TAMPA — In the right company, Frank Zaitshik sometimes finds himself slipping into the jargon of his upbringing. He can, for instance, speak in ciazarny tiazalka, which is carny talk for “carny talk.” One of his earliest memories is of wandering behind a booth, lifting the “night wall” and finding a hidden man pulling levers, rigging the game.
Home back then was nominally Miami, but Zaitshik grew up traveling the country with his game operator parents in the 1950s and 60s. Today, his company Wade Amusements owns or facilitates all of the rides and games, and much of the food, at the Florida State Fair.
“In those days the carnival had all sorts of illegal gambling and games you couldn’t win,” Zaitshik, now 76 and a Lutz resident, said from behind his scrupulously tidy desk inside the Wade office trailer, parked on the midway. “We were a closed society, it was us against the world. That’s not the case today and hasn’t been for a very long time.”
Outside his trailer window stretched the fairgrounds, awash that morning in the scent of corn dog and classic rock, cranked loud to enhance the high-velocity twirling to come when the rides would open. Workers were at their posts, adjusting the queue gates and the stuffed penguins, and it all led to what Zaitshik touts as “North America’s largest portable observation wheel,” requiring 12 semitrucks to move when the operation picks up and jumps to the next city.
To live the carnival life in 2023 is a different animal than decades ago – more regulated, cleaner in more than one sense of the word – but in some ways time has hardly changed a thing. It’s still a singular way of earning a living, still a family tradition steeped in grease and its own mythologies.
When he was a kid, Zaitshik’s family worked among people “looking to live in the shadows,” long before today’s background checks or drug tests. He once watched his dad, a small guy who’d been a teenage pool hustler on the streets of New York, crack a drunk with a bowling pin in self-defense, then keep on running his game.
The modern carnival brings inspectors who pore over the funnel cake stands and bumper cars after Zaitshik himself does. He gets a kick reminiscing about rubbing elbows decades ago with real-life characters like “little hand Louie” and “scarface Frankie,” but he’s proud of his role in the evolution of the industry “out of the shadows and into the daylight.” He believes in running a tight ship – clean and family-friendly.
Still, carnival life means long days, cramped campers and living on the road eight to 10 months a year, all for perhaps $14 or $15 an hour. “It’s not for everyone,” is what many workers told me this week, before adding that they love it. Zaitshik himself lives onsite in a large camper, though the grounds are close enough to his house to commute.
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On a noon golf cart ride around the bustling midway, Zaitshik pointed out nitpicks, trucks parked wrong, drain hoses that need to be covered. “Is that a scratch?” he asked about a new sign.
Among those workers hustling between the Charlie Chopper and the Dragon Wagon and the former Zombie Hotel funhouse that he’d recently rebranded as Hillbilly Village, he pointed out sons, daughters and other descendants of the carnival business. There, he said, were guys working the Himalaya ride – a ring of carts that zoom over simulated hills – their father once ran. There, too, was the grandson of a longtime weight-guesser, and a fourth-generation repairman. Zaitshik’s own brother-in-law, son and two daughters work in the business, and his daughters married fellow carnival men.
Some magic combination of tradition and novelty keeps workers hooked. Shortly before the 1 p.m. midway opening, a 30-year veteran of the biz named Lisa sat on a scooter visiting with her daughter and granddaughter, who were preparing the game where ping pong balls are tossed into fishbowls (Prize: live fish). Lisa said her husband was just down the way, running a high striker test-of-strength game.
Another woman in a Wade Shows shirt named Ashley strolled over with tacos to share. She explained that she was fourth-generation. Her 5-year-old son, who’d just proposed to his best friend — the child of another carnival worker — with a Ring Pop, tagged along. He was growing up the way his mother had, city to city, entertained by the fair’s racing pigs, spoiled on funnel cake. Soon he’d be homeschooled by the teachers who travel with the carnival, the same way his mom was.
Many kids who grow up like this stay in the business, the women said, but they took a moment to consider those they’d known who left: a zoologist, a cop, a bodybuilder, a pilot, at least two lawyers.
“You learn about work ethic at a young age,” Ashley said. “The first time I wanted something, an expensive purse, my grandma said, ‘OK, go over there and give Dougie a break,’ and that’s how I got started.”
Over on the independent midway – in other words, beyond the Wade domain – five siblings crewed the gleaming metal box that is DeAnna’s Steak Sundaes, an invention of their mother, who pioneered the savory sundae of sauce cascaded over meat in a cup. Ryan Hagy, the eldest son, said he’d married the sister of a friend from another carnival family. Being with his family, kids included, every day, was the draw.
Another carnival worker described the intermarriage of these families as being “like carnival royal dynasties.” Those who aren’t blood family might become as much after years and decades of working the same events.
“All the time people have to ask, like, ‘Are they your cousin-cousin, or your carnival cousin?” said Stacey Williams, 50, who runs a pineapple whip stand and claims her great-great-great grandfather invented the recipe. She’d started carnival work when she was 7, she said, getting paid 50 cents a day to roll out discs of dough to be fried into sugary elephant ears. “If someone is going to go hungry, well, they’re not going to go hungry here,” not with workers as close as siblings trading food from stall to stall, a grilled cheese for a hot dog. As for what she usually ate, she said, “Pineapple whip can get you a lot of things.”
For most of the past decade, the majority of Wade Shows’ new workers have been seasonal employees from Mexico, and more recently Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, who come to the U.S. on temporary H-2B visas, specifically for non-agricultural workers. “Without them,” Zaitshik said, “we’d be out of business.” He said Americans, by and large, just don’t want to live on the road anymore.
Ronnie Rivera, 29, who was working at a lemonade vendor, said he was in his eighth year of traveling from Mexico for the job, which has allowed him to see most of the U.S. Now fluent in English, he said the first words he learned were “caramel apple.”
Tyler Haman, from Chicago, compared fair life to the extreme fishing show Deadliest Catch: Isolated and grinding away until the season’s over and you go home with a chunk of money and time off. “But you miss weddings. You miss funerals. Because this is how you pay your bills.”
It’s a tradeoff Danny Rivera, 39, from New Jersey, knows well. A heavily tattooed union construction worker, he mostly set up stages for live events. When the pandemic canceled concerts, carnivals came back sooner, and he took a job in a barbecue concession. Two years later, it has kept him away from family, but he said he’s doing it for his five kids.
“I’ve seen like 30 people quit since I’ve been doing this,” he said. “Some leave in the middle of the day, some leave in the middle of the night.”
Rivera said he lives in a mobile bunkhouse with eight to 10 others. Other workers may have private or personal trailers, owing to seniority or perks, but at his campsite, workers pitch tents, grill steaks and crack a few beers. Sometimes the younger generation catches stories about how their line of work was rougher for those that came before.
“My dad and uncle would sleep in an onion trailer, or under a truck,” said Liam Williams, who works at a candy apple concession. “If they were lucky, they’d find a ticket booth to sleep in. Those were air-conditioned.”
One campsite at the fairgrounds has a whole trailer functioning as a mobile laundromat. Years ago, there was frequently a traveling pastor who’d hold Sunday services with most of the traveling carnivals, but not so much anymore.
Sometimes what was meant to be a brief detour, maybe just a season, turns into a nine-year journey, as it did for Jessica Capps.
Capps, 43, said there are some quirks she’s learned to manage, like how to wrangle mail at an ever-shifting address. It’s nearly impossible to date anyone outside the carnival, she lamented. Saving money, though, has been easy — she has almost no living expenses.
She’s picked up some Spanish from coworkers and even visited Mexico in her off-time. Now she’s thinking about hanging up carnival life to become a nurse. “That will be kind of bittersweet, though,” she said. “This becomes your world.”
The sixth day of the fair would eventually wind down. Zaitshik would retire to his trailer earlier than he once did. The crowds would disperse, and the seemingly uncountable lights on the midway would go out after that. The next morning, he would start the day like he always does, by texting a message to his employees: “A lot of people would like to be at the Florida State Fair, but you guys are the lucky ones to get to be here. Make the most of it.”