Me and My Fair Ladies
The setting was this month's Tennessee State Fair, right in the heart of Nashville. My wife Jenna and I normally hide any section of the newspaper bearing any mention of local fairs, carnivals, etc., lest our 9-year-old Aly catch a glimpse and insist upon our attendance. However, this was a special occasion, as Aly's jump rope team from school was performing at said event on a Sunday afternoon. So we packed up Aly and four-year-old Olivia and slummed our way across town.
Things were hopping from the start with the jump rope team's performance. It was truly entertaining, and not just because my kid was part of it. The Hot Shots' collective talents truly do inspire.
On the other hand, a paradoxical form of inspiration came from the passage of various sentient beings to and fro the stage area. Species of fair goers would continue to be the main attraction across the next couple of hours, until we escaped only $75 or so in the hole, living to fight another year or ten.
Perhaps the most memorable interactions occurred during the long, downhill March to Bataan from the jump rope stage area to the land of the Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds and other machines that rupture discs and elicit pre-digestive vomiting. This Dante-esque and Conrad-like journey into darkness occurred along what is commonly known as the fair midway. There, a plethora of hard scrabble gentlemen (with a few ladies tossed in) stood eagerly behind their booths, stuffed animals manufactured in Third World sweat shops abounding and smiling through gaps normally occupied by teeth as they spewed their offers of games of chance.
"Sir, for only $10 you could win your wife one of these here stuffed animals."
I turned my head at the sound of this form of speech communication, plugging in extra RAM so my brain could more efficiently decipher the concept he had floated for my consideration. I eyed the creature with a combination of amusement and annoyance, and then commenced to daydream in the spirit of the TV show "Scrubs" as I glanced at Jenna.
You know, dude, I thought to myself, look at her, your pretty wife--and you haven't bought her a stuffed animal in years. How could you be so insensitive, such a worthless for-granted taker?
The only thing Jenna would like less than a stuffed animal would be a kitchen appliance. Thus, I quickly dismissed the daydream and focused back on my would-be merchant. I needed to be careful here; I didn't want to inflict any psychic damage. I tied half my brain behind my back. I harnessed another quarter, and then proceeded to speak slowly and carefully:
"We're going to go ride some rides first, thanks." We started to walk off. He wasn't taking the mercy offer.
"The rides are gonna be there," he responded with a sense of urgency that I was too foolish not to overlook. "My stuffed animals won't be."
I paused to let this sink in. Moment of truth, twas. Then I smiled, and calmly replied, "I'll take my chances."
The next 10 minutes made me feel like a freshman girl at a crowded on-campus frat party, just trying to fight her way across the room to hang out with one of her friends and not have some beer-spilling, urine-smelling, unshaven moron grab her arm and go, "Hey, baby, what's your hurry?" The dares to invest multiples of $5 for the slight chance of winning a toy that neither of my kids would care about 10 minutes later continued to fly through the air like pigeons spotting a trash can full of funnel cakes. One semi-kind soul whispered that his boss "would kill me if I told you this, but that guy over there will let you play his game for only $2." I found myself silently wishing I could floss his tooth, but then came to my senses, grabbed my wife and children and ran toward Switzerland.
Throughout the entire midway gallop, Aly repeatedly begged for us to stop and throw some money away for the outside chance that she might win something she really didn't want. Finally I whispered to her, "Aly. These people just want to take our money. Let's save it for guaranteed stuff, like going on rides and eating pizza."
I then told her the story of when I was 15, wandering around a local Oktoberfest in Florida with some cash, proceeding to lose all of it through an obsessive effort to win some kind of prize, any kind of prize. I went home that evening of the fall of 1983 rather dejected, and quite determined to never be made a fool of again by the cigarette-dangling, shrunken-tank top-sporting men of the midway, those who made a "living" by preying upon the foolishness of already cash-strapped individuals who were much better off hanging onto their dough and using it for their kids' lunch money that week.
The brightest moments of the rest of the fair included riding the Ferris wheel with Aly, seeing Aly fly down a humongous slide and watching Olivia ride solo in a little choo-choo train. Observing their happy cherub faces on the rides made the "walk of shame" through the midway a little less shameful. This was what the fair was all about...right?
As we pulled our minivan out of the giant dirt-and-grass lot, we made our way down a little side street. I looked out the window and saw tiny, white, run-down houses, some with three or four very young children hanging out on the front steps. A satellite dish was affixed on one or two of them. Another had a rented bounce house around which 15 or so kids were frolicking, dangerously close to the road. Almost all needed extensive roof repairs.
"Aly," I said, "look out the window. I want you to see how the fair's neighbors live, and then think about how we live. It's another reminder of how much we have, how fortunate we are. That's not some other country right here; this is Nashville."
As we drove home for the next 30 minutes, Jenna and I engaged Aly in a discourse on the socio-economic disparities that span between our cozy neighborhood of Franklin and the homes surrounding the cheap land of the annual state fair. We listened as Aly talked through what she had noticed via her own excessive people watching, what she had picked up while listening to how people spoke. Throughout most of the conversation sweet Olivia was whining for something to eat. We gently told her to be patient and hang on, having no doubts that there would be plenty in the cupboard and refrigerator.
Aly had a lot of fun at the fair, but she'd also learned some things. In a sense, a state or county fair is a mosaic of the human condition in all of its highs and lows, all of its extremes. A microcosm of life in a broken world, a world still mostly unconscious. It's a fantasy zone where cold realities come crashing in, a sphere where you can taste both the high of a spinning Ferris wheel and the low of watching some character pocket your change.
"That's not fair!' is a frequent retort I hear from my 9-year-old when she doesn't get her way about something, when we require her to engage discipline in her choices. We often smile and respond, "The fair only comes once per year." Not that often if I can help it...but then again, frequent visits might teach her more than she'll ever learn in school, and at least supplement what she hears from two parents trying to keep up with daily opportunities to provoke critical thinking.