A terrible thing happened in Spooner: the boss ladies didn’t like the article I wrote for Isthmus. Except for Liz, who never made her opinion known. Personally, I don’t think she gives a shit either way. Like Harley, she’s a straight shooter. Tells it like she sees it. No kid gloves. Crass and to the point. Conversely, the others are more sensitive, their nerves more easily unsettled.
To say they didn’t like the article woefully understates their outright rejection of it.
I was at McDonald’s when Ann called that Saturday morning, all but demanding I hightail to Corina’s trailer. When I arrived back at camp moments later, Black Nate, echoing several others I passed along the way, said, “Man, everyone’s been looking for you this morning.” So I knocked on Corina’s door. “Morning, Nathan,” she said, letting me in. “I can’t say that I like your article that much.”
Of course, she had only just begun reading it before I arrived. Ann, however, said she’d been up all night fretting over it. “I thought you were going to write a nice article about us.”
“It is nice,” I said, truly surprised by how they hated it so.
Corina began reading aloud my lead and set-up. “I really don’t like this.”
“Why is all that foul language in there?” asked Ann, clearly pissed. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t like reading smut.”
“That’s how people here talk,” I argued. “The article is about what it’s like working for a carnival. That’s what it’s like working for a carnival.”
“Why isn’t there anything about what a great job Alison does with Kiddie Land?”
“I think the article is very flattering,” I said. “It’s about family and the challenges of running a carnival.”
Alison, I told her, would never commit to an interview.
Alison in particular didn’t like a line about how she’ll swear and holler all day long. She left halfway through the meeting, but the next day, as we were tearing down the Balloons, she caught herself more than a few times on the cusp of swearing and hollering. Even Harley, just hours away from his complete meltdown in Bangor, showed an unusual softness when speaking to his daughters, though I’m unsure if he read the article, though I suspect he did. Each time I saw him following the meeting, which he wasn’t present at, he’d just kind of stare at me, curiously, as though stunned I could actually write a decent story. As Tim 8.1 likes to say, “[I'm] all educated and shit.”
Also at the meeting was Kathy, a friend of the boss ladies, who volleyed the deepest condescension. “I don’t know how much you pay attention to what’s going on in “the real world,” but General McChrystal, who was doing a good job in Afghanistan, lost his job because of what a journalist wrote.”
“Yeah, the Rolling Stone piece. He should’ve known better than to say what he did to a reporter,” I said. Though her analogy was crap, I understood her point, with which I disagreed, wholeheartedly. Ann accused me of preying on weaker people, of basically exploiting the carnies and Harley. Assuming I’d gotten certain information from the carnies, they claimed some events recounted in the story never happened, when, in fact, the info had come from other family members. It went on as such until I asked if we were just going to keep belaboring the same points.
“Well, there’s a lot of rambling in there,” Ann said, pointing to the computer screen.
A week later, they gave me a hard copy drenched in yellow highlighter.
They wanted the story gutted.
I still haven’t told them that, aside from their clarifications and corrections, the substance of the story must remain intact. It’s a good story. I’d argue they’ll even benefit from it. Like my editor wrote when I told him of their unhappiness, “It’s a wonderful piece. You’d think they’d recognize that. Yes, Harley does come off as coarse but he’s such a vivid character, as are all the others. And yes, they do seem like great people, especially Corina, so I don’t know what anyone is unhappy about. I would love to meet everyone you write about; how many stories achieve that?”
I haven’t written much about Hale, a 40-something Black River Falls native who’s worked for the show for several years, but not because he’s uninteresting. Quite the contrary. He’s highly entertaining, but in an unflattering way. He’s a chronic prevaricator, is extremely temperamental and is prone to childish fits of pouting when he thinks people are picking on him, which they usually are. I should note that Hale is incredibly generous and spares us from certain tasks he takes upon himself, although these moves are more in a bid for authority than any genuine pursuit of helpfulness.
He’s always making people aware of what he controls. For example, when Sarah moved into the new bunkhouse, Hale was right there to inform that the breakers for the air conditioning are in his room. A night later, when she asked on a sweltering night why the air conditioner was off, Hale curtly replied, “Because it needs a rest.”
It hadn’t been on all day.
The carnies call him “Mr. Uhm,” because his pronouns and articles are often supplanted with a deep, gutteral and prolonged “uhm.” Tony says he once counted 31 “uhms” in a few short sentences. This exchange you’ll hear quite a bit, “Can you get the uhmmmm… the uhmmmmm?”
“I don’t know what “uhm” is, Jim.”
He also grossly exaggerates the quantity of Mountain Dew he drinks. In Waunakee, he came up to me outside the balloon game just before Corina fired up the generator. “Uhm, you know those two six-packs of Mountain Dew I got this morning?”
“No, Jim, I don’t.”
“Well, uhm, I got two six-packs, 16-ounce bottles, of, uhm, Mountain Dew from the, uhm, Piggly Wiggly at 6 a.m. this, uhm, morning. I drank’em all.”
Yesterday, he told Sam he drank 864 ounces of Dew the day previous. A simple conversion showed this was equal to 72 twelve-ounce cans, of which there was no evidence of in the trash cans. (Hale says his record is 125 Dews in one sitting.) When confronted with the unlikelihood of this, he got defensive. His numbers shifted. His story fell apart. He became angry. Some carnies vowed to never quit until finding the truth. Then Mark asked the most probing question of all: Why do we even care?
Hale also has an endless supply of aunts and brothers, a few of whom, every summer, die. This year, when told Hale’s aunt committed suicide, Corina replied, “Do you know how many aunt’s he’s had who’ve died?” Apparently, he’s had a brother die just about every summer, too. In Waukesha, he waved at someone he said was his brother, but who never stopped to say hi. By my count, he has three kids, but we know only one is for surely real.
In Black River Falls, he told us he was going to Minneapolis with his niece. The next day, he brings a very large, lumbering girl back to his bunk. When asked if it was his niece, he told us it was none of our business. When the Black River Falls police arrested him at his ride, Hale told us they had to put five pair of cuffs on him, “Just to be safe.” In Monona, he’d tell us that he worked a second job after everyone went to bed. What this job was, again, was none of our business.
I imagine it’s guys like Hale that McCartney had in mind when he wrote Eleanor Rigby.
I’ve always tried being polite to Hale, but he makes it difficult. Last week, because his ride wasn’t being set up, I was stuck working with him on the Merry-Go-Round. He wanted me to feed the canopy up to Mark a certain way. When Mark and I told him a way that is far easier, he threw a temper tantrum and, in angry fits, began fastening the canopy’s clips.
He was on the truck, I was middle man on the platform and Mark was up top, waiting to raise the colorful canvas. Being on the truck, Hale is supposed to let the middle man know when he’s spinning the ride so they can duck under the passing steel sweeps, with their blunt edges and steel protrusions. Go figure that, in our showing him an easier way, Hale gets all pouty and doesn’t tell me he’s spinning the ride. In fact, he spins it faster than necessary and I only narrowly avoid being struck by the sweep coming straight at my face. “Let me know before you spin the ride, you motherfucker,” I screamed at him.
“Uhm, I’ve been putting together this ride a lot longer than you have,” he yelled back.
I was hoping he’d storm off to go pout, but when he didn’t, I did. I hopped off the trailer and watched him clip and roll the canopy by himself. I guess we showed each other.
One thing I enjoy most about my company here are the slices of life the carnies have brought with them, the unspoken things that reveal a little something about who they are. Mark, who runs the Monkey Mayhem ride, loves monkeys. In his presidential suite, he has inflatable monkeys, wind-up monkeys, monkey posters and t-shirts. I showed him an article published in 1966 where John Lennon told a reporter the only possession he liked was his gorilla suit. Monkeys aside, Mark’s most prized possession is the gold-colored marijuana leaf belt buckle he purchased in the early 1970s, which is covered by his work shirt when he’s running the Monkeys.
Redneck Scott, whose belt buckle is “Bubba” written over the stars and bars, once showed me cell phone pictures of the fish he’s caught, but released. He has a fishing pole that he sometimes keeps at his ride. If we’re near water, he’ll cast a few during his breaks. But mixed in the series was a picture of a dog. “Is that yours?” I asked, surprised.
“Yup, even us country boys like our pitbulls.”
Then there’s Jimmy, a quiet little guy from Milwaukee, unassuming and shy. You’ll find him drinking beer outside his bunk listening to club mixes and, after tossing back a few, will bust out some moves. In Black River Falls, he danced with some locals a 70s boogie I can’t recall the name of. Whenever the dance tracks come over the Rock-O-Plane speakers, you’ll find Jimmy getting down atop the Hurricane.
Jeremy has a remarkable invention for rigging his bunk for optimum space and comfort. He’s an obsessive cleaner, his bunk being the sparkliest of them all. Carl keeps a book of old photos from carnival seasons past. Hawaii loves sleeping. As such, you’ll often catch him snoozing in his long lawn chair. After arriving in Bangor, he simply laid his pillow beneath a tree and napped until the bunks were ready for setting up.
On his breaks, Tony often jets over to the Fun Slide for a quick ride. He also likes cutting the sleeves off his t-shirts and looks forward to the weekly Wal-Mart runs so he can weigh himself. He’s lost 35 pounds since May.
Like Tony, Tim 8.1 wears t-shirts with the sleeves cut off, but he accessorizes with various colored bandanas. He has a tiny red backpack he takes with him to the store to hold his four-packs of cheap beer.
Black Nate is the resident chef. Pulled pork, braized chicken legs, stewed potatoes, steaks, brats, you name it, Black Nate is cooking it up. The eats are best around the first of the month when the state deposits money on everyone’s food stamp cards.
Sam has decorated her bunk in all pink and listens obsessively to Eminem’s Recovery album. Sarah likes putting flowers in empty wine bottles and scouring the night sky for constellations. Hale constantly putters around with his multiple cell phones and headsets, most of which don’t work. Did I mention he also likes Mountain Dew? A lot?
Flo had his Bible. Brian had his Wii. Carny Scott had a guitar. Claire had the big umbrella she sat under, rolling cigarettes she then sold on the cheap. Peaches had her wonderfully goofy sunglasses, a sketchbook and markers. Andy, the Scotsman, had his tea kettle. Josh had his skateboard. Shawn had a picture of his wife.
And me? I have my laptop and camera and books. I’m also the coffee guy. Each morning I hear, “Hey, White Nate, you got any coffee left?”
One by one they stop by.
Redneck Scott. Jeremy. Craig. Black Nate. Sarah.
Cups in hand. Sleep in their eyes.
Then we stand around, sipping Joe, and rehashing the dramas and comedies of the night before.