Behind the Carousel: Life of a Carny, Part One

Behind the Carousel: Life of a Carny, Part One

JONES COUNTY, MS (WDAM) - Whether it's the high riding, sometimes romantic ferris wheel or taking a chance on one of the games, fairs across the country draw in the young and the old. For some, however, it's not a one-night visit to the local fairgrounds- it's their life.

Michael “Mike” Graham has been a part of the traveling fair for 12 years.

“I fell into this job just to see what it was, to travel and see different people every day,” he said from his Scooby Doo themed dart booth.

Graham was raised in a carnival town in Michigan, which he said was one reason he was interested in trying out that lifestyle. His travel schedule starts in January, setting up the first fair in Florida. From there, he travels with the fair to Texas, then Michigan, making his way down to the Magnolia State, wrapping up the season in Jones County at the South Mississippi Fair.

Being a part of the traveling fair sounds like a lifestyle out of a movie, not something that most people actually want to do. But Graham? He chose to be a part of it.

“I have done other things, not as fun as this,” he said with reflections of surrounding fair rides gleaming in his bright blue eyes. “This is a fun, fun, fun place to work.”

Graham started working for the fair at age 21. His first job was on the goldfish table, and he was pretty good at it.

“They called me a natural afterwards because I could talk to people and  have them play the game and get money off of them,” he laughed.

He's a salaried worker now since he's part of the beautification crew, which means he helps with set-up and break down at each fair. For some extra money, Graham works at the dart table.

“When I started working the games, it was not a guaranteed pay check,” he explained, as one person after another passed the booth, considering taking a shot at Scooby Doo. “So when it's slow, it's not that great. When it's busy, it's really good.”

Graham said most folks average anywhere from 50 to 100 dollars each day. For some, he says traveling with the fair is a way to get out of a bad spot in life. For Graham, it's a way to support his three kids back home.

“Most of the guys that come out here, they probably don't have a place to live, or they have problems or whatever it could be,” he said.  “They come out here to live, not to make money. And that's why I'm here, to make money.”

Graham showed his hands, holding many bills after a long day of work. Dirt was packed into his palms, a sign of touching aluminum in the morning when setting up the rides and trading bills at night on the games.

“It just gets ground in,” he said as he picked at skin and nails. “I can't never get my hands clean.”

Graham lives in hotels when he travels with the fair. He used to stay in the bunkhouses like many fair workers, but now that he has two jobs with the company, the additional money helps support a slightly more comfortable means of travel.

Working for the carnival is a job that sometimes carries a negative connotation, but it's one that Graham loves. After a few folks walked by his dart game without showing interest, he kept recruiting them to play, with key slogans, “Prize every time!” or “Big kids win, too!”

After his stop in Jones County, it wasn't back to the hotel rather back home to his kids in North Carolina to enjoy two months of “normal” life until the carnival called him back.