Worker Files: Carnies

Some Carnies Are Surly, But Others Are Just Trying To Make A Living

Simon McCormack
5 min read
On the Midway
Wendy Trujillo poses with one of the prized pooches at her “Fish Till You Win” booth at the New Mexico State Fair. (Simon McCormack)
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The assignment was simple: Interview someone operating a game booth or running a ride at the State Fair.

The task turned out to be tougher than I thought. As I strolled down the midway during a not-so-crowded Thursday afternoon, most of the folks I talked to wanted nothing to do with me. When asked if I could interview them, the workers’ responses ranged from “I’m just trying to work!” to a slight shake of the head accompanied by a piercing glare that sent me quickly backing away.

One game-booth operator was nice enough, but he didn’t want his name to be in the article, and he wouldn’t have his picture taken. At least that’s what I think he said. He had so much popcorn in his mouth, I couldn’t really tell
what he was talking about.

“Carnies” first became widespread as a term for carnival employees in the ’30s, though the stereotype of a carny in popular culture is not always flattering.

I decided to try setting up an interview through someone in the large trailer that constituted the “customer relations office." The woman in the trailer told me to look for a “big guy named Tony.” When I found him, Tony said he couldn’t help me just then because someone had passed out on one of the rides and he had to go.

Discouraged, and wary of receiving another glare, I trudged on, vowing to take one more spin around the midway in search of an interviewee. Luckily, I met Wendy Trujillo. The Albuquerque resident and mother of six showed up at the fair when it began this year and got a job the same day. She’d found work at the fair once before years ago.

She runs the “Fish Till You Win” game parked on the periphery of the midway. The game’s object is to use small fishing hooks to snag plastic fish from a shin-high pool of water. Many of the games on the midway don’t guarantee prizes, but Trujillo’s is an exception. Everyone who plays walks away with something.

“You’re basically paying for your prize,” Trujillo says. “You could go to Wal-Mart and get these prizes for a lot cheaper.”

The midway is all about spending money, Trujillo says, and the $3 doesn’t just go toward a stuffed animal. “It pays for the fun,” Trujillo says. “The parents wouldn’t do it if they didn’t see their kids having fun.”

Trujillo works 12-hour shifts and doesn’t receive an hourly wage. Instead, she must make do with a 15 percent commission. She doesn’t like to be away from her family, and, Trujillo says, she wishes she could make more money. “Every $100 I make them [the fair], I only make $15,” Trujillo says. “That’s pretty sad. They should at least give us $25.”

So why did Trujillo sign up? “I needed a job,” she says. “Plus, I get to work with kids.”

Trujillo is also quick to praise her bosses, whom she says have been kind to her. There have been a couple times when she’s had to leave work to deal with family situations. On each occasion, she’s had no trouble getting some time off. “My bosses are always in an upbeat mood,” Trujillo says. “They’re cool about realizing we have families.”

But Trujillo is disheartened by employees who give the midway a bad name. She recounts a story one couple told her about a less-than-honest booth operator who promised a prize if their child played his game. They shelled out the cash, but the prize never materialized. “They were real upset,” Trujillo says, recalling the family’s reaction. “That was kind of messed up for them to get nothing.”

Trujillo’s boyfriend of 10 months also works at the midway. She says he’s had to endure racist comments from co-workers. “He thinks there’s a lot of prejudice in the area,” Trujillo says. “The workers call him an f—ing Mexican and stuff like that.”

Trujillo says she hasn’t experienced any ugliness from customers or co-workers. But there is some bickering among the staff. “There’s a lot of back-biting,” she says. “I get along with people because I don’t get in the middle of all that.”

Trujillo laughs when I ask her if she’s ever been called a carnie. “No, I’ve never heard anybody call me that,” she says. “I wouldn’t mind if they did.”

Despite her job’s tribulations, Trujillo says she’s glad to be a part of a New Mexico institution. “There are a lot of people that look forward to the fair,” Trujillo says. “If it didn’t come, I think people would be in shock.”

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