September 9, 2004

Condensed America

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For most of the years between 1642 and the present, there was an overriding concern among this country’s populace to find something called “America.” Certainly, for modern observers of this period, it seems rather absurd for large numbers of people to geographically quest after an ineffable concept. But, from Chris Columbus to Ronald Reagan, people were so sure they were hot on the trail of America that they would accuse Injuns, Mexicans, and homosexuals of stealing it from them. With a few exceptions, however, most citizens gave up on America around 1959 when Alaska was formally inducted into the United States. The reigning consensus was that if we were going to accept a huge chunk of vast barrenness and frigid beauty that is clearly not a part of America, we might as well all go home … wherever that might be.

As an heir to this history of confusion, I am furious at my ancestors. What were they doing when they spent those two centuries settling this country? I have no idea where the heart of my country lies. It could be in an AOL ad or a polar bear for all I know.

This is at least a partial explanation of why I spent 48 hours (about 36 waking hours) at the The Great New York State Fair last weekend. It was an endeavor to determine the state of the fair and the state of the state, and perhaps gain some brief insight into what New York and America mean in the twenty-first century. 48 hours seems excessive, but I reasoned that if I was going to find America, it would probably take some time. My vague and transient image of America fueled my State Fair binge for most of Day I. By Day II, however, I had Winston Churchill’s famous words in my head: “If you are going through hell, keep going.”

My familiarity with state fairs derives primarily from Rogers & Hammerstein’s 1945 classic. Thus, on my leisurely hour-long drive through Pink Lot B on Parking South, I regaled myself with visions of thousands of people singing and making out with Jeanne Crain. However, this image was apparently untruthful. It turns out that a state fair is a bunch of cattle walking around bleachers of belching bumpkins. As a starving college student, I had brought $25 on the assumption that state-fair people are so warm and generous, they would keep giving me things for free. Before the state fair, I had naively assumed that paying five dollars for a can of Diet Coke would be impossible, or at least would rupture the national economy or something. After paying for admission, parking, and two bottled waters, I realized I was completely broke. “No matter,” I thought. “I’ve only got 47 hours to go.”

Taking advantage of the one event that was somewhat free, my companions and I sat down on the bleachers and proceeded to watch the cows roam around an enormous tent. Apparently, I had been watching a contest of some sort, though I still vainly attempt to understand what was being contested. Here is how a “cow contest” works: dozens of handlers lead their cows into the middle of an arena, and an announcer says which one is the “best.” I feebly tried to explain to the person in front of me that, due to severe limitations imposed by nature, cows have no ability to show their intellectual or physical capabilities. The cow-contest enthusiast countered this claim with, “This is a cattle auction.”

Next door, I met a calf with a sign that read, “Hi! My name is Freedom!,” which showed both that its name had been France before the Iraq War, and that there was a tremendous irony in naming a caged animal after the one concept incompatible with being a caged animal. Evidently, little thought had been given to the fair’s layout since right outside the Cattle and Pig Tents, an enormous pig carcass was rotating slowly over a violent fire. Families that had just spent an hour petting and playing with cute little piglets refused to answer the children’s questions (i.e. “What is that thing with black spots all over it that’s on fire and looks like my favorite animal friend?”).

Across from this lovely display was a booth selling funeral plots and tombstones. Though this may sound inappropriate, the proprietor was friendly and dignified, suggesting that they were benefiting humanity by familiarizing people with their impending doom. He was probably correct, but there is something unnerving about watching a group of septuagenarians eating fried dough in front of a coffin.

On this same bizarre throughway were several Jacuzzi salesmen. The advent of hot tubs as the main attraction of a state fair is somewhat perplexing, but it was yet another free display, so every one of the 100,000 attendees felt obligated to look at it. This resulted in the surreal sight of hundreds of people sitting in empty Jacuzzis amidst the oppressive humidity and parched dust of the fair. Calling to mind an antiquated Tomorrowland, the Jacuzzi tents were generally met with astonishment and disbelief.

The first day ended on a high note as I fulfilled my goal of getting my friend recruited for all the armed forces of the U.S. military. The Pentagon had had erected a gigantic tent that advertised jets, missiles, and boating regulations that had been used in Desert Storm. Thousands of grown men salivated and hyperventilated at the sight of these mammoth phalluses of war. Or they ate fried dough in front of them.

The second day began with a revelation, a moment that irrevocably altered my life. The epiphany consisted of this: I like tigers more than anything in the entire world. I like them more than gold, sex, myself, or existence. This realization occurred in front of one of the fair’s tiger shows, a glorious ode to the barbarity of nature. As our announcer (who resembled Elliot Gould circa California Split) introduced various small cubs to the adoring audience, two enormous white tigers battered each other in the opposite cage. Assured that those tigers were “only playing,” I nevertheless could not help but note that a tiger’s notion of “playing” includes drawing blood from his playmate’s mouth and belly. Next to this tiger-carnage, adventurous souls could pay 20 dollars to leap 100 feet into a precariously hanging net; imagine diving into the ground from a 10-story building without a parachute. There were no mechanics, no gimmicks, and hardly any safety precautions. People were just being induced to commit suicide for less than it costs to buy a Diet Coke. It was perhaps the desperate, plangent screams from this “ride” that elicited the violent growls of the tigers. It was at this point that I found America’s soul. As de Tocqueville once said, it consists of two things: suicide and tigers.

About two blocks down in KiddieZone, the Bengal Tiger Spectacular was under way. Since I was more fascinated by the tigers than anything else at the fair, the second day consisted of me wandering back and forth between these two tiger exhibits to the beat of Busta Rhymes’ sound-check.

The only other notable experience was my passage through the myriad freak shows I had the honor to attend. I paid one dollar to observe “the smallest woman in the world, a woman so small you can cradle her in your arms.” I assumed she was a hologram or a sculpture, but to my surprise, it was an actual woman who was, yes, quite small. Although it is impossible to completely abandon the suspicion that I was financing the exploitation of unfortunate and destitute aberrations, I suspect that circus freaks have the best job in the world: They just sit on a couch, drinking bottled water, and falling asleep in the sun. Which is actually quite similar to the tigers and, indeed, every other person or creature at the fair. The other freak show promised the ambitious “chicken-dog with two bodies,” a “miniature horse,” and the vaguely ordinary “Horrifying Man.” Paying three entire dollars for the display, I walked into the Hall of Freaks. If the fair prided itself on accuracy, the experience would be called the Hall of Plastic Abortion Simulations … and Also Some Dead Rabbits. The only remotely interesting thing was the five-legged rat, but this was not because of its five legs (since it only had fo
ur), but because it was still alive. The entire time, some speaker kept blaring, “Where dat funk?!” Dat funk was at the State Fair, along with everything else. Like America, the State Fair is diverse, horrifying, inane, boring, spectacular, ridiculous, and sponsored by Clear Channel and General Electric subsidiaries. The fair offers the worst of this nation (brutal exploitation, crass commercialism, hackneyed hucksters) and the very best (brutal exploitation, tigers, those other tigers). And if it signifies the current state of the union, I’d say we all have about two more weeks to live.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt
Red Letter Daze Editor