Deirdre Kelly

Who Gives A Toss?


You called me a dirt bag, a piece of scum, a flimflammer extraordinaire.

You thought I was out to steal your money. And I was. Sort of. But don’t blame me. It was my job.

Many Ferris Wheel spins ago, I was one of thousands of Torontonians for whom a summer gig at the Canadian National Exhibition is a rite of passage. For the 128th edition, which opened yesterday, another 1,500 have been hired to service the games, the rides and the concessions. Because the Ex has a permanent staff of only 15, most of them will be, like I was, a temporary worker — a carny for a season.

My booth: a skill-testing beanbag toss called Tic-Tac-Toe. Get any three of those grime-encrusted bags to form a straight line in a criss-crossing of wooden squares that loomed enticingly behind me on an angled board. Any line wins. 75 cents a toss. Peanuts.

And I was a natural, a midway siren, calling out seductively to get suckers to part with their quarters. “Don’t walk by without giving it a try,” I chimed. “Hey, big boy, wanna win a fuzzy toy? Whoa-whoa-whoa, Tic-Tac-Toe!”

I locked eyes, daring the likes of you — pretending I wasn’t there — not to feel my burning stare. And I learned early on to focus on the suckers with the money. Yes, you.

Men, especially the muscled macho ones — my favourites were those with a chicky-poo wedged under one brawny arm — became my “marks.” They were so easy. They would wind ‘er up, pull back and torpedo the beanbag at the box, only to see it slide down to the floor in limp defeat.

“Too bad you couldn’t do it, Mister,” I’d say, innocently batting my lashes.

Down would go another 75 cents and then another and another. I once had a guy lose $200 in an endless performance of self-degradation that had people on the sidelines craning their necks to see. He wanted so badly to have the big purple cat hanging from the rafters behind me that sweat was beading his brow.

When he walked away — defeated, of course — he was muttering under his breath that the game was rigged.

That’s too strong a word. There is, according to North American Midway, which operates the CNE, a 30 per cent winnability rate for its games. But it’s like a casino. The odds are always with the house.

Was I coached to lure, tempt and cajole you into handing over your money? No, sir, I was not. Like many of my colleagues, I was self-taught — largely to alleviate the crushing boredom of standing seven days a week, eight hours a day for 18 days straight at minimum wage.

I was just the middle man. It’s the belief in Lady Luck that really drives people to play the midway. People think, “Okay the next one will be mine. I meant this next one. Okay, one more time. My luck’s gotta come in.”

Some people can shrug off a loss. Others get spitting mad and think you’re to blame for them striking out. I guess that’s just human nature, to get sore with another person — when really it’s your own fault for being a loser.

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