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So you want to be a carnie?
A carnival operator: one who runs the rides, the games, the sideshows, and the ticket booths in America's signature travelling carnivals.
I’m talking about the greatest show no longer on earth. The end of an age. The last of the carnies. The carny life. Perhaps you’ve seen that movie with Gary Busey and Jodie Foster. Maybe you saw that simpsons episode where Homer and Bart become Carnies. Maybe you hate your parents and want to run away somewhere and make a fast buck.
Maybe you didn’t know that the carny is a dying species soon to be extinct from this earth.
First off, know that, in the past, running away to join the circus was only the last recourse to the most desperate. Today, not even the most desperate really consider the carnival as a viable option.
In the fifties, the carnival was the haven of the two-bit grafter. The con man. A completely unskilled, (yet convincing) man could make a decent bit of change working the crowds at a carnival.
Sometime in the seventies and eighties, the carnival became a refuge for the drug addicts and the mentally unbalanced (not that it wasn’t before, just more so).
Today you’re more often to see a new immigrant as your carnival operator. (There have been some pretty strict crackdowns on drug use lately which weeded out the old time pros).
The art is dying. The language is being forgotten. The culture is all but extinct. (not that it was worth keeping) Even when not in a recession, the carnival was going by the wayside as newer, more modern forms of entertainment take precedence.
You still want to join? You want adventure? You want to impress your friends? Okay, that’s fine, don’t let me stop you, but here are some things you should know before you take the plunge.
Kizzarney, the carny language
You’re going to want a splattering of kizzarney, the carnie language. It’s mostly a dead tongue, but if you can impress the boss with a bit, it’ll go a long way.
The internet is full of comprehensive listings of all carny slang. But here’s a quick run through.
Perhaps you’ve heard the kids these days saying things like, "yo dawg, for shizzle." Or “that’s the shiznit.” In other words, putting an iz between words. This was recently popularized amongst the youth through hip hop culture, but it originated in the old carnival days. It was a kind of pig latin code that carnies would use so the police would have no idea what they were talking about.
Besides this, you could fill a dictionary with all the carny slang out there. And, actually, a lot of carny words have entered popular English usage.
To ‘cop’ a feel, comes from the carny slang ‘cop’ meaning to take via subterfuge. It came from the time when Carnies could get away with arranging their tables at just the right height and, inviting over the pretty ones, they subtely rubbed against their breasts.
Mark, meaning a target to exploit, came from the old days as well. When a gullible or wealthy patron entered the carnival, carnies would mark their back with a little chalk, letting the others know to focus their attentions onto that particular person. .
The many words for gullible townsfolk, such as: "rube, hayseed, townie," have also all entered our everyday vernacular.
Examples of Kizzarney:
Carny: Hey greenie, do you see how I just scored a sawback off that rube?
(Translation: Hello new employee, if you were paying attention, you will have noticed that using my experienced skills, I managed to obtain ten American dollars from that carnival patron)
Carny: That mooch is copping up all my flash.
(Translation: That surprisingly skilled carnival patron is winning a disproportionately large portion of the prizes I have set out for him in my game of skill).
The facts about being a carnie
It’s low pay and its long hours. You’ll be working from the very early morning to the very late night. And it’ll be worse if it’s a set-up or tear-down day. That’s even more work.
Your friends might be impressed that you worked as a carnie for the summer, but employers will not. They know the stigma that is applied to most people in the carnival trade.
Drugs are everywhere. Do you remember where I said the carnie is a conman, a drug-addict and a new immigrant? You're probably going to meet all three and spend large portions of your time with them if you become a carny. You better be prepared to befriend and work alongside them.
The atmosphere is both dog-eat-dog and friends-stick together. It’s a bipolar atmosphere where your coworkers will be the best friends one day, and the next, grift you for whatever they can get. You always have to be careful of infighting.
Your job isn't secure. The carnival does not get near as much work as it used to. If your carnival begins to fall on hard times, the "greenies" are going to be the first to go.
Do I recommend it?
Yes and No. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Remind me to tell you about the time a pregnant thirty something black woman flashed me from the back seat of my car. If you're looking for a career like none other, the carnie life is for you. If you're looking to make money and be a successful person in your life at some point. It's probably best to stay away and find a more upwardly mobile job.