Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Carnies and Roustabouts: A Weekend at the Fair

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Running a parish these days is not an easy task for a pastor trained in philosophy and theology. He needs lots of support from his staff and from his parishioners and their "time, talent and treasure.

Once a year in Catholic parishes (it's coming soon) the pewsitters will be hit with the annual pledge appeal to lay claim to some of the expected financial resources for the coming year. At other times in the year they are requested to give their time and talent to their parish. Many provide their talent when they serve on parish councils, in choirs, as lectors, ushers, teaching aides, maintenance workers and providing the other skills needed to run the modern parish.

Most parishes around here sponsor festivals to provide a social experience for their parishioners and also to raise a few simoleons for the parish treasury. These festivals may be anywhere in length from one evening, to a day, a weekend or even two weekends in length, depending upon the size of the parish and the willingness of the parishioners to provide the time and talent to carry it out. Most festivals seem to take place in August and September and the Catholic Spirit generally has a complete list of them in one of their summer issues.

St. Helena's, a blue collar parish that is located in the real southeast of Minneapolis, down by Minneheha Park, has for over 25 years been sponsoring one of the most popular and financially successful festivals in the archdiocese, Autumn Daze. It generally takes place on the third weekend of September, starting on Friday evening and going til late Sunday afternoon.

It contains food and drink, including the incredibly popular fish fry on Friday (people do yearn for that), children's games, book and rummage sales, auctions, bingo, cake and wine walks. a parade, a 5K race, a new car raffle, musical entertainment, fireworks (on Friday), a horse-drawn hayride and carnival rides. Some of the most important people volunteering were the clean up crews, keeping the grounds immaculate, almost, and the red-hatted security team that keeps the generally amicable crowds amicable and moving at the end of each day. It takes almost the entire parish to staff all these events over a period of 24 hours, not counting the incredible amount of work that needs to be done in the middle of the night and ahead of time, starting way back in March or before.

Being the only fair of any size in Minneapolis, (Nativity in St. Paul has their two weekend fair in August), Autumn Daze couldn't survive without most of its attendees coming from non-parishioners. Parishioners distribute a 16-page newspaper door to door to all the homes and businesses in virtually all of South Minneapolis east of Cedar Avenue. Carnival ride tickets were sold to a lady from Chaska, present with her kids.

This most enjoyable festival even attracts volunteers from outside the parish. Greg Smisek, the volunteer organizer of the Archdiocesan Corpus Christi Processions was seen running a ball toss game for little tykes in the big tent (did I forget to mention the huge tent?). Josh Teske, an attorney, one of the key men behind the Argument of the Month Club (First Tuesday in October, Men ONLY, put it on your calendar!), last year was the No. One to Autumn Daze honcho John Sondag of the parish staff. This year Josh was mostly busy with St. Augustine's parish festival in South St. Paul so couldn't spend many hours at Autumn Daze but he did make an appearance.

Not many guys can pull off wearing a hat designed to look like a steaming ear of corn on the cob. But Jeremy Stanbary, actor, writer, producer, best boy and stagehand of Epiphany Studio Productions, was seen handling some kind of gambling game for adults, looked rather distinguished and comfortable in it as he took the money from his suckers, errrr, customers.

Yours truly, not having much talent other than typing, has been drafted these past few years to sell tickets to the kiddies, young and old to the carnival rides. The parish doesn't make too much money off of the rides, but they are a way to get moms and dads with deep pockets to bring their offspring to the fair for the rides, and then buy a meal and a beer, purchase something at the auction, get another bed for the expanding family, take a chance on the $5,000 raffle, maybe take a ride on the bumper cars or the Zipper themselves, etc.

Selling tickets means being enclosed in a six foot square box with a tiny window and getting to talk to little three foot high excited munchkins whose hands are grasping for tickets while grandma digs deep into her purse for the money for more tickets. That's the best part of the job. Nothing is more enjoyable than seeing the eyes of those little ones getting set to go on the Merry Go Round. One was jumping half her height in the air she was so excited. The little ones are far and away the attraction of the job.

Selling tickets means also dealing with the "Carnies", the workers for Midwest Rides & Amusements who are there to put on a safe and enjoyable show, and make money. If you haven't had much experience with carnivals, your idea of the carnies is probably of somewhat disreputable people, possibly on the lam from the law, and with two or three addictions and lots of tattoos. Well you'd be right about the tattoo part. These are guys with strong mechanical and electrical skills who can get along with people. There aren't too many shops around where you can fix a Tilt-a-Whirl or a Merry-Go-Round.

The first evening, the show manager told me that he wouldn't be able to attend because it was his son's first football game and he wanted to be there. I thought that was very classy! The second day, one of the tattoo'ed, walking by with a plateful of food (all those guys were great customers for the food booths), knocked on the door of the booth and showed me how to turn on the air conditioning. Knowing that as far as they were concerned that I was the money man, they wanted me to be comfortable. They were all nice guys.

The weather was great this past weekend and the crowds were large. Except. Last year the fish fry was so popular that they doubled the number of fryers this year to serve more people (sell more fish). Unfortunately they blew out a transformer and for nearly two hours the main tent and the school building (and surrounding homes) were without power. sending many people home. The rides continued, though, because they have their own generator. And then on Sunday the Vikings scheduled their game with Detroit, forgetting to check with St. Helena's to see if it would be OK. Hopefully they will have a bye weekend the next 25 years.

Lessons learned about children and money:

1. If you want an idea of what to get a ten year old for Christmas or a birthday, how 'bout a wallet. The number of crumpled dollar bills that I had to handle was amazing.

2. I assumed that it wasn't St. Helena's students, but I was stunned by the number of children who couldn't figure out how many tickets they could get for five or ten dollars, or how much 3 tickets cost ($3.75). Teachers should concentrate in their arithmetic classes on figuring batting averages and field goal and won-loss percentages and the cost of carnival ticket rides (If Sally needs __ rides for Billy at __ tickets per ride and __ rides for Tommy at. . . . You get the picture), to make mathematics more relevant to the kids.

3. I was also amazed at the drawing power of the rides. The number of people, young and old who had to be yelled at to come back and get their change was incredible. In a slow moment, I lectured one 13 years old boy on money management. An hour later he accompanied a friend back and he apologized for "forgetting his money." I think there was a lesson learned. So I did some good.

4. Everybody loves fireworks. Generally, the bigger, the better. But at a small fireworks display like Friday night at St. Helena's, when you can get to within 100 feet of the shooting area, they are pretty darned spectacular, especially the last five minutes of the 20 minute show. But I suspect some might get a crick in their neck. Ah, well, the wages of pleasure!!!

5. We will now resume the regular Stella Borealis blogging schedule.

Next year, put the third weekend in September on your calendars as Autumn Daze weekend and come on over and have a great time.
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