Courtesy Hayley MillerI remember riding the Ferris wheel on the Jersey Shore boardwalk, where my love affairs with carnivals started.
The best part of the ride for me is when it stops at the very top and I can look out, like a soaring eagle, over all the colors of the carnival below. From the vantage point of the top of the Ferris wheel, a carnival looks as if an airplane released parachutes of endless confetti down below. It’s like God shook a container of rainbow sprinkles onto the earth in the spot where magic is about to happen. Experiencing that much color at once fills me with a giddiness that overflows into a happy summer.
Sometimes it seems like time stops at the top of the Ferris wheel. In the distance I can see moonlight over the unending ocean, and it’s this quiet moment where I feel a rare sense of peace and weightless limitlessness. This feeling is why, as an adult, whenever I stumble across a local carnival or fair, I feel like I used to feel at the top of the Ferris Wheel as a kid: pangs of possibility that life is actually lighter than it often seems. Life outside of a carnival is a looming deadline, your landlord doing construction upstairs, going to the bank to check a declining balance. Life inside a carnival is life in a Candy Land board game or at a Party City balloon counter. Life at a carnival is the inside of a Crayola crayon box.
One day I was waiting at the bank and noticed a flyer featuring a Ferris wheel. I picked it up. It said Astoria Park Carnival: Free admission. I picked up more flyers from the stack. What was I planning to do? Distribute them to my fellow disgruntled neighbors waiting for a free ATM? I stuffed the flyers into my bag. The carnival comes to Astoria every year and in the six years I’ve lived here, I haven’t attended a single one. Maybe I see an advertisement and forget; maybe no one is around to go with me, or maybe I just don’t make the effort.
For weeks, my friend Hayley, a fellow writer, and I have been trying to get together. We considered attending a lecture on reproductive health, a reading on Middle East history, and a political-themed poetry slam. We had to cancel or rule out all of the above for adult reasons—conflicting schedules, forgotten obligations, and competing priorities. Luckily, it turns out Hayley loves carnivals too! Roller coaster emojis were exchanged and it was settled: Hayley, who follows a vegetarian diet, and I, who follow a gluten-free diet, would spend a Sunday afternoon at the Astoria Park carnival where we expected to go meatless and wheatless. Carnival food, like the ones listed on this list, aren’t exactly known to be heart healthy. I told Hayley that my sister recently visited a local fair and came across a funnoli, which, (you guessed it) is a cross between funnel cake and a cannoli.
Courtesy Hayley MillerIt was 90 degrees on our carnival day, so I had a flicker of nervousness: What if we get there and it’s sweaty kiddie rides and lame games? Upon arrival, I started to feel like this whole carnival idea was a mistake. The prize options looked garish: neon orangutans and giant stuffed bananas with Rastafarian dreadlocks. Then I spotted some real incentives: a tie-dyed teddy bear, a polka-dotted unicorn and a sprinkled donut pool float. Hayley had her eye on a goldfish. But we had to circle the carnival premises and remain clear-headed about where to direct our efforts. When it was time to financially commit to the afternoon, we agreed to choose one ride each in order to return to our games of choice without going broke. Here’s how to save more money at amusement parks. At the ticket booth, we channeled the resourcefulness of our inner mom-with-a-fanny-pack-full-of-coupon books. At five tickets per ride, we got 20 tickets for $25, $12.50 each.
Our first ride, the Dream Catcher, hoisted us 30 feet in the air. We screamed. Screaming feels good. I forgot that. While screaming, I wasn’t thinking about calling the cable company or how I need to start doing more squats. I was too gleefully terrified to do anything but enjoy the therapeutic powers of good fear: lowered stress, improved mood, and an emotional release powered by the swing of a pendulum and the power of taking a ride on a shaky mechanism operated by a straight-faced and frankly dangerously distracted operator.
The afternoon was dizzy. We put quarter after quarter into a coin pusher. We put ourselves in a human salad spinner also known as the Gravitron (some call it The Zipper). Then it was back to the games. Suddenly I had only three $1 bills left. The balloon game operator wanted $5. I told him three is all I had. Remember the rules of the fanny pack: always bargain. He leaned in. It’s always a good sign when game operators lean in. He warned me that his boss was around the corner but he accepted my three dollars. I threw darts and popped enough balloons to take home a tiny stuffed elephant with Velcro on its arms in case I need to attach it to anything later.
Out of money and tickets, our final goal was getting Hayley’s goldfish. To do it, we needed to get a ping-pong ball securely into a glass cup on a table lined with cups. Not a single one of our 30 some balls landed in a glass. We pulled the operator aside and asked for help. He suggested letting the balls bounce on the table for an extra boost into the cups. It was then I knew that carnivals are glorious ridiculous traps full of rigged Ponzi schemes and I will go to them always. “Can we have another turn?” I asked the operator, worried that I was embarrassing Hayley with my forwardness. “I really want to win a goldfish,” Hayley proclaimed. “I know you do,” the goldfish game operator answered. He leaned in and so did we. Things were looking up. “I’ll tell you what. You give me $5 more and I’ll give both of you a goldfish.” Ping-pong balls flew everywhere, none of them landed, and a few minutes later, we each had a clear plastic bag with a goldfish in our hand.
We decided our fish names had to be carnival-themed. I instantly settled on “Ticket.” Hayley, in honor of a Greek food stand, decided on “Gyro.” People tell me not to get too attached to Ticket. (Such naysayers! This article taught me how to keep my carnival goldfish alive). Ticket isn’t just a fish to me (although he is a fantastic fish who is thriving in his new home, thank you for asking). Ticket goes along with my new life motto: “Always go to carnivals.”
Ready to feel alive this summer? Here’s a handy carnival game guide.