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A life on the road

‘Carnies’ share ups, downs of being ‘kids’ living carnival life

For most people in attendance, the Grundy County Agricultural District Fair was five days of shows, rides and competition.

But for the man who goes by “D” and his wife, Skyler, it was a normal work week.

The couple joined the carnival about two months ago to experience the childhood they say they never had and make enough money to get by.

In some ways, they’ve succeeded in that as they’ve worked neighboring booths at carnivals across the country.

But they have also experienced the “downs” of carnival life — the loneliness of the road, the frequent harassment at the hands of locals in the towns they tour through, and the petty fights with their co-workers, who they’re always around.

“It has its ups and downs,” D said. “It affects you.”

D, who grew up in Baltimore, is a friendly 20-something with tattoos all up his arms and a quick smile. He works the cork gun booth and fondly remembers going to the carnival as a kid.

Skyler, who grew up in Columbus, is the quieter half of the couple. She’s shy to talk about herself, but is pretty and smiles widely when D sits on the counter of her booth with her.

Neither had a good childhood, they say, and decided to become “carnies” to be kids.

“We did it for the experience,” D said.

They’ve gotten a lot of that so far.

“We’ve got all kinds of stories,” said D, who used to be a “ride jockey.”

Most of them involve the people they meet on the road.

Some are testaments to the kindness of strangers — locals who bring them home-cooked meals or let them camp in their backyards.

But others — most of them, D and Skyler will tell you — antagonize the carnival workers.

“We’re outsiders,” D said. “It’s about a 70-30 ratio of those who like us and those who hate us.”

On one occasion, a group of carnies got into a physical fight with some locals who, D says, had continuously harrassed some of the female carnival workers.

“That kind of thing happens,” D said. “You’ll get some guy with a can of courage come over looking to start a fight.”

Plus, there’s the natural tension that develops between co-workers who are also forced to essentially live with one another.

“It’s like high school,” Skyler said. “You have these petty fights with people. There’s tension sometimes.”

Through it all, though, the couple said they don’t regret the job they’ve chosen.

“We love it,” D said. “Even though it’s hard sometimes, I wouldn’t go back and change it.”

It’s still hard work, though.

In each town, they’re responsible for setting up and taking down all the rides and booths, working long hours relieved by 15-minute breaks that never last long enough.

“It’s like one of those shows about oil rigs,” D said. “It’s just like that, except our world has fun in it.”

But the physical challenge of the job doesn’t match the emotional toll.

On Thursday, the Fourth of July, D and Skyler sat at their booths at the Grundy County Fairgrounds as the crowd thinned on another late evening in Somewhere, U.S.A.

The sky was darkening to the color of a plum, and the lights of the rides and booths and food stands were taking on a magical quality, looking almost too pretty to handle.

“Some nights I want to be out there having fun, too,” D said, slouching into his booth.

But just as quickly as the longing arrives, D’s posture straightened.

He looked past the lights and past the rides and past the trailers where he and his co-workers sleep to something beyond that only he can see.

“In about 20 years, we’ll be sitting back and we’ll look back on this,” he said, his voice trailing off. He shook his head, then, as if to erase the picture he had in his mind.

A family was at the booth.

It was time to go back to work.

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