Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Home is where the carnival is

From The Richmond Times-Dispatch
visit TimesDispatch.com

Fair workers enjoy freedom of nomads, just enough comforts

In the shadows of the blinking Ferris wheel and with the aroma of funnel cake wafting by, 40 trailers are home to the people who keep the popcorn popping and the roller coasters rolling at the State Fair of Virginia.

The workers who erect the rides, push the buttons and hand out the furry prizes are nomads. Some spend almost all year on the road. The locations blur: Charlotte blends to Cincinnati, Baltimore gives way to Biloxi. But the layout of the temporary village is consistent.

"There's a pecking order to where the trailers park. The higher-ups [game and ride owners and managers] set up closer to the fair. The bunkhouses are farther away," said Jason Floyd, who with wife Angela owns six games and a ride that spins patrons swinging on a pendulum.

The Floyds have one of the bigger mobile homes. A picnic table outside the pop-out porch provides a shady spot to settle down and talk about their lifestyle. A shiny SUV is parked nearby.

"I've never had a real job, never worked for anyone else," Jason said. "I have a lot of flexibility and freedom.

"The Floyds travel more than 10 months a year, packing up their home and amusement ride and driving it around the country by tractor-trailer.

The walls in their three-bedroom, two-bath mobile home are painted in bright pastels. The couple check e-mail on the Internet and watch satellite TV. .These amenities go a long way to making life on the go bearable, they say.

Andy Deggeller works for the family business, Deggeller Attractions, which owns and operates the traveling fair. He often sets up a hot tub and tiki torches outside his mobile home. "Pretty much anything you need travels with us," Deggeller said, pointing to a cargo trailer filled with stuffed animals and other belongings.

Deggeller and his wife often spend evenings with the Floyds.

Day-to-day life is "pretty normal stuff; the only difference is we move our house every two weeks," Angela said.

Jason is a fourth-generation carnival worker. His family once ran a traveling fair based in Tennessee. As a kid, he spent every summer on the road. Some kids grow up attending carnival schools in trailers - such a school operated here until three years ago - but Jason went to public school in Tennessee.

Angela's father worked for a few years at a fair in Canada. She saw how much he enjoyed it, so when she graduated from college, also in Canada, she went to work for a carnival.

She and Jason met five years ago at a trade show. He was really quiet, she recalls.

Now the couple work as a team.

"I get tired of being in the same place," Jason said. "We were in Virginia Beach for five weeks, and I was ready for something new."

Angela, too, said she gets bored when they stay too long in one place.

But the job isn't often boring. Angela collects the cash from the games, restocks the prizes and helps in other ways as needed. Sometimes she has to settle disputes with agitated patrons. "One upset customer called me 'carnie' and 'white trash,'" she said, and smiled.

"People don't use the word carnie much anymore."

Angela, who handles the hiring and firing, said she used to hire Americans but that many were drunks who disrupted other workers and perpetuated the stereotypes of carnival workers as dirty, cheating types.

Now she relies on six South Africans who travel here on visas to work year after year.

Deggeller is not among the carnivals that allow workers to live in tents. Angela houses her workers in a bunk trailer that has eight private entrances, showers and laundry facilities.

Peter Nickiel, who runs the carnival's rock-climbing attraction, hails from Poland. This is his second summer with the carnival and he hopes to be back for a third.

"I came here to improve my English, mostly," he said, slightly out of breath from riding his bike across the midway. Asked whether he eats the carnival food, he was quick to answer. "Noooo. Would you eat it all the time if you worked here?"

Jason and Angela Floyd avoid the food, too, as well as the rides.

"I don't do well on rides," Angela said.

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