Author, as told to
In the latest installment of Hopes&Fears’ anonymous interview series, we talk to a game agent who worked the booths at some of New York's most iconic street fairs.
I guess I’d call what I do a carnie because that’s what I know it as from TV and movies. I’d call it that, but one of the main features of a carnival is that it travels and I didn’t exactly travel for this job. This wasn’t technically a carnival, but a series of outdoor festivals with food kiosks and game booths. My actual position was called a “game agent.” Same difference, though.
I did it for two summers, at the Feast of San Gennaro and other Italian street fairs around New York. I worked the Roll-a-Ball game, the squirt gun game and the Whack-a-Mole game.
The way I came across this job is unusual but also kind of typical, given the precarious economic ecosystem of New York. I’m a musician. I went on tour and when I got back, I was dead broke. I was scrambling for work anywhere I could find it. Rent was due. Bills were piling up. But I was still in college and didn’t really have the schedule or energy to take on a full-time job. I mainly wanted to make music.
I mentioned my dilemma to one of my school friends, and she was like, “Well, I’ve been doing this game agent thing. Come in with me.” I thought it was really hilarious, so I said I’d give it a try. She introduced me to it and I ended up bringing in another friend of mine.
I’d go in at like 4:00 or 5:00 PM and leave around 12:00 or 1:00 AM. It was actually an awesome experience in that the people that worked there were really funny—absolutely some of the craziest people I’ll ever meet in my life. It was just like a lot of Italian Americans and trailer trash. Everyone seemed to have a major alcohol problem and a kid who was locked up or something. Everyone had a mouth on them. But they were also really good people.
We moved around a lot. We’d do San Gennaro along Mulberry Street in Manhattan, then we’d be at Havemeyer Street in Brooklyn, and then on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. To be honest, I still haven’t figured out who ran the whole thing, let alone how they divided the territory among the various companies. There was one guy my bosses answered to. I’d say he was the head honcho. If you wanted to use the bathroom or get some food, you could just waltz into any restaurant on the block and mention his name. It was all very grassroots, you know?
My main responsibility was to get people playing through any combination of banter and heckling. I had a whole script that I stole verbatim from the person who trained me, this guy in his mid-thirties who’d been doing it for his whole life, pretty much. “Who’s next? Who’s ready? Come on down and play this game!” If a guy was there on a date or with his buddies, we knew to bust his balls a little. I remember one time this guy was passing by with his girlfriend and I was like, “Hey, you guys wanna play the game?” He didn’t respond. So I yelled after him as loud as I could, “What are you, a cheapskate?” That seemed to get him. It’s not something you can normally do in real life but I guess when you’re behind a tall counter flanked by large Italian men, no one’s really going to say anything.
There were these dudes that would be there ahead of us to turn on all the game equipment and be on call if anything broke down. Otherwise, we would have to stock the shelves with stuffed animals, count the money at the beginning and end of the day, keep things neat and orderly, and do anything else you’d do when you open and close a normal shop: just make sure everything is in working order and if it wasn’t, get someone to come and fix it. It was a lot like a regular retail or hospitality in that sense. I’m not sure where they got the stuffed animals from. Probably some warehouse in the Bronx and, before that, some warehouse in China. It was always the same toy, to the point that seeing something different became a novelty.
New York City's street fairs in numbers
— In 2006, there were 367 street fairs in New York City.
— The expected attendance for the combined festivities was 2 million.
— That year, 46% of food permits were held by New York City's 20 largest street vendors.
— Of these, 45% were based outside of New York City, in places like New Jersey and Connecticut.
— In general, 25% of of all merchandise vendors were based outside of New York City.
— The three largest production companies, Clearview Festival Productions, Mardi Gras Festival Productions and Mort & Ray Productions, were responsible for organizing 54% of such events.
— Vendors paid $100-$400 on average to participate in a particular event.
— The city received 20% of vendor fees to use for police overtime and other expenses.
How does San Gennaro stack up?
— In 2015, feast expects to see 1 million unique visitors in the 11 days it's open.
— Since 1996, it has donated $2 million to school, parishes and other charities.
— More than 35 local restaurants and 200 street vendors set up shop along the festival streets for the event.
LIKE I SAID, I'D COME IN when the game was be open or about to be opened. I’d unlock the game booth, get myself something to eat, count the money and get to work. At a certain time, it would suddenly get very busy. When you first got there, it was usually pretty empty: no one’s really walking around. Then, bam, nonstop traffic. At the end of the night, you’d have to clean up and close out the game. That was the easiest way to get hurt. The games all had a lot of moving parts.
There were definitely parts that didn’t work that well or didn’t work at all. For example, on the squirt gun game, there was one number that was faster than all the others because the water pressure was different. No one really bothered to fix it, so depending on the customer’s shooting ability, it performed better than the rest on average.
I remember this one time I was locking up a game with a faulty lock: you had to push it with all your weight to get it to shut properly. I slammed my hand in it, and ended up with a scar that I still have today. I have another scar on my foot from when I accidentally kicked this sharp, protruding metal part that someone had draped a vinyl cloth over. I walked right into it. I had to get six stitches. That was crazy. The thing is, the whole industry is basically family run and staffed with friends and friends of friends, so it’s really unregulated. I’m sure there are safety and labor codes, but who actually follows them? People could be shockingly casual with the way they handled the equipment and operations, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. That was part of the charm, I guess.
They didn’t think twice when someone was like, “Oh, just get up on top of the game and fix the thing.” Usually, one of the bigger dudes would do it, someone that had been doing this kind of stuff for a while. But there were one or two occasions where I was asked to take care of it because there was no one else around at the moment. Thinking back on it now, it was probably not only dangerous but illegal.
San Gennaro is a pretty well known festival that happens in early September in the Little Italy neighborhood of New York. It’s a tradition that was carried over from Southern Italy by the original immigrants who settled in the city at the turn of the century, most of whom were from Naples and Sicily. San Gennaro is the patron saint of Naples, and his feast day falls on September 19 in the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. The entire week and a half before that and the day after is dedicated to celebrating the occasion.
It’s a major production. There’s live music. There’s traditional Italian American street food: zeppoles, cannolis, Italian ices, gelato, sausage and peppers, meatballs in red sauce, that kind of stuff. They block off traffic on the entire street. Before, from what I understand, it was mostly a religious holiday. They’ve kept the processional aspect of it, where they parade the statue of the saint down a prescribed route. But, over time, it’s morphed into a kind of tourist trap. It’s basically a more intense version of how Little Italy is year-round. There are businesses up and down the block, hawking everything from t-shirts to baseball caps to keychains. It’s a major source of income for all the for profit and non-profit organizations involved.
I know it’s kind of a stereotype, but if you’ve ever seen The Godfather Part II, the scene where the young Vito Corleone whacks his older rival Don Fanucci, it happens during the religious procession. There’s a famous shot of Robert DeNiro walking along the rooftops overlooking the street with his concealed weapon.
People come from all over. I think the official estimate is something like over a million individuals pass through the festival in the 11 days it’s on. Oftentimes, it’s Italian guys with a ton of money who are just trying to impress a girl. They’re throwing cash at the game operators, the food vendors, the girl. It’s also a lot of families with their kids and groups of teenagers. And, you get a lot of people from Central and South America because of the Catholic connection, obviously.
This one time, I remember, there was this family, though, now that I’m remembering it, I’m not sure it was an actual family. It was this woman with eight kids who all looked exactly the same. They used to come every day to play the games. The mom, or whoever she was, would let each of the kids play only once. They would all be standing around waiting their turn and trying to sneak in another round. It was really weird. Like, something out of an art film.
There are a lot of tourists from Europe and middle America who stop by. The Italian tourists are the funniest. They’re like, “What is this even?” I think they get a kick out of it.
San Gennaro in pop culture throughout time
— 1973: featured prominently in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets.
— 1974: appears in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Part II... and again in The Godfather Part III (1990).
— 1978: the opener of season four of Laverne & Shirley has the characters traveling to New York to attend the festival.
— 2000: referenced by Canadian country band Blue Rodeo in their song "Sad Nights."
— 2005: plays host to a crime scene in "Corporate Warriors," the fourth episode of the second season of CSI: NY.
— 2006: in "The Ride," episode nine of season six of The Sopranos, the family attends a fictitious festival in Newark modeled on the feast.
— 2012: appears as a location in the online game Marvel: Avengers Alliance.
You win some,
you lose some
THE FAIR ENVIRONMENT CAN OCCASIONALLY GET VERY MACHO and even menacing. Sometimes, there’s weird energy in the air. I worked with a lot of other women. We never felt 100% safe because you would routinely get customers who were drunk and disorderly or trying to come on to you or otherwise harrassing you. Looking back, though, the people in my company treated everyone like family. They were very protective of their own. They watched out for each other. At any point in time, there were around three of four people on shift manning the games. If I was ever having trouble, I could just switch booths with someone, no questions asked. They were very supportive, which is rare because most of the other companies were crazy and dramatic.
For example, you know that game where you throw a ball into a bucket and win an iPad or whatever? Well, those were completely… rigged. You couldn’t actually win because the ball was weighted a certain way. Of course, for it to continue to be successful, someone has to win every once in a while, you know, for the effect. I think one in a thousand people or something like that ever makes it. But mostly it’s just a way for them to straight up make money. It’s different from a game like Roll-a-Ball, where someone wins almost every time.
There was this one company that sort of had the monopoly on the bucket game. They were some shady and unscrupulous fuckers. They didn’t seem to care that people weren’t winning prizes or, even, having a good time. “Oh, you didn’t make it this time? Too bad.” We were sort of like, “Oh, those guys again,” just making free money at the expense of basic goodwill and holiday spirit. I don’t think I saw them give away a single toy or prize the whole time I worked there. They probably never had to replenish their stock. At some point, it just starts to defeat itself.
Whereas with us, it was like, “Sorry, you didn’t make it this time, but your pal got this cool stuffed animal.” Even the language felt a little more friendly and welcoming.
Maybe that explains why one of them committed suicide while I was on the job. It was fucking insane, man. This guy killed himself in his trailer while I was working nearby. He wasn’t found until next morning. If you’ve ever been to one of these street fairs, there’s fifty or so little trailers parked around the place. I didn’t know the guy personally and I’d never spoken to him, but I’d seen him around. I didn’t see the body or anything.
Kind of sketchy
I had a choice of which games I wanted to operate most the time. Actually, it wasn’t really a choice. I’d come in and they’d be like, “Oh you're working the Roll-A-Ball game this week.” I mean, if I really didn’t want to work the Roll-A-Ball game for whatever reason, I could like, “Hey, can I do water gun instead?” and they’d usually be down. It was pretty flexible like that.
There were certain games that made a lot more money than others, so the people that had been there the longest got first dibs. The way it worked is you received a percentage of the game’s daily earnings, something like 10% or 15%. The games would generally bring in a lot of money depending on the turnout. During San Gennaro, you could make upwards of $200 or $300 a day. Everybody wanted to work San Gennaro. It was a huge thing because it went on every day for over a week. At the end of the week, you’d have a shit-ton of money. And, it was all in cash.
Each company was in charge of seven or eight games. We also had a piña colada stand. Technically, since this was an outdoor event, it was dry. But the whole point of the stand was that we could have under-the-table booze. Of course, you’d have to know to ask for it, and even then, they might not give it to you. It was a matter of knowing how to ask for it. There was a certain wording you had to use. So, basically, they’d make you a frozen drink and dump some alcohol into it when no one was looking.
There’s always a police presence at these fairs, usually, a pair of officers canvassing on foot. You have to be mindful of your alcohol consumption. But to be honest, something tells me they’re in cahoots with the management. You have these mafioso-looking Italian men strolling around wearing business suits and smoking cigars, surveying the scene, talking with the heads of the companies, doing God knows what else, mostly just killing time. They have the whole Tony Soprano schtick, like taking you by the elbow and steering you along. It seemed kind of sketchy. Maybe they were just playacting. Or, maybe I’ve watched one too many mob movies?
These guys are out there at all hours of the day. They wear these fancy wool suits, which seem too formal for the occasion and too hot for the season. I mean, can you imagine wearing that many layers in the middle of summer? They take getting dressed very seriously. It all contributes to the vibe.