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6 Life Lessons Learned from Working as a Carny

I spent a summer in high school operating rides at an amusement park, because being a carny was slightly more dignified than flipping burgers and my parents didn't consider playing video games and masturbating to be a valid form of self-employment. While I didn't learn any carny secrets like where they keep the bodies of the guests who get lost in the haunted house, I can tell you a few things you should keep in mind the next time you decide you're in the mood for a day of roller coasters, crappy food, and screaming children.

#6. Everything You Assume About Vomit Is True, and Then Some

Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images

Anyone who's played RollerCoaster Tycoon can bring to mind the image of a sickly, green-faced guest spewing pixelated puke after riding your sadistic coaster that offered more g-force than astronaut training. Well, there's a reason that game was called a simulation. Guests throw up a lot, either because they don't know their limitations or because they underestimate the effect that bags of cotton candy and hamburgers that look like they were cooked during the Reagan administration have on their stomach.

Not counting my one-man fetish stage show, I was thrown up on three times over the summer, once by a little kid who I assume mistook me for a garbage can and twice by people on the Round Up, like a puke lawn sprinkler.

Via Wikipedia
One of these fucking things.

For the unfamiliar, guests stand in a circle as the ride lifts and spins at a dizzying speed, which is considered fun by people who love the raw thrills of motion sickness. One day while operating it I started getting sprayed in the face by what I assumed was rain. Then I realized there wasn't a cloud in the sky and, well, thinking about it years later still makes me feel unclean. At least the second time someone started vomiting down on me like a surreal biblical prophecy, I realized what was happening and could duck for cover. I can only imagine what his poor companions were going through.

Yeah, that's right. As many disgusting YouTube videos are happy to show you, anyone who throws up on a ride is probably going to splatter other people. WARNING: Don't click the play button if you don't want to see exactly what I've been talking about:

Supposedly this can put other riders over the edge, leading to a tastefully named "barf-o-rama." I never witnessed it, but there's no reason it couldn't happen. I'd suggest always sitting at the front of a ride, just to be safe.

In addition to getting The Exorcist treatment, I had to clean up after countless people who were kind enough to throw up on the ride instead of me. And don't assume this is all limited to intense rides -- kiddie attractions can be vomit magnets, too. I once threw up on a ride meant for children because I had been suckered into going on my nemesis, the Round Up, beforehand. There are few things more humiliating to a teenager than making your co-worker clean up your own vomit while a bunch of children either laugh or recoil in horror. Anyway, my point is that pretty much any surface you touch at a park has probably been coated in vomit and cleaned by a teenager not paid enough to care about proper hygiene. Have fun!

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"It's been an hour and a half. Shouldn't you go stop the ride?"

#5. Parents Want Their Children to Die

Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Many rides have height restrictions that either prevent kids from boarding or limit them to certain sections, like the middle of a swinging ship instead of the ends, which go higher but might fling them like a trebuchet to land in a mushy pile of other children a mile away. Kids always try to cheat, usually with uncreative methods like standing on their tiptoes, whining, or just hoping that the guy working that day is straight up out of fucks to give. What's more surprising is that parents vehemently argue against the restrictions as well, and when we gave them our standard line about how it's for the safety of their children, they responded with a resounding "meh."

I'll always remember the woman who tried to bring her infant on the log flume. Despite looking like he had just had his cord cut, mom insisted he would be fine to come with her, because nothing says responsible parenting like holding a newborn on a bumpy ride featuring steep drops, a lake, and no seat belts. When I politely pointed out that this was against our rules, she got pissed off and argued that because she had been standing in line for a long time, she had every right to risk her child's death, evoking an obscure legal clause that says laws stop applying to you if you're patient enough. I had a hard time thinking of a counterargument that didn't involve graphic imagery of dropped and drowned babies.

Via Mark Boyce
If you look closely at the water spray, you can see, like, half a dozen babies just flying out.

The most common argument we got from parents was that their kid got on last time and was fine, which is like arguing that because you drove without a seat belt one time and didn't crash, you might as well go ahead and do it every day. I'm not saying the rides are deathtraps, but 4,400 kids a year are injured on amusement park rides, and 67 of them are hurt seriously enough to require a hospital visit. If a teenager making near minimum wage is more concerned about your child's safety than you are, the only ride you should be on is one that ends at the Child Protective Services waiting room.

At least I never had any parents flip out and swear at me, but that absolutely does happen. Because if you can teach your children to belittle minors half your age for doing their jobs while also teaching them that you don't care about their safety in the same profane rant, you can use the time saved to stuff more mini-doughnuts in your mouth. It's called efficiency.

Image Source/Digital Vision/Getty Images
"Did you see the way he was just shaking with rage? That's how it's done, kids!"

#4. Size Doesn't Matter

Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images

My park's main attraction was called the Vortex, because it's carny law that all rides have to be named like they're third-rate comic book characters.

Via Guaranteerv.com
I like to imagine it was once white, but then point #6 from this article happened.

You'd assume this would be one of the most dangerous rides and one of the most difficult rides to operate, and you'd be wrong on both counts. Which is embarrassing, really. Get your shit together. No, all we had to do to run it was push a few buttons. And while it's simple by roller coaster standards, fancy ones at big parks rely more on computers than pimple-faced high school students to keep them running smoothly.

Meanwhile, you know that dinky little kiddie roller coaster that even small town fairs have? Usually the cars are in the shape of a dragon or little airplanes? That toddler trap was the bane of my existence. It was spitting in the face of God, and daring him to do something about it.

Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images
"Alright, is everyone ready? Did everyone kiss their mothers one final goodbye?"

Putting aside the fact that I'm only slightly better with children than the clown from It, this son of a bitch was both a huge pain to operate and probably one of the more dangerous rides in the park. Unlike most rides, you had to manually time when it stopped. If you fucked up -- and you would -- you had to grab the train and physically yank it down to the platform while the kids were busy unbuckling their seat belts and trying to climb out into thin air, because kids are dumb and only slightly less enamored with head trauma than NFL players.

One time a wheel flew off and pelted me in the leg, and while I'm sure watching the ride their children were on literally fall to pieces before their eyes really inspired confidence in the parents, I was just glad the wheel didn't take a different trajectory and clean the clock of some poor kid waiting in line. In what will perhaps always be my greatest deadpan performance, I had to tell people that the ride was temporarily closed for "maintenance" while holding the wheel, which is like a doctor telling a nurse they need a Band-Aid while holding an amputated leg.

Ablestock.com/AbleStock.com/Getty Images
One that they ironically lost on the kiddie roller coaster.

That ride actually made the local news after an "incident," and while details were vague, it was shut down a few years later, due to what I assume were reports of a haunting by the ghosts of concussed children. And while I'm proud to say I didn't maim any kids on my watch (not something I can say about every job I've held), other kiddie ride operators aren't so lucky. There have been several serious injuries and deaths, as many or more as there have been for adult rides.

So paranoids, take note. Much like how flying is statistically safer than driving, the big complicated-looking rides at amusement parks are probably safer than the ones that look about as thrilling as doing your taxes. Again, serious accidents are rare, but they happen just enough that you now have the perfect excuse to refuse your children's requests to go to the park on days when you'd rather just stay home and nurse a hangover.

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Mark Hill

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