Ginger and I spent the afternoon at the Marshfield Fair yesterday.
For over a hundred and fifty years, Marshfield has been the town on the South Shore that hosts a fair with everything from lambs to lionhead bunnies and ferris wheels to fried dough. Something about the fair makes me hungry. My afternoon could easily have been mapped by the food booths we visited: corn dog, fried dough, chocolate-peanut butter fudge, and a chocolate shake. We walked through the buildings that housed all the animals, watched a spinning demonstration by one of the kids I know through the church at Hanover, listened to some blues at the bandstand, and strolled among the rides and the barkers trying to convince us that “everyone wins a prize.”
As we passed the shooting gallery, where you had to fire a BB gun and completely erase the red star in the middle of the white card to win, the barker was proudly proclaiming he had a big winner. The prize he was awarding caught me as a bit of a paradox: it was a giant stuffed seal.
The rides every year are provided by something called Fiesta Shows. I don’t know much more about them other than what I found on their website and what I saw at the fair. Most of the rides have to do with strapping you in and flinging you in a circle either sideways or up and down. Each ride is blaring a different heavy metal anthem and is staffed by someone who looks as though they stepped out of a Flannery O’Connor short story or a Lifetime movie. As we walked and watched, Ginger said, “I wonder what it’s like to be a carney.”
I wouldn’t want to live their lives, and there’s an attraction – the best adjective I can come up with to describe it is literary – they are the stuff good stories are made of. Part of the pull, I suppose, is the hint of danger that comes from a life that seems so foreign. These are folks who travel from town to town, always at the margins and always fairly anonymous. At work the other night, I was talking to one of the servers who just graduated from nursing school. When I told her I was going to the fair this weekend, she said she had never been because her mother wouldn’t let her go. When I asked why, she said it was because of what her mother remembered about going to the fair as a teenager: it wasn’t safe. I came away from the conversation wondering what her mother had been up to on those summer nights.
Another part of it, for me, is that they live on the fringes. In the material Fiesta Shows publishes to recruit new employees it says:
Cookhouse – A cookhouse is available at each site to serve meals throughout the day.
Bunkhouse – A bunkhouse is available for housing ride employees. No room guarantee is here or implied. Check with the on-site supervisor for availability.
Employee Comfort Trailer – A mobile “recreation room” has been created to provide employees with an area during the day to relax. The trailer has men’s/women’s room, air conditioning/heat, 2 satellite televisions and vcr’s, as well as soda and vending machines. Please check the posted rules in the trailer for proper behavior.
Now that’s what I call job security. From the fringes, life has a different view. Charles Dickens told his stories about such characters to point out the social injustices of his day. Some of the carnies I saw were not so far removed from Pip and the others. Life viewed from the fringes gives a crosscut perspective, allowing us to see layers not visible from the top, or even the middle. I’m not trying to speak romantically here. Loading and unloading the Tilt-a-Whirl in Anytown, USA over and over, surrounded by hay-covered mud and people who look at you as though you were part of the machine, or look down on you as though you were out to rob them blind is a life that sees the layers of desperation and visceral hopelessness that I don’t touch, even on my most depressed days.
And, that said, part of the pull is the romance of the carnival and the circus as metaphor for being able to take off and follow our dreams. On his first record, David Wilcox sang a Buddy Mondlock song called “The Kid,” which I found myself humming by the time we left the fair:
I’m the kid who ran away with the circus
Now I’m watering elephants
But I sometimes lie awake in the sawdust
Dreaming I’m in a suit of light
Late at night in the empty big top
I’m all alone on the high wire
Ladies and gentlemen, there is no net this time
He’s a real death defier
I’m the kid who always looked out the window
Failing the tests in geography
But I have seen things far beyond just this schoolyard
Distant shores of exotic lands
There’s the spires of the Turkish empire
Six months since we made landfall
Riding low with the spices of India
Through Gibraltar, we’re rich men all
I’m the kid who thought we’d someday be lovers
Always held out that time would tell
Time was talking, guess I just wasn’t listening
No surprise, if you know me well
As we’re walking down toward the train station
I hear a whispering rainfall
Across the boulevard, you slip your hand in mine
In the distance the train’s last call
I’m the kid who has this habit of dreaming
That sometimes gets me in trouble too
But the truth is I could no more stop dreaming
Than I could make them all come true
Every good story has heartbreak as its subtext. The conversation between danger, desperation, and dreams that makes for a good story pulls me in because I want to believe the dreams don’t get bludgeoned to death in the interchange. I want to believe that there is some life in the words exchanged in the Bunkhouse or the Comfort Trailer, some sense of hope and humanity. I don’t have to have a happy ending; I just want to know that some dreams live, even at the fringes. As Steve Earle, a man who has looked at the crosscut of life from some of its most desperate vantage points sings:
Well, just because you’ve been around
And had your poor heart broken
That’s no excuse for lyin’ there
Before the last word’s spoken
‘Cause some dreams don’t ever come true
Don’t ever come true
Aw, but some dreams do