The County Fair, like summer vacations (and arguably most holidays and religious institutions) is one of those things that exists in our society not because of its contemporary utility, but because of tradition. It is the detritus of a more agrarian time in our history. Back when we actually came together in earnest to show our cows to one another, to buy exotic things from people reminiscent of Gypsies with one another and to eat things on sticks with one another (I guess we still do that). What remains is a specter of what it once was, and like most other empty rituals, the fair seems to have universal appeal.
But not for me.
Q: So Caleb, since you don’t like the fair, tell me why you think other people do?
A: Because of cavemen.
Although it is hard to know exactly what our evolutionary forbears were like, there are several things that we do know. Judging by the data we do have (mostly gleaned from prehistoric bodily remains, cave drawings and Geico commercials) one could easily assume that they were dirty. All that hunting and gathering and living in the elements. All that fire building — they were bound to get to get pretty sticky. One shudders when imagining the condition of their skin in a pre-Crabtree & Evelyn world.
Indeed, we as modern Americans, have generally worked very hard to insulate ourselves from the grittiness that underlies our existence. We live indoors with our computers and our automatic coffee grinders, we rarely generate our own energy and we often delegate the pesky task of critical thinking to far more capable cable news personalities. Life’s good. But like emotionally unbalanced adolescents yearning for their long lost blanky, we as a society are nostalgic for the essentialist clichés that have been encoded in our DNA: The Thrill of the Hunt! Fight or Flight! Kill or be Killed!.
This is why we have the County Fair.
Because it’s dirty, it’s dangerous and it provides many opportunities to simulate battle… even sex! Just think about it. I mean, first off, the place is about as dirty as any other place on earth. Simulated battle is pretty easy to come by too — you need look no further than the Bumper Cars (but don’t forget the automatic air-powered BB Guns). Not so sure about sex? You must be joking: The Sucker Tree, The Hula Toss, The Black Hole Bean Bag Toss, and again I’d ask you to consider the tension and release that is Bumper Cars.
But when it comes to danger, the fair truly shines. For what, I ask, is more dangerous than a 16-year-old pack-a-day smoker who is in charge of operating a five-ton hydraulic device that stands several stories high and is designed to swing men, women and children around in the air at a high rate of speed? You call it The Zipper. I call it The Giant Human Chainsaw of Death.
Q: So, if liking the Fair is genetically encoded in our DNA as you are so insanely suggesting, have you ever been?
A: Oh, I’ve been to the Fair my friend. The trailer park that I spent the first years of my life in was too close not to. I even went with my friends after I was too cool to go with my parents. In fact, you might remember me. I was the 12-year-old kid that you and your family saw smoking a GPC Non-Filtered while accidentally mowing down a bright pink teddy bear with an automatic, air-powered BB gun. I was the kid who picked a fight with your honor student — though you might actually know me as the kid who your honor student laid a beating on.
What can I say, the Champaign County Fair was fun back then. Hey, I’ve even been to the Decatur Celebration, which is like the Champaign County Fair, only bigger, with more booze and more gun violence. It was there that I once saw a grown man take a break from full on vomiting into a storm drain so that he could ask his son to go and buy him another funnel cake…which is where I think the word “carnivalesque” comes from. So yeah, I’ve been to the fair. I’ve seen what it has to offer, and I’d even say that there was a time in my life where it satisfied my inner-caveman, but that time has passed.
Q: Okay, so why is it that you’ve sworn never to go again (causing your close friends to label you a snob)?
A: Long story short, I once had a bad experience with a carnival worker who, believing I was trying to cheat him by slipping onto a ride without a ticket (a foundationless accusation as I recall) stopped me in my tracks and brought his face right down in front of mine. He just stared at me for a few good seconds, and I didn’t try to get away as I was so shocked at the intensity, nay, the rage the seemed to boil beneath his eyes. I don’t remember what he said to me, only that he had said something. The thing that most remains with me is my awareness of his hand on my shoulder: the size of a child’s, though it bore the strength of two hands. I have no words to explain how this has changed me as a person…
And so maybe I am a snob. No, I don’t think that I’m generally any better than a typical fair-goer, nor do I feel that the direction of life is more important than that of a fair worker. Maybe I’m a snob because I try to satisfy my inner-caveman, not by engaging in the terrifying excess of the county fair but by seeking a safer means of doing so, such as barbecuing in my back yard or working out in an air-conditioned gym. Or maybe I’m a snob because I like Belgian beer and I pretend to know the difference between a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Sangiovese (one more French than the other, right?). Perhaps its because I’m critical of my favorite sports teams or because I read the Communist Manifesto in high school (and by read I mean that I carried it with me while frequently misusing the word proletariat).
So now that the fair has left town, I can say that I did begin to find myself feeling a little nostalgic for it when a good friend of mine (shortly after calling me snob) began making her case for the food and the fun and the cigarette smoking pre-teens. Sorta made me feel like paying the place a little visit for old times sake. That is, until I was struck with the memory of that tiny hand on my trembling shoulder, which prompted me to drown my nostalgia with a nice sip of espresso.
So tell me, did you go to the fair? Is it as scary as I remember it as being?