Carny Road Addict Hides Dark Life

Avoiding Tough Topics, Carny Discusses Gypsy Life

Days after the Kern County Fair ended, balloons littered the ground in an area near the carny living quarters. Gone was the carny who may have lied, but who did speak about a hard life on the road. The carny, Sean Riley, had sat nervously on the steps of a trailer, and said, “It’s rough sometimes. It’s rough to live on the road away from home.”

The lot was mostly empty now. No longer crowded with games, rides, trucks, vans and long trailers, there was only the sense that thousands of people had just trod there.

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A lone Coke bottle partly covered with dirt near a cigarette butt appeared to have been tossed after the fair ended; likely from the exodus of carnies as they discarded their junk and moved further north in California’s Great Central Valley toward Fresno.

It’s been a few days since the traveling portion of the 48th largest fair in America left Bakersfield, Calif. 400,000 visitors passed through the gates to visit the rodeo, live acts, food booths, and to ride roller coasters, upside-down spinning rides and twirling swings.

While such carnival rides brought color, sound and dazzling neon light to the southern central valley’s grass-covered fields and dirty air, just three days later mostly big rig trucks and the metal bases of a few rides remained. I stood there and thought about Riley in the lot, coaxing people to play games. Again, was he telling me the truth?

A few days ago, trailers resembling large horse trailers sat parked beyond a gate leading to carnival rides and games. Of course there were no horses. Instead the trailers were fitted with rooms as living quarters for carnies traveling the roads from city to town and through rural areas.

Their travels are not unlike Jack Kerouac’s literary journey 60 years ago. It was 1947 and while hitchhiking, he considered becoming a carny, which he later wrote in 1957’s beat novel, "On The Road":

A tall, lanky fellow in a gallon hat stopped his car on the wrong side of the road and came over to us; he looked like a sheriff…I would have felt like the devil himself rooking them with all those cheap carnival tricks that they make you do…and the ferris wheel revolving in the flatland darkness, and Godalmighty, the sad music of the merry-go-round…

(Excerpt from the 50th anniversary release of "On The Road: The Original Scroll")

Though the roads don’t seem as romantic as Kerouac’s beat prose, they are just as beat for today’s carnies: weeks and sometimes months on America’s roads, in American cities, where running games, or building and tearing down carnival rides and packing them into truck trailers becomes a way of life. Carnies are strangely collected from towns across America. They live like gypsies in near-poverty, and have somehow formed a family bond and a desperate need for a road-weary life.

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Riley said carnies are family people. “They would do anything for me,” he said.

What he didn’t say is there weren’t freaks among carnies. “There’s a good chance there is,” he said. I have no idea if he was talking about himself. He preceded that by saying, “If they don’t bother me, I don’t bother them.”

While the fair was in full motion, I wondered if there were different personality types in the Kiddie Carnival versus the regular Midway. I rode the giant slide in the Kiddie Carnival area with my kids after my youngest got a butterfly face-painting. A teenage kid worked the base of the slide by throwing black sacks to the people in line. He seemed dirt-covered and angry. “Hurry up! Get moving!” he yelled. He must have passed sacks for endless hours. I wondered if he were related to one of the carnies. Was he on a grand adventure traveling, living in trailers with a community of carnies?

I ventured from the Kiddie Carnival into colorful rows of Midway games with dusty prizes including cheap glass mirrors and poorly made stuffed animals. That’s where I met Riley. He worked the Goldfish Game. He stood shorter than some of the other carnies, was sort of boyish and seemed more of a loner than other gruff-faced carnies who reminded me of the tales of Slim the Drifter I’d heard—a Bakersfield crooner who recently died after years of drug and alcohol abuse, and who was a professed carny.

Riley called out to people passing by. “Step right up and win a fish! That’s right. Come up and win a fish!” His lingo was right out of the movies. He said to some it was girlfriend day and talked two kids into playing the game. They lost.

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I played the game too. I slapped down five bucks for 25 balls. The object was to throw a ping-pong ball into the tiny mouth of a goldfish bowl. I won twice. He gave me three. Two later died. Thank goodness he gave me the extra.

Yet that was a great opportunity to meet Riley and talk to him about his carny life.

When he asked his supervisor if he could be interviewed, she mentioned asking him about sexual favors he might have been involved with for $250 in cash. Riley got embarrassed while she sounded like she wanted the story exposed. I should have rolled film then, but we made arrangements for the following morning.

The next day Riley led me through a gated area into the carefully packed lot of trailers and vehicles. The lot appeared mostly clean. Doors were closed, though some carnies cracked them to listen. He walked to the end of a trailer, past some trash and chairs. A pungent odor of urine and dirt filled the air.

I can’t say I felt my interview with Riley was completely honest on his part. He clearly dodged questions, especially when I asked about the afternoon before, when he had claimed to have “seen it all.” His supervisor had agreed. Had he become sheepish because we were surrounded by his fellow carnies peeking through doorways?

I asked him about how crazy carny life gets. He wouldn’t say much, but rather placed any carny woes on customers, who he doesn’t really like. “Customers make me so upset that I don’t want to do this anymore,” he said.

At a fair in Pleasanton, Riley claimed a customer was sexually inappropriate after winning a stuffed animal. He imitated the customer: “I’m going to take this stuffed animal. I’m going to go home, I’m going to cut it open and I’m going to do you-know-what to it.”

Riley claims he was disgusted, didn’t want anything to do with the customer’s proposal, and leads a godly life.

I can’t help but think Riley’s life on the road is a mix of being wracked with loneliness and a strange camaraderie he feels with other carnies. They may have a sense of family by just living on the road at distant fairs.

He spoke about once wanting to quit. “I thought I had it,” he said. But then he reminisces about changing his mind. “As a carny you never have too much of it.” So he said he just keeps going out, building and taking down carnivals, and working the games, and that eventually, he’ll get a regular job.

I began to wonder if his carny life was an addiction to the road.

As for his own family? What do they say about the life of a carny? Riley claims they’re supportive, that his church wants him to stay safe, but that he has a brother who doesn’t support his carnival travels. “I let it go in one ear and out the other,” he said.

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Story, photos and video by ABC23 Managing Editor, Nick Belardes