We're on the cusp of summer, a season that means many things to many people. Personally, I see it as a welcoming of the basking nighttime glow of various carnival lights, ricocheting off my forehead as I come up with another excuse not to go on the scary roller coasters. In glorious Staten Island, the only true sign of summer's arrival is the two-week visit of a traveling freakshow in the parking lot of our one and only mall. With infamously unsafe rides and the kind of attractions usually reserved for a pauper four-year-old's birthday bash, I couldn't wait to usher in the warmer quarter with some spirited balloon darting and my ongoing fear of the imperious gyro. Carneevalee here I come.

Ever hear of Reithoffer? They ain't local. Masters of so-called rides and attractions, ol' Reithy spends the year traveling all around the country, finding whatever dirt lots and abandoned Crazy Eddie stores available to throw their cotton candy parties. Speaking from personal experience, much of their equipment is in shitty shape. Perhaps it's the wear and tear that comes with lugging this crap across the states, but virtually everyone around here knows of the unspoken Russian Roulette theme when it comes to Reithoffer Amusements: enter at your own risk. With swinging arm rails and at least three incidents over the past few years of rides literally falling apart in the midst of a busy Saturday night, the event is interesting for all the wrong reasons. I don't mean to say that the place is without charm -- in truth, when the carnival is a'goin, there's no place else I'd rather be. Well, except maybe a better carnival. But we don't have those here.

Fortunately, they've beefed up the fun this year. Normally including only a handful of crappy rides, this year's Reithoffer Festival includes a handful of crappy rides and the world's smallest woman. Seriously, swear to God. I usually suggest reading my stupid articles from start to finish because the level of continuity from paragraph to paragraph is fucking incredible, but I know when my words can't match the pics: click here to skip ahead to the second page of this feature, where Ms. Little Woman awaits with tiny open arms and a wicker tip basket filled with half-eaten carnival pretzels. For those more in tune with their inner patience, check out some of the other instances of absolute amazement...

The general admission cost was three bucks, basically guaranteeing Reithoffer some dough in case a wanderer isn't in the mood for popcorn or a ride on a snake-themed attraction that simply spins in a circle really fast until someone throws up. Everything within the park/parking lot costs extra, and it isn't cheap. Quick math painted their Ferris wheel at six bucks a ride, a price that would only be attractive if the Ferris wheel wasn't the target of a local urban legend regarding the very same Ferris wheel crashing to the ground under the severe push of 7 mph winds. And yet, for a city that claims its stake in history for having the most miserable people on the planet per capita, everyone was in very good spirits. I've drawn the conclusion that there's no such thing as a sucky carnival: even the really bad ones are still fun.

The first thing I noticed was the number of parents holding giant, inflatable Spider-Man dolls for their lazy, whining children. There were literally no prizes of any discernible value in the place -- everything was either a knockoff, cheap or just completely worthless. Inflatable Spidey was the only thing in there that made my balls jiggle, so betwixt the many "knock a rubber frog into this plastic Dixie bowl we're calling a lilypad" games and a number of gregarious clowns who may or may not have been actual Reithoffer employees, I realized my mission: find the game with Inflatable Spidey. Win it. Taunt any five-year-old who couldn't throw a dime on top of a beer bottle from thirty feet away with it. Die happy.

Don't complain about the few strands of broken lights on that thing. It was in even worse shape a few years back. There were entire sections covered in white tarp with the words "PICTURE THIS LIT UP AND PRETTY" scrawled upon it in ketchup. We have a situation of Comparative Babylon, and for the first time in all my years of coming here, I was able to walk in the vicinity of the Ferris wheel without having someone spit on my head.

Oh, see that light blue house peering out from the bottom left? The entity within that abode shall change your lives forever, guaranteed. Also, for what it's worth, an off-camera target shooting game was dedicated to the memory of Ronald Reagan. That's no joke, don't try to figure out no meanings or nothin. You know how the game operators are instructed to heckle you into playing at any cost? Well, the target shooting gallery guy had the pitch of a lifetime: "This game is dedicated to Ronald Reagan!" My friends and I stopped, looked at each other and agreed to trade in our Kennedy memorial coins for a president more topically dead. We came to this decision by way of simple Reaganomics, oh ho ho hee hee haaaaaaaaaaaa horse.

Ah, gotta love this one. Just an inflatable, souped up trampoline based on The Hulk. Exclusively for child visitors and the World's Smallest Woman (soon, I promise), I used to get a huge kick out of these sorts of rides as a kid. I didn't have to get into any moving carts that could potentially roll upside-down, nor was there ever a needed chaperone. Those inflatable trampoline bitches were all mine, and I'm certain my mother didn't mind sitting on a nearby bench for two hours at a time while I perfected my almost-a-somersault-but-much-slower-thing.

His man-tits look exactly like watermelons, right down to the stereotypical stripey skin. I think they added these eye-catching man-tits to offset any attention drawn to Hulk's hair, effectively marking him a dead ringer for Melrose Place alumni Andrew Shue.

Sadly, the games really blew this year. Big time blowing. I consider myself a compulsive carnival gamer, and though the prizes sucked, that's not the kind of thing that'd stop me. If the games themselves are universally terrible, we've got a different story on our hands. First off, the prices were ridiculous -- everything was at least two bucks, most even more. It's common knowledge that maybe 3% of all possible carnival games can be won in anything less than three or four tries, so we're really racking up the bills. Second, the games that could bring anything resembling a medium-sized prize were nearly impossible to conquer. Instead, Reithoffer used the timeless gimmick of guaranteeing a prize to every player, displaying only their top drawer items before handing out little plastic spider rings to the poor losers with false hopes.

Fishing games like the one shown above were common. Very common. I've never seen so many carnival fishing games in one place before. The "pond" shown above was decent enough, but most of 'em were just plastic kiddie pools filled to the brim with black cherry soda.

Ugh, I hate Clown Town. Really despise the place.

Okay, Clown Town is sort of like Reithoffer's Arcade -- the only place in the parking lot with anything close to some kind of video game / casino arcade attraction. It's one of those deals where you pump quarters into a box full of tokens, trying to land 'em in such a way that tokens spill out. What do you get with these tokens? Well, for 50, you get a ticket to ride the Ferris wheel at half off. There's also assorted prizes littered around the box platforms, enabling lucky contestants to win everything from used Silly Putty to that one and only timeless classic...the plastic whistle.

There was also a small tent where visitors could pay to play rounds of billiards. No prizes were given to the winners, but it's the only spot in the park where you can walk ten steps without crushing a four-year-old's skull under your feet. It's also the surrogate home of "Hank," Reithoffer's resident pool shark who knows how to simultaneously shoot five balls into the pits using only a toothpick and the kind of acerbic wit that can only come from spending fifteen years setting up the 8x6' Hall of Mirrors.

No carnival would be complete without its share of carnival food, and Reithoffer wasn't skimping. Popcorn! Cotton candy! Caramel apples! Gyros! Sausage and peppers! STEAK sandwiches! Hey is lamb meat in a gyro? Because I don't eat lamb.

The "ice cold drinks" included four dollar bottles of water and lemonade that was really Kool-Aid, proven because it tasted like Kool-Aid and because it was red like Kool-Aid. There are no boundaries in a Reithoffer amusement park. There is only pain. Man, that last sentence was four letters away from being a quote from that scary dude that grew out of someone's head in the first Harry Potter flick. I almost faux pahseded.

We chose corn dogs. An obscured meat vein is the only good one.

Here's one of those "everyone race to the finish!" games, with a twist. Instead of the usual horses running in a semi-straight line, players guide giraffes and baby chicks through a twirling roller coaster track. What does the winner get? A hankering to play and win two more rounds, since anything less will only grant his curio cabinet with a four-inch rubber pencil, complete with "NOT A WRITING UTENSIL" written where the "#2" usually goes.

Here's a quick look at some of the other games. Don't worry, I won't keep you waiting on that World's Smallest Woman bit for too long. We're only 28,000 words away. Would you walk 500 miles?

Nope, I didn't try this one. Never have, never will. Not until they conceal the pitching area from public view, so I won't be hit with tomatoes peeled off various gyros after throwing a 20 mph whopper straight into my foot. More interesting is the fact that the scary "Fastball" mascot shown in the background looks exactly like that old baseball-shaped Madball. I think his name was Madbaseball. Or "Stitches." Either way, I loved Madballs.

Another fishing game, this time with these totally kickass oversized rubber ducks. I offered ten bucks to the operator if he'd let me just have one of the ducks, but was swiftly denied. My argument was that he had enough rubber ducks, only I didn't voice this argument aloud because I'd feel silly saying "you have enough rubber ducks." Ironically enough, skilled fishermen won rubber bears.

Pretty neat that they offered giant stuffed animal sharks as one of the prizes. Not twenty bucks kinda neat, but yeah. Later in the evening, I noticed the visitor shown at left arguing with another guest over who got the pink horse on Reithoffer's carousel. She won, though you could probably guess that from her picture.

The "YOYO" was one of the better attractions. Longtime visitors to the boardwalk in Wildwood will recognize it as a Condor wannabe -- smaller, but still capable of hurling people into midair and spinning them in circles till they're sick. One of the park's prevalent themes was making sure every ride suitable for adult guests spun around really fast. If an older visitor wasn't into spinning, the only things they could indulge in were Ferris wheel rides and fruitless attempts at winning bootleg Ariel dolls. Parents excluded, this was probably the reason why my friends and I were the only attendees over five feet. There's a World's Smallest Woman reference in there somewhere.

Ha, I loved this one. Dunno what the ride actually consists of -- it's one of those sampler funhouses where children walk across shaky bridges, through tunnels of punching bags and down normal staircases painted to look abnormal. There's a clone of this ride at every amusement park I've ever been to, though the titles and ambiance are never the same. Correctly assuming Indiana Jones as a very "today" kind of child icon, that's who graces the side of the ride. Completely unauthorized, of course...

I can't tell if Indiana's holding something important or just a sandwich. I also can't tell if that's Indiana Jones or Steve from Married With Children.

Here's another thriller. In this game, players choose from a number of sealed "grab bags" scattered about a table. They all contain a prize of some kind (really, really awful prizes), but the gimmick is that certain bags also contain tokens to be traded in for much more extravagant prizes, like Mexican versions of Sesame Street photo frames.

I hadn't seen a carnival game quite like this before, so I was up for a quick round. After paying the two bucks, I went to grab one of the bags, only to have my hand slapped away by the lady operator, who demanded that I "use the pole." After asking for one of those moist towelettes that smell like Froot Loops so I could wash her filthy fingerprints off my hand, I asked what she meant. Apparently, even though each grab bag is in perfect reaching distance for players of any age, you've gotta use this coathanger-attached-to-a-stick to fish it out. There's no skill involved, nor any chance of an error...but you've gotta use the stick. I ended up winning a Beanie Baby knockoff probably lifted from the local dentist's pile of "crap to give kids who didn't cry," but nope, no tokens present. My hunch is that the token thing was a scam, but I wasn't about to prove that by spending 400 bucks for a box full of knockoff Beanie Babies.

Evil old Lady Operator won this battle. I'm 0 for 1. I'm a 0.

If there's one thing criminal about any carnival, it's the ones that sell prebagged, premade cotton candy. It's just not the same, and thank God Reithoffer knows it. There were several cotton candy trucks scattered about the premises, each containing strange people doing whatever it is people do to make cotton candy. I tried to take this photo from the side so as not to annoy Chef Mildred, but after she saw the flash, Chef Mildred began doing this crazy, smiling "take more pics PLEASE" dance. I guess you gotta be an exhibitionist to be in this line of work. The cotton candy cooking line of work, I mean.

We ended up buying a bag -- great stuff, so much better than the usual store-bought crap. Fluffy as fluffy can be. Course, this had nothing to do with why we made the purchase. In truth, I just fell in love with the monster picture on each bag. I call him "Monster On The Cotton Candy Bag:"

Monster On The Cotton Candy Bag is pretty rockin. Looks like something that'd be hiding behind a door in a Sunday version of a Far Side comic. Only there aren't any cows asking him what college he went to.

If I may borrow a line from Peter Krause's episode-ending soliloquy from the pretty tame season opener of Six Feet Under...


Well, it's not the World's Smallest Woman, but Reithoffer also claims to boast the World's Smallest Horse. They wouldn't let people take pictures of it, sorry. To be honest, I'm not sure if I would have anyway. The cage was surrounded by loose metal platforms that screamed bloody murder as they were stepped on, and this poor animal inside was forced to endure countless clangs and yelling children for hours on end. It wasn't the world's smallest horse, and I'm not really sure it was even a horse, but they had some kind of horse-like animal in there, shitting away to its heart's content. As we stood there, a group of kids tried to get the horse's attention by banging on the railings as hard as they could, nearly giving the thing a heart attack and making me wish I was brave enough to tell a bunch of five-year-old strangers to STOP IT.

A pretty sad way to end the first page, but wait until you see how depressing things get on the next one. You know it's coming. You know who's waiting for you. And what about that giant inflatable Spidey? So many loose ends to tie up. So many reasons for you to click the link below and not simply move on to a balloon-popping fit over at Pogo. Do it. The world's smallest you-know-what is just 'round the corner...

-- Matt (6/14/2004)