Running the Ride

Waiting impatiently outside the entrance to The Hamptons – a six-car carousel that seats 25 – are about four dozen children between 30- and 46-inches tall. Too young for single-file lines, they instead vie for my attention by waving ride tickets clutched in their tiny fists. The clamor verges on chaos. I motion them to step back so I can open the gate. Once it’s unclasped, they pour in, running for the motorcycles, of which there are only two. A crossed-eyed kid with a mullet doesn’t make it in time and begins screaming. His sisters and I lead him toward a car they can ride in together, but he’s inconsolable. “I want a motorcycle!” he screams, over and over. Inside the car, he starts headbutting the steering wheel. Horrified, I signal his mother.  “Oh, he’s fine,” she says, waving away my concern.

To hell with it. The other children are becoming restless. Parents prepare for the big moment, framing their children with phone cameras. The timer set, I push the button and, as the carousal begins to spin, 24 little faces light up with big megawatt smiles – all except for the brat, whose tears sparkle in the sun.

If you think the carnival is where civilized parents bring their rainbow-colored children for a day of family fun and community building, guess again. The carnival, rather, offers a peculiar glimpse into the worst in kids and parents, whose banter and behavior should cause us all to despair.

Carnies are the eyes and ears of it all.

The ride I operate is called The Hamptons, in the Kiddie Land section, and is one of this show’s most ridden. All day long a munchkin mob swells outside my gate, waiting to rumble around a circular platform for two minutes. For some, the ride is exalting. Others ride without a hint of joy. Over the fence, parents shout over one another, hollering marshmellow sentiments, like, “Slow down, Jimmy!” or “You’re doing great!” or “You’re winning [the race]!”

Parents say they darndest things.

My role is to merely open the gate, strap in the children, set the timer and hold down a button. The trickiest part is remembering that the timer sticks. Sometimes I slip into a daydream until I’m brought back when the kids begin complaining about being dizzy.

Kids are mean, it’s true. Especially when it comes to The Hamptons’ motorcycles. Only 2 of 25 kids can ride a motorcycle at any given time, a fact some kids don’t handle well. They’ll hit other kids and stomp their feet. The parents encourage this. “Go get a motorcycle,” they’ll say as their kid rushes through the gate, but when the kid arrives, the motorcycles are taken. I can only imagine the disappointment. Some pull their kid off to wait for the next time so they can capture that coveted photo of their little easy rider. Other parents go as far as asking me to place their child on the outer bike so another’s child doesn’t intrude on the pic. “There’s really nothing I can do,” I’ve begin telling them. “Your kid just has to get there first.”

I told one father, “It’s a kid-eat-kid world in here,” to which he grumbled about paying two bucks for the ride.

His kid’s passivity? Not my problem.

Some kids, like their parents, are complete, utter assholes. On Friday, something hit me in the neck while the ride was in motion. I turned around to see a chubby little face smiling at me. “I chopped off your head,” said the fat boy, raising his inflatable sword. “You’re gonna die!” I tried to ignore him, but he insisted on being a turd. “I wanna ride in the car,” he whined. “I wanna ride in the car.”

“You’re too big,” I told him.

“No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.”

Finally, I told him to bother someone else or I was going to kick him out of the carnival, an authority I’m pretty sure I don’t have. The threat was effective nonetheless. He shuffled off, and when he showed his face on Sunday he didn’t say a word to me. Guess I showed him.

Some of my fellow Carnies had it worse. Tony, who runs the balloon ride, had a tinkler and pooper on Saturday. “That fuckin’ kid stunk up the whole bucket,” he told me later, his face re-enacting the revulsion. “I didn’t know kids could shit like that. I made his mom get him out.

During wristband hours, many parents confuse The Hamptons with a daycare, believing that unlimited rides means their kid never has to step off the ride. Four parents tried dumping their autistic children off on me. One said, “He’s got a wristband; I’ll be back in 15 minutes.”

“Can’t do it,” I told her.

“Why not?” she demanded. “He’s got a wristband.”

Though kids can ride as often as they like, by law, we need to make them get off the ride each time it stops, to ensure they’re not dizzy, seizing, sleeping, puking or whatever. The last thing the bosses want is for families to leave in an ambulance. If they argue, I explain, to their chagrin, that in two minutes the kid is going to be on the other side of the fence.

And let’s not forget the parents – and there are many of these – who insist I leave their terrorized, wailing child on the ride. On Sunday, this insistence nearly ended in catastrophe when a crying toddler tried climbing from her car while the ride was in motion. Fortunately, I was able to slow the ride and retrieve her before she fell.

Then there are the creeps, guys who clearly have no children but hang out by the fence. One guy hung around too long so I asked if he didn’t have someplace better to be. He walked off without a peep. However, parents seem oblivious to these guys, as evidenced by their demands that I hand their kids to them over the fence. An impossible number of faces to keep track of, I have no idea whether I’m handing kids off to their parents or a stranger. So far, none have been reported missing.

But it’s the racial nitpicking that is most curious to me. More than a few white parents lamented the carnival’s largely Hispanic presence, despite the event being called Fiesta Waukesha. I heard a few black fathers fawning over Latina womens’ “phat asses.” The occasional “gringo” and “mayate” wafted through the air. Two white women began a racially-loaded discussion after one quipped about how poorly black women treat their children after one threatened to “whoop” hers for not sitting still. A black father joked, after I asked his boy to put his hands in the air so I could fasten the safety strap, that his son was too young to hear, “put your hands in the air.”

What these parents don’t realize is that if I can hear them, so can their children.

After 33 hours of operating The Hamptons, I’ve learned the carnival, for all its bright colors and escapist promise, is merely a sugarcoating on the uglier subtexts of our communities. Beneath the smiles and laughter, beyond the funnel cakes and clowns, are the truths people reveal of themselves without even realizing it and the clues their children drop as to the kind of people they’ll one day be.

And me? I just stand at the helm, watching, listening, wondering what it all means. That is, until I slip into a daydream as the timer sticks and the children either cry or get dizzy.


  1. Mark Golbach says:

    I’ve really been enjoying this series of pieces. This last one was especially insightful. It’s amazing the world isn’t an even bigger mess! -M

  2. Theresa says:

    Who would have thought ?!

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