Friday, September 21, 2012

Meet Me at the Fair

County fairs: brash, gaudy, exciting and just a bit dangerous. Ours was held over Labor Day weekend, neatly capping off the summer season. Before the fair, hot, sultry summer reigned, filling our lazy days with the buzz of insects, hot dogs, swimming in the creek and visits to the local ice cream shops; after the fair, school resumed, the seasonal shops closed and the nights grew long and cool. For me, the fair was summer’s exclamation point.

Officially dubbed the Columbia County Fair it is commonly known as the Chatham Fair and universally referred to as “the fair” among us locals. It was the genesis of many a cherished childhood memory and one of the reasons I wanted to visit America when we did.

The ephemeral nature of the fair made it mystical. Throughout the year the fairgrounds remained barren, then the trucks would arrive and, in an explosion of chaotic fury, the fair would appear. It opened Thursday and ran until the end of the Monday holiday. The last revelers left at 11 PM and when dawn arrived, the fairgrounds would be empty again. It was magic.

It's an agricultural fair, what did you expect?

The fair shook the summer lethargy out you: the blaring music, the shriek of metal, the sticky, sweet scent of cotton candy and the pervading stench of diesel exhaust slapped you as you walked in. The air was hot, dry and dusty, the rides dizzying and at night, the lights blazed in unabashed, gaudy glory.

Along the perimeter were the gaming booths, with their impossible odds and lame prizes and barkers who cajoled, flattered and insulted until you skulked out of earshot or gave in and put your money down. On the far end were the side shows: the bearded lady, the snake man, the world’s most fearsome gorilla (it was a guy in a monkey suit; cost me $1.50 to find that out), the boy with no body (a kid standing in a pedestal with his head poking through the top; $1.50) and, of course, the huchie coochie shows (“She walks, she talks, she crawls on her belly like a reptile!”).

Modern Barkers, not doing much of anything.

The rides—cobbled hastily together by people who, in all probability, did not enjoy the benefits of higher education—reeked with their own special kind of danger, and the hairy, tattooed man (or is that a woman?) taking your ticket and eyeing your girlfriend up and down also exuded mild menace. And then you spun and whirled and plunged and soared and screamed your throat raw and it was the biggest rush of the summer and you left feeling elated and not the least bit nauseous, which only the young can do.

And so, I brought my wife to the fair, to show her an authentic piece of Americana and relive my childhood memories. You have, no doubt, already anticipated my disappointment.

The livestock and local 4-H exhibits—which is supposedly the primary purpose of the fair—were still there, and if they seemed a little smaller than I recall that is probably due to my being larger and the fact that my most recent trip to an agricultural exhibition was the South of England Show. The amusement park, however, was anything but the same. The gaming booths were there but the barkers weren’t. The people running the booths didn’t shout, instead they causally watched the passers-by and chatted amiably with their neighbors. The sideshows were gone, as were the really dangerous rides and my desire to ride them. And the few fair people I encountered were polite and relatively well-spoken.

Reality, what a gyp.

In short, there was no sense of danger, no menace or excitement, and it was nowhere near as tawdry as I remember. It seemed, to my utter dismay, nice.

So file this under “You can’t go home,” or “They’re ruining this country,” or “These kids today don’t know they’re born” and go visit the cow barn; that hasn’t changed.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Finding America

I’m back from the States again, and with—I hope—a few good stories to post. But before we get into that, I thought I’d share my impression of America:

Being an expat can be a lonely business, especially if you have no close family to tie you to your home counties. I have family, but until recently I had no compelling reason to see them more often than once every other year, and even then it was always in conjunction with a larger vacation. My wife and I might spend a week in Halifax (lovely place, by the way) and then swoop into the Albany, New York area for a few days of “Hi how are you good seeing you great to be here good-bye now” before breezing off to another location.

After a few years of that, a strange thing began to happen: I lost track of America.

For the better part of a decade, news from home came primarily from media reports, Twitter tweets and Facebook postings that, over time, went from puzzling to startling to alarming. The media I could rationalize: they weren’t reporting dreadful news about America because America is dreadful, they were reporting dreadful news about America because reporting dreadful news is what the media does. “Local Scout Troop Fundraises to Save Home for Orphaned Kittens” always takes a back seat to “Religious Nut-Jobs Massacre 50 at Gay Wedding Reception Before Setting Themselves Alight.”

In a country the size of America (or even Andorra – look it up) there is always something bad to report if you look hard enough, but that doesn’t mean only bad things happen there. Still, month after month after month it sort of wears on you, and you begin to wonder. And then you look at Facebook.

The reason for being there: Mitchell Paul (top) and Charles Michael (bottom)

An agenda-driven media is one thing, but seeing opinions posted for the world to see by real people, some of whom I have been at least peripherally acquainted with, posting declarations that, in the best of light, push the boundaries of “Lunatic Fringe” can be quit disconcerting. (No, I’m not talking about you, of course: JFK’s assassination was definitely a mafia hit that was covered up by the CIA.) Dire predictions concerning the imminent collapse of democracy, the rise of a fascist totalitarian state and myriad methods of a coming apocalypse made me pause, and wonder: “Has everyone gone batshit over there?”

Well, I was pleased to find out they have not.

Provided with the opportunity to live for a full month (albeit interspersed with a few weeks in the UK) back in my hometown, not as a tourist but as a normal person doing normal type things and interacting with other, normal people while I did so, I found America to be pretty much how I left it.

America is still filled with friendly, mostly happy, contented people who bitch about paying too many taxes, think the liberals (or the conservatives) have it wrong and worry about rising prices and what future they are preparing for their children, but who—when pressed even a little bit—admit that, yeah, they have a pretty good life. It was pleasant beyond words to reacquaint myself with home, to live among people with whom I share a common background and to sit, luxuriating in the summer sun, listening to the land that, as my friend noted, is in my DNA.

Lyon's Lake, a place of many fond memories

I felt, not home, but at home, comfortable among the people and familiar places, and I left refreshed in many way. Sussex is now my home but America will always be my base, where I am from, what defines me.

So thank you, fellow Americans, for not being as batshit as you seem from a distance. And I promise to not pay too much attention to the media or to the nutburgers who espouse views that are probably as radical to you as they are to me.

And I really, really need to stay away from Facebook.