Just Don't Call us Carnies

When the Cushing crew does its job right, fairgoers don’t realize the crew is there: a hand takes a ticket, an arm checks a safety bar, and that’s all anybody knows about the people who make it all happen.

Darrin Cushing wants you to know that he and his carnival crew, who have worked the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Livestock Show and Fair for over a quarter century, are not like those carnies at other places who fight and drink and cheat small children on scam games and rickety rides. “That’s the worst thing we hear,” said Darrin. “ ‘Oh, you carnie!’ Like we’re uneducated or something. Well, I have a house. I have a pool in my yard. I have a car. I went to school. Even though my parents were out on the road, we had roots.” At thirty-six, Darrin is now the boss of Cushing Amusements out of Wilmington, Massachusetts. It has been in the family for four generations. During the fair, over 25,000 people pass through in the course of four days, and Darrin will be the one responsible for the smooth operation of twenty rides and a couple dozen booths from ten in the morning till eleven at night. After everyone’s gone home to bed, he will continue to be responsible for some 
seventy employees consigned to camp out in a West 
Tisbury field in the middle of nowhere.     
Darrin’s the boss, but he’d rather not be called that. He doesn’t wear a tie, or a shirt for that matter. When we caught him setting up for the fair last year, he was bare-chested and blue-jeaned. He has blue eyes and curly blond hair; adjusting a metal part on the cotton candy stand, he looked more the tanned lifeguard than the businessman. His voice was husky from dealing with the crew, but that didn’t stop him from talking.
“My first job when I was a kid in the business was working the cotton-candy truck with my mother, making popcorn. I was about six years old. Then I graduated to other things – setting up and tearing down rides to learn them mechanically. Each time you go up a level, you know? When the carnival’s passed down from family to family, your parents make you learn from the bottom up. There’s five of us kids. My brother is here this weekend, my wife’s aunt, my niece over there, my brother-in-law in the white T-shirt. It’s a lot of family out here. That’s my wife Paula up there on the fried dough stand.”
Paula, dark-haired and in a tank-top and shorts, smiled and waved warily from the roof, where she was making a repair. Flags in blue, yellow, and pink whipped around her legs and sandaled feet.
“She normally doesn’t go up there,” said Darrin.
Paula tried to climb down but got stuck.
“You want me to catch her?” a crew member asked.
In her previous life, Paula was a hairdresser. Darrin went into the salon where she worked. He liked what he saw. He ended up going all the time. He noticed Paula always made a point to wash his hair. He asked her why. She asked him out for dinner.
“So that’s what happened,” said Darrin. “She liked it out here, and gave up her hairdressing job, but she still cuts all the crew’s hair. Nobody has long hair that works for me. Everyone has to be clean-cut, no scruffiness. She’s in charge of making sure that they have nice tops on and bandannas. She’s very picky about all of that stuff. 
Being a hairdresser, you tend to be.”
At seven in the morning, Paula gets the grill going in the sausage tent and makes French toast. She fries or scrambles a couple hundred eggs for the crew. The gathering includes family and friends and includes licensed plumbers, vocational-school teachers, mechanics, ski instructors, nurses – whoever can take time off to travel with the Cushings. Most are young, many are drifters, a few are old-timers. The prize for longevity goes to Darrin’s mother, Marion Cushing. At sixty-five, she still makes the fair circuit, renewing old friendships on the Vineyard each summer.
Her grandfather was the one who started the 
business, moving the show by railroad on the big-fair circuit between Canada and Kentucky. “When I was a little girl, they used to have the power company come out and hook up to the power box on the pole and bring the wires down,” said Marion. “My great-grandfather got electrocuted like that and died.” In the ’50s, her father powered the show with generators, making a point to acquire the latest rides: the Flying Bobs, the Double Ferris Wheel, the Skydiver, the Toboggan, the Tilt-A-Whirl. “About all that’s changed over the years,” said Marion, “are the lights that pulse to the music. It’s always been a family tradition. If any of the grandchildren – like Darrin’s five-year-old son who’s here now – take it up, we’ll have five generations in the business.”
These days being a carnie is not the freewheeling life you might expect. There are laws and regulations governing safety, and strict background checks and drug testing for crew members. With a payroll and expenses of $25,000 a week, Darrin keeps his fingers crossed for good weather. “People see all that money going into the 
registers and think it goes straight into your pocket,” said Darrin. “Well, it doesn’t. Insurance is about $80,000 
a year. A kiddie ride like that taxi jet costs $55,000. 
This little fire engine was $27,000.” Last year they added the Octopus, a mechanical creature with multiple 
arms and spinning cars, for more fun and excitement. “Whatever it takes,” said Darrin, “to keep people coming back for more.”

When the fair began in 1858, the idea was not so much to fling people skyward as to plant their feet more firmly on the ground. “A few farmers met together to discuss the subject of an agricultural society,” wrote Professor Henry L. Whiting, one of the fair’s founders. “At length a motion, almost a single motion, was made to have a fair – and lo, we had it!” That first fair was more successful than the organizers had hoped. It went along splendidly thereafter, interrupted only by World War II.
“Then a shift occurred in the 1940s,” said Eleanor Neubert, fair manager and secretary to the agriculture society. “When the organizers realized the agricultural end was in the red, they decided to bring in carnival rides. It improved attendance. Tourism was more prevalent. Kids loved it. In the 1970s, they made an exception one year – no rides. That didn’t go over very big at all. We’ve had them ever since.”
Eleanor has known Darrin since he was five or six. “We’ve become friendly,” said Darrin. “Coming to the Vineyard fair becomes a part of you. It’s just something that we do.” Over the years, however, the logistics of a carnival ocean crossing have become harder. “It’s a nightmare now,” said Darrin. Ferry reservations for the trucks and trailers must be puzzled out a year in advance. They cost $18,000 and cause endless headaches. A show this size normally takes the crew three hours to lay out, but on the Vineyard it takes three long days because the rides often arrive out of order and they must wait for the whole operation to arrive before starting the assembly.
Trailerload by trailerload, the Cushing crew hauls its gear to the fairgrounds at 35 Panhandle Road in West Tisbury. For fairgoers, the drive out to the fairgrounds was once a prized part of the fair experience, wrote Henry Beetle Hough, late editor of the Vineyard Gazette, in the 1950s: “West Tisbury was far enough from the down-Island towns, by the dirt roads and the plodding methods of travel, to make the trip a high adventure.” Not so for the carnival crew today. They are largely city boys from Malden, Somerville, and Woburn, used to walking a block to the nearest store or bar stool. Camping for a week without a car or access to civilization doesn’t sit easy. Though they’ve got the essentials set up in trailers and tents – laundry machines, showers, food, drinks, bunks – they haven’t got their freedom. They live, in effect, on an island on an island.
“We call it The Projects,” said Darrin of their camping quarters. “I lay it all out. Usually we stick the office people on one side and the rowdier people down there. They’ll be up all night when the rest of us just want to go to bed. I said to Eleanor, ‘One thing you’ve got to understand is, you guys get to go home at night, these guys don’t.’ ”
On the morning before the fair had even started, Darrin was stressed. He was trying to make sure his equipment would run for thirteen hours straight, four days in a row. The company had set the Ferris wheel and merry-go-round in front of the big barn, where they’ve always been. Then, after puzzling out placement for the rest, they blared Jimmy Buffett and checked each ride. “Once the fair starts, people don’t want to see you with the tools out,” said Darrin. “They think the whole thing’s going to fall apart, even if it’s not a safety issue, just a loose cable or motor problem.” The seventy-five-year-old carousel, named after his mother, Marion, still needed repairs. Space was tighter than ever. Two large trees were in Darrin’s way, and he had to reconfigure his usual set-up. “They won’t cut those trees down,” said Darrin. “They’re an agricultural fair. I wouldn’t want to cut down beautiful trees like that either, but when this place gets busy, it’s going to be tight.”

That night at the fair it was tight. The gritty smells of sweat and grease were mixed in with the sweet smells of grass and squeezed lemons, fried funnel cakes, and popcorn. Orange and yellow lights blinked and pulsed to rock and reggae music. Faces were flush from the day’s sun, from excitement, from the glow of the red lights. The Cushing crew was doing its job right; the fairgoers, for the most part, didn’t realize they were there: a hand took a ticket, an arm checked a safety bar, and that was all anybody knew about the people who made it all happen. The Cushings have served a funnel cake to Madonna and gotten a handshake from Clinton, but tonight lesser-known Islanders and tourists starred in their own romantic comedies and performed stunning acts of caloric consumption. An adolescent boy rode the Ferris wheel up into the dark sky with a poster of a semi-clad model clutched to his chest, his date for the evening. On the ground, his friends pointed him out and hooted.
“Right this way,” said the Cushing crew. “Right this way. Hop on in.” From a blue-cushioned seat on the Aladdin ride, red and white lights flashed – Christmas in August. Then the world turned upside down. “I shouldn’t have eaten that lobster roll,” a woman said, suddenly queasy. “They don’t call it see-food for nothing,” said an eight-year-old and laughed.
Tickets fluttered down like confetti from the yellow Octopus. Baseball caps flew off. Ponytails whipped wildly on the winds created by centrifugal force. A girl screamed happily. The Bowler Roller clicked. The 
gigantic hammer thumped. A ball jumped. The Popeyes of the world won the love of the Olive Oyls. And through it all, the Cushing crew hollered right this way, right this way, till one of them, at least, would say it in her sleep.
Of all the high-dollar thrills, perhaps the biggest draw of all was the simplest and most sinister. On a platform above a tank of water, wearing overalls and a white painted face, sat Bozo behind bars. “The only game in town where you get to drown a live clown,” said Bozo in a singsong voice. “Knock me in the water just like the otter.”
The sign read: “$2 for three balls. Ten balls for $5.” The balls and bucks were flying.
A teenage boy took aim.
    “Hey, kid,” Bozo taunted, “nice necklace. Who’d you steal it off of? Let me see your fast ball. Have you even got a fast ball?”    
The boy’s pitch struck well above the target.
“Okay, throw your high ball,” said Bozo. He laughed a jarring laugh and sang, “How dry I am, how dry I’ll be. . . .”
“That guy’s scary,” said one girl. “He’s going to give me nightmares. Give me some money.” She paid for three balls and, ignoring the sinker button to the side, threw them directly at the cage.
“Feelings,” sang the clown. “I want to hurt your feelings.”
“Is that clown always this bad?” a spectator asked the crew-cut Cushing guy with the eagle tattoo at the nearby Tsunami Slide.
“When he gets a little tipsy, he’s even worse,” said the crew member. “But, yeah, he’s always like that, even when he’s not a clown.”
Bozo had been doing this for twenty years, and he knew how to draw heat. The balls flew and Bozo laughed. At last a boy bashed one into the target and with it dropped the clown. The applause was joyous.
Bozo was unimpressed. He climbed soggily back to his seat. “Wow,” he said. “We’ve got one in a row here.”
The boy took aim again and, amazingly, hit the 
target a second time. Down went the clown. Up went the applause.
Bozo emerged from the swamp. “I’ve got three words for you, Junior,” he said. “About. Darn. Time. Give him a hand, folks. Two in a row. Know what you would have gotten for three in a row? Nothing.” He laughed a hyena laugh. The lights flashed, the beat went on. One by 
one, families slipped the salty sweet wilds of the fair, 
found their SUVs in the field, and bumped their way 
over the flattened grass, past the crew’s campers.
On Sunday night, long after the Islanders had all left, the Cushing crew struck the rides, refolded the tents, disassembled the last of the booths. First thing Monday morning, they were gone on the ferry, lugging the 
baggage of fun they carry across the sea and over 
country roads. Come August, they would be back. Come August, we would be waiting.