As soon as you make it inside the fair, someone will try to take your picture so he can sell it to you later. “I’ve got a camera here,” a man with a gold tooth croons, but since everyone here has a phone and ergo a camera, this particular carnival swindle seems out-of-date, easy to resist. We sweep past him. We are savvy, thrifty; we take pictures of ourselves!
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from horror movies, it’s to be wary of the fair. COME WATCH THE FUN! the banners at the Maryland State Fair urge; enjoy THE 11 BEST DAYS OF SUMMER! Okay, fine — but from previous experience, I know my own dangerous susceptibility to blooming onions, giant stuffed animals, Gravitrons, elephant ears, and games where all you have to do is toss the whiffle ball into that basket that’s barely two feet away! What I’m trying to say is that sun and sugar make me stupid, and that after the fair I’m left with a sore tummy and the feeling that I spent all my allowance on candy that didn’t even taste that good. Which is why this time I brought along two fair companions to protect me from myself, one because she is pretty much the opposite of a sucker, and the other because he is very tall.
STOP #1: The Racetrack
Our first stop is the racetrack, because it seems like the best possible spot to test my mettle, and because, fair companion #1 is an old pro with a system.
The stands here are crowded, perhaps because there’s more shade here, and also beer. Immediately, there’s a clear aesthetic and sun-exposure divide between those with a system and the rest of us. Fair companion #1 is one of the few system-havers without leathery skin, a tucked in shirt, a steely gaze. They tend to cluster around the TV screens that simulcast races from Saratoga and Belmont, whereas the rest of us dupes only care about the horses that are right in front of us.
One of the best things about horse-racing turns out to be how you can’t stop yourself from yelling, whether you’re steely-gazed and system-having, or naive and drunk, or two years old. The horses round the corner and come thundering toward you and that old, deep conquering urge bubbles up, and you hear someone shouting COME ON NUMBER FOUR YOU ARE EMBARRASSING ME, DESTROY THEM ALL, I KNOW YOU HAVE IT IN YOU and it turns out to be you. Not that it’s working. I propose a consolation-prize system for last-place finishers, and fair companion #1 gives me a withering look. Fair companion #2 reports that everyone in the men’s bathroom was simultaneously peeing into the urinals and paging through the racing program with his free hand.
STOP #2: All Time Low Superfan Line
The girls at the very front of the line for tonight’s All Time Low concert are so young and enthusiastic and adorable that you have to look closely to tell that they’re also exhausted and frankly angry. They woke up at 3:00 AM to get here by 6:00 AM; this will be their sixth time seeing the band, and they know some girls who’ve seen them about twice that many times, often in the front row, and the band says hi to them. They have signs to hold up, asking Zach to take a picture with them because they’ve already got pictures with the other three guys in the band, but Zach is always so camera shy, even though he’s really cute.
But the security here makes no sense, and they’re letting people who’ve just arrived this afternoon make a second line right next to theirs, and everyone’s going to get let in at once. The girls are readying themselves: once the gates are opened, they’re going to have to sprint across the field, then force themselves into a prime spot at the front of the stage. It might be brutal. At the Selena [Gomez] concert last week, it was crazy, one of them tells me; little kids were getting trampled.
Fans wear the band’s t-shirt, but ultra-fans wear shirts with lyrics or inside jokes hand-lettered in neon puffy-paint, and maybe a cute beaded fringe along the bottom. The line is already hundreds of people long, and 80 percent of those people are teenage girls. I ask what makes the band so good that they’re willing to give up an entire Sunday to sit in the sun, and not even see anything of the fair except the concrete pathway and chainlink fence of this teen-girl holding pen. “Sex appeal,” one of them says, and the others all nod sagely. From what the poster’s photos show, their version of sex appeal hinges on a hank of dark hair over one eye, cool-guy earrings. One girl plays me a song called “Therapy” on her phone. It’s about how when you’re feeling alone, you should remember that you’re not the only one who feels that way. The girls recommend that in order to get a true appreciation for the band’s appeal, I need to watch these DVDs.
The horses thunder by on the other side of the chain link fence. I ask the girls if they’ve bet on any of the races, and they give me a weird look. “We’re too young,” they say. “Look, it’s Matt!” one of them exclaims, pointing across the field. I don’t see anything. “You can see his feet under that trailer,” she says. The trailer is a couple hundred feet away. I guess I can kind of see someone’s feet underneath it. Matt is the band’s manager, the girls explain. They recognize him from the DVD. I tell them that I just won $21 at the track (true story; send me an email if you want to know my system). They seem unimpressed.
STOP #3 – Treats
We get to the 4H/FFA Home Arts Building just in time to see the ribbon ceremony for the Pillsbury Pie Baking Championship. As the judges deliberate, I spot a lady hovering around the pie showcase table. She’s got tight gray curls and something about her face that tells me she’s serious about pies. Her entry is the apple pie with the cute heart/leaf cutouts on top of its latticed crust, a nice touch that would’ve impressed me if I were a judge.
Mentioning the judges turns out to be a sore spot — I’d always assumed they were master bakers, or at least celebrities, but my informant tells me that I’m mistaken. There is actually a (possibly sinister) overseeing organization, the Maryland Agricultural Fair Board, which certifies fair judges for each category. You can never have quilted or baked in your life and still get certified as a quilting or baking judge, she tells me, in the kind of whisper that indicates long-standing personal resentment. Plus this contest is sponsored by Pillsbury, meaning you have to use one of their frozen crusts, and any baker worth her salt knows that their crusts are way too easy to over- or under-bake. This lady is intense. She kind of seems like she’d be pissed off if she won.
And she doesn’t. Third place goes to an almond/blueberry/goat cheese/basil concoction described by the judges as “very different,” second place goes to a man (!) who made something involving brandy-poached pears (possibly explaining the head judge’s excessive enthusiasm and slight wobbliness). The winner’s a young girl with her arm in a sling. “She has a broken arm, go figure!” the judge says brightly. My informant snorts. She tells me her husband is vegan and doesn’t eat any of her baking, which for some reason is so heartbreakingly poignant I have to walk away.
Sinister judging controversy notwithstanding, it seems like there’s an effort made for every single person in the 4H/FFA tent to come away with a ribbon of some kind. There are rows and rows of baked goods in different categories, i.e. “sliced refrigerator cookies, 6 years old.” The dark irony is that no one’s allowed to eat any of the treats, except the judges — something about food safety regulations, I hear, but I know a conspiracy when I see one. Clearly judges want all the cookies to themselves. I wait until the gray-haired lady isn’t looking before I pick up a brochure about how to start the baking judge certification process.
STOP #4 – Birthing Pavilion
A big sign in the Cow Palace/Birthing Center lists the afternoon’s schedule (Dairy Cattle Showmanship competition, 12 PM; Crossbred Gilts Swine Show, 5PM, etc.) and also proclaims that “Calves, baby pigs, and chicks will arrive on their own schedule.” This turns out to be a lie; the poor pacing, groaning sow at the center of a crowd of spectators has had her labor induced for our convenience. This info is cheerfully revealed by the 4H lady, herself pregnant, who’s providing the background chatter for this weird birth showcase. Though the sow’s water broke a while ago, farrowing turns out to be a slow-ish procedure, so there’s plenty of time to fill with color commentary (for instance: the fact that giving birth in pigs is called farrowing). The whole thing is being staged in a way that’s uncomfortably close to a sporting event, with bleacher stands and (I kid you not) a big TV screen broadcasting a close-up of the action for those who don’t have good seats.
“The fact that she’s laying there looking uncomfortable indicates that labor is progressing,” the 4H lady chirps helpfully. Now the pig lurches to her feet, does a kind of downward-facing pig move, and turns to glare at the lady. Fair companion #1 is literally on the edge of her seat. “Let me know if you see any fluids or piglets coming out that end,” the lady tells the spectators on our side of the pen. It is at this point that I insist that we leave.
STOP #5 – Midway
On the midway, we’re all dupes together — those of us clutching the giant Pooh-Bear-in-a-rasta-cap we won after spending way too much time and money bouncing whiffle balls off the rims of milk cans, and those of us too unskilled and/or timid to win giant stuffed animals. There’s a sideshow tent advertising a 4-foot, hundred pound rat (The most incredible thing you’ve ever seen!!!) which seems like a misfire for the Baltimore crowd; people are shrugging, like Yeah that sounds about right. All I’ve eaten today is a giant cone of soft serve with rainbow sprinkles. I’m getting cranky. Only now do I realize why the Midway rides make you pay in tickets instead of dollars — because 6 tickets for 90 seconds on the swing carousel sounds like less of a blatant swindle than $6. Fair companions #1 and 2 look at me like You really haven’t figured that out til now?
Fair companion #1 is gently insisting on the swings, swindle notwithstanding. What if, she posits, the swindle is itself an essential part of the whole fair-going experience? Isn’t a little good-natured, consensual swindling actually sort of fun, and doesn’t that explain the whole appeal of Las Vegas?
As usual, fair companion #1 is right. The swings are a different animal entirely from the rest of the Midway attractions: their color scheme is faded pastel, and once you’re strapped into your wicker swing chair you can look up and see the detailed pastoral scenes painted on the ceiling. And while someone’s trying his best to destroy that charm by blasting that annoying Drake song from last year from the ride’s soundsystem, once we’re airborne it hardly matters. From up here, the neon tents and neon signs and parades of strollers get that special poignancy of things seen from a great distance. And as we swing higher, it’s easy enough to imagine you can see it all — the 98-pound watermelon; Marty Long, X-Treme Power Sculptor and Master of the Chainsaw; the sweet-faced 4H kids; the eerily accurate age/weight/birthday guesser (“I know my females really well”); the deep fried Oreos; the non-ironic overalls; the fringed eyelashes of alpacas; the look on a baby’s face when he strokes the long soft nose of a horse for the first time.