FAIRFIELD — Sandy Lawley calls herself “The Fish Whisperer.”
The Porterville resident travels the county fair circuit with Butler Amusements and operates the goldfish game. Hopefuls take a shot at winning the freshwater fish by tossing ping-pong-size plastic balls into a small glass bowl.
Lawley got her first job with the carnival when she was 19. When she had her first child, she stayed closer to home. She hit the road again about three years ago.
She’s at the Solano County Fair through Sunday.
“I talk to the fish every day,” she said.
She also cleans the little glass bowls of colored water daily. Lawley calls it a “workhorse of a game,” but doesn’t see herself working any other carnival job.
At each stop Butler Amusement makes, Lawley tends to between 1,200 and 2,000 goldfish. It’s her job to keep them alive, she said.
“The last thing I want is to have someone come back and tell me their fish died,” Lawley said.
If the winner still has more fair fun ahead, she gives them a ticket to return and pick up their new pet as they exit.
She loves to hear stories from the adults, recalling how they won a goldfish at a fair. Some of their tales date back 10 and 25 years, she said.
Lawley decorated her booth. She often sets it up with little or no help.
“This is my baby,” she said. “I get a lot of compliments on the decoration.”
She believes some people still see carnival workers as scam artists.
“Not all of the public sees us that way,” she said. “But I still have family that stereotypes us as people who use drugs and can’t get real jobs.”
The mother of four carries a wooden back scratcher that she tucks into the back of her shirt.
When asked about it, her answer may vary from the humorous, “Secretly, I’m a ninja,” to the real explanation, it serves as an extended hand to reach things in the middle of her game display.
Lawley’s niece, Lavetta Stokes, worked the water-gun game on opening day of the Solano County Fair.
She was raised in the carnival, she said. Her parents, as well as her aunts and uncles, have been “carnies.”
When school was in session, Stokes stayed home with her mother. In the summer, she went on the carnival circuit with her mother and father.
“The carnival raised me,” she said.
It also saved her. Stokes dealt with a methamphetamine addiction that she helped kick thanks to caring carnival co-workers.
Stokes, 27, is the mother of a 3-year-old daughter. There are times she feels likes she’s 40, she said.
She’s moving to Oregon soon to have more time with her daughter. The carnival life will become part of her past. A home-based business is the future.
“It’s going to be hard to say goodbye,” she said. “It’s like my family here. You know everyone on the lot.”
Antonio Sandoval calls San Bernardino home when he’s not on the road with Butler Amusements, handing out darts to those hoping to pop a balloon and win a stuffed animal.
A friend talked him into joining the carnival seven years ago. That friend left the business four years ago.
“It’s fun,” Sandoval said of the job. “You get to meet people.”
He has a cousin and uncle who work for a different carnival.
Sandoval has a 7-year-old son. When he gets older, Sandoval said he wouldn’t discourage the boy from giving the carnival a try.
He plans to work in the carnival a few more years. He might look for other employment after that, he said.
He may have mastered Lawley’s goldfish game by then.
“It’s hard to win,” Sandoval said. “But I see a lot of kids do it.”
All three praised Butler Amusements, which is based in Fairfield. Each said the company really cares about, and for, its employees. Lawley said she can’t see herself working for anyone but Butler.
Reach Amy Maginnis-Honey at 427-6957 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/amaginnisdr.