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Andi Murphy, Published July 12 2010

Carnival draws workers from all avenues

Their grease- and dirt-covered hands reach for your tickets and guide you through a game or inside a carnival ride.

You’re ready to have fun. But what about those hard-working hands and the person they belong to?

“I run a couple of games out here, and I’ve been doing it for 10 months this time,” Teresa Hart, 48, said. “But I actually started the carnival business when I was 16.”

Last Thursday, Hart and other carnival workers were setting up for the start of the Red River Valley Fair. Heat pulsed from the air, the metal rides and the black asphalt. Giant multicolored stuffed rats hung silently on a wall in the shade of a vacant game booth. Motors roared all around, supplying air, gas, electricity and water to inflatable hammers, gas grills and fun houses.

One has to be ready for this kind of lifestyle of constant traveling, living in small spaces and setting up a whole carnival in the hot sun, Hart said.

At 16, Hart, who is originally from Albuquerque, N.M., joined the carnival and worked the games for eight years. She took a break from the road for 24 years to raise a family with her husband, whom she met in the carnival.

“We had a life and had three daughters together,” Hart said.

The couple moved to Phoenix, where they both received degrees. She later landed a job as a TV studio engineer in Albuquerque in 1998.

“I’ve had a lot of company jobs, and I worked in the jewelry industry,” said Hart, who now owns and operates the “Cover the Spot” carnival game.

Why did she drop her last job as a director of operations for public access TV for the carnival business?

“I just wanted to get away after my husband passed away,” Hart said. “I just needed to leave.”

Some people join the carnival because they love to travel, and some are in a life transition, Hart said.

Three years after the death of her husband, Hart met up with an old carnival buddy at an Albuquerque fair. He asked her to join again and, with the carnival already in her blood, she did.

“It was so much fun. I thought I’d be embarrassed,” Hart said. “I was talking to senators before that, and I didn’t think I would want to do it (carnivals) again.”

She left her four-bedroom house, put her stuff in storage and now lives in a package truck that is fashioned with a bedroom in the front and storage for her game in back. Her daughters and twin boys are grown and out on their own.

“It’s like camping for a living, and you move every couple of weeks, and you have to tear everything down and set your house back up,” Hart said.

These days, the carnival life seems to be pretty tame, Hart said.

Workers sleep in bunk houses, hotels and semis. When she first started in the carnival business, Hart says workers slept in their games and rides or gathered money with friends to get a hotel room, she said.

Life was rough then, and the workers looked rough, too: dark tans, sun-faded tattoos, sweat from a hard day’s work and grease from the rides and games. People were stereotyped.

“The carnie stereotype,” Hart said. “Well, I don’t think I fit into that … When you get a mix of transient people, you don’t know what you’re going to get.”

Charles Cree, 21, is from Belcourt, N.D., and just started with the carnival. He joined because he loves to travel, the pay is good, and he likes the challenge of attracting customers.

“They’re not criminals or ex-felons or anything,” said Cree of the other workers. “They’re all good people, man. It’s pretty cool.”

He previously worked with a tax company and with the carnival in Aberdeen, Texas and Chicago.

At the carnival, people smile and have fun and wander around with friends and family. They play games and ride dragons, starships and

4-foot pods.

“I just think of everybody here as my own family now,” Cree said. “They’ve treated me good since I got here.”

Briana Lawrence, 19 joined the carnival for the same reasons Cree did. With the sleeves of her white T-shirt rolled up, she scrubbed away a bit of grime from a rubber duck.

“I never traveled before. I never left my rez (Sioux reservation),” said . “I do miss my family a lot.”

“I like it. It’s fun. It’s easy work, but it gets hot,” Lawrence said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Andi Murphy at (701) 235-7311