The following was originally published (Boise Weekly, August 21, 1997) under the title “Fair Reality.” I don’t remember why, and I don’t like that title, and I suspect it was re-titled by someone other than me. (Editors can do that, you know. That’s one of the things that makes them editors.) I’m returning it to what, I think, I originally called it.
Friday night, we went to the fair (that would be the big one down at the intersection of Glenwood and Chindon, if you’re not sure) to work a booth in the Exhibition Building. The Democrats’ booth, if you just have to know, and my brother stopped by.
“Is it just me,” he said, “or does everyone here look weird?”
He meant everyone at the fair in general, not the Democrats’ booth in particular, and he was right. At the fair, everyone looks weird, and I think I’ve figured out why. It’s because at the fair, everyone is weird.
* * *
If you’re relatively new to Boise, you might not know that the state fairgrounds used to be at the intersection of Emerald and Orchard, which means, for a valley child of the time, that was the most exciting intersection in town. Even when the fair wasn’t there, when for 51 weeks a year there was nothing but a big open field at Emerald and Orchard, it was the most exciting intersection in town, if you were a kid. Kids survive as much on anticipation as they do on your other basic food groups.
My sister used to take calves to the fair to show them off. 4-H stuff, you see. It’s an agricultural form of show-biz. I belonged to 4-H, too, but I never took a calf to the fair. I’d pretend to my parents I was going to take a calf to the fair. I’d primp one all summer long with a curry comb, I’d brush her tail out until it looked like Barbie’s do, I’d lead her around the corral until the only thing she couldn’t do was catch a Frisbee in mid-air, I’d wash her so clean you could eat off her. But I never took her to the fair. It was an agricultural form of stage fright. All summer long I’d work on a calf like lonely people work on poodles, but I knew in my heart there was no damn way I’d ever be able to stand in front of all those agriculturally-interested on-lookers and accept my blue ribbon without dissolving into a quivering glump of shy kid. So I just pretended to get a calf ready for the fair, then accidentally … uh huh, yeah … forget to get the entry forms in on time.
Shy, maybe. Stupid, not.
Anyway, there was this humongous cottonwood tree at the entrance to the old fairgrounds, and someone had built a bench under it. I said earlier, the intersection of Emerald and Orchard was an open field when the fair wasn’t in town, but that’s not precisely true. Not if you count the humongous cottonwood tree. And someone told me once that cottonwood and black locust are the only deciduous trees native to this area, which means they were here before even the Indians, so I think we ought to count ’em. They’ve paid their dues.
So, about this bench at the base of the humongous cottonwood tree: old people sat there. When my family went to the fair (everyday because my sister’s calf had to have things like food and water if she expected to win any blue ribbons) my Grandma would sit under the tree the entire time we were inside. Last Friday night, when I was working the booth, I noticed there aren’t a lot of old people at the fair anymore. Lots of kids, lots of young marrieds, lots of middle-aged folks like me wandering around in Docker shorts and that bewildered look on their faces which says, in the body language of middle-aged folks, “What in the Holy Hell am I doing here?” But no old people to speak of.
Odd, eh? Makes you wonder what they’re up to while you and your family are at the fair, doesn’t it?
But back when old people used to go to the fair, like Grandma did only because she wanted to see how things were going with my sister and her calf, a lot of them sat on the bench under the humongous cottonwood. I’m not kidding. The bench was always full of old people. That’s because state fairs are, and always have been, hard on old people. Walk, walk, walk, and all you get when you get to where you’re going is a Ferris wheel or a wad of cotton candy. And old people just plain aren’t as interested in Ferris wheels and cotton candy as young people.
For hours, my Grandma would sit there under the cottonwood tree, chewing the cud with other old people. We brought her food. One is never very far from food of some sort at a state fair. You know that. So Grandma was never in any danger of starving to death. And we asked her over and over if she wanted to go with us, over to where the Ferris wheel and the cotton candy were, but she never wanted to.
“Don’t mind me,” she’d say. “I just like to sit here and look at the people. Everyone looks so weird at the fair.”
* * *
So this isn’t something new I’m talking about. Fair weirdness has been around for a long, long time—probably since the beginnings of state fairs back in the Cro-Magnon days. I’m surprised behavioral scientists or the CIA hasn’t caught on and done something with it, like maybe set up clandestine state fairs in small, remote Nevada towns to study the effects on normal Americans. Really, what we’re dealing with here is a legal altered state of consciousness available on a massive scale. actively condoned by community leaders who are otherwise dead set against weirdness—a complete sublimation of individual character and a total loss of control.
Look beyond, if you will, the superficiality of fashion. Yes, people wear clothing to the fair they would wear almost nowhere else. I, myself, normally would never wander into the public eye wearing Mr. Docker’s (or anyone else’s) shorts. It’s a form of pigmentationally-disadvantaged stage fright, you see—which means I don’t want anyone to know my legs are the color of plain, unshaven yogurt. I might wash my shorts so they are clean and ready to go. I might even iron them so I don’t look like I’ve been sleeping in the things. I will even go so far as to feed a belt through the loops. But leave the house in them? Hah! Not normally.
But normally, I wouldn’t pay two bucks for a corn dog, either. Normally, I wouldn’t shell out three dollars for a plastic glass of flat beer, or $2.00 for a spray of cotton candy. In fact, normally, I wouldn’t even buy cotton candy. In double fact, it’s damn hard to find cotton candy most of the time. Try it if you don’t believe me. Go someplace like the Co-op which brags about having exotic foodstuffs you can’t find in other grocery stores, but you won’t find any cotton candy there. It’s possible they keep it in the back and if you know who to ask, they’ll break open a case for you. But if cotton candy were something they were proud to carry, it’d be out on the shelves with the pita bread and alfalfa sprouts, now wouldn’t it?
Another thing: except for fair time, how many of you ever stop into a little “Pop the Balloon With a Dart” boutique so you might win a stuffed creature made in China? How many of you even know where such a boutique might be found, except come fair time? Or a “Toss a Dime Into a Jar” shop? Or a joint where all they do is try to knock down a stack of milk bottles with a frumpy softball?
Is “splatter barrel” a hobby you pursue year ’round?
My daughter wanted a stuffed creature from China in the worst way. “But,” I told her, “we just paid $4.80 for a ride on the Ferris Wheel.”
Normally, she would have responded to my sound logic. Normally, she would have come to her senses. “Oh, I see what you mean, Dad. You mean, four dollars and eighty cents for a two-minute ride around in a vertical circle negates the need for a stuffed creature from China. Well, of course. I’m surprised I didn’t see it earlier.”
“That’s what parents are for, dear.”
But at the fair, she’d lost any sort of perspective. If you can’t swallow my premise that state fairs alter the consciousness, just look to your children, disbeliever. I tried to explain the absurdity of paying $2.00 for one dart throw—three for $5.00—in hopes of winning a prize you could by a sampan full of in China for the same amount. But she was beyond the reach of reason. And the guy working the dart-throw boutique was no help.
“Aahhh, c’mon, Dah-yud. All the cute little girl wants is a chance to have one of these to cuddle up to when she goes nighty-night.” He grinned and held up a stuffed creature. I think it was a toucan bird, but it well might have been a walrus with just one tusk. Or maybe a unicorn, I don’t know. It was about the size of a bagel and it was furry.
“Okayokay. But just one throw. I ain’t payin’ no five bucks to bust balloons.”
As she took aim, her eyes shimmered from the inside out with an eerie light, not unlike one of those glow-in-the-dark rope thingies they sell at the fair. And nowhere else.
She missed. Before I could lead her away, the man handed her another dart, and before I could scream, “DON’T THROW THAT DAMN DART!” she threw that damn dart.
Of course, I was obligated to give the man another $2.00, even though she’d missed again.
“Tell ya’ what I’ll do, Dah-yud. Fer just another buck, I’ll give her another throw.”
“Yeah, Daddy. It’s just a buck.”
Way-yulllll, if it’s just a buck …
She blew her balloon on the third throw and the man handed over her Chinese toucan walrus bagel bird thing.
“You got my whole five dollars,” I said to the fellow.
He’d never stopped grinning. Not the whole time. “Did you ever doubt I wouldn’t?”
I must have looked pretty weird to him, walking away backwards like I did, wilted over like a broken corn dog, wishing there were a bench somewhere I could hide out on, under some nice, big cottonwood tree.
August 21, 1997