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Fairmongering: Seven straight days at the Minnesota State Fair

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.

"Please pop the trunk, sir," he said loud enough for me hear, too loud for me to feign obliviousness.

A wave of paralyzing adrenaline washed over my thighs. For the first time, I understood why people's bladders sometimes give out in moments of unexpected stress. I peeked my head out the window and looked back at him.

"I'd rather not."

He stormed toward my window.

"Sir!" he said, adopting an authoritative tone that I suspect they must teach in the academy. "Pop. The. Trunk."

I'm no expert on such matters, but I've always assumed the best thing to do in such a situation is to remain stern, yet calm. I wasn't so sure I could pull it off, though.

"Sir," I said, careful to adopt a tone that was neither suspiciously scared, nor ire-inducingly hostile. "I'd. Rather. Not."

At that moment, I observed with fear-induced, slow-motion clarity as he gazed into my eyes, and I his, for what seemed like ten minutes but was probably no more than six seconds. We had just arrived at a very weird stalemate, and he seemed to be pondering this. There were too many credible witnesses lurking about for him to go ahead and rape the Fourth Amendment.

"Well!" he said finally, "If you don't pop your trunk, I'm not letting you in!"

I told him he had a deal, and shifted into drive before he could take it back. After a hasty three-point turn, I looked into my rearview mirror to see the trembling reflection of my inquisitor cranking his head to speak into some kind of communications device clipped to his cloudless shirt. He appeared to be mighty interested in my back bumper.

Friday

The cops at the State Fair no doubt had more pressing concerns than some jackass refusing to pop open his trunk, but nevertheless, I was plenty spooked by the run-in, and felt a bit like a marked man.

I arrived Friday via a public parking lot on the north side of the grounds dubbed the "Buffalo Lot." There were no sweep-searches to speak of here. Not that it mattered.

After downing a meaty overpriced gyro and Coke from Dimitiri's Fine Greek Foods (total price: $9), I did some wandering. As anyone who's been to the fair for more than 10 minutes can attest, the most visceral onslaught of the senses is the odor. Wafting through the congested streets is a perpetual amalgam of grilled meats, boiling grease, and horseshit. The smells mix with one another so as to create an ever-present hunger that can only be staved by vast quantities of protein delivered via stick.

I was mulling this over—trying to make out which smell derived from what—when I passed by Spamville, a blue-and-gold painted garage dedicated to Minnesota's most notorious pseudo-food. It seemed appropriate to step inside.

Mystery meat-themed memorabilia abounded: Spam umbrellas, Spam mini basketballs, Spam trucker hats, Spam sandals, Spam golf balls, even Spam piggy banks. And, of course, Spam itself, which was not only stacked on pallets by the dozens, but also sold in burger and hot dog form just outside the entrance.

Obviously the purpose of such memorabilia—apart from providing irony-worshipping hipsters more fodder for whatever it is they're trying to prove—is to impart a certain amount of craving, or at least subliminal affinity, for Spam. But witnessing that much concentrated Spam, pun somewhat intended, you begin to feel rather nauseated. The place not only reeked of Spam, but the patrons' very flesh seemed to have a Spam-like hue. The very word Spam began to look and sound grotesque, like it might be the mating call of some hitherto undiscovered species of baby-snatching sloth.

So turned off by Spam was I, that when I passed an information booth with a sign declaring "Maps," I had to turn away—I could scarcely stomach even the anagram for Spam.

After a few more hours of sunburned waywardness, I decided to round up some beers. During this search, I noticed that there seemed to be antitrust, price-fixing shenanigans afoot: At every beer garden, the price was invariably the same: $3.25 for a 12-ounce cup and $5.50 for a 20-ounce.

With one exception: The Midway Men's Club, a volunteer outfit whose profits go to youth-based organizations such as the Boy Scouts (which is not nearly as misogynistic as its name might imply), sold beers at $3 and $5, respectively. More to the point, the workers there all shared the agreeable habit of topping off customers' beers when the suds dipped below three-quarters full.

 

One such worker was a mustached fortysomething named Glen Anderson. If there were ever casting calls held to discover a living, breathing mascot for the concept of Minnesota Nice, Anderson would certainly receive a callback. Sitting on a folding chair, bellied up to the outdoor bar, I realized this was the essence of the Great Minnesota Get-Together: It didn't get anymore Minnesotan than ordering drinks from a fellow named Anderson wearing a Wild hat and speaking in a Minnesota accent so thick you think he's pulling a rib.

"Oh yah, da Midway games 20 er 30 years ago were soo rigged," he said, setting down a freshly poured Grain Belt. "Dose were during da times of da Royal America Show, before dey brought in independent contractors. Dey were rigged, yah, but dat was da fun of it, y'know?"

Talk turned to the economy. Anderson, ever the optimist, doesn't believe the downturn is as serious as is commonly believed. To his point, the 2009 State Fair had set a new record for opening day attendance at 114,939.

"Dings've been busy 'ere all day," he said. "Economy crunch?! No one can sell me on dat."

He pointed at my cup, which he would undoubtedly characterize as half-full.

"Mind if I top dat off for ya?"

Saturday

The crowd raised their hands and shouted his name in unison.

"Poo Ba!"

The King of the Pygmies sat atop his throne—in this case, a miniature brown leather recliner—and went limp. A few spectators exchanged worried looks. Propped up on a stage on the far end of the Midway, Poo Ba, a 79-year-old three-foot dwarf, is the main star of the World of Wonders, a traveling circus sideshow.

"Inside, you will see the gorilla girl!" boomed a mutton-chopped man in gold-rimmed aviators. "You will see her transform from an attractive lady to a hairy male Gorilla! And now watch as Poo Ba, King of the Pygmies, eats fire!"

He nudged Poo Ba, who snapped to and promptly took two flaming sticks and inserted them into his nearly toothless mouth, extinguishing them with perfunctory ease.

Poo Ba, I would find out later, played an Ewok in Return of the Jedi. He also portrayed an Oompa Loompa in the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But his biggest claim to fame is that he's the last living munchkin from The Wizard of Oz (or so he claims).

I approached the stage after the crowd had dwindled. Mike Vitka, the MC, set down the mic. Freed from his duties, his voice now sounded uncharacteristically subdued.

"Poo Ba doesn't say much," he said in response to a request to speak with the ancient dwarf. "In fact, he doesn't talk at all."

I turned to Poo Ba and had to do a double take. The former Ewok was now...dozing? His head was cranked back, mouth agape, and—most disconcerting of all—his glassy eyes were half-open. A horsefly darted about his face, as if trying to decide where to land. I had to interrupt the interview. Poo Ba looked dead.

"Is he...?"

"Nah, he's fine!" said Vitka. "He dozes off now and then. It can get pretty tiresome up here in the sun all day."

Vitka returned to the mic and assured the visibly curious crowd that, no, it's not a mannequin sitting in that chair, that "Poo Ba is 100 percent alive!"

Shortly thereafter, I visited Ward Hall, the owner and operator of the World of Wonders. Dressed in a loud red, white, and blue get-up complete with Lady Liberty tie and glittering star-spangled vest, the spry 80-year-old has been in the freak-show biz for 64 years. He led me behind the tent and offered a folding chair. Behind us loomed two dozen semi-truck trailers, three of which were open to reveal heaps of colorful made-in-China merchandise. Giant stuffed bananas, for whatever reason, were very much in style at the fair this year.

"If I could replace these illusions with human oddities, I could probably bring in five times as many people." Hall said ruefully, motioning to the tent.

He couldn't though, he went on, because the Minnesota State Fair is the only one of its kind to ban human oddities. So, alas, he had to tell three of most prized employees—Sealboy, the Alligator-Skinned Girl, and the Fat Man—that they'd be on two weeks paid vacation.

I walked back to the Midway and snuck one last look at Poo Ba. He still appeared lifeless. I was wondered just how long the folks at World of Wonders would carry on before they finally called the morgue. Were they perhaps waiting until after the Midway closed? Was that even legal?

 

Then Poo Ba abruptly awoke and shooed away the indecisive fly. Vitka addressed the crowd.

"Everybody, raise your hands like this, and say, 'Poo Ba!'"

"Poo Ba!"

Sunday

The fair's biggest, most enigmatic star emerged on the east side of the grounds at 3:30 p.m., just as he did everyday. Teenage girls had staked out the building's perimeter to catch the day's first glimpse of him. Adults stopped in their tracks and speculated as to how the hell he could move like that. Was he remote controlled? There couldn't possibly by a man inside, could there?

Rock-It the Robot, all nine feet, three inches of it, isn't your typical roving mascot. Nestled inside a high-tech animatronic suit—which is made of carbon fiber composite and insured at $500,000—is the robot's creator who, with the aid of an elaborate sonic sensor control, manipulates the giant body. Each hand contains 1,000 parts; the foot-long fingers are nimble enough to produce sign language.

The result: a purple-and-silver behemoth that looks like the lovechild of Barney the Dinosaur and Megatron. After he revealed himself that afternoon, a large crowd gathered. He danced. He bantered. He posed for photos. Most everyone, even—nay especially—adults were enraptured by the thing. Kids seemed to accept, without scrutiny, the idea that such a mechanical creature could exist in the real world. Their parents and adolescent siblings, meanwhile, were unable to logically piece it together; the rig was too damned massive to be controlled by a human inside, and yet too fluid to be the work of remote control.

Not everyone was pleased by the mechanical wonder.

"Are we going to do a picture?" he cooed, turning to a bedazzled two-year-old in his mother's arms. The kid looked up, locked eyes with Rock-It's yellow-lit irises, and promptly burst into tears.

I followed Rock-It behind the Admin building when it came time for him to retire. It made for a rather awkward interview—he insisted on staying fully in character. And so I gazed up at an anthropomorphized hunk of an intricately woven carbon fiber, and asked it questions, dutifully jotting down the answers. I realized two minutes in that I was addressing the faux head perched atop its five-foot-wide shoulders, rather than the place where the human head would logically be. What's more, I couldn't stop doing so even after realizing my mistake.

"I am the ultimate ambassador of good will!" the robot head said in an Auto-Tuned Southern accent. "My mission is to greet and mingle with as many humans as possible! In other words, I'm here to party!"

At that point, grainy dance music began blaring from its torso, and the robot began gyrating rhythmically to the electric beat.

Monday

By Day Five, the unrelenting diet of pizza, burgers, fried things on sticks, and ice cream were beginning to take a toll. As I watched the go-carts around noon, root beer float in one hand, grease-soaked bloomin' onion in the other, I swore I could almost feel the fat molecules bonding to my arteries. I felt downright syrupy.

I whiled away the afternoon in the Midway, which runs about five degrees warmer than the rest of the grounds during the day due to lack of grass. One Midway game, in particular, caught my eye. For four tickets, a carnie would guess your weight. If he was off by more than three pounds, you won a prize. I was curious to see how much weight, if any, I had put on.

"All right, let's see here," he said into the mic, looking me up and down, "One ninety, two hundred, hmm, yup, I'll go with 225."

I couldn't believe it; that incompetent appraiser over-shot my weight by at least 12 pounds!

Or so I thought.

I stepped on the scale, and the dial swooned all the way over to 219. Despite walking, I don't know, at least five miles per day, I had managed to gain six pounds.

"He must have just gotten out of the bathroom, folks," he quipped to the onlookers. I laughed at that, but only because it was true. "Go ahead and pick your prize."

I opted for a flimsy straw hat and, because the sun had beaten down on me considerably by this point and was not forecast to go anywhere soon, I wore that thing unironically and unabashedly for the duration of my stay.

A sizeable fraction of my 50 tickets went to a basketball shooting game. Three tickets got you one three-point shot, and one shot only. I confirmed with the red polo shirt-clad carnies that the rims were indeed regulation and round.

"If we did anything shady, the fair board would revoke our license," one explained, as he passed me the rock.

This seemed plausible enough, so I handed over three tickets and gave it a whirl. First shot: in and out. The second one came up short; the third shot went long. With each miss, I grew more and more irrationally hell-bent on sinking the bugger.

 

This, of course, is what Midway games feed on. No one really cares about the prize. It's all about pride. Specifically: spiteful, what-are-you-laughing-at pride.

I knew the fourth one was net-bound as I released it.

The momentary thrill of success was quickly replaced by the grim realization that now I had a goddamned basketball to carry around with me. Some kind of temporary obsessive conviction took hold to the effect that I had to maintain my dribble for the rest of the evening or, oh, I don't know, I'd be ravaged by a gaggle of pteranodons or something.

Which was no easy task, mind you. Drunkards and 14-year-olds derive great glee out of trying to steal a ball from a stranger dribbling in public. I fended off the giggling dingbats one and all (there were three of them) and, by 8 p.m., had vastly improved my ball-handling skills.

Tuesday

I spent most of today scoping out the animals. First up: a horse show in the Lee and Warner Coliseum.

One by one, the equestrians giddy-upped out onto the dirt-floored arena and maneuvered their beasts before the 1,000 or so gathered spectators. At one point, a young girl with the number 197 pinned to her light-pink shirt trotted out on a beige thoroughbred. The horse performed a maneuver that I believe is called a "jerk-turn," whereby the animal stops rather abruptly in the way a downhill skier does, to the side. Well, the poor gal was taken by surprise and her momentum spilled her off the saddle and she tumbled a full five feet down to the dust, landing on her side. The crowd gasped. Three women, presumably judges, flocked to her aid. As it turned out, she was okay, just embarrassed. The horse, meanwhile, remained unrepentant, prancing around triumphantly. The whole thing seemed almost premeditated.

Then it was off to the various barns. Every kind of farm animal has its own distinctive smell. The Cow Barn, for instance, features a dusty, earthy smell that's rather mellow. On the other end of the spectrum would be the Swine Barn, which houses a sharper odor, very sour and pungent.

It's not so much the hogs' smell that bothers most city folk as it is the sound. There are few noises more disconcerting to the uninitiated than the screams of a distressed sow: Reeh! Reeh! After 10 seconds, it begins to sound damn near human. Mostly, though, the swine remain calm and lounge about on their sides like old, defeated winos.

Soon enough, I spotted an empty pigpen and fixed up an idea. I climbed inside the pen and lay in the finely ground woodchips and pretended to be sound asleep. It reeked something fierce, but was surprisingly comfortable. No one said a word. A passing animal-rightsist could be forgiven for assuming the stunt to be some kind of performance-art commentary on the terrible conditions endured by doomed-for-slaughter swine, which, to be perfectly honest, it was not.

Of course, there was nothing funny when news came out later that swine flu had infected four 4-H members, which compelled fair officials to send 120 4-H'ers home early. I grew convinced that I had the H1N1 virus, even though I know damn well you don't get it from pigs. Due to hypochondria, I came down with a slight fever the next day. (Turned out to be a very mild case of sunstroke).

Wednesday

One of the things about the fair, and any mass gathering of people for that matter, is that it brings into focus previously unconsidered forms of human behavior.

By the fifth day roaming about the shuffling herd, I began to take notice of a particular breed of pedestrian. While in the miniscule minority, they're verily unavoidable in too-tight quarters. (By that afternoon, it appeared quite possible to crowd-surf the three-block span of Carnes Avenue.) When passing by a fellow foot traveler heading in the opposite direction, most people—probably 95 percent of the human population if one had to guess—make a subtle shoulder shimmy to avoid contact or, at the very least, cushion the blow.

But not these assholes. They stride straight ahead, effectively playing chicken with those brushing past them, as if to acquiesce in the slightest to oncoming foot traffic would be a sign of some sort of personal inadequacy.

I had never noticed this phenomenon before, at least not consciously, and the more I speculated as to the offenders' mindset, the more irked I became at their belligerence. I consequently vowed to hold my ground the next time one of these bee-liners came through.

Sure enough, that afternoon, a blockish, sunburned oaf in a purple Brett Favre jersey stared me down on Judson Avenue. The crowd parted for him as if he were Moses. I resolved to hold my ground.

 

"Asshole," he muttered.

I plopped down on a set of sun-baked green bleachers outside the WCCO building and turned this over. Staring absently into a trio of TVs tuned to WCCO—the din of melodramatic soap opera dialogue clashing preposterously with the ooga horns and carnival music—I realized that it was quite possible that the guy was, like me, fed up with the same wankers whom I myself had declared war on. Maybe we were brothers-in-arms in the same cause. I reckoned this same misunderstanding plays out along all of human interaction, up to and including foreign policy. From there on out, I got out of the way of any and all passersby, including bee-liners.

If there's a point here, it's that once you've run out of Midway tickets with hours to burn at the fair, your mind tends to wander. Realizing that this kind of boredom-induced navel-gazing was apt to breed more madness and not lessen it, I headed back to the Midway Men's Club for some final rounds.

Two beers in, I struck up a conversation with a gaunt, hawk-faced man who looked about four decades too old to still be smoking. His name, I gleaned from his yellow nametag, was William. His blue Wal-Mart jacket was a function of his being a fair employee; the retail monolith sponsored the Grandstand concerts. William worked on the sanitation crew, a position he'd held down for the past six years. And why shouldn't he? He lived only two blocks away.

And so, every night, after all the fairgoers have vacated the premises, William and his compatriots comb the grounds with their clasping sticks, picking up literal tons of trash. The work is unheralded, the pay nominal—$8.50 an hour.

"I'm 73 years old; I don't give a shit," he chuckled, a plume of cigarette smoke escaping his mouth. "What the hell else am I gonna do?"

For whatever reason, William's words stayed with me as the fireworks began to pop off over the Grandstand and families strolled up and down the neon Midway and young couples ducked mischievously into Ye Old Mill. His words were still with me two hours later as I exited the grounds for the last time. The sun had been down for more than three hours by this point. The air had chilled.

An autumn breeze began to blow. Goddamn it, an autumn breeze began to blow.


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