For 2 Weeks, We Were Carnies!

Working at the Fair

Miss-State-Fair

We worked a couple of weeks at the fair!

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work a festival?   You’re picturing an array of colorful flashing lights, roller coasters, ferris wheels, happy families, young couples hand in hand, caramel apples, funnel cakes, cotton candy, and pony rides.  It sounds intriguing doesn’t it?

We certainly thought of those things also.  But besides the “fun” of it, our other motivations for sampling this type of work were:

  • It appealed to our sense of adventure.
  • We’re continuously looking for short term temporary jobs that we can do when in between longer term seasonal jobs
  • Based on the show schedule, we thought we’d be able to work for a couple of weeks, then take a couple of weeks off, then work for a couple of weeks, etc.
  • We expected to work a lot of hours, but also to make a lot of money in return.
  • We were hopeful that we’d make more gypsy-living friends.

Here’s the way it all unfolded:

A resort co-worker in Minnesota mentioned working at the Minnesota State Fair.  He works it every year, and is able to sock away a good stash of cash.  Alas, after investigating it, we learned that many of the state fairs require you to apply for the jobs in person.  In other words, they don’t consider applicants unless you’re able to show up for a 15 minute interview in person, well ahead of the fair date.  Even when we were in Minnesota, this wasn’t practical for us, as it was a 4 hour drive to get to Minneapolis to register and interview.  With our transient lifestyle, being in the right cities at the right times to apply for fair work just wasn’t likely.  So we tabled the idea for a while.

Fast forward 2 months.  We happened to be house-sitting about an hour’s drive from Nashville while the Tennessee State Fair was in town.  We couldn’t commit to working the fair, due to our obligations with the house (pet) sitting gig.  But we did take a day-trip to the fair for research and fun.  The Nashville fair’s pretty small, and most of the booths were owned by the same vendors.  So, we sought out a manager for one of the larger vendors, and waited for him to be available.  He looked us over, and asked if we’d help him out at an upcoming venue.  It was a pretty informal agreement, he offered us a flat amount for our work at that fair, a place to park the van with electric hookup, and whatever we wanted to eat from the army of food trucks he was taking to that fair.  So we figured, why not?

Camping Conditions at the Fair

And so, two weeks later, we showed up at the Mississippi State Fair.  We parked the van in the vendor “campground” area next to our vendor’s bunkhouses.  Calling it a campground is a bit of a stretch, but it served the purpose.  We were about 1/4 mile walk to the nearest public bathroom on the fairgrounds, and another 1/2 mile past that to the nearest shower house.

Our van was surrounded by bunkhouses with one on each side, and 3 behind us.  There was about  5 feet of space between us and the neighbors.   Which would’ve been ok, except that we’re not smokers (of any kind).  All our neighbors were.  We don’t really care what other people do, as long as it doesn’t affect us.  However, we rely on fresh air to ventilate the van at night, as we don’t have air conditioning.  After a long day of work and short nights of sleep, some quiet and fresh air would’ve been a welcome reprieve.

I’d not seen travel trailer bunkhouses before, so that was interesting.  Basically, they customized travel trailers to contain a bunch of tiny independent sleeping rooms.  There was a larger cabin on one end of each, reserved for supervisors, or such.  The bunkhouses looked something like this:

fair-bunk-houses

Most of the “regular” staff for this vendor traveled with them from fair to fair, and stayed in their bunkhouses.  Most didn’t have their own vehicles, and instead drove the bunkhouses or the vendor food trucks, or the other supply of supply of support trucks for the vendor.

Food, Laundry & Other Misc. Curiosities at the Fair

Part of the “pitch” we’d received was that meals would be taken care of, in that we could just eat from any of the 10+ food trucks at the fair.  It sounded “fair” enough, and was fun at first.  Who wouldn’t enjoy a chance to sample all the tantalizing junk food that we weren’t allowed to have as a kid: candied apples, cotton candy, corn dogs, funnel cakes, chili cheese fries, etc. etc.   Don’t worry Mom…  it wasn’t long before we didn’t want any more fried food or sugar!   So, we settled mostly on Nathan’s hot dogs without the buns, apples (before they were dipped), gyro’s, and lots of bottled water.  There were some other items that were at the food carts, like salads and grilled meats, but they were excluded from the “meals included” list.

Laundry was another challenge while there.  We’d brought an ample supply of black pants, socks and undies… enough to get us through the fair.  We’d been told that shirts were provided.  What they meant was that two shirts were provided per person.  Extra shirts were available for $10 each.  We certainly weren’t going to buy extra shirts, so we made do.  (Of course, you have to picture that we worked 16 hour days in these shirts.)  We started off by washing them out in the shower every couple of days.  But it was hot and humid there.  We had to lock the van up tight when we went to work, so there was no practical place to hang them to dry.  In the end, we just succumbed to wearing them over and over again.

Bathing was another challenge.  The bath house didn’t feel very safe, and was so far away.  Life at the fair consisted (for us) of two things: work and sleep.  If we took time for anything else, we were taking away from the little bit of sleep that we were afforded.  We hadn’t expected to have access to showers, anyhow.  In preparation, we’d brought along an ample supply of baby wipes.  While it sounds silly, those baby wipes were a life-saver.  Even in the small confines of the van, we could easily “bathe” ourselves, or even just use them to freshen up with throughout the day.

Note: We highly recommend keeping a supply of baby wipes for van camping in general!

Working at the Fair:  The People

We always try to work along others without judgement.  We’re all God’s children, after all.  But in all fairness, if you’re considering trying this type of work, you should know that you’ll be working and living among folks that you’d probably not normally surround yourself with.  It’s not uncommon for your co-workers to have substance-abuse troubles, be ex-cons, a bit crazy, or just downright untrustworthy.  Not that everyone’s that way, but at least from our experience, it seemed to be pretty common.

The Work Itself

The hardest part for us, was standing on our feet for so long each day.  We often worked 16 hours a day, with a scattering of breaks throughout the day.  But, while at your stand, you weren’t permitted to sit or lean.  So that means, standing for the majority of the day on aluminum trailer flooring or pavement (depending on what your stand was).  We’ve worked jobs on our feet before, but never where you worked so many hours or where you couldn’t at least lean a little to take some of the weight off your poor feet.  I’m not kidding when I say that our feet ached for days after the fair was over.

The work itself was fine and what you’d expect.  I worked the corn dog stand, and mostly just took orders.  Hubby worked the lemonade stand and took orders and made lemonade all day.  The guests coming through were mostly city folk.  During the day, the guests were mostly families, elderly, or handicapped.  At night, the place turned into the world’s largest night club filled with all sorts of (very) interesting people. It reminded me a little of Bourbon St in New Orleans.  Working a stand is an excellent place to people-watch, and provided us with hours of entertainment.

I’d like to say that that the compensation made the entire experience worthwhile, but when you figured the number of hours worked against the lump sum amount paid, the hourly rate turned out to be around $4 or so an hour.  If you take any time off (whether a half a day, or a day), your lump sum is reduced accordingly.  From what others told us, if it rained and the fair was closed, you didn’t get paid for that time either.

We’d also hoped to have time off in between gigs (based on their published fair schedule).  But, that wasn’t how it was set-up.  If you continue working with them, the extra days between gigs are taken up with breaking down at one fair, and setting up at the next.  If you travel with them from show to show, but use your own vehicle, your travel costs aren’t covered.

Note:  There are larger national carnival companies that hire employees as regular hourly employees, with benefits, etc.

Lessons Learned:

We learned quite a bit from the experience, about ourselves and others.  While it wasn’t pleasant or easy, we stuck it through to the end (mostly, because we committed to it and felt we needed to honor our commitment).

Would we do it again? Maybe.  If we were stuck in between jobs and needed the money.  But it wouldn’t be our first choice.  It is a way to pick up some cash without having to make a commitment longer than 2 weeks at a time.

If we do fair work in the future, we’ll likely go through the regular hiring channels at the fairgrounds.  Those positions actually pay hourly, so while you still work a lot of hours, are far more profitable.

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