Iowa State Fair—August 18-21, 2016
There is nothing more America than the fair. At ten every morning a voice rings from some distant corner of the fairgrounds, broadcast over tinny loud speakers to every booth, exhibit, and ride. The Star Spangled Banner fills the park and every single soul comes to a pause. Looking to the left and right, peeking around corners, glimpsing through trees you find the closest flag and angle your body toward the stars and stripes. By the rockets red glare hands find their way over hearts and the chaos of the fair stalls at the words of Frances Scott Key. Only at America’s military bases have you ever seen the world stop for America like this. But America cannot be stopped, the last note fades and here she comes again. Consumerism, excess, pointless danger. America America America its all here at the state fair.
The first day, the air is so hot you swim through it, and when the wind comes it’s like the breath of a stove back drafting into your face. You walk in through the back gate, the one that leads into the transient amusement park. Machines held together with pins and ever loosening bolts, hurl teenagers’ bodies through the air. Their teenage brains concerned with if Jimmy can look down Jenny’s shirt, and neither hormone filled body finding the mildest concern for the millions of times the metal octopus has been disassembled and reassembled. Surely there are a few extra parts at the end of every fair—that’s always how it is when you put something together and take it apart and put it together and take it apart. Past the whiplash inducing adventures are individualized stands adorned with neon lights. Noise fills every atom of space. Noise of barkers, noise of piped in techno music for the tilt o’whirl, noise of children crying and pleading and joyously screaming. It all blends to one raucous song, the call of the fair and the unknown and the weird. At first you think the fair is nothing more than a traveling carnival, but then you cross into the rest of the park.
In the underbelly of something called The Grandstand you stumble upon the world of merchants, and retail, and America where we sell, sell, sell, so you can buy, buy, buy. It’s a cavernous space divided into thirds by huge doors that lead to the other side of the Grandstand, where you presume there are bleachers and an arena because over the next few nights you hear the ambient sounds of Kiss and Steven Tyler and Lady Antebellum over refrigerator sized speakers. But on the backside, here in the underneath there is no worry of concerts. You are on a quest to find your friend who is working deep in the belly of this beast. Go past the special dips and soups stand, the neon light up sneakers stand, the magic mug stand, the aroma-therapy stand, the wine stand, the karabiner stand, the felt picture board stand, the glitter stand, the headband stand, the cabinet refinishing stand, the custom orthopedic shoe insert stand, the cheese and sausage stand, the fake hair stand, the furs and dress stand, the chair massage stand, the marionette puppet stand, and the stand and the stand and the stand and the stand.
There in the corner, in the back of the building is a stand covered in delicate paper flowers, adorned by Cinderella’s coach, and accented with pops of hot pink. Here is where you find your friend. She is exhausted, and half a margarita in because it was beer-thirty twenty minutes ago. She has been here for one week. Navigating the tides of people, and using her skill to separate people from their money. You will watch her and learn.
A girl-woman comes into the booth. She smells the bath balms, sorting through different colors and scents. Trailing her is a boy-man, probably the one responsible for the child growing beneath her white floor-length strapless dress. The child pushes her belly out, out, out telling the world that soon it will join us at the fair. The boy-man carries a six-foot tall stuffed tiger draped over his shoulders. It’s nine-hundred degrees inside the building, but he thinks this gigantic stuffed animal is worth carting around the miles of paths meandering beneath the Grandstand. Is it a gift for the pregnant girl? Is she the one who wants to keep something so completely useless? Wrap up her bath bombs and ask about the tiger.
“It’s the third one he’s won this year.”
“What do you do with them all?”
“He wants to slice one open and wear it for a Halloween costume.”
You and the girl laugh and she carries the hot-pink bag of soothing bath salts while her boy-man trots after her with his stuffed baby drooping over his shoulders.
The fair does not discriminate. The fair is as pleased to feast on the ninety-five year old women who walk with crooked backs, in deliberate fashion eyeing this year’s wares, comparing them to when she was a girl seventy years ago and the peddlers sold fabric, not glitter eye-shadow. The fair will chew on a newborn baby, whose mom is still on maternity leave and cradling the lump of child on her shoulder in the searing August heat. Cowboys, farmers, dance squads, acrobats. They are all here, and they all need to buy, buy, buy. It is what the fair demands. We have brought you here today to tell you your life is missing. It is missing hot tubs, and combines, new driveways and chiropractic treatments. The fair will teach you everything you are not.
Sometimes it tries to trick you. Look at the talent. Admire the skill. Hear the rock band. See the biggest pumpkin. Did you marvel at the butter cow? Is the butter cow not special enough for you? That’s okay we made the entire original cast of Star Trek out of butter, there they sit on the bridge. Of course we have a gigantic to scale butter model of the SS Enterprise. This is the fair, we provide you with everything you didn’t know you needed to see. Eggs on a stick, carrots on a stick, apple-pie on a stick (Wait we were lying about that one. Really we just made some apple fritters and shoved a wooden skewer through them, but did you buy us? Good, good.)
Do your feet hurt? Is your blood stream coagulated? Is the sun too hot? Is walking too hard? The fair has a solution; it will only cost you $7. The sky gondola will let your weary limbs hang two-dozen feet over the cement ground and transport you from the center of the park to the outskirts, and back again. Just want to go one way? It’s a bargain at only $4. The sky gondola is different from the carnival rides. It lives at the fair ground all year, so surely it is safer. Metal bassinets covered in plastic, clamped to an overhead wire that creaks, creaks, creaks you through the trees. The scariest part is the eight inches below the metal bar that clanks across your lap. The eight inches are there to give your legs room free to hang. But, parents do not seem to realize children are skinny, and fidgety, and covered in sweat, and the plastic seats of the sky gondola are slippery, and with every cart you see with a child squirming next to their guardian your heart shudders wondering if this will be the child who slips beneath the safety bar and falls to the broiling white concrete below. You envision a string of child-size chalk outlines strewn beneath the gondola’s cables. The parents are not concerned. Just glad the children are no longer complaining about the walking.
Strapped into your bassinet, raised high in the air you have nothing to do but marvel. The fair goes on forever, in all directions acres and acres of fair. Of course the fair must be huge. Because a beast of this size needs territory to fuel its greed. You see another whole section of rides you missed before. These are the death defying rides where for a reasonable sum, and your signature on a legal form expunging the fair from all liability, you can risk your life. And here, strung high above the fairgrounds, you see, people really do sign those forms, and really do risk their lives.
Some genius stuck two cranes together, end-to-end. At either end is a mesh metal basket. Just large enough for two people to climb into and strap themselves with uber secure restraints. The basket spins a full 360-degrees as the crane starts to spin end over end—the baskets always at opposition to one another. But wait, something has gone awry. The fair has failed because there is a tiny man climbing the crane. Even though you cannot see it, you assume he has a safety harness on, as he is climbing the exterior of the crane, up to the central apex, which the cranes rotate around. High above, tottering at the end of the metal is the rotating basket where two individuals flail; stranded in their mesh tomb. The apparatus freezes. People flap high overhead, and the tiny man climbs rung after rung after rung. The sky gondola does not care how the story ends, and continues its journey back to the center of the park.
You make it through the treetops, and then the buckets stop. You hang, feet dangling, wind blowing. Strangers headed the opposite direction stare at you, as if you were somehow in charge of the steel cable that keeps you all from crashing to the earth. And you look to the closest pole—the one that has metal rungs that start a dozen feet off the ground. The pole you would somehow have to make it to in order to climb from this $7 death apparatus and you realize you are not Jason Bourne and do not have the secret leapy muscles that would allow you to live through such a challenge, and while you can do thirty-seven push ups, you don’t do them all back to back, so it probably is even harder to get to the pole than that. But it’s all okay when the sky gondola moves again, and you get to start thinking about what it is you will eat next.
By the end of the fair the toxins of the fair have begun to set in. Your fingers and toes are swelled like sausages ready to burst at the slightest provocation. You want to close your fingers but your palm is unwieldy. Your body forgot what vitamins are. But you did have that pineapple boat three days ago. That was good for you, wasn’t it? It had rice in it, which was slathered in soy sauce. And pineapple chunks, along with a massive scoop of teriyaki chicken. For the first time in your life you ponder: what is teriyaki? Regardless you are certain it’s an equal part contributor of the swelling. The big fat swelling of your sausage fingers and toes. Perhaps it was the corn dog. Or the double bacon wrapped corn dog. Or the two Dutch letters. Or the ice cream sandwich for breakfast. Or the saltiest gyro you ever ate in your life. Or the fact water doesn’t seem to exist at the fair, but margaritas and hard cider and soda are served in gallon sized purple plastic cups. Dear God those ginormous refillable cups.
Now you understand why everyone at the fair wears spandex. It’s because your body just explodes, explodes, explodes and expands to proportions you never knew possible. There is no shame at the fair. No worry if your shirt does not have sleeves. No concern if your makeup is smeared off your face. No remorse about the beer you chugged and the pork chop on a stick you ate that just came back up in a half masticated pile onto your neighbor’s shoes. This is the fair.