A Snapshot from My Life as a Carnie

BY TREVOR AUSTIN

My editor tells me that this, my inaugural publication, is the jobs issue. That’s something of a problem. I just got here, showed up all bright-faced and blissfully ignorant, and I don’t know anything about anything. I still live in wincing fear of “non-traditional” students with their professional lives and civic accomplishments, to say nothing of the casual, offhand mastery of the 2- and 3Ls. I can’t say anything useful to these people; my proudest moments in the workplace came when I was a carnie.

Now, it was only for brief while — more of a stint than a career — but I definitely spent a long string of hot summer days hard at work at the county fair. I was, I can say with some pride, a carnie. I slaved to prepare the signature dish at the venerable Australian Battered Potatoes booth. In fact, the Australian Battered Potato was the only dish we served, no doubt to preserve brand identity in the cluttered county fair concessions market. The customer could only opt for a slathering of ranch dressing or nacho cheese sauce, or in extreme cases both at once.

Cousin to the Bloomin’ Onion, your Australian Battered Potato is a kind of mutant french fry, the sort of thing you’d find in a puddle of glowing ooze among talking turtles and their rat-man sensei. A single piece is bigger than your hand, a flap of potato cut lengthwise to resemble an orthopedic insole and then deep fried to quadruple its thickness. Pre-sauce, it could be tempura fit for ten-foot samurai or an oil and starch scale model of a pockmarked asteroid. Preparing merely a few for consumption might have been a job for one skilled cook, but our stand was situated up front and on the main thoroughfare, which ran directly from the creakily whirling steel of the Fun Zone to the entrance and the open-armed welcome of the statue of Don Diego, spray painted gold for the occasion. Great herds of people rolled by, and we moved product by the plateful, as fast as hurried hands could shovel out steaming heaps of potato and gather up wilted fives and ones in damp bushels. We had a team. We had a process.

Only a small team out front wrangled with the throng, taking orders and distributing plates. This freed up the inside of our cramped trailer as the factory floor, where the real work was done. My turf. It was hot and loud inside; the cramped room we proudly toiled in was full of boiling oil and hard metal surfaces, of hustling bodies and shouted conversations. The space was full of potato: you drank it in with every breath, and your skin slurped it up from the air. But things were best when it was busy, when we were taking a hundred orders an hour and the team hummed with energy. When orders were scarce, we felt dejected and unloved, our talents wasted on an indifferent world.

On bad days you’d be a slicer, feeding whole potatoes into a battering machine that spit out flaps of potato with the slap slap slap of bare feet on wet sand. Acidic juices would sting your fingers, eating through flimsy latex gloves that were crumbling apart by the lunch break. Pigpen to the slicer’s Charlie Brown was the flourer, giving each slice a powdery dusting so that batter will stick. He would end his shift caked in a flaky clay of flour and sweat, an apparition out of Shakespeare. These were jobs for sturdy, dependable types, with stout hears and steady minds. He who does it well may take pride. But the true masters of the operation worked the fryers.

There were two cooks working back-to-back, each toiling above two deep pools of bubbling, frothing oil. Soybean, I think. The fryer slapped potato slices through a bucket of batter and fed a steady stream of them to the boiling maws before him, pausing only to scoop out finished pieces with a heavy wire basket. It took nerve and a deft hand to do this well — potato slices haphazardly slung into the vats, splashing scalding oil all over the trailer and its crew, forcing the cooks to lay them out in a smooth casting motion, all but caressing the oil’s surface. Then the slices glided in as smooth as Olympic divers and piled up as quickly as painters’ brushstrokes. Such mastery did not come easily, and I have faded scars where ugly blisters once testified to my hard-won skill.

Once fetched from the fryer, newly-crispy slices were doused with salt and drowned in the appropriate sauce. The customer’s heavy-duty paper plate had to be supported by two hands lest it buckle under the sheer mass of the assembled foodstuffs. There was enough starch and grease to kill a small mammal, a one-step recipe for artery cheese. But the crew has been made stronger, and it knows it can eat with impunity. It is metal, unstoppable, a machine. It has lived the potato, and mastered it.

Trevor Austin encourages you to share your employment stories with him at taustin@law.harvard.edu. He is currently a 1L, and in a previous life was a rhinoceros.

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