After a friend’s wedding in Northern California last summer, I found myself the following evening at the State Fair in Sacramento. Six hours or so after ingesting some well-earned In-N-Out, I was no longer combating a headache and a dry mouth, but I was still ludicrously sleep-deprived; more crucially, we all had red-eye flights to catch and rental cars to return. As such, we spent maybe an hour and a half at the fair. During this time, I played no games, purchased no food, and rode no rides.
It was the best fair experience I’ve ever had, because the State Fair–every single State Fair!–is an abomination.
Perhaps you have some recollection of the State Fair as a joyous time, as an event of rollicking gaiety, as something other than a soup-to-nuts shakedown, featuring opportunities to depart with your money as ubiquitous as the air flooded with the unmistakable waft of fresh hog feces. Maybe you went to the State Fair as a child–you being a rascal whose parents leapt at the chance to foist you into such an environment if only so society at large could share the burden of your presence. Likely you enjoyed yourself, because you were, at this time, mentally underdeveloped, and you found the incessant hum of consumption peppered around bright hues and the impotent thrills from the cheapest rides found in Roller Coaster Tycoon, somehow, to be enjoyable.
You managed–in your fledgling, youthful, subhuman state–to extract joy from paying to get outwitted by a gaggle of mouth-breathing, dental-plan-and-GED-lacking yokels. You begged to play rigged bar games (crooked pop-a-shot, warped Skeeball) at three times a going rate that you didn’t know existed. You positively hankered–for reasons that, once examined, will take a half-dozen shrinks to fully unpack–an absolute stranger to guess your weight, which, after a pensive rubbing of both his chinstrap beard and sole patch (yes, he had both), he managed to do quite capably. (It seemed impressive at the time until you realized, much later on, that the law of large numbers applies quite effectively to small numbers, too.)
You even liked the food–the curdled, invariably crusted creations that seem to be conceived both by and for stoners. You learned then, from the ALL-CAPS sandwich board items that could only be considered thinly-veiled middle fingers to coronaries and the proudly barren, big-calved masses waddling down dusty thoroughfares that (in theory!) should have been wide enough to accommodate everyone–you learned then that, much like love, gluttony is also in the eye of the beholder.
(You, at that time, did not realize that all fried food is delicious, and it doesn’t exist solely at the state fair. Had you gone anywhere–fast food joints, dive bars, diners, four-star restaurants–you would have known the possibility of great fried food that (gasp) even looks like it one time existed in nature.)
You adored the animals–the animals that you could see in abundance if you ever went to an actual farm, the animals whose more interesting peers all managed to at least secure themselves real estate at a zoo. You thought hay was something exotic, rather than a mindless add-on purchase easily made at The Home Depot. You found the large outdoor tents housing the animals quaint, you somehow, even then, recognizing the necessity for a refuge shaded from the hellish slurry of unmitigated self-abuse, queueing, and the fleeting, dead-eyed approximations of happiness that constitutes the majority of the Fair experience.
The point: The State Fair is an outdoors Walmart–one where you have to pay for parking and to get in, and the friendly greeters are generally hirsute individuals whose police record and body odor precede them. Yes, it has a lot of things, all reasonably well-contained in one area. But the roster of these things–the rides, the food, the games, the token nods to cultural appreciation, and even the convenience factor, to be honest–at best broach the cusp of mediocrity.
If you were young, you didn’t know any better, but now? Now you know this truth; even if you think you know the fun soul of the State Fair, you, like much of the kitschy down-home environs in which you’re shrouded, are putting on an act. You’re lying to yourself to get your money’s worth this fall, and you’re lying retroactively to believe you didn’t waste your youth. You’re re-applying lipstick on a non-prize-winning pig each year, failing to realize the competition itself itself is unwinnable.
You’re lying at this point more out of habit than anything else, because you think it’s easier than the alternative, and you enjoy the challenge of maintaining your truculence more than the actual event. Soon enough, you’ll walk into the Fairgrounds one year and, seconds after you roll through the turnstiles, wallet noticeably lighter, you’ll break down crying at what you’ve done by attending–fully aware that nothing at the State Fair is good and that, of course, it also smells incredibly like shit.