The last week of the Minnesota State Fair officially signifies the beginning of the end of summer: back to school, back to work on the farm, back to long pants, socks, and the inimitable Northern Plains layered look.
Jaded veteran though I am, I've never arrived at the fairgrounds at six a.m., as the gates open. My thrill at parking a mere half-block away--for free--is quickly dampened by the realization that although the gates are open, nothing else is until nine. The only other fairgoers at this ungodly hour are mall-walker types--older couples in pantsuits and Easy Spirits, lowering their blood pressure while mapping out the day's fairgoing strategies. At least fifteen people have lined up in front of a still-closed tent, hoping to score one of the limited number of Larks, wheelchairs, and wagons available for rental.
Another group of early birds is staked out near the grandstand: men and women of all ages, who have clustered around the local TV stations' broadcast booths hoping for a chance to meet the anchors and send on-camera greetings to the folks back home. Unlike these diehards, I cannot subsist solely on a lust for fame, and now that the food vendors have begun unrolling their awnings and lighting fires under their sleeping vats of grease, I embark upon a quest for the much-hyped Pancake-on-a-stick booth.
Up on Machinery Hill, things are gearing up for a good old-fashioned tractor pull. At least, that's what a dentally challenged young man with a modified ZZ Top beard tells me when I ask why three people in life-size animal costumes are chasing Channel 9's Alix Kendall on a riding lawn mower.
Around half past eight the regular Fair funseekers commence to trickle in, fueling up on mini-doughnuts and elephant ears and holding family meetings around the information kiosks. I enter the grandstand confident that I'll be able to browse unencumbered by crowds, but by 9:05 all three floors of the enormous arena resemble I-494 on a Friday afternoon. The only free space surrounds a display of pianos and organs, where a lone woman slow-dances to the demo music while her family points and laughs. Fairgoers shuffle numbly through the maze of As Seen on TV products: the Space Bobber, the Magic Pen, the Craftmatic Adjustable Bed. A farmer takes a time-out from the pushing and shoving, reclining in an empty hot tub while a smooth-talking hawker gives him the hard sell. "Hey, check out Grandpa learning how to sew!" someone shouts behind me, but when I turn around I see that Grandpa is merely sitting in front of a demo machine while Grandma haggles with the salesman.
THE SWEETEST STATE Fair memories are made on the Midway. Who among us can't recall sharing a car on the Mad Mouse with a junior-high sweetheart, or learning how to smoke behind the Girl-to-Gorilla tent, or covering the floor of the Tilt-a-Whirl with partially digested cotton candy? (Well, I certainly can.) Though the fashions and the soundtrack of this traveling Babylon change with time, the activity, and the prizes in the game booths, remain essentially the same.
On the Fair's last Saturday night, with the dulcet sounds of whatever it is that remains of Lynyrd Skynyrd emanating from the grandstand and a dense, antediluvian mist shrouding the fairgrounds, Minnesotans of school age know they have to make every second count. The chill has allowed some teenagers to sport their brand-new school clothes: turtlenecks, blinding-white sneakers, Old Navy TechnoChinos--but most females between 12 and 20 are presenting a variation on the Christina Aguilera look, i.e., more makeup than clothing.
Preteen girls, afraid and excited to be on their own at night and surrounded by strange boys, huddle in corners, planning what to say if approached. Their male counterparts are oblivious, of course, thoroughly tweaked by that deadly combination of caramel apples and the prospect of another go-round on the Inverter. A young skinny blonde in big shoes and small shorts causes more neck injuries than the roller coaster, as passing men twist their heads around for a second glance. "Hey, supermodel!" shouts one admirer, but he receives no response.
Committed high schoolers and their friends walk six abreast as though lined up for a wedding photo: girls on one side, boys on the other, happy couple in the middle. A group of young men draped in Tommy windbreakers and gold chains practice bedroom eyes on anything remotely female while recipients feign rude uninterest. The rituals are just as faithfully observed by the older-but-restless set, the men emptying their pockets in an attempt to knock over beer bottles, shatter plates, or pop balloons with darts while their bored partners stand by, so weighed down by stuffed rottweilers, Hello Kittys, and Tweety Birds they can barely light their Doral 100s.
After Labor Day, the smell of new pencils will replace the smell of grease, livestock, and other Minnesotans in the collective Twin Cities consciousness. But some girls will still clutch tiny stuffed frogs won at the ring-toss booth, debating whether to instant-message that boy they met at the Curly Fries stand. Blue ribbons will be pressed into scrapbooks; the cattle that won them will become dinner. And, mingling with the memories of this year's Great Minnesota Get-Together will be a whiff of the promise of next year. See you there.