My Last Days with the Carnival

Bangor, WI, wasn’t only the last spot I worked before jumping off the carnival, it also has the distinction of being one of the creepiest cities I’ve ever visited. Technically, it’s a village, with an alleged 1,400 residents, all of whom seem never to leave their homes. Day and night its streets were virtually unpeopled. There was no bustle. No commotion. No cacophony of sound suggesting the presence of sentient beings. Its three-block business district lay largely vacant, with the exception of an antique shop, four taverns and a bowling alley. On occasion you’d spy a pedestrian. One lady I passed asked, “Are you finding everything you need in Bangor?” This was a silly question, being that there was nothing in Bangor to find. The grocery store, gas station, library and laundry were conveniently clustered along a bike path. Everyday, Bangor seemed to bake lifelessly in the sun.

Adding to this sense of desolation was the fact that we had been reduced to a skeleton crew. Tim and Danielle were gone, having returned to Milwaukee that Monday. The verbal war Claire and Harley had waged all summer saw its final battle with Harley’s epic meltdown. He packed up his clothes and left, as did Claire the following day, taking Peaches with her. Scott spent a few nights with friends in La Crosse. Taylor had taken the week off and by the time festivities began on Friday, Hotwheels was back home, having been asked to pack his things a day earlier. The week previous we lost Flo and Tim 8.1. And, it being my last week, my fellow carnies were beginning to say their good-byes, post scripting them with encouragements to stay.

The park that housed our camp was incongruent with the rest of the village, with a pulse of its own and a rude aesthetic. Flanked by a skeet shooting range and freight rail line, the noise was constant. When the trains rumbled passed the bunk houses in the early a.m. hours, I could hear Black Nate next door cursing the noise. One afternoon popped with five hours of non-stop shotgun fire. As if this weren’t enough, the siren in the village wailed at regular intervals. What for, we never learned.

Bookending the park were two memorials. One, along the road, honored every Bangor resident who had served in a military. To the left of this was an Army helicopter and tank, protectors of an empty park. At the other end was a monument memorializing John Lennon’s peace advocacy. A steel piano painted white and a placard with the word ‘Imagine’ on it, the memorial also paid homage to Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder for their racial harmony-inspired single, Ebony and Ivory. Being a huge John Lennon fan, Mark wanted his picture taken while standing next to it. Because he’s never used a computer, I told him I’d print the picture for him and send it via snail mail, a term he was unfamiliar with.

Being that it was my last week, I began sorting the things I’d bring home with me and those I’d leave behind. Normally, carnies don’t give three week notices. Either they ride out the season, quit or are fired. The latter two events offer little time for sorting. Upon quitting or being fired, the carnies leave behind a considerable amount of wares that are then vied for by those who remain. When Jeremy quit in Spooner, Tim 8.1 seized on his fridge, which he shared with his bunkmate, Flo. After 8.1’s departure and Flo’s firing, I moved into the bunk and thus inherited the fridge. By then, Jeremy was back and it was rumored 8.1 was also returning, which meant he’d be bunking with me and re-claiming ownership of the fridge. But Jeremy wanted his fridge back, so I agreed to return it before I left, which presented 8.1 with the problem of how to keep his beer cold. Changes in chain-of-ownership can become complicated.

Tim 8.1’s property problems were complicated further by the fact that I had attempted to toss most of his things in the garbage. The new help hired in Spooner was sent packing with Flo when he, too, failed to wake for work call. There was a ton of stuff left in their bunk when I moved in later that day. Assuming Corina had packed up 8.1’s things, I thought everything left behind had been Flo’s or New Help’s. I threw away several pairs of shorts, which Hawaii then claimed. Hotwheels took the shiny new pair of shoes and other items. I left outside an entire suitcase full of clothes that got rained on that night. The next morning, Craig collected what remained for safekeeping until his former cellmate returned. I felt terrible. When 8.1 went to visit his probation officer, he didn’t anticipate the agent prohibiting his return. (The same thing happened 10 years earlier to Carl, who ignored the edict. When his agent caught up with him several months later, she sent him to jail for six months.)

For whatever reason, neither Corina nor Craig had bothered to remove 8.1’s things from the bunk. What bothered him most was that his new shoes were gone, taken by Hotwheels. He also took 8.1’s sandals, which he broke. Before Hotwheels left, I retrieved the microwave I’d let him use after moving in with Black Nate, who already had one. He’d plastered it with bumper stickers. Josh, who was arrested in Monona and is serving roughly 50 days in jail, had given me the microwave. I left the microwave for 8.1 with the caveat that it be returned to Josh when he rejoins the show in Middleton. Corina’s been storing the rest of his stuff.

Everyone had been with the show for some time, so they didn’t have much use for the provisions I had to offer. I gave Black Nate the propane grill my ex-girlfriend’s grandfather had given me. Everything else – skeeter dope, hot plate, poncho, duct tape, bleach wipes, my blanket and pillow, among other things – went to Sarah, who, like me, hadn’t arrived with much. And with her acceptance of the coffee maker, she promised to take my place as the carnie barista. One of the guys even told her she needed to wake at 6:30 a.m., as I did, so that the coffee was ready by the time Corina began rapping on doors at 7.

Because Spooner’s Jack Savage Pine Days ended on a Saturday, we, for the only time this season, arrived in a new spot on Sunday, which left us with three days off, our first since July Fourth weekend. The week was brutally hot, with heat advisories during the day, followed by severe storms at night. The mosquitoes were relentless at all hours of the day. Within days we’d gone through several cans of OFF!, so humid it was that you sweated it off before it could do its work. With no possible escape from the heat or mosquitoes, there was nothing to do but suffer.

On Monday, a couple of kids called the police on Carl, who was, according to the kids, riding his bicycle drunk. The next day, the Bangor police chief visited during set-up to tell the bosses of the call. Then, on Thursday, there was some commotion in one of the park shelters. Inside was a Bangor police officer. Paramedics arrived soon thereafter. Jeremy, who’d just walked passed the shelter, approached us and said, “I think that kid in there is dead. He’s just laying there, not moving.”

I, too, thought this was the case. The paramedics, moving with no sense of urgency whatsoever, lackadaisically lowered the stretcher from the rear of the ambulance, then lumbered up to the shelter. Soon, the kid was sitting up, but needed serious assistance getting onto the stretcher. Jimmy learned later that the kid had drank too much vodka and passed out. His two buddies, who’d also been drinking, were let go without being ticketed.

A few very young local boys, sitting at a table in the park, got a kick out of calling the girls MILFs.

We built it and they didn’t come.

It had been many, many years since there’d been a carnival midway at the Bangor Fundaze festival, organized by the Bangor Lions. Space, which was especially limited, was enough for just eight rides, one game, a lemonade and cotton candy stand. My Fun Slide didn’t make the cut, so I worked the Merry-Go-Round. Redneck Scott was down that Liz decided to set up the Fun House rather than his G-Force. All week we razzed him about it. Black Nate’s Go Gator also was left behind. He worked Hotwheels’ ride, an inflatable Tigger small kids bounce around in.

The softball games in an adjacent field had a better turnout each day, as did Sunday’s classic car show and parade. Many shows this summer were a bust. Rosholt. Wales. Beaver Dam. Darlington. Black River Falls. Spooner. Bangor. Up against the excessive heats and torrential rains, not to mention the battered economies of these small towns, turn out was down to worrisome levels. But of them all, Bangor was the worst. On Friday, I had about 10 riders before it rained. Things picked up a little bit on Saturday during wristbands, but many families it seemed bought just enough tickets for their kids to go on two or three rides. Sarah said many paid for the games in nickels and dimes. All weekend, the midway was just as desolate as Bangor itself.

By Sunday when Ann shut down the ticket booth and we were told to get our teardowns on, it was clear that Bangor came at a substantial loss for the company. You could see the unhappiness on Corina’s face. The highlight of the weekend came early on during teardown. Black Nate, Craig and I were trying to roll a trailer hitch along soggy ground when all of sudden in the distance we heard the loud and familiar, “Yeeeeeeeeeee dawgy!”

Tim 8.1 was back.

Though his agent didn’t want him traveling with the carnival, child support was threatening to incarcerate him for non-payment. Caught between a rock and a hard place, 8.1, figuring he one way or another would soon be re-jailed, tossed caution to the wind and re-joined the show. Always a joker, he told me we were going to arm wrestle for the bottom bunk. The next night, after arriving in Holmen, he funded a sort of going away party for me, giving Black Nate his food-stamp card to go buy brats and Italian sausages we then grilled and devoured.

I’ve never been a big believer in good-byes. Or maybe it’s that I’m not good at them. On Tuesday morning, as everyone was preparing for work call, I sat in my chair outside my bunk sipping coffee and waiting to collect my money from Ann. Some of it she wanted to pay me in Middleton, where I had been asked to work. But with the article coming out I knew that I would not be welcome back. This indeed turned out to be the case.

It’s hard disappointing people you’ve become fond of, whose work you admire and who in countless ways you find so fascinating. I never imagined when I began that it would end this way. Though I’d begun writing generally about the show here at The Feral Scribe, it was only after Ann’s encouragement that I write about my experiences that I began writing more intimately. Only after being told by Liz and Alison they thought their show would make a good basis for reality television did I pitch a story to Isthmus. Once things were set in motion, there was no looking back.

As my fellow carnies headed off to location, there were hugs and handshakes and promises to stay in touch. As I waited for my ride, I packed my things and cleaned up the bunk for Tim 8.1, sweeping the floor and washing everything with bleach wipes. To my surprise, I didn’t feel all that wistful. Though I’d come to like the work and had grown very fond of my co-workers, who I considered friends, I could feel the pull of real life beckoning. The night before, Tim 8.1 asked me, “So what is your life like?” Later, Sarah told me she thought my life seemed “magical.” Others believed that I’m “a famous writer,” and was encouraged to “make [them] famous.”

Truth is, my life is rather everyday and ordinary. In fact, I’d go so far to say that if roles were reversed, and they were writing about me, my life would make some pretty boring copy. No one bought this, which is fine by me. Like carnivals, I can appreciate the seductive power of illusions. I don’t have the power to make anyone famous, but I suspect this week, when Wenzel Amazements rolls into Middleton, they’ll all get a little taste of celebrity. Reaction to the article has been overwhelmingly positive. The article was a nod to their hard work, shattering assumptions people have of carnivals, their owners and the help. Everyone who’s talked to me about the piece has said they may attend Good Neighbor Fest just to meet those I’ve written about, especially Corina.

That is the ultimate flattery for both me and them.

I see it. Everyone else sees it.

I hope in time that the Wenzels do too.

2 Comments

  1. jardin goetzke says:

    heey. yeah the summer of 2009 was the sumer i joined Wenzel. My uncle called my mom asking if i or my sister could come up to help, cause they were in need of workers.  I agreed to go after a lot of convincing.  I can honestly say that working with my uncle, Pat, and my fellow co-workers was truely a new experience.  I left to get ready for senior year at Hamilton in Milwaukee and honestly, i was a little sad to be leaving them so early.  I had made some strong relationships with everyone, in particular one person.  I just wanted to give my input about my experience with these, “carnies.”  It was the best summer of my life.

  2. daniel brandt says:

    I had the same experience as I was drafted by my friend crazy pat .after all is said and done I would consider doing it again,call it crazy but id do it again

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