Fairmongering: Seven straight days at the Minnesota State Fair

Dizzy dispatches from the Great Minnesota Get-Together

If there were a hell specifically tailored for agoraphobes, it would probably look something like the Minnesota State Fair.

Every August, the Land of 10,000 Lakes condenses like a white dwarf into the otherwise ho-hum suburb of Falcon Heights. During the course of 12 days, 1.7 million fairgoers—equaling about one-third of Minnesota's population—swarm the greasy neon streets. At any given moment, the equivalent of the population of Bloomington crams into a 320-acre plot of land, creating tightly clustered humanity awash in fried foods on sticks and sleeveless Hüsker Dü tees.

Love it or hate it—there doesn't seem to be much middle ground—our fair is at the top of its class: It's the third-largest event, state fair or otherwise, in the country, second only to the Texas State Fair in Dallas and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. And although Minnesotans would never coin anything as self-promoting as "Everything's bigger in Minnesota," the Great Minnesota Get-Together, as it's officially dubbed, beats both Texan galas in terms of average daily attendance.

Minnesotans are justifiably proud of their agricultural orgy. In 1902, in explaining their decision to move back the opening day of school to the Monday following the fair, city officials in Minneapolis and St. Paul said, quite seriously, that "there's more to be learned in a single day at the fair than double the time at school or college."

Partly because I wanted to find out what, exactly, accounts for our distinctive fair lust, and but mostly because I had little else to do, I decided to put this axiom to the test. I roved the fairgrounds for seven days during all open hours, 6 a.m. to midnight. Although the fair's charm would wear off within hours, there was no apprehension going in.

I reckoned there were worse places to be.

Thursday

The fair and I got off on the wrong foot. It was my fault really.

At 5:55 a.m., just after dawn, I arrived at what appeared to be the world's zaniest ghost town. Clownish snow-cone stands and souvenir shops hocking inflatable baseball bats and manic-looking stuffed monkeys. A stately red Haunted House lived up to its namesake at this desolate hour. The folks operating the About a Footlong Hotdog stand shrewdly opened up shop at 6:30 a.m., before any other vendors, and thus had the early-bird market cornered—the line was a dozen deep.

At 7ish, I grabbed breakfast at the Blue Moon Dine-In Theatre, which features a big movie screen propped before a dozen bench seats salvaged from automobiles. After placing my order, I was presented an ID card. Each card portrayed a different iconic movie character whose name would be called when its owner's order was ready. I'm not sure if they dealt these monikers out at random, or if the cooks made a conscious effort to correspond the tabs with the customers' physical likenesses, but it's my sincere hope that they're issued at random.

"Lloyd Christmas?" A waitress approached me. "Got your egg sandwich here."

I thanked her and, to prove that the sandwich was rightfully mine, handed her a laminated ID depicting a euphoric chip-toothed imbecile grabbing his hair for reasons unclear.

By 8 a.m, the grounds were bustling. That's when I heard an unseen, vaguely familiar voice reverberating in a dry, nasally cadence. I glanced over my left shoulder and saw Sen. (senator?!) Al Franken chatting it up with the well-manicured hosts at the WCCO booth. The State Fair, it should probably go without saying, is the preferred venue for local and state politicians—lunatic Congresswoman Michele Bachmann included—to ingratiate themselves to constituents. They typically do this by adopting airs and mannerisms that correspond to those of what they perceive to be the "common man." For Franken, this meant talking Twins baseball.

"He made this unbelievable play with his glove," Franken said, as if to prove that lawmakers watch baseball, see, just like the rest of you proles. "That play will be seen over and over again."

Around noon, I nearly had my fair-going adventure cut short. I had ventured out, in a car, to the perimeter of the fairgrounds to see just what an insurmountable tangle the traffic was fixing to be, maybe see how long it would take to span the grounds' perimeter (answer: one hour, ten minutes). Upon returning to Gate 7, I idled in line to re-enter the Media Lot. A blue-clad fair employee told me I'd have to undergo a "sweep-search," which baffled me, but only mildly, since my initial entrance had entailed nothing more than a wave and how-do-you-do.

When it came my time to be sweep-searched, two police officers, after noting my parking pass, approached my cranked-down window and asked for my driver's license. I handed it over. They eyed it, then the older one walked toward the back of my car.

I didn't notice any other cars with trunks ajar, so when I heard what came out of his mouth next, I assumed I was hallucinating.

"Go ahead and pop the trunk."

I ignored the order, and instead tried to make small talk with the younger officer who still had my license. Soon I heard and felt a metallic pounding emanating from the rear of my car.

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