Fair? Who wants fair at a carnival?

It was the late 80s. The guy wore a battered leather vest straight over tattooed skin that featured things I can’t repeat or describe here. On his feet were Converse sneakers that were maybe once white but were now nicotine yellow and fraying to bits, the famous Converse logo chipped away somewhere in the thousands of miles he walked. He squinted against a smoking cigarette tucked into the corner of his mouth. He had shaggy hair, a shaggy goatee, and a voice that sounded like rusted pipes grating together. With it he said things like, “My blind grandma has better aim than you.” He was working the ring toss at my church carnival, and this guy was my hero.

I haven’t been to a carnival in years. Not so long as since the 80s but more than a decade for sure, but I recently went to one and was quite taken aback.

Remembering that smoking-gun of a man from my youth when I stepped onto the concourse, I immediately sought out the carnies. Call me crazy, but I’m drawn to characters like this and they to me. It’s actually been a marvel of my wife’s since we met. Maybe it’s because, although on the outside we don’t share similarities (okay, so I wear torn jeans, shoes that are about ready to fall off, my shirts have been compared to rags, I have a tattoo, share some of the same vices, and have that “if it comes to it, I’ll con you before you con me”) I’m a carny on the inside. No matter where we’re at (a grocery store, a department store, a family barbeque even, a ritzy bar, a high school prom—we don’t go to high school proms but you get the point: anywhere), I will find these individuals and they will find me.

But this didn’t happen this time at my recent trip to a carnival. Why? Because there were NO carnies.

Instead of men beckoning me with heckles against my gaming skills as I walked the concourse, I was approached with things like “Take your chance at buckets, sir?” by a young men in khakis and a Polos trying to give me sly eyes and daring smiles but failing miserably, obviously coached on manners and politeness than jokes and jibes by upper management.

Who goes to a carnival for “polite?!”

I walked the rest of the concourse, looking for my ilk and those crooked-hatted men from my past, and found none, thinking that if carnivals had ever really wanted to go for the bizarre, they could have skipped past the bearded ladies and strong men and dancing girls and simply cleaned themselves up because that’s what this carnival was: clean and bizarre.

I learned shortly after it’s because carnivals, like everything it seems, have become corporatized, have been zapped by the machine of convenience and standards. Standards, at a carnival! Who would have thought. Gone are the days of long-haul caravans of colorful people living town to town, replaced by companies with multiple-festival capabilities and collage kids on their summer breaks.

I get it. The carnivals are cleaner and safer and fair now, but who really goes to a carnival for fair? The whole point of playing a rigged game and being thought of as a “rube” or a “mark” is to see if you can beat those increased odds and walk away with that coveted giant teddy bear. Because whenever you see a guy walking the concourse with a giant pink teddy bear, you can’t deny it, that man’s a winner.

In my opinion, carnivals are entertainment. The least these carnival companies can do is put their barkers in appropriate costume, or even snazz it up a bit and deck them out in pinstripes and paper hats like Dick Van Dyke in the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious scene of Mary Poppins.

Put it this way. If I’m going to pay $14 for two funnel cakes, $10 for a lemonade, and another $8 for a corndog, I want my carnies to at least look the part and not like an employee at Walmart.

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