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Travels With Big Al : Carnival: Life on the road with a 1,100-pound alligator is seldom boring. Just ask wrangler Marcos Franca.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Marcos Franca blew into town with the desert breeze, escorting a giant alligator named Big Al.

He last saw his wife four months and 15 carnivals ago, but hey, who’s counting?

“This is the life you choose,” says Franca, 37, surveying the bustling midway at the Antelope Valley Fair and Alfalfa Festival, where a steady stream of wide-eyed kids are willing to pay 50 cents a pop to view Big Al.

Life can be tough traveling with a 1,100-pound alligator, but seldom boring. Not if, like many of his fellow carnival workers, you’re as enamored of the midway as Franca is.

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“It’s either in your blood or it isn’t” is the way he explains his self-described addiction to carnival life.

The former pizza deliveryman is among 300 itinerant workers, concessionaires and ride owners who have descended on this suburban outpost for the 57th annual fair, which runs through the Labor Day weekend.

Out behind the gaudy games and smelly animal barns, the carnies--as they are known in the trade--have converted a dusty corner of the fairgrounds on the edge of town into a portable village of sorts.

It is a hectic place where ride owners and their families in expensive, air-conditioned truck-trailers and mobile homes mingle easily with a working class of game-callers, ticket-takers and candy vendors.

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“There isn’t a lot of uppityness among carnival folk,” says cotton-candy maker and former convenience store clerk Renee Tevis, 42, a 15-year veteran of the road. “We watch out for each other.”

Known as “Midway Mom,” the soft-spoken Tevis is a mother figure to younger members of the entourage who come to her for advice and counsel.

“I’ve never married and don’t have children, but I tell people I’ve got a thousand kids out here,” she says.

Unable to afford a trailer of her own, she lives in an eight-foot-square compartment in a “bunk trailer” owned by her employer, B & B Amusements. Each compartment has a bunk bed and two small closets. She shares quarters with a friend, splitting the $50-a-week rent.

For other carnival workers earning less than $250 a week, even those accommodations are a luxury.

“If cash is low, I sleep under the rides at night,” says 23-year-old Chris (Turbo) Willis. A native of the West Texas plains, Willis ran away with a carnival as a teen-ager and has been on the road since.

With B & B, that means crisscrossing California and Arizona nine months a year, a nomadic swirl dictated by the fair calender, not geographical convenience. The troupe came here from near San Francisco after jumping from Victorville to towns in the Sacramento River Valley. Pomona is next.

A muscular man with tattooed arms as round as a python, Willis operates a kiddie ride called Bumper Boats. His nickname, he says, is a reference to his strength. (“Something heavy needs lifting, they know where to come.”)

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Like many of his colleagues, Willis resents the image of carnies as lawless vagabonds.

“People treat us like we’re a disease,” he says. “You go into a store and they think you’re gonna steal. People [in their cars] reach over and lock their doors.”

Leroy Lusk, 62, a supervisor with the amusement company in charge of the back lot, including the carnival workers’ village, says the stereotype of the “carny as an undesirable--while inaccurate--is probably with us to stay because at the lower end of the wage chain, carnivals still attract people who are down on their luck.”

“It burns me when I hear people say, ‘Oh, those people are dirty,’ ” says Lusk. “Hell, you work as hard as they do and you’re gonna get dirty.”

Not far away, Kathy Mason prepared to have dinner with her husband and 11-year-old daughter in the couple’s 35-foot luxury trailer, which they transport from show to show.

As the daughter of a carnival worker who is married to B & B’s general manager, the 40-year-old Mason has traveled the carnival circuit most of her life.

She is with the troupe full-time during the summer. Other times of year, when her daughter is in school, the two of them meet up with her husband and the show on weekends.

The couple has never considered doing anything else.

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“What other business can you own that allows you to take off three months out of the year?” she asks.

Franca, the alligator man, doesn’t own Big Al, or the tall, white-and-silver trailer emblazoned with the words “Giant Alligator” that he pulls behind a pickup truck six months a year. But he is as smitten with the lifestyle as his better-heeled colleagues.

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Near the end of the midway, within eyeshot of the carny encampment, Franca makes his home in the top part of the trailer, equipped with kitchen and bath. Al stays downstairs. “Sometimes he wakes me up hissing.”

Franca lifts a two-foot-wide hatch in the middle of the floor, and-- voila! --there, big as life, is Big Al, lurking in the watery confines of a holding tank. Paying customers see him through portals on the trailer’s side.

Most alligators grow to be 10 feet long and weigh 500 pounds. But at 13 feet and more than twice normal weight, Big Al is a reptilian boxcar. “It’s his girth that makes him special,” extols Franca. “He’s all meat.”

To keep the alligator fed, Franca makes thrice-weekly trips to supermarkets, stocking whole chickens, beef slabs and liver. The food, served raw, is lowered to the gator on the end of a rope.

Franca has repeated the ritual time and again for four years, since answering an ad in a Florida newspaper. “Good with animals? Like to travel? Call me,” the ad said.

It led him to an entrepreneur with an unusual assortment of animals: a Belgian horse the size of a poodle, a giant steer, a 1,200-pound pig named Harley, and, of course, Big Al.

Franca has worked with them all, but prefers the alligator. “He’s low-key and doesn’t need a lot. We get along swell.”

FYI

Fair hours are 3 p.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday. On Friday, the fair is open from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m.; on Saturday, from noon to 1 a.m.; on Sunday, from noon to midnight. On Labor Day, Sept. 4, the last day of the fair, the hours are noon to 10 p.m. Fairgrounds are at 155 E. Ave. I, Lancaster.


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