In the corner of Gallup, a ferris wheel spins wildly above a parking lot. As the sun goes down, its allure becomes magnetic: the glowing neon lights, the fun house, the elephant ears, the sounds of people having fun. The traveling carnival creates the instant illusion of childhood. As Harry, Kerri, and I wander about the fair, I remember the Poor Jacks Carnival that appeared at Arbuckle Acres Park every summer. There was the goldfish toss where I’d bring home some poor dying; the gravitron that would spin wildly as a Carny played Guns N Roses; the water gun games that I mastered to bring home mirrored album covers.
Those nights at the carnival were transports to another world outside the small town monotony--and I think, even today, carnivals go to small towns where they automatically become the biggest attraction in town. The Frazier Show Carnival appears in Gallup and the parking lot fills up before nightfall.
Upon entering, we first encounter the “Crazy Ladders” game. Two ladders are draped from bottom to top in a rising horizontal pattern above a large air mattress/bouncy house. An excited carny approaches us and explains: “All you have to do is make it to the top, ring the bell three times, and you win your choice of stuffed animals.”
He sizes us up for a second and decides to up the antes. “And, if you do it, I’ll throw in a crisp $50 bill.”
The $50 bill is a red flag to me. If the guy is willing to risk $50 cash, it must be impossible to reach the top. In our two minutes of spectating, we see two people fall off the ladders... but: “Come on guys. I’ll let all three of you have a go for $10.”
“Can you get to the top?” I ask.
Sure. He’s up and to the top in about fifteen seconds. I watch his technique closely and decide that maybe it’s possible to win.
Harry goes first. Three steps in and he hits the mat.
Kerri gives it a go. She travels about halfway up the ladder, spins, tumbles, and down she goes.
I begin my climb and also make it midway up. This is where it gets hard. The ladder squiggles underneath my feet, and I think if I were to concentrate really hard, I could manage the balance to the top, but I feel a crowd of people staring at my ass in the air...and really...I’d rather tumble on down.
Game one over.
We aren’t going to play another game, but a voice comes from one of the booths.
“Come on- you know you want to!”
A wiffle ball comes sailing through the air and Harry catches it.
“Come on over,” the voice exclaims. “First game’s on me.”
It’s the classic bait and hook.
Stuffed animals hang from ropes, line the walls, and decorate the ceiling. Two huge sponge Bobs with open mouths wait for wiffle balls to drop on in.
“So, how does it work?” Harry asks.
“It’s easy,” the carny explains. “Just toss the ball into Sponge Bob’s mouth. Give it a try.”
Each of us takes a turn and tosses the ball into Sponge Bob’s mouth. Easy. (Hook.)
Now that the hook is embedded, the carney asks Kerri, “So, which stuffed animal do you want so that we know what we’re aiming for here.”
Kerri chooses a Fraggle from the entourage of stuffed animals...and they are off...it’s a bit like a horse race the way it moves so fast. In round one, Harry misses two of three, but the carney is a nice guy and a quick talker.
“It’s alright man, this one’s on me. I want you to get that fraggle. Only a couple more rounds to go.”
Without any of us really noticing, the game escalates from a $2 game to $20 as the fraggle scoots into reach and then gets farther away.
When Harry hesitates, the carney has to rehook him. “Come on man. She’s worth it.”
And the game goes on until the Fraggle along with two green frogs are ours.
The carney introduces himself as Matt and tells us a little about the show: They travel from New Mexico to Wyoming and Nebraska all summer and then take the winters off.
“So, what do you do in the winter?” Harry asks.
“I make enough money in the summer to take winters off.”
“I can see how,” I almost say. I envy his lifestyle, this carefree travel, the hustle and bustle, the cash without tax income. At the next booth, I decide to inquire about becoming a carny.
Jesus pegs me immediately, “So, are you a journalist or what?” I guess that’s their job- being able to read people and determine who’s a “mark” and who’s not. A little research and I discover that the term “mark” actually comes from the carnival; back in the day, carnies rigged games and tricked people into playing and playing. When a sucker was found, the carny would pat him on the back and “mark” him with chalk so that other carnies could tell he was easy money.
The days of the cheating carney are over according to Jesus Dechico.
“We are like a family,” he tells me while turning a stuffed basketball over in his hands. “I’ve been doing this twelve years and I love it. My wife and kids travel around with me.”
Wife and kids? Since when did carnies have wives and kids? The carnies I remember from Poor Jacks were wandering hobos with lost, distracted eyes, not husbands creating nests for families.
“We’ve even got a traveling school called Carousel that goes with us for the kids.”
This is all too much for me. The wild west freak shows and burlesque theater of yore have disappeared into abundant blissful travel with an edge of domesticity. I’m dreaming of the Chicago Worldfare madness and whiskey-chugging carnies of my youth, but finding that the world has tilted ever so slightly towards sanity. That’s all fine and dandy, I suppose, especially since we have two frogs and a fraggle rocker to show for our efforts.
As we wander away from the bright lights and sugary treats, I decide that I won’t be joining the carnival this summer...but there’s always next summer. I have a year to develop my bait and hook techniques.