A Fair To Remember

"We are the original recyclers. We have been in business for 116 years, since 1882," David Van Hoven, CFO for the Van Hoven Company, says with the pride of a man whose last name is on the corporate logo. "We are also 100 percent recyclers: Everything is usable. There are no waste streams. And we process hundreds of millions of pounds of grease every year."

When it was noted that Warkle had agreed to City Pages' witnessing of a live grease pickup, and that a tour of his wonderful facility might also be in order, Van Hoven grew somewhat agitated and started talking about how competitive his business was, and about the need for classified information and trade secrets. His reaction might cause one to wonder if the guys who process grease for a living had to submit to top-security clearances. Sure enough, the next day Warkle let it be known that the planned rendezvous by the giant, wheeled fryers was suddenly verboten.

Still, Van Hoven could not help but divulge a bit of the high-tech wizardry taking place at his rendering plant. "Actually, we employ several different technologies," he revealed. One is "cooking at a very high temperature to achieve 100 percent sterilization." In addition, there is an evaporation process, where the grease is flowed into vast furnaces, the moisture burned off, and all the impurities mechanically separated. But the most intriguing technology involves something called hydrolization. "We hydrolize feathers. You can't cook them," Van Hoven says, sensibly enough. "We make a chemical reaction on a feather which causes it to explode and turn to [the consistency of] dust, which becomes feather meal." It's then frequently fed back to poultry--opening fascinating new vistas on the previously exhausted chicken-or-egg debate.

Some of the grease rendered by Van Hoven is turned into fats used in soap products. Most of the fat from the fair turns into yellow grease, which Van Hoven says is "a high-energy fat that we blend with other, lower-energy fats that become an animal/vegetable blend." This blend is sold to owners of livestock, who mix it in as a small proportion, maybe 2 percent, tops, of their feed rations.

The price of rendered grease products currently wavers between 9 and 15 cents per pound. "Today's market is depressed and it is selling at about 10 cents a pound," Van Hoven said last week. That's not much money when you're exploding feathers to make your weight. But as Van Hoven indicates, the rendering of used grease is an exacting, efficient business. In fact the whole process makes for a tidy circle: The remnants of food-booth animal grease are used as feed supplement for other animals doomed for the grill, the griddle, or the fryer--fat perhaps roasted or fried off their own parents. During the next 12 days when some fairgoer will inevitably remark, "This Pronto Pup is coming back on me," she won't know the half of it.

Oiled Up, Screwed Tight, Ready to Ride
At camp with carnies and their iron darlings
by Josie Rawson

"Ditched my diploma and joined up in Del Mar," Chad's telling Shorty, who rolled in with another crew around noon. "Got on running grease for the Scorpion in Utah. Climbed to the doghouse"--the ride's control booth--"in Texas. That was, hell, '88, '89, I lost count now, but fast, I mean by Georgia that year. Tattoo in Knoxville. Postcard home from Missouri. Guess I was a born migrant. Lucky me, though--follow the carny route and it's like you're living in summer year-round. By the time we tore down and shipped out for winter camp, I mean you couldn't talk to me about shop work or getting stuck in some spot with the same front yard every time you wake up."

"Like a magnet, right?" Shorty, who's been running rides for nine years, drawls through a cheekful of chew from the stoop of his bunkhouse parked on the shore of the midway's vacant, 1-acre island. Opening day for the fair is a week out, and there'll be long hours tomorrow when the Ferris wheel comes in from Kalamazoo, the roller coaster from South Bend or Kansas City--Chad's lost track--and setup starts. Tonight there's just waiting, after two days of waiting and laundry and sleep, and catching up among carnies who haven't crossed paths since Dallas or Miami or Phoenix. "Right? Like a big fucking magnet?"

"Maybe a magnet," Chad answers in no hurry. His felt hat looks chewed up, with tufts of sun-bleached hair poking through the crown. "Maybe like what they say the sea does. I mean calling you out off dry land, like you can't stay put there."

"Some poet," a voice says out in the dark, past the glare of an electric spot wired to one of the dozen semi rigs lined up in the dirt. All that's visible is the lit tip of a cigarette out in the weeds where Larry's gone to piss. He laughs, coughs, steps back into the sickish green light coating the makeshift encampment, and squats, still smoking.

"You guys are going to make me cry," Larry tells the two, screwing up a face that bares his rotted-out teeth and turns his chin into a patch of stubble and shadow. "I'll tell you what carny life's like. It's not old-world gypsy life. Not the sailor's life. Not even glamorous. What it is is work. It's not what those lumber monkeys over there do"--gesturing across the expanse to where the game barkers camp--"setting up stick shacks a good wind could take. Shit, it's work--like pleasing a woman's work."

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