The End of My Affair with the Fair

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe kids were astonished this year when I suggested we see the new Batman movie instead of going to the fair. They stood astride their bikes, staring gap-mouthed at me. They couldn’t believe I would cancel the FAIR.

“This just ruins my day,” Colin said. I hastily added movie candy and a trip to the arcade to the package.

Not only do the kids love the fair, I love the fair. Or I HAVE loved the fair. Every year in the weeks leading up to the fair, I excitedly point out the colorful trucks of unassembled carnival rides queued up in the fairgrounds parking lot we pass on our way to the grocery store.

“Look,” I say, taking my hands off the wheel to clap excitedly “the fair, The Fair, THE FAIR!”

For the past several years, a trip to the fair has been my birthday present. I love wrapping my hands around that first beer and corn dog, then dragging my family around to look at every single exhibit in the expo building: the oversized produce, the amateur photography, the carvings, the quilts, the jars of canned peaches. This is followed by a trip to the animal barn to appease anyone tired of the aforementioned expo displays of agricultural expertise and pining over future carnival rides and games. After rows of guinea pigs, chickens, rabbits and the chick incubator, I can usually stretch the visit out to include the horse and llama stables.

In the days before kids, and even when they were still very young, we could skip the rides and games altogether. These were the years when my love of the fair was at its peak. It was wholesome and inexpensive.

The Fair and I also have a debauched history. For a teen in the 80s, the fair was an easy place to get away with mischief fueled by a fast food soda cup filled an unhealthy ratio of diet coke to Jack Daniels. It was open late, teeming with other teenagers, and someplace my parents thought was safe enough to leave me unsupervised.

The Fair and I matured together and it became an inexpensive date for my husband and me in the days when we couldn’t afford most other forms of entertainment. As our household discretionary income grew we still enjoyed the Fair.

When our kids came along, we did what we always do and dragged them along. We liked measuring their height against the ruler posted at the ticket booth. We said no to cotton candy and all the peddlers pawning plastic crap. We said yes to those few carnival rides the kids were tall enough to enjoy. We returned home, happily sunburned and exhausted.

Somehow we’ve graduated from buying a handful of carnival tickets to buying the all-you-can-ride, non transferable, wrist bands for our kids. Although we are well beyond the time when we couldn’t put two coins together and walk to the convenience store for a candy bar, the expense makes me itch.

Now a trip to the fair means we rush through the displays of grandma’s cookie recipe and the 800 pound pumpkin to stand in the shade-free, sour-smelling trampled grass, watching our kids wait in a 25-minute line for a three-minute ride.

Access to the carnival rides is through the carnival games with the carnival carnies, which is another problem. The boys love the games and won’t believe they’re rigged. What’s more, kiddie games at the fair have cultivated our children with easy winnings from early on so that they’ll always believe they’re capable of hitting a little balloon with a dart. The games offer prizes like live goldfish that parents get to lug around in sealed, plastic baggies for the rest of the afternoon. Said plastic baggies tend to cook the little fish in the full sun, so the afternoon ends with Mike and me certain we’ve been consigned to hell for abetting animal cruelty.

With so much to offer, the fair entry fee and expensive wrist bands are non refundable, which is not usually a problem. Two years ago, though, we dragged our foreign exchange student along with us for this uniquely American experience. By “uniquely American,” I mean: “I don’t know for sure if they have county fairs or the equivalent in Europe or if they just gather regularly dancing around maypoles and eating turkey legs and jousting.” Even with the advanced discount tickets I purchased, five fair entries, wristbands and dinner for all of us cost roughly the same amount as my first car.

I dragged everyone through the expo exhibits and the small animal barn. Then, in an attempt to out-run what looked like an incoming storm, we skipped the horse stables and went straight to the big Ferris wheel. From there we’d be able to see the whole city, and impress our foreign guest with the juxtaposition of vistas of the Boise River to one side with a five-lane, sidewalk-less arterial roadway littered with back lit marquees and broad parking lots to the other.

We waited in line for our requisite 25 minutes as the wind picked up. The kids were complaining of being hungry, but the fair would be open for several more hours on this last night of the season and we could break later for corndogs and elephant ears.

At the point we were entering an undersized gondola on the oversized Ferris wheel, I heard what I thought was a train approaching. I saw the carney’s face turn pale. We turned and saw a wall of dust barreling down the fairway. It pushed banners and entire canopies ahead of it in a cloud of dust.  I turned back and looked up at the ride we were about to board and saw it shimmy. Startled faces looked over the edge of their respective gondolas at us on the platform.

“Everybody off!” the carney yelled as he strong armed us back from what now looked like a brightly lit deathtrap. We obliged, ducking flying paraphernalia and entire tents to make our way back to our car through the torrent. No fair food, no $7 beer, our expensive wristbands completely unused.  We stopped at a convenience store on the way home to get ice cream. Our exchange student to this day fails to see the attraction of the Fair.

It’s about that time my love of the Fair began to evaporate. I suspect Mike’s interest has long been feigned for my benefit.

Maybe some day when the kids are out of the house, or no longer interested or available to hang out with us (and hopefully have their own respective sources of income), Mike and I will be able to the Fair that I remember loving.  This year, however, nearby forest fires have created spectacular sunsets and an atmosphere reminiscent of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The smoke plays havoc with Mike’s allergies, and I’m unwilling to plop down a small fortune for the experience. The Fair has become an expensive , unfulfilling flirtation. The affair is over.

Besides, Christian Bale is my new crush.