January 15, 2006    Story

County Fairs and the Wages of Fun

Every summer I make a point of going to exactly one county fair. These annual pilgrimages impart profound if merciless lessons. Make no mistake — the county fair is our nation’s most puritanically rigorous form of moral instruction. Like a father forcing his child to smoke an entire pack of pilfered cigarettes to ensure he never takes a puff again, the county fair offers you every possible type of enjoyment while sneering, “Here, you want fun? Well, here you go, here’s fun for you — and I hope you choke on it.”

Of course, the fun is of a family variety — no sex, no drugs beyond the occasional watery beer, too weak and overpriced to intoxicate anyone. A fair is fun as conceived of by a grasping and giddy child, face smeared sticky with cotton candy — not the dark allure of vice but the wild, hedonistic excess of a four-year-old doped up on pixie sticks and sleeplessness. The fair speaks directly to our basest and most primal urges towards consumption.

First, there is the food — outsized, outlandish, monstrous. Deep-fried Twinkies, deep-fried candy bars, deep-fried zucchini. Everything is branded “giant,” from the whole barbequed turkey legs to the baked potatoes rupturing sour cream and bacon. Some are even “Texas-sized.” Everything is portable. This is no accident — this is not food to savor slowly, even were such a thing possible in a dusty field with inadequate seating, where the weak and elderly roast slowly at white plastic picnic tables covered in ketchup splatters and alive with bees. The able-bodied charge on, cheesecake-on-a-stick in hand, to see more, to devour more.

County fairs have rides, rickety affairs that are built to collapse, unfolded and allen-wrenched together countless times across the nation by leering, meth-addled carnies. There are prizes to be won, grotesque stuffed bears and inflatable novelty hammers that trumpet their uselessness — you will begin to grow tired of their charms even in the moment you win them, a foretaste of the closet clutter they will become. There are thousands of items for purchase, from paring knives to cell phone covers, and many available for personalization — the sin of vanity as registered on a wooden nameplate or airbrushed T-shirt. There is entertainment — crippled nostalgia acts, their famous frontrunners long departed, doggedly sending that one radio hit out into the empty bleachers. There are domestic animals, their meek comportment a testament to patience strained almost past endurance by a thousand children’s prodding fingers.

It’s not until evening settles in — an evening as hot and stifling as the day — that you have your epiphany. Your skin is coated in a filthy mask of sand, sweat, and hay. Swinging high above the blaring lights and barking salesmen in a fragile rollercoaster manned by a lunatic, nauseous, sunburned, dizzy, third-rate rock and roll ringing in your ears like thunder, you suddenly know:

I never want to have fun again, as long as I live.