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Carnival life: Peeking ‘behind the Ferris wheel’

You might say Eric Kruszewski ran away and joined a traveling carnival.

For three months in 2012, the photographer — whose work has been featured on National Geographic’s website — immersed himself inside the little-known world of America’s amusement park workers.

Davis Amusements hired Kruszewski to drive a carnival pickup truck, hitched to an ice cream parlor on wheels, from town to town across the Pacific Northwest. Embedded among the carnival employees, he was able to photograph the isolated subculture and capture many of its unseen joys and disappointments.

Carnival life offers a special kind of freedom that comes with moving from place to place every week.

It also comes with special rules. For example, Kruszewski warns, don’t use the “c” word. Don’t call them “carnies.”

“When someone from the general public calls them that, it just puts them at a lower level,” Kruszewski said. “But it’s OK within their own circles to call each other carnies. I was called a carny. I called other people carny, and it was totally fine. We’d laugh about it and hug about it.”

Permission to use the word surrounds a shared cultural experience. “They all chose the lifestyle,” Kruszewski said. “Somebody from the general public doesn’t know what their life is like.”

The average Joe doesn’t often get a chance to photograph life “behind the Ferris wheel,” Kruszewski said. One of his photos shows the shadow of a mother and child cast across the side of an RV, while the child’s grandmother is visible inside the vehicle. The image evokes the tight-knit families of the carnival culture.

“Imagine trying to eat, sleep, work and play 24/7 with the same people. Not everyone can do that,” he said.

“Somehow they make it work and they’re still raising a family. I can’t totally comprehend how they get it done. It’s amazing to me,” he said.

Clichés that swirl around the carnival lifestyle often aren’t true.

Troublemakers, people from broken families, and substance abusers are not the norm, Kruszewski said. Most workers join carnivals because they’ve made a conscious decision to embrace the culture, he said. They didn’t choose it to escape a bad situation.

“They chose it because they wanted to travel, because they wanted to camp, because they wanted a simpler lifestyle,” he said.

Workers often come to the carnival bringing surprising backgrounds and larger-than-life personalities.

Kruszewski recalled a carnival machinist named Pete who was a former drag racer and body shop owner. Although fun-loving and jovial, Pete appeared to be more comfortable working with machinery than with people.

Another carnival worker, a man Kruszewski described as a 6-foot-4 “gentle giant,” abandoned a career as an award-winning gourmet chef at a five-star Las Vegas hotel. His carnival job had him running a kiddie ride.

They all live and work within a social pecking order that flows from the family that owns the carnival – now in their fourth generation of ownership.

“The owners run a very, very tight ship in terms of getting things done and the way workers handle themselves,” Kruszewski said. Sometimes, jobs are at risk. “I’ve seen people get fired because of behavior — or for being irresponsible.”

What’s the best job at a carnival? That’s probably the ride foreman, Kruszewski said. As “head of the ride,” they’re ultimately responsible for setting up, inspecting, operating and taking apart rides such as the Ferris wheel.

“They have a lot of say and they can give a lot of direction to delegate,” Kruszewski said. “If you delegate well, you can make your life easier.”

Worst job? “From my perspective, it’s the trash guy,” Kruszewski said. All day, every day, one man was tasked with loading garbage cans onto a small vehicle and toting them to the dump.

“I would have a personal problem doing it,” Kruszewski said. “But this guy, he loved it. Everybody knew it, and that was his thing.”

Don’t be fooled though: sifting through piles of slushy cups, corn dog wrappers and food has advantages. The garbageman would “find treasures around the trash cans,” Kruszewski said. People would throw away or lose things like stuffed animals, clothes and baseball caps. Sometimes he would even find money.

Kruszewski knows a little something about cleaning up messes. Before becoming a professional photographer, he had an entirely separate career as a mechanical engineer working with chemical and biological weapons labs and nuclear waste.

For years Kruszewski worked overseas, where he became used to feeling like a foreigner.

“When I came back to the States, I wanted to explore American subcultures,” he said. “One of them was carnivals.”

Some of the biggest carnival secrets are hidden on the midway. Amid the bright lights and cotton candy, clever, silver-tongued barkers entice patrons to play challenging games of skill.

The mystery? How to win.

These games, such as the Coke-bottle ring toss, sometimes seem impossible.

It isn’t rigged, Kruszewski said. “Every game there, you can win. They’re just difficult to play. And I played them all.”

Does he have any tips?

“When you’re throwing the softball at the fuzzy-haired clown heads —you have to hit it just right,” Kruszewski said. The secret: a soft touch. The harder you throw, he said, the less accurate your aim.

“Most folks want to throw a 95-mph fastball like Nolan Ryan. But really, a 4-year-old literally could toss the ball and tap the clown,” he said. “It’s weighted so it just falls over.”

Kruszewski’s fascination with pockets of unique social culture continues. He hopes to explore America’s East Coast rodeos and meet Ethiopians living in Washington, D.C. Wherever his camera ends up, he said, he will be guided by his curiosity.

- Thom Patterson, CNN