Carny, a slang term used in North America for a carnival employee, and the language they use, particularly when the employee runs a “joint” (booth), “grab joint” (food stand), game, or ride at a carnival, boardwalk or amusement park. ~ Wikipedia
January 12, 2015
I’m back at work and back to my production roots. After eight years almost exclusively in television, I’m doing a feature film sure to be fabulous.
Funny in a way. Before I worked on Burn Notice, I was part of the high-wire act of cinema. The group of professionals who used to look down on television.
Television is in its Second Golden Age. Risky cutting-edge story lines and quality programming have done much to expand current social topics as well as kick the door of diversity wide open. I was very lucky to work an entire television series with a fantastically loyal fan base and produced safely at a breakneck pace.
There used to be an unofficial hierarchy that went something like this: Movie people looked down on television people who thumbed their noses at music video workers who laughed at reality TV. Theater folks hated all of us.
I am now convinced that the hardest job in entertainment is series television and if you can master it – you can do anything.
It wasn’t very long ago that I was feeling as if I couldn’t do anything at all. Gentle Readers who have been with me for the last year know that it has been an uphill battle and recently I even considered changing careers.
I’d had several good job offers to work out of town I considered. But I was holding out for my dream job of the moment.
From a childhood steeped in Jaws, I had my eye on the low budget prize. Alas, it was not to be.
Once the Sharknado people ignored my well-typed (and I thought – rather witty) resume submission, it seemed all was lost. It was only my inherent procrastination that saved me from deciding which future would be more to my advantage. Working in a bookstore, opening a snowglobe museum or joining up with a traveling carnival. Of course I’d have to give up show business.
The Early 1990′s
“YaACahnny,” Nana says as she shakes her head. Even I couldn’t understand her.
“I said YAACAHNNY!” she yells.
Now I shake my head. “Not LOUDER, Nana! S-l-o-w-e-r…”
My mother looks up from her cake batter. “Your grandmother just informed you that she feels you are a carnival worker.”
Nana sneers and bangs her hands on the counter. “YaACahnny! ”YaACahnny! Are ya DEAF?” Mom grabs her bowl to keep it from crashing to the floor.
YaACahnny. Oh, that’s Bostonese for “You are a carny.”
“Nana,” I say patiently, “I am not a carny, I work in the movie business.”
“Lookit! You travel all around with all them girls in like a buncha clowns in a clown cah. One day you’re in one place then you call up and you’re in another place and then you’re tryin’ to convince people to give ya money. I admire that. That’s the cahny life!”
Important to note that the only people I ever tried to convince to give me money were my often-shady employers back in those days.
“There was a time I wanted to join the circus,” Nana sighs.
Mom busies herself with the cake batter, refusing to look up. I hold my breath as I hear my father rattle the newspaper furiously. Because, as you may recall, Nana DID run off and join the circus when she was fifteen and had to be dragged home by her parents and law enforcement. But like a politician, my grandmother was a master at rewriting history and usually no one dared correct her. It just wasn’t worth it. I know my father is biting his tongue and trying to concentrate on the cake he would be served for dessert – as long as everyone stayed calm.
After a minute, Nana realizes that no one is biting at the hook she dangled.
“Ya evah seen any freaks? I like the freaks the best!”
I look at my grandmother blankly for a beat. I think about my job. Yeah, I’m a carny.
“Yeah, Nana. I’ve seen a few in my day.”
January 6, 2015
“Holy cow! Woulda lookit that?” I say to no one because the car is empty except for me.
I’m so excited I point at the windshield and narrowly miss crashing through the 7-11. That makes me sad because it reminds me there isn’t any drive-thru Farm Store on my new route to spend hours chatting politics and religion without ever having to leave my automobile. But it’s a new year and when I feel as life has left me with a bag of lemons, I’m supposed to toss them out and go get a nice tall glass of lemonade made by a professional.
I forget. Something like that.
“Holy cow! Woulda lookit that?” I say it again. And then I look. A small-town carnival, right of the main drag. It’s a strip mall of rides and small game stands. This is the second one I’ve seen this year!
Oh sure, there’s the annual county fair. And Santa’s Enchanted Forest – a place we go every year. Filled with massive holiday light displays, rides, games and a booth that serves up everything from fried donuts and Snickers bars to deeply-fried butter. Can you imagine? An actual hunk of fried butter? I feel my heart skip a beat (but thankfully not stop) just thinking about the oral delight of pure cholesterol on a stick. My family never misses a chance at an experience that involves neon, loud music, rides and food that may incite a gastronomical revolt in public. Another great quality (and I am sincere) we inherited from our grandmother.
But there’s something about a small roadside carnival. Four big rides and a handful of kiddie thrills. THE WORLD’S SMALLEST HORSE! THE WORLD’S BIGGEST ALLIGATOR! SPIDORA! (“She has the head of a WOMAN and the body of a SPIDER!”) A woman who reminds me of Nana, twirling homespun cotton candy into paper cones while balancing a butt between determined lips. The highly turbaned and heavily made up gypsy inside the faded purple tent stitched together from old bathrobes or what ladies used to call “housecoats” just itching to see your future in her freshly Windex-smelling crystal ball.
And ohhhhhhh. That longhaired badass running the Tilt-A-Whirl is a time immemorial throwback to John Travolta throwing further back in Grease. Tight jeans and tighter t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up. The kind of guy that was all that more attractive when you were sixteen because he would drive your parents crazy. And you crazier when he kissed you in the dark behind the WORLD’S SMALLEST LADY! booth. The kind of guy who would seem creepy and outdated if you saw him in the harsh sunlight. But oh those summer nights, a-wella, wella, wella oh!
An entire life can be lived in a single visit to the midway. Gain and pain, love and loss. Mysterious walkers and fast talkers. You pay your money and you take your chances. Watch your wallet, travel in pairs and pay attention and you can be queen for the night. Blink and you go home a loser.
I’ve pulled over and now stare at the ferris wheel from the side of the road. This would certainly be much more exciting than the snowglobe museum. Thrills and chills every single day! Folks screaming in fear and laughing themselves into hysteria! Moving from town to town! Meeting all kinds of people! This could be my new career and yet…it is starting to sound vaguely familiar.
An excerpt from the unpublished novel Exorcising Luca by Princess Kitty.
“There are only two kinds of people in the world,” her friend Alison intoned seriously over the cell phone. It was four in the morning east coast time in the mid-1990′s. Ali was in LA, the girl was in Miami and they chatted many nights during the dark hours of their discontent. The girl lit a cigarette.
“Go ahead, I’m listening…”
“There’s us. The people in the movie business. We work inside a taped off environment. We go to work on a movie set, say maybe down Hollywood Beach. We bring in all the shit, the lights, the cranes, the cameras, the trucks. Then the cops or the security guys tape off the area, close down the street, you know, to keep out civilians…”
“I’m with you so far,” said the girl as she inhaled.
“So we are the people behind the yellow caution tape.” She could hear Ali shuffling papers in the background. She was probably doing her filing. Filing was what they called anything other than going to sleep. None of them slept well at night. Like vampires they could stay up all hours after sunset, doing the busy work that ordinary people did during the day. But a day without work for people in their profession was the equivalent of an emotional death sentence for which sleep was the only remedy.
“Ali, where are you going with this?”
“Sorry, I was doing my filing. Anyway, so that’s us. Now there is the other half of the entire world. The people on the other side of the caution tape. They drive by and see our big top circus and want to gawk. Some tourists from Indiana or Canada slow down to a crawl, staring beyond the tape, looking to see someone famous, envying all those cool people standing around behind the barricades. They wonder all about us, who we are and what we do, and what kind of awesome lives we must live.”
The girl considered this. It was true that no matter what you were shooting, a crowd always gathered. It could be a shoot of a sign for an auto dealership and people came out of the woodwork to watch. Ali continued.
“As well they should. Everyone behind the tape who wants to get laid, does. The prop guys tell the young girls in bikinis passing by that they’re stunt men, the teamsters tell ‘em they’re producers, the A.D.s swear they’re directors and everyone promises everyone else a part in a big movie. The chicks are just as bad. They tell the muscle boys that they know Vin Diesel and Stallone, or that they can introduce them to the main actor’s stunt double who, in the meantime, has a backlog of women lined up. There’s just enough of a hint of all kinds of sex and drugs and rock and roll. All behind the tape. Just out of reach of the ordinary folk. All they can do is stand outside and look in.”
The girl laughed. There wasn’t a living soul in the industry who didn’t have a book full of war stories. She herself had her picture flashed across the screen on Hard Copy twice when she was in the employ of a famous movie star, much to the chagrin of her mother and the delight of her father.
“OK, I ‘m with you Ali, but where are you going with this? I need to find a different job with some financial stability. Something more regular. I don’t need to be behind the tape.”
“Let me finish…” Ali sighed. “We start to buy our own press. Never mind the fact that our personal lives are a mess. We can fly one hundred people to Guam with less than twenty-four hours notice, and yet half the time we forget to pay our own cable bill. But then it doesn’t really matter, does it? We say to ourselves, after all, we’re The People Behind The Tape. We are the Fearless Gods of the Big Top. We can do just as we please, and we will never suffer consequences. If we weren’t, if we couldn’t, well hell, then those cars would never slow down and look at us.”
The girl was getting impatient. “I have long since discarded my own press. What is the point you are trying to make?”
“The point,” Ali said patiently “is the fact that the people driving by don’t get it at all. It’s not a big fabulous circus they are seeing, elephants and lions, no tricks and treats, no high wire acts and fire eaters…”
“You lost me.”We’re in the movies.”
“Darlin’, until it splashes across the screen in glorious technicolor, it ain’t nothing but a roadside carnival. It’s a hard business that makes for difficult lives on occasion. I’ve seen people divorced or cheating or married to more than one person illegally from the last town they rolled in and out of. We’ve got it all – from the highly artistic to the just plain nuts. The ones that get caught up in it never have any semblance of a personal life, in fact the word personal is a euphemism for a billboard. It’s a parking lot carnival. But the smart people we have? They watch their emotional wallets, travel in pairs and pay attention. Those are the ones that flourish and survive.” Ali finished.
And there it was. The movie behind the movie turned out to be perception imitating life imitating art.
There was silence on both ends of the phone. High above the earth, the cellular phone transmission bounced back and forth across the clear starry night, from tower to slowly rotating satellite to tower, awaiting a response.
The girl spoke first. “So what does that make me?”
“You,” sighed Ali once again. “In the world of carnies, you are the ringmaster. But you’re also a survivor.”
“I am thinking you’re not meaning that as a compliment. I prefer to think of myself as the glamorous high wire act, even if the circus is indeed a runaway train.”
Ali shrugged three thousand miles away.
“Think whatever you want, old friend. It actually is a compliment. But you’re still working without a net just like the rest of us. We are carnies traveling from town to town, wreaking glorious havoc and riding out under the cover of night. Those facts remain true. Yet we make great money and we don’t have to wear pantyhose. If we hate the job we’re on, the next is bound to be better. You can go on vacation with a hundred of your closest friends whenever and wherever you want. And whoever said there was no free lunch never ate off a catering truck on location. All in all, we’re decent people and we are never, ever bored. So you either need to pitch your tents, fling open the joints and crank up the rides or go get that nice safe job in a bookstore for the next thirty years.”
The girl took one last drag off the cigarette and stubbed it out on a coffee-soaked copy of Variety.
Then she grinned into the phone and said, “What? And give up show business????”
The Early 1990′s
“Ya gotta admit, you have git a great job!” My grandmother licks the frosting spoon while my mother’s back is turned.
Yes, I do. I really do.
January 12, 2015
Welcome back. Step right up, ladies and gents! The next show starts in fifteen minutes. Tickets, please. This ride’s gonna be awesome!