Who’s ready for a big, fat line of pure, uncut Americana? If you answered “yes” or “no” or did not answer at all out of fear and/or confusion, you’re in luck! Because it’s Fair Season, people, and you’re all invited. So grab your taste for sodium nitrates, and let’s get moving.
Things you will need: transportation to the fairgrounds (and sober transportation away from them), shoes you will never wear again, penicillin, and a sense of
dignity adventure! Oh, and a great number of tickets. No international currency is recognized within the fairground gates; instead, everything costs tickets. Do not bother with conversion rates—they are random and incalculable. The smart bet is to divest yourself of most of your liquid assets before setting out for the fairgrounds and just fork over the balance to the tweaking teen in the wooden booth. (This is where that sense of adventure comes in handy.) Don’t worry about buying too many. When the Fed goes under and it’s Lord of the Flies time for everyone, fair tickets will become the new gold.
Game The Games
Carnival games, like life itself, are sordid and unwinnable swindles. As a reasonable human, you know that attempting to shoot a standard basketball into a hoop with a 9-inch diameter is a fool’s errand. But the second your child wants to see Daddy make a basket and win her a giant stuffed Olaf, you will abandon your limited knowledge of physics and economics and waste $25 (or π tickets) that might have gone toward educating your child in those very disciplines. Gird yourself with strategy. Keep it simple: toss a ring onto a Coke bottle, fire a water pistol at a duck, or whip a dart at a wall full of balloons. Do not be tempted by complicated games with amazing prizes. Avoid anything that relies on electronics or sensors, because science is scary and designed to screw you. Remember: The prize of not being a loser in public is the winningest prize of all.
A Very Special Note on the Dunk Tank. The dunk tank is a simple act of immediate cruelty. “I have an opportunity to inflict pain. The method of inflicting pain is clear. I throw a ball, the ball hits the button, and a sad, transient clown drops into a humiliating public bath.” There is nothing equivocal about the dunk tank. It is a lesson in elementary, A-to-B sadism. It is the Milgram experiment, only the authority figure forcing you to shock your victim is fun itself. Do not patronize the dunk tank. Do not let your children patronize the dunk tank either, unless you want them to grow up to be angry, sadistic people lacking an appropriate fear of clowns.
Kick Out The Middling Jams
You might get premium acts headlining at the state level, but county/local fairs sip from the dregs. Economics dictates that you will never see a band at its peak—either you get them at the unknown or washed-up ends of their career arc. This is fine, by the way, because in either instance they are usually pretty grateful for your presence. It typically makes for a good vibe.
Unfortunately, these same circumstances can also make for some pretty bad music, so keep those expectations low and your eyes peeled. You never know who you might run into. Some notable performances from my own fair-going experiences:
Blood, Sweat & Tears. They sounded like the Guess Who being waterboarded with Skittles.
PM Dawn. They were big in the ’90s! I did not see them in the ’90s. Like Mase and John Secada arguing over a turquoise pleather vest.
Nazareth. Or as I like to call them, Shallow Purple.
Band on the Run. A Wings tribute band, you see. Given that Wings was already a tribute band to Paul McCartney’s id, this might be the world’s first meta-tribute band. (Side note: I’m not convinced this band did not feature actual Wings.)
“Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees.” I believe he was paid in tickets.
Eddie Money. One hot August night, I heard the Money Man declare that Decatur, Ill., was “the Rock and Roll Capital of the World.” Maybe it was the horseshoe sandwich talking. Maybe it was the methadone. But you know what? In that moment, with Eddie up there raucously scalping his extra ticket to paradise amid a fawning-ish crowd of literally hundreds? He was right, goddamn it. He was right.
Ride and Die
Fair rides come in three basic flavors: Spinning, Jostling, and Hurling You Against a Wall. For the same result, skip the rides, drop the hood of your car on your skull a couple of times, then chase that feeling with a bottle of ipecac. Don’t ride these things. They are constructed and deconstructed on a weekly basis by vagrants who came to your town to do two things: haphazardly assemble steel deathtraps and sample the local huffables. And, unfortunately for you, it looks like they are definitely not out of huffables. (Nor are they sharing.)
Don’t Get Competitive
If fairs can teach us anything, it’s that humans are absolutely incapable of just enjoying something without also having to be better at that thing than someone else. Activities that were initially undertaken purely for the sake of survival—canning, quilting, animal husbandry, even just growing some damn vegetables—can double as a completely unnecessary opportunity for you to showcase, say, why your quilt is fucking tremendous and your neighbor’s quilt is a pile of steaming horse shit.
During a recent fair visit, I saw contests for everything. Best jar of corn. Best creepy handmade doll. Best loaf of banana bread that kind of looks like an American flag. Someone even built a giraffe out of tomatoes and it won a prize, leading me to question every decision I have ever made in my life. There are evidently ways to determine which butternut squash and which pig are the best versions of those things without tasting them, but I failed to crack the code. Instead, I found myself drawn to the more easily verifiable winners, such as “Longest String Bean” and “Smallest Egg.” (“Very small!” read the judge’s comment card for the blue-ribbon winner.) I suppose I just I love the idea that there are people out there who see a pretty long string bean in their garden and immediately think, “THIS IS THE FUCKING YEAR.”
The point I’m trying to convey here is that people are ridiculous and should be kept away from each other, and you should by and large stay away from them.
Appreciate The “Real Topeka People”
Fairs are relics of a bygone era, leaving them ripe for the fetishizing by politicians, country singers, and other humpers of pastoralia. They are meant to evoke a simpler time when word was bond; when America was a wholesome, corn-pone utopia; when two bits got you a funnel cake IV and a flaming eagle skull airbrushed onto your cargo jorts.
But if you can manage to scrape away the layer of Lee Greenwood lacquer, fairs are stubbornly, necessarily real. And by that I mean they are one of a decreasing number of unmediated experiences in modern life—unlike shopping, sports, gambling, or big-time concertgoing—that are not made more accessible by technology. You have to actually go there and be there, brining yourself in the hot scent of trampled straw and deep-fried meats, to experience it.
So if you’re not doing anything Real today, maybe head to the fair. There are smelly animals. There are food concoctions that obliterate the possibility of parody. There are stupid games and low-rent musicians. There is probably a zucchini the size of a river otter, and everyone’s going to be talking about it. Don’t be the idiot who didn’t see it firsthand.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
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