Sunday, July 11, 2010
"Ten years, "he muttered as he threw the switch. The lights near the tiny helicopters flashed red as the machine roared to life. Eduardo began the speech he had learned from his cousin and had said so many times over many summers.
"Hands are to be kept in at all times, wait until the ride comes to a complete stop to get out, and please, kids, don't puke on the ride. Now have FUN!"
With that, his hands moved over the controls as they had done thousands of times before and clicked the buttons. Laughter, screams, and gasps were his currency...along with the tickets the children gave him, and sure enough the little girl in front of him gasped loudly as the helicopters began to spin. As the helicopters made their second spin, he stepped away from the controls to high five a boy in a baseball cap. "You flyin', brother," he told the boy, who squealed with delight. They loved his smile.
He had been ten when his cousin Luis had shown Eduardo how to run the machine. It didn't interest him. He wanted to be something. His aunt and uncle had dragged him around the United States following what they called, "The Carnival Circuit." He hadn't understood this until he was an adult, but the life of a carnival worker depended upon people to play your games or get on your rides. Most workers bought their rides and then drove from place to place to setup and take people's money. Sure, the guys who owned the games made more money from the idiot high school kids desperate to win their sweethearts a stuffed animal. So desperate were these kids that they would spend upwards of $50 for a $10 stuffed animal. There were also the drunks and macho guys who were sure they could best the "carnies" at their own game. But the rides...the rides made money because more of the little ones showed up to the carnival. And Eduardo had seen: the parents wanted their kids out of their hair for a few minutes and wanted them quiet. Town to town, state to state, it didn't matter. Parents in Las Cruces, New Mexico were the exact same as parents in Keene, New Hampshire. They paid for their tickets, and many times they overpaid.
Still, he wasn't interested. He saw how the road destroyed his aunt and uncle. He experienced the lean months with them. No, Eduardo wanted more. He wanted to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or whatever job the good looking people at his fairs had. They looked so happy with their cotton candy watching their kids spin around on the metal frames. Not like him or his family. Luis, however, was insistent. "Life," Luis used to say to him, "Can by funny. I thought I'd be a Detroit Tiger. My knee decided I wouldn't be. So here I am. It's always good to learn something."
So he learned from Luis. He learned how to run the machine ("It's just hitting some buttons and watching for problems," Luis told him.), how to fix it, he learned how to "bark" at people to come to his ride. "It's in the voice and look," Luis would say to him with a grin. "The people love a smile and quick saying. Make the ride look good for the kids...and the people will come."
Luis was right. The first time Eduardo did it, he was 13. Having spent so much time in the sun and packing and unpacking the rides, he looked older. He had some muscles on his wiry frame and could flash a smile that made the parents look at him. The girls too. And that first year WAS fun. The money wasn't bad either, but this was not the career he wanted.
How could he know that the lack of school and ambition as a kid would mean he was going to be a carnie forever? He tried. As a 19 year old he wanted to go to college. He wanted to become anything else but a ride operator. A cop, a cook, even a janitor. As long as it meant that he didn't have to be on the road anymore, he'd do it. So he signed up to learn how to be a chef, but there was so much to remember...and he couldn't always buy the necessary tools. (Thank God the women in his class loved his smile.) When that didn't work, he tried to apprentice his uncle Julio who was a plumber. The problem was he spent most of his time just waiting, or holding tools.
He was now 21 and had no idea what he could do other than run the machines. He gave in, took all of the money he had saved in his life, and bought the helicopter ride from his cousin.
"Ten years," he said to no one in particular as he slowed the spinning down and went to help the kids. As the happy riders moved past him to the exit, they didn't notice his slumped shoulders as he checked the doors. Nor did the notice his eyes starting to fill with water. He sucked in a hard breath.