Fair Thee Well

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

I could have walked to the 151st SEMO District Fair. It's just up the street from my place ... but I don't walk. Instead, I met my photographer at the offices of OFF (OFFices) then followed him to Arena Park where we drove right past a "Do Not Enter" sign and parked our vehicles. No one -- no cops, no event staff or anybody else asked who we were but with the blatant disregard we showed that sign, we were obviously important people.

Upon entry, the fair transports you to a portable wonderland of food and fun. On one side of the midway you have deep fried everything; on the other side -- the Super Sizzler, the Hi-Roller, the Cliff Hanger, the Avalanche and the Chainsaw. I'm not sure which is more dangerous, the food or the fun.

After a few moments of acclimating ourselves, we dove into this neon madness. First stop: The teacup ride. I asked the operator of this attraction just what drives him to travel from town to town doing this. Just as he replied, "Oh, I do it for the kids", a young girl no older than 6 began screaming her bloody head off, probably because she noticed what I had already noticed: One of the ride's metal legs was made level by a couple of squares of plywood jammed underneath it, as though it were a wobbily table at a bar made less wobbily with a few coasters. With every turn of those teacups that leg jumped a little bit, kind of like your old backyard swing set; the higher you go, the more the leg comes out of the ground. This poor kid's mind made all these connections and she proceded to flip out.

The Chainsaw was our next stop. As the ride was filling up one kid, already strapped into the contraption, was trying to get my attention. He said, "Hey, mister" a couple of times before I realized he was talking to me.

"Yeah"?

"That's my mom over there ... tell her I love her". Either the kid had an incredible sense of humor or he geniunely thought he wasn't making it out alive.

But if you are like me, and God help you if you are, then you know that in addition to the carnival food and carnival rides the real attraction are the carnival workers. We know them better as "carnies." Just so you know, food vendors are not carnies. Vendors are independant contractors who strike deals with fair/carnival organizers in order to set up their funnel cake stand. Carnies, on the other hand, are all on one team. It's funny to note that somewhere over the past 50 or so years the old sideshow attractions found themselves promoted to ride operators. I guess it was a case of "Well, we can't exploit your deformities any longer but ... you've been with us for so long -- get behind those Tilt-A-Whirl controls"! Unlike vendors, carnies do what they are told ... or else.

Then as all the old time carnies died one by one, they were replaced with the carnies we know: Some with criminal pasts, maybe a few illegal aliens along with some sex perverts. As I recorded audio for semissourian.com the operator of the Sea Dragon told me, "Yeah, I love it when they scream on my ride." I left it at that and recorded some screams.

The next one I approached looked like the old wrestler Killer Kowalski and he told me flatly in some Eastern European accent, "I don't do interviews." Then he immediately launched into "Step right up, win a prize, etc.", with no fun or excitement in his voice at all. If I had to guess I would say he had been in "the life" for as far back as he could remember, saying that one line for so long that it was as involuntary as breathing. His dead eyes and road-weary face said it all; he had been screwed by newspapers before and he was ready to clock out -- permanently.

The free throw booth was divided in two. One carnie, who identified himself to me as "Pancho, 45 from Here, There and Everywhere," would shout cheezy come-ons to women while customers were shooting hoops for fabulous prizes. In one instance you had an 11-year-old kid "this" close to winning a giant stuffed pink giraffe. She was on her final shot when she was distracted by "Hey, come talk to me, baby! Gimme your number and I'll make you a big winner"!

On the other side was Pancho's co-carnie who, since I didn't get his name, we'll call "Lefty". Lefty's approach in attracting players was completely different.

"C'mon already, folks" he pleaded desperately. "It's a dollar a shot! One dollar! I'll give you six-for-five ... please!" The urgency in Lefty's voice indicated that if he didn't make some scratch soon he would be on the receiving end of yet another beating at the hands of the carnival boss.

Many a booth and ride posted signs which read "Help Wanted -- Must Be Able To Work For Entire Fair." I wondered, what kind of carnie just quits their job in a strange town and moves on to the next one?

The photographer had to peel out to cover SEMO's first home game and I was sure that I had more than 700 words worth of material. It was time to fulfill the real need of why I was at the 151st SEMO District Fair -- the food. The only problem was that I forgot to bring any money. OK, that's a lie. I didn't have any money to bring. No matter. I simply approached one of the vendors and went to work.

"Hi, I'm from the radio station and we would be willing to give you all the plugs you want in exchange for a few burgers. Maybe a corn dog or two. Say, are those barbecued beef sandwiches you got there"?

I should point out that the only thing vendors love more than customers is free advertising. I should also point out that I am not in radio anymore and haven't been, at least locally, for about 5 years. No need to bore them with those details, I thought.

I said to the vendor, "OK, now in a few minutes a yokel wearing a state trooper's hat and overalls is going to bring his microphone over and give you some free ad time. Tell him and all the listeners what you sell and where they can find you".

By chance, I noticed that the yokel did walk past the very same vendor. I couldn't hear what was said over the sound of my own chewing but the confusion between the two of them was obvious.

I'm sure it went something like, "Free ads? Don't you know who I am from the car commercials? I don't give nothing for free"!

"But the guy with the hair and the beard said I'd get free advertising if I gave you guys some food!"

"We didn't get no free food", and on and on.

My work was done. My stomach was full and I had plenty of material to write this very piece. I couldn't wait to go home and get started on it ... just as soon as I was finished with my shift on the Tilt-A-Whirl. They will hire anybody, won't they?

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