The summer before my last year in college, I went to work in various carnivals throughout New York. Had I stayed at college, I would have partied all summer with my friends and worked some low-stress menial job for spending money. Instead, I drove far away to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week with no partying of any kind. This was a huge mistake.

When I tell people that I was a carnie, they usually laugh and ask me if I smelled like cabbage (thank you, Austin Powers). Once they stop laughing, they get serious and talk about how it must have been a good life experience full of wild adventures (it wasn’t). Then they ask whether I have any stories from that summer. As a matter of fact, I do have one small story that pretty much sums up what I have come to describe as The Lost Summer.

I was in some field in upstate New York, working on a game that involved throwing dimes onto a large checkerboard. A person would win if he or she threw a dime and had it stop in one of the black squares, with black completely surrounding the dime. No one ever won – not because the game was fixed, but because it was really difficult. I was working the game alone that day, and there was a steady stream of people ready to spend a number of dimes in a vain quest for a cheap coffee mug.

To get to this show from the last one, I had driven overnight (after working all day) from Long Island in an old pickup truck. The truck was pulling the trailer that served as my living quarters and as a result couldn’t go much more than 40 miles per hour (on the Long Island Expressway, with cars honking and flashing their lights at me the entire time). As an added bonus, the truck backfired about every mile, and each backfire sounded like someone was firing a shotgun next to my ear. The sound physically hurt my ear, and I would wince in pain every time it happened.

In the passenger seat next to me was an older woman who also worked for my game owner – let’s call her Sally. Sally, too deaf to be bothered by the backfires, had a voice like tinfoil being dragged over pavement. She had to shout to hear herself talk, but loved the sound of her own voice so much that it annoyed her to have to pause for breathing. Trying to interrupt her was pointless, because she couldn’t hear me, and to be fair, didn’t care about what I might have to say. That night, Sally set about telling me, in excruciating detail, the day to day drama of working a carnival poker machine game. Between Sally’s nattering and the never-ending shotgun blasts, I was numb by the time the sun peeked over the horizon and we arrived in upstate New York.

Trips like that had begun to eat away at my enthusiasm for the job. If I should at some point be condemned to eternal damnation, I fully expect Sally to be waiting for me in that white pickup truck. But, I digress.

On the day in question, I was standing in the checkerboard game – watching carefully aimed dimes bounce onto the ground – when I felt a certain pressure in my lower abdomen. This was a clear signal that, at some point in the near future, I was going to have to make my way to a seat in a nearby restroom. No problem, I thought. The checkerboard game was not usually very popular, so I was confident that the few remaining “clients” would soon drift away and allow me to close the game.

But, those people did not drift away. In fact, like inconvenient magnets, they attracted more people. Soon, the checkerboard game had a loud crowd surrounding it, and I ran back and forth making change for people and thanking them through clenched teeth as dimes flew past my head. No one was actually winning anything, but this did not dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm.

The cramps became more urgent, and sweat began to pop out of my forehead as I looked around for some method of escape. In retrospect, I should have just told everyone that the game was closed and gone off to take care of business. At the time, though, I felt guilty because this game that never really made money was suddenly popular – plus, I feared that the crowd might make off with the dimes and coffee mugs if I left my post. But, if I didn’t leave my post – well, let’s just say that I did not want to experience a code brown in public.

I tried to wait it out, but it didn’t work. While I hopped from foot to foot and took deep breaths, more and more people wandered over to try their luck at the impossible checkerboard game.

Just as I felt like I might pass out, I saw Mike – who had been hired that morning by the game owner – walk up to the booth. Mike’s primary qualification was that he had wandered onto the fair grounds looking for work. He had not been properly certified on the finer points of the checkerboard game, but none of that mattered now. I grabbed him, thrust the dime-filled apron into his arms, and told him to cover the game. He stood there, slack-jawed, as I sprinted off toward the lavatory.

I crashed through the bathroom door and was on my way toward the sweet relief of the single stall when I was stopped in my tracks. Feet! Noooooo!

Waiting for the feet to finish up seemed like the polite thing to do, but each second seemed precious. The minutes ticked by, and the sweat poured from my forehead, but the person in the stall made no indication that he might be close to finished. Through the stall door I heard the rustling of a newspaper. I gave up and ran out the door and – with no other options – headed for my trailer.

I had to run in a crouched-over fashion, using very small steps as I made my way through the fair and toward the row of trailers. My speed was also poor, because most of my energy was being used for clenching. For some reason, there were a number of people walking along the dirt path of trailer row. I had to weave through them as they turned to stare at the guy in shorts running like Quasimodo. My trailer was, of course, at the end of the row. But, I was almost there…just a bit further…

I didn’t make it. What a rotten summer that was.