Fifteen-year-old Matteo Janas, the fifth-generation Janas to be raised underneath the slow spin of the Ferris Wheel, doesn’t have any early memories of jumping on one ride over and over again. That’s because he rode all of them.
“I just remember hanging out,” he says of life as an adolescent with unlimited use of the county fairgrounds. “Just having fun.”
His father, Marc Janas, is the general manager of Powers Great American Midways, an amusements company that spends nine months out of the year erecting, operating, and then tearing down more than 60 rides and 17 food stands across seven states. There’s Alien Abduction, the Crazy Chopper, the Tornado, and the Sizzler. Giant signs proclaim “fried dough” and “ice cream” to passersby, the better to upset nervous stomachs as their bodies go flying in giant centrifuges.
With the exception of the five weeks spent back home every summer in Florida, the Janas family — including Matteo’s brother, Michael, and their mother, Tiffany — spend their lives settling into every fresh patch of field they’ve booked, an unusual and nomadic lifestyle that only seems strange when people point out how strange it is.
“I would guess we’re together pretty much every hour of every day,” Matteo says. “It’s what I know.”
Aunts, uncles, cousins. Many of Janas’s relatives either worked or still work for Powers, which was started by his uncle, Corky Powers, as a regional attraction in Rochester, New York in 1980. Janas’s father, Dick, put Marc to work developing a rap for the guess-your-age-and-weight game, snapping off chatter for fair visitors passing by. Life was never not a carnival, even when Marc went off to get a communications and journalism degree from St. John Fisher College in 1990.
“I came back,” he says. “It was my choice.” His father had, he says, instilled an enthusiasm for the work that wouldn’t disappear. When Powers started to gather steam and venture outside upstate New York, Marc’s sister chose to remain in Rochester with their mother. Marc stuck with the carnival, which seemed to blow in and out of towns at will, touching down like it had been carried by a tornado.
“It was the best of both worlds,” he says. “You were in one place, but you had the ability to travel.”
Marriage brought six kids, including two stepsons, Michael and Matteo. While Janas attended a private Catholic school before the business really caught on, his sons were going to have to cope with travel along the East Coast. With both parents on the road, they’ve been home-schooled since kindergarten.
“That’s been my whole life,” Matteo says. “I like it.”
For years, Janas employed a full-time teacher that met with his sons and a handful of other carnival kids in a mobile home that doubled as a classroom, but that went by the wayside as virtual curriculums started to provide lesson plans. Matteo and the others get to the RV by 11 am, log in, and are done by 4. State standardized tests administered by Florida monitor their progress. If one of them has a question, the online learning program provides a hotline where they can call and talk to a teacher.
The group of five to seven students call “maybe once a week,” Matteo says. Concentrating used to be harder when he was younger. Today, with a learner’s permit hovering and his parents checking in periodically throughout the day, he can focus and get his work done before escaping the school desk.
That, Marc says, is where the mobile schooling system shines. “Kids don’t need to plan for field trips. We take them.” If the carnival is an hour or so away from New York City, a trip to Yankee Stadium is scheduled. They’ve been to the White House, the Smithsonian, and other national landmarks. Mixed in are the patrons that stream in with every conceivable height, weight, color, and attitude they’re ever likely to encounter in life.
“They meet people from big towns, small towns,” Marc says. “On the road, it’s more exposure to everything.” Residual seediness from paperback novels or carnival exposés is cliché, Janas says, and almost inverted now: Because carnivals are often family-operated, the small community of workers keeps a closer watch on young adults than if they were roaming a conventional neighborhood.
After school, Michael and Matteo typically get assigned food trucks — popcorn, gyros — and are responsible for making change, tracking stock, and tearing down displays when it’s time to pull stakes. It’s workmanlike and professional. And the allure of unlimited rides has, in its ubiquity, become incidental. “They might try a new ride we buy,” Marc says, “but that’s it. It’s like the new car you drive every day and then get bored with.”
Besides, the boys have their sights set on other things: Matteo is eyeing college; Michael likes welding. One or both or neither might stick with Powers Midway, though it’s hard to imagine Marc will be left by himself.
“The family business,” Janas says, “is just in the blood.”