The day was overcast as it often seems to be in mid-June. Summer has not quite arrived. The calendar teases us with the equinox turning and yet the days automatically start shortening. The yin and yang of yearly destiny. That is when the official season of sun and carnivals arrives.
I wander through the Tuesday atmosphere of our local festival. The mothers are pushing kids in strollers and fathers walk with kids in tow. A few families perch on the ground to listen to a lone guy playing electric guitar to a sparse crowd on the lawn of the courthouse. I’ve been here so many times. So many scenes like this. So many years. So very American.
I’ve pushed my own kids in strollers around this town. Rolled them up the street to the parking lot where the rides and games are stationed. “Give us your money,” they all cry. But the Carnies are silent these days. No barking or temptations allowed. Just walls of repetitive junk to lure the suckers.
Once in a while, someone actually wins. That is the American Way. Just enough winning to keep the disenchanted from popping all the balloons of the otherwise cheerfully wealthy. It works for casinos. It works for the lottery. It works for the government. And it works for the carnival. It’s worked that way for years. All it takes is for us to see some random kid walking away with a bouncing ball to continue believing in the carnival of dreams. So very American.
I was that kid a few times. With an arm that would not quit and deadly accuracy from years of life as a baseball pitcher, I could hit the stack of pins exactly where they needed to be struck in order to knock them all down and win a prize. Desperate to impress and urged on by girls who wanted free prizes, I handed out cheap and brightly colored snakes to the girls that begged me to win them one and when that ran out, I handed them to all the girls I could find. Their eyes would flash with a quick thanks. Then they’d turn and look for more dangerous boys to bring the thrill of the carnival alive. And then the Carnie banned me from playing the game any more. And that is America too.
Those girls all turned into mothers or aimed some other direction that life presented. All have their histories now. But it used to be such a mystery to me. Life. What girls wanted. Without sisters to study I had to learn about women by wandering about in the wild world. Now it’s all there in black and white. I see how it works. We’re all part of a repeating cycle. The merry-go-round is whatever makes you happy. Or sad. That’s all that anyone really has.
It is also true that sooner or later, life catches up to everyone. It happens to some faster than others. But after enough time goes by, the past is a blur, the present is the horse you’ve chosen to ride and the future will chop off your arm if you’re not careful. I once sat at the top of a Ferris wheel at the County Fair with my son. We waited while others got on the ride, and then our car lurched and feel three inches on one side. Those things are put together again and again by people who must cease to care after a while. It’s just another town. Another carnival. And if lives are at stake, well that’s America too.
The carnival is a sideshow of people. I see the folks that have taken care of themselves and others, not so much. People watching can be a rush. And then reality strikes. A panicked grandfather bursts out of the Midway calling the name of a child that he’s lost somewhere. We all stand there watching the drama unfold. I ask the man if he wants me to call 9-1-1. His eyes are wide with fear. Then he runs off again calling the child’s name. HIs arms are raised. His body taut. The entire carnival comes to a standstill. Then he finds the child and admonishes the frightened looking kid who had simply gotten into the wrong line for a ride. It was thumbs up by Grandpa though. Tragedy averted. Everyone goes back to their amusements. The American Way all over again.
I left the carnival after that. Walked toward the street where the shops line up hopefully. Supposedly this is what summer carnivals are all about. Combine fun and commerce. Sometimes the two don’t mix that well.
America is like that. Playful hopes and selfish interests collide at every intersection. the people in charge of town zoning and the organizers of carnivals know that you can’t please everyone. The best you can do is attract the masses and hope for the best. Cash flows in. Cash flows out.
I’ve run on all these streets when the carnival is gone and the food booths are gone as well. I rise early and trot through the early morning fog when no one else is around. The carnival of years is a manic ghost that comes and goes. The streets are empty again. The equinox has turned. Summer has begun in earnest. And the next carnival awaits.