Payday and Downtime Don’t Mix

Monona, WI – On Thursdays, our camp is like a ghost town. Not only is it usually our one day off each week, but it’s payday. After settling up any debts, albeit money or cigarettes, the spending begins. First it’s off to the laundry mat and then Wal-Mart, for groceries and provisions. Following the errands, it’s back to camp, where the dedicated drunks among us ride their bicycles to the liquor store. Steaks are grilled. Eventually, almost everyone heads to the bar, where they stay until it closes or the money runs dry.

This week, payday was especially sweet. Everyone was pretty jazzed about being in Madison, especially the younger guys who hail from smaller towns in the rural north. Six of them, after errands, were already pretty lit when they took a cab downtown and smoked a blunt on the Capitol lawn. All evening they bar hopped down State Street, taking advantage of Madison’s incredible drink specials and healthy pours.

At some point, they took a cab to Vision’s, a strip club on the city’s east side, and blew all their money on booze and lap dances. Without money for a cab, they tried walking back to Monona, where we’re camped, but got lost. When it became clear the situation was hopeless, they phoned Corina, our boss, to pick them up.

Everyone fears the wrath the of the Wenzlow girls, but the truth is that they only get angry when people don’t use good judgment or are careless in their work. We ought to be grateful we don’t work for their father, Harley, 72, who used to own the carnival. Harley likes to remind us of this as he walks around calling us cocksuckers and lamenting about how easy we have it with Corina.

But as sweet and fair as Corina is, getting drunk, stranded and lost isn’t a good use of judgment, so it was perfectly reasonable to assume there would be hell to pay for her taxi home.

Turns out, she found the episode funny.

Setting up the carnival takes almost two full days, which begin at 8 a.m. After all the rides are set-up, tested and cleaned, the very last thing we do is blow up balloons for the dart game. We all grab a huge handful of balloons, courtesy of Corina, and fill up two very large bags, which takes all 15 of us about 30 minutes. You might not think blowing balloons is hard work, but after about the fifth one the cheek muscles begin to burn. If you play this game and the balloon emits a poof of smoke when popped by the dart, it’s because someone blew their cigarette smoke into it, even though we’ve been told to not do this.

Some of the best job-training for aspiring Carnies is to serve a jail sentence, not so much as it relates to work, but rather the tight living conditions, which are small and squished. Our bunks are virtually the same size and shape of a jail cell, with a very narrow entrance, bunk beds and minimal storage. Even the two bunk houses, which rest parallel to each other, resemble a cell block, with the space between being a commons area.

Most, if not all of the crew, except for me, has done time, so they’re accustomed to living in cramped quarters, which serves us all well. There is plenty of sniping, with alliances always shifting, but the air is surprisingly civil. Things have gotten physical just once since I’ve been here, when one guy was pushed to the ground in a Monday morning argument over duct tape. Mondays are primed for conflict. Each Sunday, after working 11 hours, we tear down the rides and pack up everything else, working sometimes until 5 a.m. When wake up call comes four hours later, no one is in a good mood. And the more history the the crew develops, the more inevitable conflicts become.

These convicts-turned-Carnies have transposed some of that jailhouse flavor onto our little community. The bartering is relentless, especially on the weekends after everyone has gone shopping following Thursday’s payday. Early in the week following, the bartering becomes less frivolous as most of the guys by then are short on cash, if not broke completely. Some of the guys have begun feeling guilty about always hitting me up for smokes and money that they’ve begun gifting things to me for re-payment. I’ve so far acquired, among smaller items, a microwave, coffee maker and a pound of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Anything is a potential currency, especially in the eyes of the dedicated drunks, who’ll trade their last crumb of food for a warm beer.

Last week, when Corina was handing out pay, I had already gone off to McDonald’s use the Internet. One of the guys quipped that I was probably out taking pictures of the sky, because I always have my camera with me. Tony, in response, mentioned I was a journalist with a website and am writing about Carnie life. When I ran into him on my way back to camp, he told me this, adding that everyone became really serious, including Corina.

I did tell everyone I was a writer, that I’ve been traveling since April writing about my experiences, but apparently it didn’t really register. So that night I was kind of nervous about the reaction to the revelation, especially from the boss ladies, who I was certain would seek out the site. Contrary to my worry, the idea of being written about excited everyone, including the boss ladies. Ann, the mother, who is the carnival’s treasurer, took an interest in me, asking a bunch of questions about articles I’ve written and what I think so far about working for them. She’s particularly interested in my camera and rumor has it that she wants me to take pictures for their new website.

Because I’m like Carnie Delux – valid driver’s license, non-alcoholic – on Mondays when we move locations, I haul the ticket stand, which is akin to a promotion since it nets more pay.

This week, being in Monona, I haven’t spent a lot of time at camp, since I have my vehicle here and have been staying at my dad’s. I’m not allowed to cart the Carnies around because of past incidences where a carful of Carnies end up in jail or in an accident. Of course, everyone still asks for rides. One guy, who brags about how many driving after revocation charges he has, had the gall to ask if he could use my van. I’ve had to turn them down. They understand since the edict came from Ann. After Corina pick-up up the guys from the strip club, Ann asked if I was giving people rides. I hadn’t been. “That’s good,” she said. “I expect a better intelligence out of you.”

Thing I find most peculiar is that no one has asked for the name of this website. In fact, there is never any talk about Internet, e-mail exchanges, Facebook. Interest in world affairs is in short supply, save for the occasional Obama-bashing. Only Andy, a Scotsman who reads the paper everyday, knew that Nashville had flooded or that an oil spill has ruined the Gulf of Mexico.  If the boss ladies have discovered The Feral Scribe, they haven’t said anything, either.

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