GREENFIELD — You’d have to rummage through a banker’s box full of resumes to find one that matches Jimmy “JK” Kriener’s sales experience.
“I’ve been coast to coast, ocean to ocean,” Kriener said this week as a light rain drizzled over his toy and novelty stand on the Hancock County 4-H Fair midway.
Kriener has been selling, hawking and plying his trade at fairs, carnivals, speedways and sporting events from one end of the country to the other since he was knee-high to his granddaddy in Springfield, Illinois.
It’s where he learned the trade.
“My grandfather was a city fireman, but he had one of the first lemonade stands at the Illinois State fair,” Kriener said.
That stand – or at least its spirit – is still there, and Kriener cut his teeth at that operation and helping with his family’s T-shirt concessions in the 1970s.
“I grew up at fairs and firehouses. Thought I might be a fireman….”
But then the bug bit.
When he was 8 years old, he made $10 in one night pushing T-shirts at a fair.
“I counted that money twice on the way home,” he said with a smile. From that time forward, the lanky, easy-talking Kriener knew he had the gift to close a deal and the itch to keep moving.
It’s the travel and the people that keep him going.
“I’ve got hundreds of friends all over the country that I may only see once a year,” he said.
And with his time in the business – he’s been going to the Mississippi State Fair consistently for the past 17 years – it’s not that unusual to be remembered and approached by a former customer who is now a 20-something.
The living can be good, especially if an item goes hot – like the L.A. Lakers window flags in California a few years ago – but it’s important to maintain a perspective and remember the wolf is always at the door, he said.
Especially after surviving the rerecession. “The key is saving money during the good times,” he said.
But like most jobs, for those who have been at it for a while, it’s not about the money.
“People ask me all the time, how can you do that? You get hot and greasy. You get dirty,” said Randy Gardner, who’s been working midways for the past 11 years. “I just tell ’em it’s my job. It’s what I do. I grew up on a farm. You got hot and dirty there, too.”
A former truck driver who hails from Madison, the road has also weaved its way to Gardner’s blood, and like others on the midway this week, days and nights filled with happy people are the other big draw.
“You meet a lot of nice people,” he said.
The midway has given Gardner a chance to work on his people skills as well, an opportunity he’s taken full advantage of.
Living and working from the cab of a truck, social graces were not a necessary skill set. Working with a close-knit crew of carnival workers, customers, families and kids, however, is an entirely different matter.
He clearly got something right. Hired on to work the Power Surge ride for Shirley-based Burton Brothers Amusements three years ago, the 51-year-old Gardner is now one of the company’s go-to guys who knows how set up, tear down, inspect and run just about all the midway’s moving steel.
There’s a lot more to operating the Gravitron than pushing a button.
“I tell the young guys, you watch the ride and everything on it. If it makes a noise, you pay attention to it. If it wasn’t safe, I wouldn’t be running it.”
In addition to catching the attention of Burton Brothers’ management, Gardner caught the attention of another senior midway worker – one who would eventually become his wife.
“We met about three years ago and got married six months ago,” said Sheila Gardner.
She left Michigan and joined the midway 22 years ago.
“Basically I went to visit a friend of a friend and never left,” she said.
The work allowed her to escape a bit of a bad family situation at home, find the freedom of the road, travel with people who know how to enjoy themselves and make some money along the way.
Not a bad gig, overall.
“I think the biggest satisfaction is seeing all the kids with big smiles and having fun,” she said.
There’s no particular secret to bringing kids of all sizes in close to play a midway game, she said.
At the duck pond, the entire rig was a menagerie of brightly colored prizes. It’s the colors and the sure bet that gets them.
“You get a prize every time,” she said with the barker’s smile. “There are no losers here.”
Though the work is hard, and the travel can sometimes be a strain on family, those on the midway this year say they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s something I enjoy doing,” Gardner said. “All three (Burton) brothers asked if I’d come back next year, and Lord willing, I’ll be here.
After a lifetime of selling toys, trinkets and T-shirts, Kriener can’t see himself doing anything else.
“There’s always a fair, festival or carnival somewhere, the youthful 41-year-old said. “I’ll do this all my life. But I am looking toward the finish line.”
Once things begin to slow down, Kriener might trade the truck and the Super 8 Motels for a permanent beachside location.
“I can see sunglasses, flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt in Florida,” he said.