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The Daily Tar Heel

Workers Enjoy Freedom of Fair

"We've got a winner!"

A few fairgoers stop and smile as Richard Gustafson, the man behind the voice, hands the lucky contestant a carnival-issue stuffed animal.

The air is heavy with the smell of fried dough and grease, and people on rides whiz by in a blur of hair and screams.

With an average weekend crowd of more than 220,000, a maze of games and rides greets every person.

Entertainment has been an integral part of the fair since James E. Strates brought his business to Raleigh in 1948.

Traveling the eastern seaboard by train, Strates Shows became a nationwide institution.

The company now employs nearly 500 people who work seven months of the year and travel, in one season alone, to at least 16 different locales.

Often called "carnies," these fair workers have gained a negative reputation over the years.

Gustafson said the carnival workers are interrogated by the police, stared at with disgust and denied hotel rooms.

"(We) are treated like third-class citizens," he said. "(This behavior) violates civil rights."

Despite stereotypes about carnival workers, John Strates, manager of Strates Shows, is proud of his business and workers.

He speaks highly of the effort hidden behind painted scenes and happy children.

"It's pretty extraordinary to see the way they work," he said. "They are out there in the middle of the night, working and moving things."

William Costin, a 31-year carnival veteran, echoes his sentiments. "Not everybody can do this job."

Costin started working with the carnival at age 12 because he needed money. He now works almost 30 hours a week with no vacation time at the Water Gun Fun booth.

He juggles the rest of his time between another job driving a tractor-trailer and his family in Boston.

Costin, like many of his co-workers, follows the fair caravan by truck, spending nights in hotels with his own money, but he said he delights in his daily work.

"I cater to the kids," he said with a smile. "I give everything away!"

But life on the road is difficult for Costin.

"My youngest daughter turned 5 yesterday, and I couldn't even be there for it," Costin said a week ago.

"I'm lucky though because some of these guys never see (their families)."

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For some the enjoyment of the profession is well worth the demands.

Gustafson, a 48-year-old Michigan native, said he loves "the freedom to work for (himself)."

He joined the Strates carnival 28 years ago after a stint in the army. "I was just being a hippie," he said with a nostalgic grin. "I was looking for something to do in the '70s."

He likened his carnival work to the Dionysian theater of ancient Greece, which played off audience reaction rather than a set script. "We respond to the people as they come to us," Gustafson said.

Before his days of fast food and Ferris wheels, Gustafson spent four years at Grand Valley College in Michigan where he read extensively and wrote for his school newspaper.

He said he decided against taking his writing talent to a professional level.

"Writing is too personal," he said. "You really put your soul out there."

Gustafson said he knows working at carnivals does not garner him the respect he might have gotten in another field, but, for him, happiness and inner peace are more important goals.

"I enjoy my job; I'm free," Gustafson said. "People don't have the sense of values out there that they do here."

Gustafson said the benefits of his job are worth the poor treatment, the long hours, even the time away from his four children.

The distance isn't a problem, he said. "I can come and go as I like."

A schedule like this is hard to find in today's world as most people look for practicality, for stability.

But not the carnival workers. Not Richard Gustafson. As he takes four tickets from a fairgoer and retreats into his world of colored lights and caramel popcorn, he smiles thoughtfully.

"I am who I am. I'm not going to hide that from anybody."

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