It’s the first hour of the first day of the fair and most of the games and amusement workers are hanging out, sitting at their booths, waiting for customers to come by. As soon as they see one, though, they spring to life.
“Free try! Come on, sweetie,” Vicky Garcia says to a child approaching the “King of Pop” game booth she was manning on Wednesday, Day 1 of the Napa Town & Country Fair. Colorful balloons were lined up across a wall behind Garcia, each in its own little cubby.
The point of the game is to pop the balloon using a hacky sack ball. If you aim the ball at the center of a balloon, “like you’re playing darts,” you might knock the balloon into the pin behind it, popping it.
Garcia was giving her first players free throws and tips on how to win – presumably tips that fairgoers coming during busier hours, like nights and weekends, won’t get.
“The best days will be Friday, Saturday, Sunday and the afternoons,” Garcia said. Garcia, originally from Victorville, has been working on the fair circuit for three years. This year, along with other rides and games staff, she is working the Napa fair with Helm and Sons Amusements out of Colton. The company’s logo is the face of happy little purple bear.
Edward Cruz of Los Angeles said that he was an assistant store manager when he began working on fairs. He was on his three-week vacation when he walked by a game booth and was asked if he wanted a job. That first week, he said he made more money than in a month at his other job, and 26 years later, he’s still doing it.
“My mother calls me a social butterfly,” he said, so this job is perfect for him.
“I love it, I really do,” Cruz said. “I love to talk … I like to make people smile.”
Napa’s fair is relatively small compared to some others, which can last 12 to 18 days. The Town & Country Fair runs for five days, Wednesday through Sunday.
Although Napa’s fair is small, Cruz still expects to make money.
“Every place I’ve been to (in Napa), everyone said they’re going to the fair,” he said. People come to the fair knowing they’re going to spend money, he said.
“They bring their kids, and the kids, they have to ride rides and they’re gonna play one or two games,” he said.
“We get commission on whatever we bring in, so I act a fool out there,” Cruz said, reenacting a little dance he does for the children. “I have a good time.”
With this fair, he said, he’ll probably be travelling for 9 ½ months. Then, in the off season, he tries to go to Florida where there are still festivals in the winter. While on the road, though, Cruz says he spends a lot of his hard-earned money on eating out and buying new clothes at Walmart because it can be cheaper than doing laundry. “You’d be surprised, being on the road, you spend a lot of money,” he said.
“We all travel together,” said Ed West, a third-generation fair worker manning the “Alpine Slide.”
“I’ve been around this show since I was 14, 15 … the owner (Davey Helm) and I grew up together,” West said. “We love this business.”
West’s whole family works in the fair business, even his aunts, uncles and cousins. Every time he goes to a larger fair like the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles, which ended less than two weeks ago, he sees family.
“I have family probably on five different carnivals,” he said. Travelling with him is his partner, Diana Celaya, whom he introduced to the fair life about a year ago. The stress that comes from life on the road is made easier with a partner, he said.
“It’s a hard life,” West admitted. People he’s been with in the past didn’t like it, but Celaya seems to be adapting well.
“It’s challenging, but very exciting,” Celaya said as she ushered children of all ages into the “Mardi Gras” maze. “It’s a different way of life for me … it’s made me more open to everything.”
Celaya previously worked at a university and before that, she said, at an elementary school.
“It’s been an adjustment,” but it allows her to travel and meet new people. With her children in college, she said, it was time for a change.
“What a great job,” she said. “Every day I’m at the fair – it’s the best job you could have.”
West said that making sure that children at the fair have fun and bringing smiles to their faces has been a rewarding career.
“It’s been a lot of fun. You gotta love to travel and meeting people,” he said. “I don’t want to do anything else.”