A Fair To Remember

We showed up for the fair early this year. The place looked like a ghost town with hardly a soul around--a couple of gardeners tending their prize cannas, a maintenance worker whistling around in a banged-up golf cart, one squirrel dancing the high wire with what looked like a kid's mitten in its teeth.

But along the back 40, the City of 12 Days was already coming alive. A flatbed crept in, crammed with wheels and wires and cages like something NASA might blast off. Winnebagos idled in line like circus elephants outside the main campground. A gang of farmers had pitched their lawn chairs in the dirt, looking grim and a bit nervous, as they have since The Bridges of Madison County clued them into what farm wives do while their husbands are off at the fair.

Tomorrow it starts: Pancakes off the barge-size griddle at dawn. Last check on the johns. Fryers plugged with soft white fat and fired up. Warped woofers. Smoke-coated sweat. Screaming kids on leashes. Hawkers. Hookers. Horses. Radio DJs venturing out from their Plexiglas booths to ask the volk if they're having a good time: It's not a trick question, and no one says No.

Eat, drink, spend, throw up, hate yourself, fall in love; none of it matters because none of it is really happening. Soon you'll rub your eyes and it will all have vanished--the acres of half-glazed faces stunned and stupored on sugar, milling around the Midway with fists full of tickets, whipping out their checkbooks for another round as the evening goes orange, the faint-hearted shuttle away, and whoever's left climbs aboard, straps in, and shoots up, all speed and spinning, into immortal orbit.

Into the Frying Pan
Dispatches from the world on a stick
by Beth Hawkins

The worst are the media types. Unlike the rest of the hungry masses, they reach the counter without wallet in hand. "Hi! I'm from XYZ. We talked about you on our morning show." They beam. They wait. They want you to offer, which they apparently reason makes it OK to accept freebies. If you're an inexperienced vendor still giddy with being a Great Minnesota Get-Together insider, you offer. If you've been around the block, you beam back. "How nice. What can I do for you?"

The paying customers just fuss, ask, make special requests. Sometimes what they want is as simple as extra napkins. We find them later, trampled into the dirt out back of the stand. They're never sure they're getting their money's worth, these families spending their way across the Minnesota State Fair's 310-acre campus on a budget.

"Is this cooked through?" Of course it is. World War III would break out if I tried to serve food this immolated at home. We overcook 'em just for paranoid types like you. "How much is it?" Just how long did you spend standing on the sidewalk staring at our sign? Long enough to suffer heatstroke, apparently.

"Is this the only kind you have?" Right. The name of the product is plastered all over the side of the booth. It's on the chest of my T-shirt, the one that was baby blue when the fair opened its gates, before nightly trips through the washer between 1 a.m.--the earliest fair workers can dream of getting home--and 8 a.m., when those of us who are related to the perpetually short-handed proprietor have been rooked into coming back. Even my hat bears a little picture of our food item (unnamed here in the interest of not promoting a family member's business), gone an even more disgusting color from soaking up the grease which coats each air molecule inside the booth.

Mostly what the customers want to know while they stand at the window, change pocketed, waiting for their sticksicles to turn a precise shade of caramel, is about the business. "Where'd you get the idea?" "Who owns this?" "How long did you wait for a spot?" And finally, the inevitable: "Gold mine, huh? Make enough off it to live all year?"

It's no good telling the truth. See, Mr. and Ms. Fairgoer have already made up their minds that someone inside this booth found Willy Wonka's magic candy bar. There's no way, if the line's going to keep moving at a profitable speed, to explain that operating a food stand at the fair is a business like any other. It's not the capitalist equivalent of running off with the circus, nor the ticket to an endless sabbatical in Bermuda. It's an entrepreneurial gamble, 12 short days in which to be made or broken by the weather, a fickle public, and the hope that your stand won't burn down and your workers won't all quit in greasy disgust. At the end of it, if you're lucky, you'll have a week in Cancun or an edge on your kid's college tuition.

After years of evading, waffling, and prevaricating, last year I came up with an answer for Mr. and Ms. Fairgoer that does the trick. "It's a lot of work," I smile. Minnesota Nice, but it changes the subject.

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