Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker


Carnies. Buck let this slip in an unguarded moment. He won’t repeat it to let me record it, so here’s what I can reconstruct from notes I made right after.

“I used to work for a carnival. For a year. It was great. I was a guesser, guessed weights and everything. Ages, weight, height, birth months, how old their car was and whether it was a truck. We made a killing. We charged two or three bucks a pop. Even the big prizes didn’t cost us more than 35 cents. I got good. I was really good and after a month or two I could nail any guess I wanted sixty percent of the time. That’s good enough to draw a crowd but just short of being too good, which might frustrate people. Some of them want you to beat them, take their money. They want you to be good. Others want to beat you, take your prize. Those kind probably take the prize and talk about it for a week, how you couldn’t guess their height or age or whatever. It makes them feel like a mystery, makes them unknowable. Those kind grunt with satisfaction when they get some saw-dust teddy bear or whatever.

“I was really good, though. Sometimes they’d close me down. My crowd would be blocking the fairway, stopping up traffic to the other booths, but also causing a dangerous situation. I’d razz the crowd, get them all riled up. I’d see how far I could take it, making fun of people. They saw it as part of the show. Paid for a little abuse.

“I perfected the Jerry line. Looks something like this:

World New York Loves You

“What I’m supposed to do is guess birthdays within in one month either way. So I write my guess down as a Jerry line. It could be January, July or June, so it cuts my odds to one chance in six rather than one in twelve. And since it’s easier with kids, anyway, and that’s what people usually asked about, my guesses were right on.

“I got the job through a friend, third generation carnie. The family owned a show and ran a string of stands in it. I hemmed and hawed and finally said yes and ran out there where they were already going on.

“It was a lot of work. Lots of days, I’d work sixteen, seventeen hours. At first I did the guessing booth. I’d make oats in like the first hour, and everything after that was cream. Making oats is, like, making enough money to eat off of. Kind of approved corruption: everybody does it, takes the first few dollars of the day aside for lunch or booze or whatever.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for making a little on the side. I never did, except when I had to. If you’re not a little corrupt like the rest of them you might be in for a good beating. But most of the carnies (yeah, they do use the word, though some see different things in it), they’d take every chance they could to make a few dollars. The other guessers, some days, they’d bring in a third of what I was bringing in. At least, that’s what they’d report to the office. No, they’d never get caught. Only a dumbass would get caught. You have to start taking from the very first day. One dollar in the right pocket for the office, two in the left pocket for whiskey. The office can’t know how much to expect from you on upcoming days that way. If the amount changes, that’s where you get caught.

“Some of the carnies, and not just the guessers (who had the least chance out of anybody for lifting a little free green), would take their apron, the entire day’s take, to the local watering hole and buy everybody rounds. They were supposed to bring it back to the office, of course. Sometimes there’d be someone who’d take off with the rolls not to be seen until the next season. They’re always hired back. They know the ropes. The losses are built in, and there’s cash everywhere, enough for everybody and a little grift. My friend had a new Jeep Cherokee, guns, a massive stereo system, everything he wanted. The whole family was rich.

“Out of the various workers on the track (we set up the booths always in a circle that ran people around counterclockwise; I don’t know why), the ticket-takers probably had the best chance for grift.

“Say you had two tiers of ticket prices. You could either buy 10 tickets for 12.50 dollars or 20 tickets for 17.50. The ticket-taker probably sells a lot of each. But when she (and she’s always a she) counts up the take at night, she’ll count the number of tickets she sold, figure them all as the lower-priced tickets with a few expensive ones thrown in for disguise and to keep the balance. So while a 100 tickets at 12.50 per ten would bring in 125.00, 100 tickets at 17.50 per 20 would bring in 87.50. She’d just keep the 37.5 difference, making out all the while that the 100 tickets were all discounted tickets. Think about it a while, and then figure that some of the big carnivals would see ten, fifteen thousand visitors a day. Some of those ticket-takers had it down. You could tell who was doing it: their money always came out exactly to the last nickel.

“The other ticket-taker trick is the slowdown. Ticket prices are almost always going to be odd numbers, so there should be change. So when a kid or even anybody comes up and buys tickets, the ticket-taker hands out the long string of tickets kind of final, as if it’s like, ‘That’s it. That’s all.’ Really, though, the person should get change, but the money drawer is probably behind the ticket taker, and she’s slow about it, so when she turns her back to slowly count out change it seems like there’s no change deserved. You’d be surprised how many people just walk off. That’s where good counting comes in. That kind of grift can’t ever show up in the tally; it’s got to go in the ticket-taker’s pocket or else it’ll be obvious what’s going on. There’ll be a lot more money than tickets sold, at any price.

“Later I got the office job. That’s the sweet spot. That’s where you really get the opportunities. The office counts everybody’s money and most of it’s in cash. You’ve got all kinds of opportunities. The first spot on the track, the first booth to the right as you enter the fairway, is the prime spot. It costs extra, maybe 5,000 to the office manager to get it. But this booth also gets a certain amount of money from the office manager everyday over the course of the week or so. I don’t know why. It’s just the way it is. Sometimes, when I was training to run the office, I’d take the cut down to first position and it’d be, like, in all coins, because the office hated paying it out, and I was sure they’d beat me silly. But they never did.

“Of course, the office counts all the money for the first position, or is supposed to, so we could adjust the numbers like we wanted. All this comes about because of all that cash. There’s no way you can make that kind of killing and not have abuses.

“They blow it all usually. They don’t know any better. Some just work the warm months and when winter rolls around they just scatter. Next spring they pop up one at a time from all directions and start over.”

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Grant Barrett