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LinkedIn with Toothless Kenny

I worked at the Minnesota State Fair. My direct supervisor was Toothless Kenny. My job was VP of Marketing and Product Development. My focus was broad retail marketing, encompassing strategic planning, qualitative and quantitative research, interactive marketing, creative development, direct marketing, public relations, sales promotions and visual merchandising, with the ability and skill set to provide creative, innovative, enthusiastic, and forward-thinking leadership in a team environment – focused on achieving continuous, improved business performance. I sold balloon toys.

Twenty years ago I moved to Minneapolis. I packed my trusty Chevy Citation with all of my belongings (which did not fill the car) and left Madison, Wisconsin abruptly at midnight on a Thursday in the summer. I had no job and no attachments. I could have gone anywhere. It wasn’t until summer slipped into winter that I started to question my intelligence. See, it got cold and then it snowed. Why did I move north of where I already knew winter was. How could I forget that it would get cold again? It wasn’t like the olden days when one needed to pack up with a wagon train and take a month to traverse the country and settle in a warmer, newer location. I could have gone anywhere in my trusty Chevy Citation and I chose to move 4 hours north of where I was – where it was colder. What an idiot.

Before I made it to the winter I would need to start working to make a little money. If LinkedIn had been around in 1991 I could have been checking my circle of friends and connecting and sending emails (or letters) off to people about perspective work. I didn’t have that option. I had some money that was going to out by September so I needed work quick. In Minnesota, the state fair is a big deal and that statement might even be an understatement. I applied to an ad in a newspaper. For those reading this a couple of years from now, a newspaper is paper with ink printed on it in the form of words. That’s where people used to look for jobs and buy used cars. The ad made it sound like I would be my own boss. I could get a vending booth, work hard and make a lot of money over the 10 day run of the fair. Somehow I fancied myself an entrepreneur. I liked the “entre” part of going into business, but I’m not sure I knew anything about the “preneur” part of it. I thought it translated to “enter business and make money” but I think there was something to do with the word “risk” in there. Come to think of it, I don’t really like that “preneur” rhymes with “manure”.

I showed up at the fairgrounds like I was told. Me and a lot of other “under employed” folks waited around to be told where we’d be making our big load of cash. Would I get a booth that sold cotton candy? Would I be guessing people’s weight? Would I get to hang out with a bearded lady or a snake man? Ok, I have to admit I was losing focus a bit. People were called into a building and dismissed. More people were called in and stayed. Some presented papers which looked to move these people into another building. I was confused. I tried to follow the action, but saw no rhyme or reason to what was going on. Eventually, I was called into a building. I was told that unfortunately they had a majority of the necessary vendors returning from the previous year. I would not get my own small vendor business. I was going to have to work with someone and be an assistant in a booth. It wasn’t really what I signed up for and I was disappointed and felt that there was bait and switch to get people in to fill the crappy jobs. Nonetheless, I needed a job. I said I’d work as an assistant with an authoritative, “Sure.” I was then ushered to another building to wait for my marching orders and meet who I would be working with.

As I waited I realized that I was in the pavilion where the horse shows took place. I never had a horse but didn’t mind the smell in there and wondered if there was a chance that I could be set up close to this place. The hint of manure mixed with dirt and whatever the smell of horses is, made me think that this could be an Aveda fragrance. My friend and roommate was a chemist at Aveda and I planned to go directly home and tell him about my idea for a fragrance. As I dreamed about where I would spend my fragrance developing money I realized a man was walking toward me. He was around 5 feet 6 inches tall with a wiry frame. He had brown hair and the kind of mustache that those guys sported in black and white civil war photos from Ken Burn’s films. He had come from a place where there was a distinct lack of objects sharp enough to cut the wily human hair. There was a randomness to his mustache that made me want to understand more about Chaos Theory. How did this mustache effect those it came in contact with. How was the mustache effected. As is the need for such a mustache to have companionship, so there lived some form of not-really-beard hair on either side of his face. As the man got closer I noticed that his baseball hat had a Jack Daniels insignia on it. The cap sent stray head hair running down past the ears in front and behind. The ears stood by solemnly holding the weight of the cap from getting any further down the head as the hair ran screaming. Fortunately, the hair looked to be greased enough to move quickly and then stay where it was commanded. Only a few steps from me the man took off his cap and pushed his hair off his forehead. Even though the hair was relieved from the pressure of the cap, it didn’t have the strength to be free and as his hand slid the limp hair carcasses off his forehead, it piled up on one side and just sat there waiting for the cap to come back down and entrap it again.

“Hi, the name’s Kenny,” He said a step away from me. I could only assume “the name” meant his name. For a second I didn’t know if that was his name or his hair’s name. Then I pulled myself out of my daze and told him what my name was. He told me to follow him and that I’d be working in his booth. I found out he’d had the booth for going on three years. We went to another building where portable booths were set up and starting to get stocked. He walked me to his booth and proudly showed it to me. We would be selling balloons and balloons on sticks and stuffed animals on sticks. He told me what we’d be doing and explained that there would be a lot of blowing up of animals and what not. He said I needed to be there at 7 am and I’d be finished at 11 pm. I took all the information in, realizing Kenny was missing a few front teeth. I thought this was going to pay well. Maybe not well enough to buy teeth. I had never been in the tooth market, so I just shrugged it off.

The next day before my big job started I thought it might be a good idea to buy some kind of pump to assist in the blowing up. This was and is how I operate. My friend, I’m all about the cutting edge. If I got busy in the booth, I didn’t want to lose a customer because of my lung capacity. I didn’t know what we’d have for power so I got a foot pump with multiple connections – I could blow up a basketball or a tiger. And the next day I brought myself and my “advantage” to the fairgrounds at 7 am. When I got to the booth, Kenny asked me what was in the bag. I told him about the foot pump. Kenny laughed and coughed, probably from the cigarette or the Jack Daniels remaining in his bloodstream from last night, or both. Kenny had a mucussy smoker’s voice that added ten years to his 45-year-old life. Sometimes smokers develop that talent like the ability to sing two notes at the same time like a throat singer. But, the smoker can somehow talk and the voice is bounced through or off a thin layer of tobacco cancer mucus giving the effect of hearing two reverberating voices. This lasts until the spell is broken by a hacking cough – you know, just like Tibetan monks -if they smoked a lot.

When Kenny was done laughing at me the day began. We worked steady. I was learning the ropes. I was happy to have my foot pump because some of these animals were made of thicker plastic that were difficult to blow up. Kenny just smiled when he saw me using it. I didn’t care. Finally, later in the afternoon I saw Kenny struggling with a particularly difficult crocodile on a stick. I saw him glance at my foot pump. Oh, yeah, now we’re talking. But, I was kind, like when the North won the Civil War and Lincoln didn’t kill any of the Generals from the South. I wanted us to come together and be united. Kenny and I should be a team. I think Kenny felt it too. In fact, he started to feel like he could take me under his wing and help me in our entrepreneurial endeavors. This is when it happened. There was a pause in the action. Kenny asked if he could show me a trick. I thought that would be grand and I said so in a less flamboyant kind of way to Kenny.

Kenny proceeded to tell me what the trick was. Apparently, what you do is you take one of the crocodiles on a stick, for instance, and you slide it around on the ground in front of a kid who is with his mother. Now, when the mother bends down to point out the crocodile to her child and show how it’s slithering on the ground….. wait for it…..you look down her shirt. Aww, Kenny. I thanked him for the tip. You see dear and kind readers, there’s no human resources department on the midway. So, I just tried to distract mothers from bending over by asking them questions about their kids. In every ten mothers one or two would fall prey to Kenny’s trick and would not be distracted. Kenny would raise his eyebrows at me like he just caught a bass. It was a tiring day.

On day two I was prepared. I had gotten up even earlier and got bread and meat and chips and some Cokes. I made myself a lunch and readied myself to go into battle with Kenny again. I had to park about 15 blocks away when I got there just before the gates opened. I got out of my car and the late August sun was already calling dibs on this day. Damn. I forgot my lunchbox/cooler in the car. I opened the door and sat down and reached for the lunch box/cooler. I was already hungry from the drive over. I opened my lunch container and pulled out my roast beef sandwich. This sandwich was going to make me not eat donut holes and cotton candy. I decided to eat half the sandwich then get into work. I ate half the sandwich. Then I decided to open my Coke and drink it because the roast beef made me thirsty. I could get a drink on the fairgrounds. Before I knew it I was launching into the second half of my sandwich. I closed the lunchbox/cooler and stood outside the car. Then I sat back down in the car and ate my bag of chips. My lunch was gone. I examined the sun in the sky for a couple of minutes and this made me sleepy. I closed my door and drove home and went back to bed. I forfeited my foot pump to Kenny like a Free Get Out of Jail card. I’m sure I had not been the first person to quit on Kenny. I probably would not be the last.

Recently, when updating my LinkedIn information (because that’s what you do now) I thought it was worth mentioning one of my early jobs. I have very few recommendations from LinkedIn and thought I should reach out to Kenny for some kind of good word. After all, I did innovate the workplace with the foot pump. But, I’m having a difficult time finding anyone in my circle of friends who is remotely connected to a guy named Kenny from the fairground industry. But, somewhere out there Kenny is probably still trying to find me and return my foot pump and maybe give me more work related tips. I think he saw my potential.

Sadly Yours,

Jason Spafford

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