At the Ingham County Fair, it’s easy to be intimidated.
With the array of faces behind booths beckoning you to throw this, or fish for this or take a shot at that, it’s like walking through a foreign bazaar.
And, it’s easy to envision the hawkers behind the booths as a stereotype: the modern American gypsy, the “carnie,” who is portrayed in movies, TV and folklore as freakish and scary. But talking to carnival workers at the fairgrounds in Mason last Saturday, those stereotypes were knocked down like a stack of vintage pop bottles with an air gun.
Carnival workers, like Joseph Bray of Jackson, are just doing their job.
Tossing a softball in front of the "Ball Buster" game, Bray, 18, plans to travel on the road with the carnival. He had only four days on the job.
"I was searching for a job," he said. "I needed money to try to pay for college, so I decided to just call up and give it a shot. I love this job. It’s more fun than any other job I’ve had and it’s definitely made me want to go to a lot more fairs, too.”
As a newcomer, Bray was assigned a game. But 20-year carnival veteran Dennis Hamm got first pick. Watching him in front of the “1-in-you-win” basketball game, it’s clear why.
“Basketball! Come on in! Everybody wins today!” he yells at passersby. “Take your time aim right for it, get it on this wall, and you get any one of these prizes, honey. Bears, pigs, balls, cats, pandas!”
Hamm got his start in 1989 in Reno, Nev. When the carnival came to town, he jumped on and never looked back.
“It’s part of my lifestyle. I enjoy the kids, I enjoy the crowds and I like smiles,” he said. “It’s all family and it’s business.”
“When I started, I started out on the rides,” Hamm said, who is also a pastor in Byron Center. “You slept in your own rides. I was in a Gravitron. You could shut the door down on it. (We had) our stuff on the back deck, we’d fill up water buckets with hot water and got washed up. It was just like I thought it would be.”
These days, Hamm has a lot of stories to tell. He recalled an incident at the New York State Fair in the late 1990s when a tornado devastated the carnival, killing two.
“I could write a book, honey, I’ve seen almost everything you could imagine,” he said.
Pedaling down the fairway through a crowd, “Mike” and his giant yellow tricycle speaks in rhyme to children passing by.
“You’re as smart as can be and you’re going to make straight A’s at the university,” he rhymed.
Mike’s real name is Jim Herrington, and has been fair performer since 1981.
“I actually started performing to get over the bad vibes of Vietnam,” Herrington, 60, said. “I started singing in the streets waiting for my college G.I. bill money to come through. And so I performed in the streets until I joined with the fair.”
After a stint at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, he came back to Michigan, where his family is from.
Herrington also performs as “Pa Caboodle” in his show, the Caboodlestoppers, with his family, often on stilts. Traveling around sky-high, Herrington is far from the carnival stereotype.
“I like to relate positively with people, make rhymes about the kids, and make jokes,” he said. “We have enough in life that’s tearing people down. I like to be the person who builds them up.”