July 4, 2010
Written and witnessed by Lisa Thomas
Salem County Fair
Crowds, neon lights, Ferris wheels, the smell of cotton candy, funnel cakes, and animal dung. There’s nothing more American than a county fair. White, black, Latino, Indian, all mixed together for the sake of fun. Bright, cheap over-sized stuffed animals and ancient looking amusement rides. Mark and I stand in line waiting to ride the Tilt-o-whirl while hordes of people swarm around us. The boy in front of us twitches like a broken toy, head jerking from side to side on his neck as he jumps like he’s dancing to the ever-present music coming from who knows where. I look at his over grown toenails and wonder if he is on drugs or just suffering a nervous condition, or maybe he’s just feeling the coming revolution. He waits, blankly staring ahead of him, long thin hair hanging in his face, twitching arrhythmically to the music. Mark and I get into our round pod and hold on to the guardrail and swirl around making my stomach turn upside down.
Drinking over-priced lemonade and sno-cones we sit on the hard asphalt waiting for the Hansen’s Family acrobatic show. A blonde couple comes out with great flourish, climb onto a small round platform, he in roller-skates, she bear footed. He swings her around like a child by her hands, feet and finally her neck as the grand finale. They look tired and second rate. Later a 6 year old girl comes out in an ill-fitting sparkly biker short costume and does some mediocre tricks on a suspended trapeze, basically hanging from it and making dramatic flourishes. Then her sister, a 4 year old, accompanies her and they jump on a trampoline, jumping, landing on their seats, jumping, then on their feet alternately. The man juggles with bowling pins and then sets them on fire and drops one of them. The audience is harsh. No one applauds or yells. I am too kind, I hoop and holler and try to give them love even though they are tired and broke down. The grand finale is a young gangly woman dressed in a gaudy, sparkly, cheap costume, who climbs the trapeze while the man hoists her higher and higher into the air above our heads, she swings back and forth, back and forth until she is perilously suspended above the audience, finally the audience wakes up with oooo’s and aaawwww’s. She swings with great effort, shoulders hunkered up, neck disappearing, feet stiff like sickles, and stiffened arm muscles and hands clenched holding onto the ropes. Swinging back and forth as she fumbles with another rope at her feet and then suddenly (but not surprisingly) she drops from her perch and dangles like an awkward spider from her ankles, with feet curled inward into small sickles, and ending in an awkward upside down flourish as the audience erupts into sparse, not impressed applause. She dismounts, slips into her tacky little high heels and clumsily walks back to the tent. I try to imagine them by day. What must their lives be like? They are living the real circus dream, traveling from small town to small town performing for low-caste audiences. A far cry from Cirque de Soleil.
The carnies are grizzled, pot-bellied men with a hard-edged sweetness toward the children. Tattooed, over tanned, mostly white, sometimes black men operating machinery with determined focus as if they were preparing for a rocket launch for NASA. Several of them taking great pride in their work, busily pushing buttons, pulling levers, unlocking gates and taking tickets. There are people everywhere; it is more crowded than I ever remembered it. Bodies flying above us on the big swing ride, lights blinking, blaring all around us and all the while screams permeating the soundtrack of the fair. We eat funnel cakes, greasy with white powdered sugar melting into the freshly fried dough. Neon colored sno-cones full of artificial food coloring. And young lovers giddy while they feel each other up on the carousel. Scantily clad teenage girls stalking boys and getting into who knows what kind of trouble. You can feel the crystal meth coursing through the veins of ropey, grizzled suburban boys with wild looks and baseball caps on.
The petting zoo is full of sad, over-fed animals that don’t even have the energy to lift their heads for a pet. They sit in their smelly, filthy pens not making eye contact and dreaming of better days. They are not so different from the humans who shove small Dixie cups of grains toward their mouths. The humans are also over-fed, trapped, under-exercised animals laying in their pens with no hopes left while they watch TV, brains turning to mush.
I love fairs. They are truly American traditions. The ethnic diversity makes my heart smile. Overwhelmed children staring up at the terrifying rides, young teenagers playing at their games of love and lust, old tired adults sitting with half-eaten funnel cakes as they watch their children scream overhead on the fireball. The Drown-a-Clown making blatant racial slurs at the Mexican throwing baseballs in an effort to dunk him. “Yea, beaner!! Just try to drown me, Ha Ha, you missed, now you can come mow my lawn tomorrow! Isn’t that what you people are best at, ha ha ha!!” As bystanders stand back watching not understanding what this blathering fool is saying. I am aghast and thinking that only at the county fair can Dunking Clowns be so racist and offensive. County fairs are lowbrow and that’s why I love them. They represent the lowest common denominator; they are a barometer of the status quo. Every now and then you must jump into the pool in order to know the temperature and volatility. The revolution is coming and these folks will be on the front lines but first, let’s have some funnel cake, fries, and lemonade.