Reporter's notebook: My day as an O.C. Fair employee

COSTA MESA — I don't understand why I didn't get fired on my first day as a carnival employee.

Not that I was actually getting paid.

Other than the small matter of not being on the Ray Cammack Shows (RCS) payroll, I was a ticket-scanning, prize-pulling, running-in-circles, grinning employee, like most any other carnival worker.

And I was terrible at it.

The plan was to do a behind-the-scenes look at life on the road as a carnival worker. About 200 full-time RCS employees travel 10 months out of the year in a massive caravan of machinery and trailers that move across Texas, Arizona and California.

Due to the unpredictable layout of a new town, RCS provides employees access to lodging, a general store, hair salon and even spa services, all within the mobile community.

This is the unknown world I wanted to explore. However, its gatekeeper, Tony Fiori, RCS director of media marketing, wouldn't let me pass into it as just a journalist. I had to get hired as an employee first.

This idea belonged to Fiori, who had the quickly frustrating Socratic habit of answering my well-drafted questions with, "Why do you think?"

I couldn't tell if Fiori responded this way out of impatience (to give him credit, RCS hires and trains an additional 200 to 300 new employees and sets up an entire carnival in less than 10 days) or because it made me challenge my preconceived notions of what it is to be a "carnie."

RCS takes itself and its employees seriously.

Fiori had me fill out a pile of paperwork the size of a court order, submit to a drug test (yes, I passed), agree to a background check, complete employee orientation, game worker training and conform to the head-to-toe dress code.

As Fiori told me before setting out on this assignment, while seated in his mobile office complete with a desk and meeting table, RCS workers are like any other corporate employee, subject to rules and regulations outlined by executive management.

It just so happens that instead of a cubicle, their office space is a carnival.

The day of my first, and only, day of work, I didn't know what I would be doing. I was told that I would work a game booth for one hour, as a real employee, with all the company expectations thereof.

Minutes after I changed into my issued RCS standard red polo and swung a photo I.D. badge around my neck, a mother with two sweaty children asked me for directions.

I was on my way to the children's carnival, where I was to work, but I got lost and was 20 minutes late.

"It's my first day, sorry," I said to them.

I felt like I had failed already.

They set me up in one of those water pistol racing games. I was given a quick rundown of the cost of tickets per play, prize distribution and an electronic ticket scanner that was more confusing than any T3 calculator I handled in college.

I co-manned the elevated platform, lined on either side by eight pistol stations, with an energetic, rapid-talking South African.

He was a blur of efficient motion. I was not.

Parents tried to flag me down to scan tickets for their children, and I didn't see them. I scanned tickets in wrong quantities (which had to be corrected by my co-operator, thus halting the game) and continually forgot to hit the buttons to activate the pistol stations, which resulted in default winners and irked losers.

I was a road hazard between the ready players and the available prizes. I'm pretty sure my co-operator held a low opinion of me by the time the hour was out.

While my smile started out genuine, it fell off my face fast. The heat, constant stream of players and surprisingly high-intensity workout of the job was more than I anticipated.

It was hard work, but I can see the allure of carnival. The best part was seeing one small girl play an astonishing 12 rounds in a row and accumulate five prizes. Talk about being excited.

But would I do it again? No.

Carnival work, as they say, is not all fun and games.

SARAH PETERS is a reporter for the Daily Pilot. She can be reached at sarah.peters@latimes.com.

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