A classic carnival ride, the Tilt-a-Whirl, due to its many heavy pieces, is known to Carnies as the Iron Bitch.
Set-up day begins at 7 a.m., when the boss, Corina, raps on our doors, telling us to come get our draw. The prospect of going the day without cigarette or beer money is enough to spring even the most hungover from their bunks. I’m naturally an early riser. By seven, I’ve already showered and gone for coffee. When Corina rounds the corner to find me sitting on my steps reading a book, she looks at me like I’m some sort of weirdo, a stranger in a strange land. Yesterday, before set-up began, I had to talk to Corina, to ask for a new piece of plywood for my bed because the previous one broke in half when I sat up after waking. There were no center supports I pointed out.
An hour after wake up, the crew headed to the park where the other Wenzlow girls are putting the rides on location. No one wants to work on the Tilt-a-Whirl. It has more than a hundred very heavy pieces and is known derisively as the Iron Bitch. Unlike the other rides, which are more like Transformers, with lots of folding parts, the Tilt-a-Whirl is a massive monstrosity that took five guys all day to assemble incompletely.
Luckily, I was told to help out with the kiddie rides, which I helped tear down after Sunday’s fair in Rosholt. For the next couple of hours, me and four other guys lifted 400-pound cars onto a track, connecting wires, inserting R-clips, dragging lead lines and leveling the rides. Some of the more experienced Carnies bark orders without showing you how to do what they’ve asked. Gratefully, the guys I worked with all were patient in walking me – someone without much mechanical aptitude – through the necessary steps.
The thing about Carnies, at least the good ones, is they bust their ass. It doesn’t matter how cool you are, if you don’t pull your weight, they will let you know. The goal is to not create work or drag it out longer than necessary. For guys who earn $240 a week for 60-plus hours of backbreaking work, one can understand their desire to do things right the first time.
Much of the crew is new. Since I began on Sunday, four new guys have shown up, three of them fresh out of jail or prison. One has already been fired for too much whining and not enough working. Another will probably be gone by week’s end. The trade off for patience with newbies is that the newbies are expected to do as told without griping about it. It is hard, especially when noon hits and the sun, indifferent to your suffering, becomes only more oppressive as the day wears on.
My mettle was tested late in the day. After setting up all the rides as much as we could without the aid of electric generators, all that was left was the Merry-Go-Round. Like the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Merry-Go-Round requires considerable assembly. The Wenzlow daughters only allow the older bulls to do certain things. In this case, draping and fastening the canopy, which took about an hour. Once they finished, it was time to pin in cross beams, drop the platforms and lay the offset cranks.
Finally, it was time to install the 18 horses in the carousel. After being nominated for the job, Tony and I climb into the loading truck. I lifted the horses, each weighing about 100 pounds, from their pivots, and laid them on the truck bed so Tony could insert the poles into their fiberglass saddles. For every two horses, we then had to affix a metal light beam to the top of the ride. For this, each of us grabbed a side and, standing on our tip-toes at the edge of the truck bed, leaned outward to drop each end into its slot. In my shoe, I felt the warmth from a burst blood blister that developed after a platform fell on my foot on Sunday. Nearly delirious from being in the sun all day, combined with the sting of the blister and other serious bruises I’ve acquired, more than once I almost missed the slot, slamming the light beam into the frame so as to not fall from the truck – or drop the equipment.
The heat inside the truck was wretched. Tony and I both thought we were going to pass out. But there was no time for drinking water. It was the last task of the day and most of the guys were standing outside the truck watching us go at it, me carrying horses, Tony inserting poles and then handing them off to another Carnie who hooked them in place on the platform, by which time I needed to have another horse waiting. Mark, an affable 57-year-old revered for his work ethic, experience and sense of humor, at one point looked at me and asked, “You okay, Nathan?”
I nodded, sweat pouring from my sunburnt face.
“Good,” he said. “I couldn’t do anything about it if you weren’t, but at least I’d know.”
Everyone erupted in laughter, including me.
With no other choice except walking, I kept at it, without complaint, until the job was done.
By the end, I thought I was in hell.
After inspecting our work, Corina called it a day. We were free to go. After showering, I hiked with my bandaged foot .8 miles (yay GPS) for Internet access at McDonald’s. On my way back, I ran into Mark and some of the other guys returning from the bar. I was going to the gas station for water when Mark told me I should come hang out in his presidential suite instead. (He gets lots of perks having worked this carnival for 11 years, one of which is a very large bunk). I was instantly flattered. It’s kind of a special privilege to be invited inside the presidential suite. While Mark is kind to everyone, not everyone wins his favor. So last night some of the guys and myself hung out with Mark, drinking contraband beers and listening to The Beatles. Strawberry Fields Forever came on and Mark mentioned how he’s always wanted to visit the John Lennon shrine in New York City’s Central Park.
I told him I’d been there. That it’s right across the street from the Dakota Building where he lived with Yoko and Sean. That I stood in the spot where Lennon fell after Mark David Chapman pumped four hollow-point bullets into his back on December 8, 1980.
“You stood in the spot where Lennon was shot?” he asked. “Are you shitting me? If you’re not shitting me, I’m impressed.”
For the next 30 minutes he quizzed me on my Beatles’ knowledge. Who was the fifth Beatle? (Stuart Sutcliffe) How did he die? (Brain aneurysm) What is Helter Skelter about? (A big slide in England) Who played guitar on While My Guitar Gently Weeps? (Eric Clapton)
We carried on for a while, drinking beers and talking Beatles as Mark’s other guests held side conversations. He pulled out several books and magazine articles on The Beatles’, telling me I could borrow them, but I had read them all previously. I explained that I once went through a phase where I was absolutely obsessed with The Beatles, that I’m pretty sure I lost friends because The Beatles is all I wanted to talk about, but no one cared, just like the rest of the Carnies there in the presidential suite didn’t care about them either. Mark tried engaging them with trivia and by having them listen to key parts of classic tracks, but they weren’t having it. Slowly, everyone left for the outdoors.
I, too, left, and headed for my bunk to catch some sleep before we finished set-up today, to squeeze in an easy, quiet morning before Corina arrived to rap on the doors.