It was a gorgeous summer day in 2004. The breeze lightly ruffled the feathers of the thrushes and warblers perched in the trees, the sun’s warm rays covered the road like a blanket, and a mentally retarded man chased me down the block, shouting, “Picture in the newspaper! Picture in the newspaper!”
I was a reporter working for a weekly newspaper in La Crescent, Minnesota, and the mentally retarded man was an employee at a nearby traveling carnival. I was writing an article about the carnies, finding out where they came from and what had led them to this unusual line of work. What had they been through? What stories did they have to tell from all these years on the road?
Sure, everybody knows carnies are all fugitives wanted for rape in 12 states, but it’s much more charming if you dance around that fact for a few hundred words before blowing your journalistic wad, so to speak.
After finishing my interviews, I tried in vain for two hours to find one carnie who would let me photograph them, but every time I brought out my camera, they reacted as if I was pulling out a gun. Eyes widened, arms flailed wildly, as if they were dodging a bullet but didn’t know which direction to dive. “Oh, um, I… I don’t… no pictures, man. I have to… I gotta play it cool for a little while.”
Yep, all wanted rapists. Every one of them. Even the women. But that’s okay, because nearly 60 percent of people who actually go to carnivals aspire to be rapists.
I had interviewed nearly every carnie. The 80s hair metal carnie with the leather jacket, wallet chain, and oddly-located scars. The hick welfare mom carnie who kind of looked like someone’s frumpy relative but also kind of looked like someone whose mugshot you’d see in the paper when a prostitution ring was busted. The former drug addict carnie who twitches involuntarily and has a compulsion to constantly move his hands. The missing hand carnie, who – as the name I’ve given him implies – is missing an entire hand. None of them wanted to be photographed, and a few of them got angry with me just for asking.
So I walked back to my car. Apparently one of them told the mentally retarded guy I was looking for a photo subject, and he charged down the block like a crazed rhino, shouting that he wanted his photo in the newspaper. If Kim Kardashian weren’t maintaining an image, I imagine this is exactly what she’d look like, galloping toward reporters with her arms outstretched, delirious with joy at the thought of seeing her photo in a publication.
“Photo in the tabloid! Photo in the tabloid! Agent says more photo bring more Hardee’s commercials!”
I followed him back to his booth, where he spent his days charming people into paying to fish for plastic frogs, and took his photo for the front page. He thanked me and ran over to his friend at the next booth to excitedly brag about having his picture taken, just like Kardashian does after convincing paparazzi to take pictures of her vagina as she’s stepping into a limo.
Whenever people ask me to describe summer, I tell them this story. Then they look at me like I just ran over their cat with a lawnmower and ask, “Summer reminds you of retarded people?” And I say, “Yes, because they’re much warmer and nicer than typical people, and even if you get weary of them over time, it’s hard not to be at least a little excited every time they return.”
And this month the carnivals have returned. All over Minnesota, experienced rapists are gathering clown memorabilia for their prize booths, while aspiring rapists are gearing up to spend hundreds of dollars trying to win that clown merchandise. Duluth’s traveling felon caravan arrives around the end of June. Catch the fever! Or sleep with the carnies and catch something worse!
Carnivals are fun, though. I have very fond memories as a kid of going to the Fourth of July carnival with friends and drinking at the all-you-can-drink milk stand until one of us literally vomited. I also have fond memories of another carnival where I won a poster of Pam Anderson in a swimsuit, which I then hung on the inside of my closet door so my mom wouldn’t see it.
My current closet has a poster of Miley Cyrus on the inside of it. Er, I mean Charlotte Bronte. There’s a poster of Charlotte Bronte in there. I like books.
Perhaps the best part of having the carnivals back is it means summer is also here. The thrushes and warblers are again perched in their trees, the sun is again acting as everyone’s personal blanket, and though the readers of this column are the only retarded people who chase me down the street anymore, it’s a nice feeling regardless. I just wish they were trying to hug me instead of trying to stab me.