is lanky and weathered and wears a camouflage coat. There are garish, cheap paintings on the side of the ride. One of the guys eyes the buxom, gypsy looking women. “I’d tittie fuck her.” His companion nods in agreement. “Yeah, a few times, but she might to tell your fortune or talk about marriage.” “Fuck that.”
Our boss tells us that it has to be “systematic,” that everything needs to go in order. As we start to remove poles and rails and pins, one of my co-workers remarks, “This is easier than a prom date.”
I’m only at the Mardi Gras for 5-10 minutes before somebody rides up on a bike and asks me to come with him. He deposits me at the Zipper. I don’t know if I’ve ever ridden one before. I think it just sort of flings you up and down.
I introduce myself to the other 2 guys there, Gordon and Ray, who will be my companions for the next several hours. Gordon has frizzy, Steven Wright hair and eyes that are equal parts wired and zoned out. Ray’s sleeveless shirt displays his large forearms and a tattoo of a Cypress Hill like demonic joker. He has a moustache and shirt with a ball and screw on it and the words “screw ball” backwards. I think he should switch shirts with Gordon.
Out supervisor is a short, built guy dressed in black. He has a large cross tattoo on his upper arm. He’s brusque and direct and knows what he’s doing. Gordon says, apropos of nothing, “I think I remember some of you guys from the early 90s.” Nobody really replies. He touches his mouth a lot.
We take up the deck first, than a few support bars. It’s a vertical ride with 10 or 12 cars. He ( I think his name’s Don) lowers the main beam using hydraulics. Then it’s undoing various bars and bolts and securing the cars for transport. It’s simple, but takes a while. I learn about r keys, come alongs (whimsical sounding, but just a pulley like device), and k bars. The storage area beneath the ride, much like a luggage rack on a Greyhound bus, is called a possum belly. Like any trade, carnival work has its own lexicon. To me, this hands on, mechanical, masculine, sweat and muscle world might as well be another language.
It’s not hard work exactly but it’s physical enough to make the time pass quickly and callous up my humanities major hands. Poor Gordon continues to zone out and almost needs to be given directions to like a child. Don doesn’t say anything, but is skeptical, emanating the professional’s contempt for the amateur. Ray is less tight lipped, calling him useless, shaking his head, even asking me “Why’d you do that?” after I gave him some water.
I soon label Ray Able Ray both because he’s apparently done this work before and because he’s overeager, as if competing for the spirit award. When he asks for tools, it’s usually one word, barked, “Hammer!” “R key!” He’s vaguely patronizing, even, at one point turning to me and saying, in an irritating voice, “We use nuts and bolts because people lose r keys.” Huh?
My favorite job, if that’s possible, is when I get use a metal bar to pry up the car so that it slides onto a beam. I am the metal bar guy. So watch out Ray.
Like anybody or most people in an unfamiliar position, I am afraid of fucking up, of being exposed. But I don’t do anything really stupid. I do knock Don’s lights over, one of which shatters. Able Ray helpfully calls him over, but he doesn’t seem to care.
The bright lights of the ride are left on while we work, which gives the night (it’s about 1:00 now) a slightly lurid, surreal quality, like I’ve temporarily slipped into some parallel time. Once the cars are done, it’s some clean up and hooking the ride up to a semi cab, which takes a while. There are various wooden blocks to be taken out and put in. Don asks for a 2x4, I bring him a 4x4. I also turn the landing gear the wrong way. He asks for a piece of plywood and I get it. As I come back, Able Ray puts out his hand, as if I’m not capable of shoving it under a support. How about you come and parse 17th century English poetry with me sometime?
While they’re navigating the cab, Gordon asks Ron if they ever go to New York. “No, just West Coast.” I ask Gordon about New York and he tells me he was a sheriff there, which, while certainly untrue, would make for a great movie. “And I tell you…” He says, trailing off and giving me a knowing look. I have no idea what he means. He says he was born in Italy and that his dad is short, but has huge hands. “Short,” he says again. “But huge hands.” He looks at his own for a minute. I never get a chance to ask him why he’s at the state fairgrounds at 3:00 in the morning. Or how any of these loose change people ended up here. Hell, why am I here?
It’s about now that I start to feel fatigue kick in a bit. I ask someone the time. “4:20,” one joker replies. It’s actually about 3:30. Some woman comes over with sandwiches and sodas. Gordon goes back for more and Able Ray gets on his case. “Be happy you got anything.” The semi finally gets hooked up, we coil some cable (Able Ray tells me not to drag the ends), pick up trash, and around 4:15, we’re done. “Fuckin A,” Don says. He fills out the little time cards we carry around and takes us over to another ride. He rides a tiny scooter, we walk.
The ride is the Starship 2000. I keep humming “We built this city, we built this city on rock and roll.” There is nothing rock and roll about it though.
Our new boss is Steve or as he will soon be known, Angry Steve.
There are three other guys and much of it is already taken down. I can’t tell exactly what it is. He asks all of us for a light, which none of us have. “4:19. FUCKIN A!” This is not Don’s hey we’re done “fuckin a,” but rather a grim, we’re gonna be here a while “fuckin a.” He and Able Ray somehow know each other (is there a carny union?) and have a nice, hostile rapport, most of which consists of Angry Steve saying “DON’T FUCK WITH ME!”
One of my co-workers has a shirt that says “Don’t make me get the flying monkeys.” Another is a seasonal fireman, the third is named Pedro and has a slight lisp and a gentle manner at odds with his surroundings. Gordon, who is looking a little vulnerable, tells me, “I want to go home.” Me too, Gordon.
Steve, who earns the “angry” epithet in no time, calls us out back. “NOW GODDAMNIT!” He asks where the other guy is. Gordon is gone. “We don’t need him,” Able Ray says. What we do need is you shutting up though. Godspeed Gordon.
The troops are gathered and Steve asks “WHO ISN’T AFRAID OF HEIGHTS?” I make what will come to be the key tactical error of the night and raise my hand. “YOU AND YOU.” Me and the flying monkey guy (a possible story title) are chosen. We go up the side of the ride, which resembles a boxcar. I’m not afraid of heights, but I’m not too keen on falling and the footing on the roof is a bit precarious. “DO NOT STEP ON THE BEAM! IT IS NOT YOUR FRIEND. AND DO NOT STEP ON MY LIGHTS!”
We are on top of the ride, which is mostly open over what must be the main section. There are various bright colors and flashing lights. He joins us and covers up a fan (so we don’t “fuck it up”) with a plastic disc. There’s a kind of marquee on top and we take 2 sections down. I’m not sure how it works and I almost drop it/go the wrong way and jostle him a little.
“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING? GODDAMNIT! FUCK!” This is a mere approximation of what he says, but that’s the gist. I kind of do it again because his little explosion has thrown me. I feel an ugly pit in my stomach. “I’m sorry. I’m tired. It’s been a long day.” Yeah, you could say that Litboy.
“IT’S NOT HARD! FUCK! GET OVER THERE!” I switch with the other guy. We take down the other section and I still don’t do it exactly right. “IT’S JUST LIKE THE LAST ONE! I MEAN FUCK! I’M FUCKING PISSED AT YOU BECAUSE YOU TRIED TO KNOCK ME OFF TWICE!” Maybe it was, subconsciously, deliberate. I wonder if the carnival has good lawyers.
We take two more pieces off, one of which I scrape and get another reprimand. It’s plexiglass and we lower it down to the guys on the ground. It cuts the inside of my wrist, which will later scar.
I really, really don’t want to be here now. Everyone comes up to lower the marquee. I take out the wrong pole. I apologize again. “NOT GOOD ENOUGH!” Angry Steve tells us to work as a team, a “U-NIT!” And he tells us, revealing that his sense of self is about as steady as his temper, “I’M A NICE GUY!” Like our incompetence is somehow making him act this way.
Then we’re back on the ground without much to do. I’m still a bit shaky. Angry Steve gets pissed (well, he’s always pissed) because we’re standing around. “WHAT DID I TELL YOU ABOUT CONGREGATING?” Um, don’t do it? The firefighter says, “This guy’s a dick, right? And he smells.” It’s true. Like B.O. and cigarettes. I’m grateful for this brief camaraderie.
Angry Steve’s management style is to let you do something without really telling you how to do it (is incoherent rage a direction?) and then yell at you when it’s done wrong or, rather, not done the way he wants it done, which I guess is the same as wrong in Angry Steve world (located somewhere outside of Jerktown!). Like putting jacks away. We’re putting these jacks in behind the cab and it’d dark and we don’t have a flashlight and we can’t see that they fit in a certain way. But it’s wrong. I go up there and try to help the other two guys and Able Ray makes a crack about a threesome. Yeah, with your mom and sister.
He’s become increasingly insufferable and buddy buddy with Angry Steve. He acts like some kind of junior boss. They even have a cigarette break together. The cigarette seems to momentarily downgrade Angry Steve to Grumpy Steve.
It’s dawn now and I’m tired and dirty and bruised and I hate this place. Angry Steve asks me where I was working before this ride, as if he’s going to report me to the Carny Council. I can’t quite hear what he says to Able Ray, but I’m pretty sure it’s about me.
We do some little stuff, stand around. We coil some wire and load it in a specific way, by color. Able Ray says something like “Nice coil” about my wire. Exactly who the living hell are you? Next to us, they are taking apart some ride that has long, red arms with lights. They look a bit like spokes. They aren’t done yet.
We finish and go over to a carousel like ride. We have to wash our hands because the panels are expensive and rare because the craftsman died or something. They load each panel into a truck. Someone gets it wrong though and they have to take a bunch out.
Angry Steve pulls us and we pick up wood and trash. The daylight makes the remains of the carnival look like a leftover meal or a city that was just occupied. I overhear Angry Steve telling a co-carny, “That fucker” something something. I suppose I should be proud at reaching fucker status in Angry Steve’s book, which I’m sure is tobacco stained and illegible.
Even after the area is clean, I do the classic keep sweeping even when there’s no dirt. Inspired by my erstwhile co-workers’ desertion, I tell Angry Steve I have to leave. I think I lie and say I have to work. He signs my time card without a word.
I grab a couple orphaned balloons on the way to the makeshift pay office. I turn in my card, wait, get up, get my seat taken, and get called “Sherman Lukas” by the old lady at the desk.
I walk out, through the gate, see the sign by the grass parking lot.
“Hope you had fun. Please come back soon!”
I’m so traced out that I start cracking up. I’m so happy to see my car. It was as if I had been in some kind of Spirited Away alternate universe. Just without any fun and with a lot more swearing.
As I drive home, I pass a few of the trucks from the carnival. They say Funtastic Rides on the side and list Witchita, KS as their origin. I think Ron said they were going up to Washington next. I listen to Spirtitualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, and the mixture of fast drug rave ups and slow drug come downs is a perfect fit for my scattered mood. It’s a little after 7:00.
I get home around 8:00, shower, and sleep until the afternoon.
It was an “experience” experience, right? The kind you can’t get from books.
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Portland Fiction Project
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