27/05/11 2:48 AM

Did you eat cotton candy as a child?

Cotton candy is a”dentist’s delight.” Its texture, color, and shape captivates the eye and grabs your attention like a Texas bee hive hairdo.

Did you marvel  how sugar morphs into what looks like the stuffing of an IKEA pillow? All this, in a matter of seconds!

It’s not like I rip stuffing out of pillows or anything. Well, maybe to dream of cotton candy.

Cotton candy is hard to come by. One finds it at carnivals.

Carnival workers have a difficult life.

Like roadies for rock bands, they set up and break down shows. Carnys move from town-to-town.

So much for sleeping on a soft pillow. Most Carnys receive low pay can’t afford a truck, never mind a nice camper to serve as a home on wheels. The carnival workers who sell tickets, do the grunt work,  or load and unload kids with runny noses onto Ferris wheels often  sleep in the vortex of an empty tractor trailer.

I was traveling on the highway this week and spotted a carnival setting up. The carnival went up fast, like a wiz kid playing with Legos. Driving past the carnival, my mind perceverated on cotton candy–until some “bo-bo” honked his horn, rolled down the window and yelled, “Stay in your lane *&%$ head.”


My head is made of poo.

I briefly understood the life of a carnival worker from doing a photo shoot at the Scallop Festival on Cape Cod. The scallop dinners took second stage. The  mega blowout carnival was really the top attraction.

I chose to document the disassembling of the carnival for the shoot.

I shot pictures of tired looking Carnys,  wandering souls,  breaking down a floating duck game. Two Carnys lifted several kiddie swimming pool, causing a temporary Mississippi flood.

The object of this water game is to capture a duck with a net, look at the bottom of the rubber duck for a number, then see if you won a prize. I noticed 85% of the ducks had no prize notation on the bottom as they were being stowed away for their next rip-off, I mean, gig.

I shot images of a  20-something man, skinny as a rail, covered with tattoos. A cigarette dangled from his mouth. He had a James Dean element. A lost soul working  alone, breaking down a lame miniature roller-coaster meant for kiddie riders. Sunken eyes, a broken  looking expression  on his face, this Carny did not bother to acknowledge my presence. He kept working.

Then,  an incredible shot  unfolded before my eyes.

I spot a nimble shirtless man. His stomach muscles and ribcage projected like a movie.  His Levis jeans were stained with motor oil and paint. His  boxers shorts–exposed. He climbed  to the top of the Ferris wheel like a lemur hopping from tree-to-tree in Madagascar. I was in awe of his agility.

He reached the top of the Ferris wheel, did something mechanical with a wrench, then scurried down the natural scaffolding of the carnival ride.

I holler to him. “That was great. You Wamma Jamma up and down the Ferris-wheel with ease. Damn!”

 “It ain’t no big deal. I’m not afraid of heights,” he exclaimed.

I am.  I freak at heights.

I informed him I was a photographer and asked if he wouldn’t mind repeating what he just did–climb to the top of the Ferris Wheel–as I photographed him.

Without reservation he said, “Sure, man……………. Ten bucks.”

There goes my dinner money.

I reached into my pocket and gave him a crumpled five; the rest in singles.

If this were a certain well known diva fashion, it would be, “Pay my agent $5,000 for 10 minutes of my time–and work fast. I have  a limo to catch up-town and my legs are in need of waxing.”

Stashing the cash in his pocket he  hollered, “Check this out!”

The Ferris-wheel operator flicked an electrical switch. The lights of  the monolithic Ferris-wheel lit up, flashed, and pulsated at set intervals.

Neon eye candy.

Cool shades of green, blue, red, pink, and purple. A photographer’s nirvana.

I reached into my Canon camera bag and pulled out my best low light camera.

Batteries charged. Camera strap in position. I readied myself to shoot  175 rapid fire-frames.  The Carny shimmied to the top of the Ferris wheel with grace and ease.

Click. Click. Click.

I intuitively knew this session was the real deal. Like a New York fashion shoot—without attitude.

Then my impromptu model reached the top of the Ferris wheel and hollered down at me, “Look at me. I’m Jesus!”

He balanced himself on the scaffolding, armed outstretched like the statue of you-know-who atop of a hill in Rio. It was a sight to behold.

The real Jesus was sort of a lost soul. He roamed from town to town in tattered clothes looking for acceptance, followers,  and preached unconditional love. He mingled with the downtrodden and oppressed; sort of like the Carneys I encountered. Yet, I’m not sure if they are so holy. Who cares. These are workers who could least afford to buy a ticket for  quasi non-winnable games and tickets for rides I’m sure would fail a safety inspection.  

 “Don’t fall for Christ sake. Come back down,” I hollered up to him.

 “*&%$ NO. You come up here with that camera. You should see the view from here. I see the &%$#’ing ocean.  It’s beautiful. The Counting Crows once sang…..”We all want something beautiful.” This lyric resonated in my head.

“Thanks for the offer. I’ll pass,” said I “yet, if you put me on one of those the bucket-like seats, and turn the Ferris-wheel on–then I’ll see what you are seeing.”

“*&^%, man. I’m trying to break this $^%$’er down. No ride. Climb.”


Next contestant.

After posing a minute or two, he climbed down.

 “Got a cigarette?” he asked.

“No. I don’t smoke.”

“You should. You don’t know what you are missing. Nothin’ like a beer and a cigarette to start the day–and end the day.”


I profusely thanked him for being part of my photo shoot, then slipped him a few more bucks before hopping back into my car.

Time passed. I moved to other photo projects. It occurred to me I neglected to download my carnival shoot.

Later, in my studio, I pull out my low-light  Cannon with a zoom lens  the size of an obese foot-long Nathan’s hot dog.

I flick open the slot where the media card  locks into position.

I freeze.


No media card?

I shot those incredible images with no “film.” (Old habits are hard to break. I still call digital media cards–film.)

Where is “Jesus-of- the-Ferris-wheel?”

Where is my  saint of Rio ?

Damn it.

Then it occurred to me. Don’t get upset and angry. This was a moment in time. I enjoyed the interplay between artist and subject. We were both naturally loose and relaxed. He was showing off his skills. I captured his skills and bravado–or so I thought.

Some iconic images are never to be documented. Some great images never get displayed. They just happen. These are images that reside in one’s mind’s eye; the dwelling place of  imagination.

Driving past that carnival  being set up next to the highway in the rain made me think of that Ferris wheel Carney I met on Cape Cod. Where is he tonight? Is he is working a State Fair gig? Setting up or breaking down the same rickety Ferris wheel in a small town in America’s heartland? Will children delight at the sight of a tilt-a-wheel, Fun House, Cotton Candy booth, and carnival games and rides pulling into their small town?

Jesus of the Ferris wheel. If you read this, thank for being my subject. The pictures will never be published. Yet you left an indelible mark on my memory. Flick that switch on tonight in Fargo, North Dakota or Billings, Montana. Make children happy as you take a long hard drag on your cigarette, exhaling smoke into America’s heartland.

Our paths will never meet again.

Life on the road.

 Brendan Ben Feeney

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