I knew the carnival was there, but I couldn’t yet see it. Rounding a long curve at twenty miles-per-hour, around the northern perimeter of the CoolSprings Galleria, with the interstate running parallel on my left, I looked up at just the right moment, and through a break in the tall trees, I saw flashing, colored lights. The lights formed a number and a word: “1001 Nachts.” At first, a tiny spark of excitement rushed through me, provoked by the sight of a carnival ride–a vestige of childhood perhaps, one I wouldn’t have expected to feel as an adult. But there it was, the old excitement: even though I wasn’t going to ride anything or play any games, or even treat myself to some wayward, deep-fried confection, the little surge had come. Second, I wondered why the word nights was in German. The original collection of stories known as The Thousand and One Nights, as you probably know, was written in Arabic, so it had to be translated into something, right? But why not English, for an American audience? Here are two theories: either the ride originally operated in Germany, OR . . . somebody thought “1001 Nachts” sounded more exotic. My measly Google research yielded nothing, so I’ll go with the latter of those theories, a choice allowing me to good-naturedly mock the ride maker’s naming decision while still appreciating the imagination that went into creating this magic-carpet simulating ride.
It was 4:45 on a Wednesday afternoon, so I didn’t expect a bustling crowd, but what I found was no crowd at all. In fact, there were no visitors anywhere, except me. There were people milling about, but it soon became clear they were all employed by the amusement company–each one had on some color variant of the same digitally-embroidered polo shirt. Rides spun with no one on them; appeals to play games were directed solely at me. It was a bit surreal. Finally, someone informed me that the carnival didn’t officially open until five, though I was free to stroll through the premises and be harassed by game operators. I was only a few minutes early, but early nonetheless. It was opening night, and no one was there yet . . . but me.
Some of the game operators wore headsets, the purpose of which apparently was to let them speak to customers without yelling. I found this out after I’d only barely entered the loop, before I’d made eye contact with anybody. “You ready to shoot some hoops?” It took a couple seconds to find the source of the question. Then up ahead, some thirty or forty yards, standing in front of a basketball shooting game, a young man was smiling at me. It seemed ridiculous he’d solicit my money from that distance. But it didn’t seem to matter to these hi-tech carnival barkers whether I was near them or far away. Indeed, a few minutes later, a woman spoke to me via headset from a mere four feet, which was kind of weird, like talking on the phone to someone who’s in the same room. She demonstrated how to stand a bottle upright with a ring-on-a-string so I’d know the secret and all I’d have to do was give her a few dollars and then I’d have my pick of any of the stuffed animals hanging from the canopy’s ceiling. Something I found hilarious, though, was her response when I told her no: she said, “I understand.” Why this was so funny, I’m not sure. I guess because it was such a real-world answer to a situation that was inherently absurd. It surprised me she didn’t keep pressing. Maybe she too sensed how uncomfortable this one-on-one interchange with a headset was. I moved on, passing through the shadow of 1001 Nachts, which soared atop its flat post, sometimes lit, sometimes not.
The highlight of my solitary, earlybird, parking-lot carnival stroll would have to be the freak show tent. I never expect to see this in modern times, except for maybe at Coney Island, where a legitimate historical–albeit quirky and gloriously anachronistic–culture surrounds it (though to Coney Island’s credit, I’ve noticed the gentler term “sideshow” often used in place of “freak show” in their promotional literature). The phenomenon of the freak show evades the flailing and grasping tentacles of political correctness, somehow; the whole idea of profiting off labeling people as “freaks” seems like it would be an intolerable subversion in our society. But nevertheless, at the very back of the carnival, a red and yellow striped tent stretched wide across the pavement, its facade covered in various classic freak-show style posters, testifying to an uncharacteristic laxity in the aforementioned political correctness.
The posters on the tent might’ve been as much decorative as they were informative. I couldn’t tell from the posters what was actually inside the tent versus what may have been merely a set of freak show tropes, included on the facade for simple effect. There’s no way all the things advertised were really in there: Chupacabra, Bigfoot, a unicorn, Dolly the Two-faced Cow, and the Eight-Legged Freak–all under one roof?! Come on now! (Save something for the other freak shows.) But I do love the freak show aesthetic–part Victorian, part Vaudeville. It’s a look that stubbornly has never changed with the times. Maybe because, every generation, no one can believe it’s still here.
A dry-erase board near the tent’s entrance provided clarity: there was definitely a fire-eater and a sword-swallower inside (the same person, perhaps?). While I was taking pictures, a slump-shouldered and heavily pierced man in a tank top shuffled by and disappeared into the gloom of the tent. A minute or two later, I could see him sitting in there, on a metal folding chair. I wondered if he was the sword-swallower. He was watching me, which was more awkward than creepy. I had the sense he was no freak at all but a regular guy, just waiting for his shift to begin. In that minute, he was the subject of his own life, but when the show began, that’s when he’d transform from man to freak–from subject to object. Questions like “did he choose this life or did it choose him?” ran through my mind. And I guess I could ask that of any carnival worker. It’s no secret those jobs are few people’s idea of desirable. Yet we’ll always have those jobs, and we’ll always have the people who work them–thoughts which remind me of the importance of kindness. It’s easy to look down on people whose job it is to beg strangers to compete for prizes they don’t really want, prizes that probably aren’t worth the money spent trying to win them–stuffed animals that not even kids really care about. But behind that solicitous carnival worker is a person who probably wonders how they ended up there; a person who feels they have no other option; a person trying to stay sober; a person who’s lost everything; a person who never had anything; a person who’s alone; and yes, probably one or two who actually like what they’re doing–people who find freedom in the transience of it, in the camaraderie of it (I witnessed this in those few minutes before the place opened); people who enjoy helping others have fun, and certainly people who don’t get hung up on whether a sign reads “1001 Nights” or “1001 Nachts.” So in addition to me reminding myself to be kind, here’s another reminder I got from my fourteen-minute-long carnival-wandering experience: people are more than their jobs. I wish there was a Netflix documentary profiling carnival workers. I think it would be fascinating.
As I was returning to my car, other people had begun to arrive. A woman took a picture of her daughter posing with raised arms in front of the Ferris wheel. I can only imagine that photo ended up on social media, complete with witty hashtags and links to various family members’ accounts. 50 Cent’s “In da Club” was playing somewhere; it seemed to be coming from the basketball shooting game. A worker near the front was mouthing every word. I drove out the way I’d come in, and just before the carnival disappeared behind the trees, I looked in my rearview mirror, and you can probably guess what I saw, hovering high above where the carnival used to be: 1001 Nachts.
**For a truly, um, “unique” story involving the ride in the first paragraph, 1001 Nachts, click here.