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Fear and loathing at the Mid-State Fair

Our intrepid reporters partied till the cows came home


Editor’s note: We armed Glen Starkey and Brent Vander Weide with press badges and 100 bucks, and we sent New Times photog Chris Gardner along to chronicle their exploits last Thursday night at the Mid-State Fair. What they discovered was a nexus of subcultures so beautiful it brought tears to their eyes.

Glen Groan! That was my first reaction to the thought of wading through the heat and crowds of the Mid-State Fair. I always feel like a heifer in the middle of a slow-moving herd at "the biggest little fair anywhere," so I was expecting the worst. But holy cow, having preferred parking and a slip-in-the-back-entrance press badge was certainly a lot more civilized than a mile trek from a parking spot and a line at the gate.

Brent I’ve been looking forward to hitting the fair this year. Aside from being turned away at the "Skybox" before, the past couple of years have been good to me up there. I’ve been through the back entrance before, and I’m sure it’s the only way to go. With Steely Dan headlining the grandstand, I couldn’t wait. Besides, I wanted to experience the Skybox that I’d been denied before. I approached the fair on a mission to have fun, and with New Times kicking in some cash, not even you could blow my high, Starkey.

Glen Mmm. Skybox. I certainly enjoyed the free deli platter, and now I know how the other half lives. Clean bathrooms without giant murals of clowns driving cars. A private bar with Heinekens. After we pried ourselves away from the free food, I was pretty shocked to learn that the fair was a lot different than I remembered. I mean, tequila joints? When did this hard liquor thing start? Not that it was bad. I didn’t see anyone misbehaving. It was still family, baby.

Brent True. I thought things were pretty well under control. I spoke with members of the local law enforcement, and they said the worst incident so far was some pot smoking and a gal who pissed her pants. I’d say that’s pretty harmless. Sheriff Darin Murphy said, "It’s a great duty. I get to see people I haven’t seen in a while and listen to good music."

Oh yeah. The concert. Since we only had an hour or so, I led the crew over to some of the animal exhibits. Wading through the vendors was a task in itself. You can buy anything at the fair. Most of these booths claim to be holding a "sale," and you can find everything from hot tubs to belt buckles.

Glen I was impressed by the craftsmanship in the vendors’ booths, but for my money, the most interesting stuff were the quilts. They’re absolutely pieces of art. And there’s something heartwarming about seeing shelf after shelf of homemade preserves. Folksy! I don’t know many people who still bust out their own preserves and canned foods. That’s old school, and that sums up what the Mid-State Fair is all about. It’s quintessential Americana. You see people from all walks, people you probably wouldn’t run into in your normal life … like carnies. Now there’s a special breed.

As I was walking through the midway checking out all those old-looking rides, I couldn’t help but wonder about safety. I mean, jeez, these old machines look like they were made in the ’30s or ’40s. And their names are blasts from the past: Zipper, Gravitron, Tilt-a-Whirl, Sky Diver, Alpine Bobs, Ring of Fire. Of course there’s a Ferris Wheel. I asked Junior, an Oklahoma native and the operator of the Orbiter, how old his ride was:

"This is about 16 years old, but it’s based on an old ride. Most of these are remakes. I think the only one that’s really old is the Tilt-A-Whirl. It may be more than 60 years old."

Beware the Tilt-a-Whirl, people.

Brent Americana indeed. I often sit around wondering where a carnie goes when he goes home. Some of these fair folk take their jobs pretty seriously. For instance, the guy at the Bottle-Break event that said he’d been a carnie for 12 years. He took great pride in having "worked every game in the carnival." I bet he sure knows his way around a ring toss.

The people you see at the fair are definitely the main attraction. Such diversity, too. You’ve got your true hick, wannabe hick, gangster hick, and non-hick. I was also surprised by all of the lovely ladies at the fair this year.

Glen The hoochie-mama factor was Grande this year, no doubt. My favorite was this tan-legged beauty in cowboy boots, Daisy Dukes, and an unbuttoned tied-under-the-tits Western shirt over a breezy white tube top, though there was a gal with an enormous beer belly that incongruously enjoyed enormous sex appeal with a few drunks at one of the bars. She was pretty fun to watch. The fair is a scammers’ paradise, no matter the age. There are 14-year-old girls dressed like hookers being trailed by pimple-faced teens; 19-year-old ingénues hanging with the over-21 crowd at the open-air bars; dazzling divorcées decked out in their finest, trolling for their next ex. Forget the livestock exhibitions, the really judging contest is on the main drag.

Brent If you’re into that type of thing. I actually went to the fair to see some music and eat a corn dog. Let’s not forget the fine arts here, Starkey. My first corn dog was a bit of a let down, but Hot Dog On-A-Stick was as good as ever. I love those hats they make them wear. I asked for a pretzel at a different spot and the clerk said, "They’re a little hard, so I’ll give you two for the price of one." I said, "Deal!" I can’t help it. I get to the fair and I eat. All of the aromas pull me in like flypaper. I was smelling garlic fries all night long. How am I supposed to resist that? My stomach hurts.

Glen Dude, you can put the food away. Let’s see, after you decimated the free deli platter, I saw the corn dogs (aka health missiles) go down (not to mention copious amounts of beer), the pretzels, garlic fries. Hell, every time I saw you, you were shoving some trans-fat-rich snack item down your throat. My favorite was the deep-fried Twinkie stand. Who the hell comes up with deep-fried Twinkies? Is this more proof that Elvis lives?

Brent Could be. Donald and Walter actually bought a bunch of those for their three female vocalists. Which reminds me. I did actually get to see Steely Dan. They were as tight as I’d imagined. I must confess though, I like that stuff from the Aja era. Their latest music bores me a bit.

I still think it was a great show. Those are some of the finest musicians in the business. And that crowd was certainly the who’s who of SLO County. I liked how young I felt. I also ran into a few friends in line for beer. The long line for beer.

This led me to another fair tradition that includes throwing back a few of those Jack Daniels fair-drink thingies. I never drink those any other time, but they usually have a shorter line than for beer and you get those cool cups to take home with you. That, my friend, is the best deal at the fair.

Glen I don’t know. I think the 25-cent foot massage machine might be the best deal at the fair, because $3.50 domestic drafts and $3 corn dogs aren’t exactly a bargain. And the lemon drops (lemonade and vodka) were $6.50! Ouch! I did coax Sherry Marino, the famous SLO Town psychic, into giving me a free reading. Apparently there’s a dark-haired, light-eyed beauty out there for me, and some sort of career advancement. Frankly, after blowing 100 of New Times’ bucks on beer and corn dogs, I’m not holding my breath for a raise.

Brent I couldn’t believe how fast that money went. Just when I thought I was doing good, my girl informed me that I had been carrying her money, too. Oops! I cannot deny that the fair is good at soaking up the funds.

At one point, however, I felt like they wanted me to leave. I wasn’t belligerent or anything. I just wanted to enjoy the last hour of the concert with one or two more beers, and they closed down the damn booths. I was not the only one agitated by this. I saw the pizza boys turn away 50 people in less than a minute, saying, "We don’t have any beer."

I was confused. I felt unappreciated. I knew they wouldn’t let me back in, but the beer was outside the grandstand. Why did they do this? Well, if they wanted me to leave the concert, they did a fine job. I had to leave before the encore because, yes, I do need alcohol to have a good time.

Glen Despite its faults, the fair is such a spectacle it’s all worthwhile. The most poignant moment for me came when we went to the newborn pens. I saw the little Holstein cows and thought, "Oh, they’re so cute." Then I noticed the sign: "Beef. It’s what’s for dinner," with its photo of sliced rare beef. I began to have a "Babe" moment, which only got worse when I saw the cute little piglets and the poster of how to butcher one and what the different meat cuts were. I suddenly felt rather callow, remembering how I blithely walk into the grocery store every week and pick out some packaged cut of meat–oblivious to the process.

I walked a bit further and stumbled onto the Cattlemen and Farmers Day meeting and looked out into a sea of cowboy hats, listening intently to speakers praising various ranchers. This was a subculture I knew little about, and it hit me: These are the people who make it possible for me to walk into that grocery store, and I took them for granted. The fair is one of the few events that allowed my world to collide with theirs. I now know what the fair is about: people. All kinds of people. And people out enjoying a state fair are a beautiful thing to behold. Æ

Glen Starkey and Brent Vander Weide deserve blue ribbons for beer drinking.

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