In the last week of August I went down to the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) with a few friends. The appearance of the CNE in Toronto is the signal that summer is almost over, so for me its arrival is always met with a bittersweet feeling. This feeling can only be abated with greasy, high-calorie foods prepared by someone who may or may not have a violent felony in their background.
I think for those born and raised in Toronto, visiting the CNE in adulthood is a trip down memory lane. As it is for me. But the sites, sounds, smells, and, well, OK mainly smells of the midway take me back to another time and place entirely: Calgary in the mid-nineteen-eighties. For that is when I spent some time as a midway employee at the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth – The Calgary Exhibition and Stampede.
For a teenager in Cowtown, it was a near-rite-of-passage to work for a summer or two on the midway of the Calgary Stampede. It is there that impressionable young teens are given the opportunity to spend quality mentoring time with grizzled, life-beaten carnies.
Carnies are an interesting subculture. And while I don’t want to paint an entire subculture with one brush, I feel pretty confident in saying that 100% of carnies are rough-around-the-edges, heavy drinkers and drug users, and have recently been incarcerated. They have what can only be called a unique world-view.
I spent two different summers (aged 16 and 17) working on the midway of the Stampede, some years after having been a child performer in the Stampede Grandstand Show (which is another story entirely).
I don’t have any recollection of how I actually was hired for the job as an attendant in the sausage and lemonade stand during my first year of employment at the Stampede. I just remember that I knew immediately that I would be hearing endless jokes from my teenage friends about sausages. Which I did. I also remember being sticky for 10 days due to the fact that I was covered in sickly sweet lemonade the entire time. The smell of sugary lemon stuck with me for months after.
I was partnered with a carny named Dwayne (pronounced Duh-whayne). Dwayne had the word “HATE” tattooed not on one set of knuckles, but on both. He told me he got them “inside”, but that he didn’t want to talk about it. As someone from Woodlands, a Calgarian suburb where literally nothing ever happened, this was a terrifying exposure to the harsh underbelly of life.
Dwayne used the word “fuck” in conversation the way some people use “um”. Or as an afterthought to bring a sentence to conclusion. For example “Fuck, it’s fuckin’ hotter than fuck today. Fuckin’ sweatin’ my balls off here, fuck.”
Dwayne and I stood in a food booth in the middle of summer with heat from both the sausage rotisserie thing and from a generator that kept the ice and lemonade cold blasting on us. I’m pretty sure that the lemonade was about 10% made up of the combined dripping sweat of myself and Dwayne. Delicious.
I learned a few things about marketing from Dwayne:
- You can never have less than 11 sausages on display or no one will buy them. People like to see large numbers of things from which they choose one. If they see three sausages, they assume they have been sitting around a long time and are probably not very fresh. They are right of course, but if they see 25 sausages they would also be right, as the sausages are endlessly recycled until sold
- For some reason people are more likely to buy something when displayed in an odd number. If you display 4 sausages, people are less likely to buy one than if you display 5
Dwayne had a lot of opinions on other matters as well. He was not fond of people of colour, for example. He also enjoyed discussions concerning the subject of human sexuality a great deal.
One afternoon, out of the blue, Dwayne asked me a question:
“Hey kid, got yer dick wet yet?”
“Pardon me, Dwayne?” I replied
“You get yer dick wet yet? Ya ever fuck a girl?”
“No, not yet” Said I.
Dwayne found this INCREDIBLY funny and laughed heartily.
“Why the fuck not?” he asked. I shrugged and stirred some lemonade half-heartedly. “Here’s what you do. You see a girl you want to fuck, right?”. He was waiting for me to nod like I understood, so I nodded, despite wanting this conversation to end as quickly as possible. “You walk up to her and you say, ‘Hey, wanna fuck?”. He paused for dramatic effect. “Now, one of two things are gonna happen, Kid. Either you are gonna get slapped across the fuckin’ face, or you are gonna get yer dick wet. Pretty good fuckin’ odds if you ask me, fuck”.
“I’ll try that, Dwayne” I said.
“Worked with my old lady…” he said, referring to the drug-addled fellow carny he was traveling with. Imagine a teeth-challenged mixture of Rosie O’Donnell, Courtney Love, and Nancy Spungen, but with out any of the talent or spunk of the first two and all of the pathetic nastiness of the last, and you have a fairly good idea of what Dwayne’s Old Lady was like.
When not enjoying these fire-side chats with Dwayne, we were treated to the sounds of the booth across from us, which, as luck would have it, was an all-hits-all-the-time radio station. I heard the same 10 songs all day every day. These included:
“How Will I Know” by Whitney Houston,
“Heart and Soul” by T’pau; and
“I Can’t Wait” by Nu Shooz
I hated all the songs in the playlist with the exception of “I Can’t Wait”, which, for whatever reason kind of appealed to me, despite it being an “old song” by that point. It also seemed to generally follow “Heart and Soul”, which I despised with all my heart and soul (still do), and so was an aural salve to the Chinese water torture that was T’pau. By this time I was very into alternative and punk music, and commercial radio was not something I spent a lot of time listening to. It was like nails on a blackboard listening to those songs over and over all day.
Years later, while doing a 2-year once-a-month DJ residency with my friend Scott at Toronto’s Cameron House, I would resurrect the extended mix of “I Can’t Wait” and was surprised to find it was always a sure-fire hit with crowds (although not THE sure-fire hit, which we discovered was The Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited”).
After that first summer I was sure that the following year things couldn’t possibly get worse. And things were looking up. The second year at the Stampede I managed to figure out how to get a job selling tickets to the rides. This meant I was not selling food, which was a HUGE step in the right direction. It also meant I would work with another kid my own age rather than with someone like Dwayne – also a positive improvement from my point of view.
Unfortunately, things did not go as swimmingly as I had hoped. It turned out that the first kid with whom I was paired was skimming money off the top and stealing and re-selling tickets. I had no idea this was going on – and was not good enough at math to ever try such a scheme myself. When the kid was questioned, he tried to implicate me as the one who had been stealing. This resulted in us both being called into a back office and being questioned by the police, and our parents being called. Fortunately, justice was done, and I was exonerated. Driving home in my mothers station wagon, I pondered how close I had come to becoming another Dwayne, with “HATE” tattooed across both sets of knuckles, and not wanting to talk about it.
Because of the whole “skimming” incident, I was relocated to a different booth on the third day on the job. This booth was directly outside a quasi-freak-show exhibit called Zoma The Gorilla Girl. The idea was that you handed over a few tickets, and you would watch a “beautiful woman” (likely the girlfriend of someone like Dwayne) transform into a wild angry gorilla. In order to attract attendees, they had smartly set up a loudspeaker cranked to eleven, pointed directly at my ticket booth, to promote the display. As a result of having heard the looped recording eight hours a day for days on end, I am still able to recite the entire spiel from memory:
“Have you seen her? Have you seen Zoma, The Gorilla Girl? She’s ALIVE! If you have a heart condition…if you are pregnant…if you are easily frightened…DON’T COME IN. Zoma, The Gorilla Girl. She’s ALIVE!”
Between Zoma and T’pau, I don’t know which was worse. What I do know is that my time at the Stampede made it very clear to me that I would DEFINITELY be finishing high-school because it was equally clear that minimum-wage jobs were not for me. And that is one lesson Dwayne did share, even if accidentally.