There are other State Fairs, of course. There's also a Minneapolis in Kansas. We do it better than anyone; we have it all. Lowing beasts, farm machinery, grass-roots political schmoozing, processed and congealed meats impaled on a dowel, folk art, high art, chain-saw art, mop hucksters, BBQ slopped in plastic baskets, gap-toothed carnies barking flat rote come-ons, squalling kids, squealing piglets, idiot chickens, mullet-rubes at the test-your-strength booth, first-date teens and 40-year marrieds. Sunrise over pancakes at the Epiphany Diner; sunset at the midway with neon rolling overhead. The fair has begun, and for 12 days we do America better than anyone.
It smells good, too. It has that new-fair smell. The animals haven't yet saturated the south end with, well, their south ends; the grass hasn't been beaten flat by the herds of humans. The grease is fresh. In seven days there will be so much ambient grease in this place you could strip off your shirt and body-surf down Commonwealth Avenue, but not yet.
Somehow the accumulated human humidity never quite dispels at night; it's left behind after a hot fair day, and the next day people add to it until walking around feels like you're running a treadmill in a swimming pool. But not on the first day. Clean streets, clean skies, clean air, clean slate. The Giant Slide even smells of lemons, as if they were up all night emptying cans of Pledge.
Cleaner, in fact: There's a new International Bazaar. The old one was dank and stained and shady, like a ramshackle market you'd find six blocks off the town square in a Caribbean tourist town.
The Union booth was replaced as well. The old one looked like an embassy from 1964, and I was sad to see it go. Things change slowly at the fair; buildings that would have been draped with modern facades 20 years ago in the hectic malleable world outside the fair gate still sport Kennedy-era color schemes. You know they'll never tear down the Horticulture building -- its 1930s Emerald-City feel is too much a part of the fair, and the building is almost like a merry-go-round. You never leave by the door you enter, unless you make a mental note (we entered by the prize-winning honey) and wherever you come out seems like a completely different place, as if you've been transported halfway across the grounds. It's uncanny. You enter through one door, where the daily parade is ending, and you exit by the same to find it's just begun. Spend enough time walking in and out of the building and you can probably leave the Fair before you actually got there. In which case, good luck finding your car.
The Grandstand bazaar -- thank heavens they haven't named it the Shops at the Grandstand yet -- was packed, perhaps because half an hour packed in a herd of lumbering perusers makes it seem cool again when you head outside. A booth is selling "Foamy Soap" -- stock up! Can't get that anywhere else! A spiky-haired guy with a British accent is demonstrating a mop; he was here last year, in the same spot. What does he do in between fairs? Is he some sort of itinerant mop carny whose entire life is spent extolling the wonders of microfibers before crowds across the country? Another booth is selling flag poles, which doesn't seem to be an impulse item. Do people buy one here and take it home?
"Sure!" chirps the cheerful pole representative, Holly. She brings out a box that looks like something you'd use to ship a python, and shows how you can hold it on your shoulder, rifle-style, and walk around the fair. If you want. Most don't. "Ninety-eight percent have them delivered, but you can take it if you like." We pass.
Food? Sure, they have some. There's Fresh Fried Fruit, which would seem to defeat the purpose. It has fiber, but you'll have to eat the stick to get it. Hotdish on a stick is still around, although it remains a mystifying concept; seems like it would be Hotdish On Your Shoes the minute they handed it to you. You can still get fried peanut-butter sandwiches, the Meal that Killed Elvis. The most honest new stand: BIG FAT BACON. That's what it is. That's what you get. You know you're at the fair when you see people walking around eating a fistful of bacon without shame.
There are also other assorted items impaled on dowels. But you knew that.
What's gone? Oh, everything. After a few decades, you see the fair that was there before as much as the one that's here today. Alas, the alligator-on-a-stick booth has not morphed back into the great Lutheran Diner that once occupied the spot. They had fine Lutheran coffee and hamburgers cooked with a Sunbeam iron and squeaky-clean kids, and you could sit there with a cup -- a real cup, heavy, a refugee from a church basement in 1958 -- and watch the impromptu parade flow past. There are still a few such places, though, and they look humble and handmade compared with the new plastic shacks that line some streets. Every year a hand-painted sign is traded for something professional, and every loss nudges the fair toward something less homemade, more like a machine for converting money into sugar and fat.
But slowly. This year's new addition is next year's tradition. Long ago Minnesotans got past the shock of finding tacos or Chinese food at the fair (old-timers still think of the Teriyaki Ostrich restaurant as the Chun King place) and we've come to grips with the decline of Machinery Hill, the closing of the Arcade with its ancient busted fortune-telling automaton. For everything taken away, something new is added -- and every year you see two more old things we'd forgotten about.
The bones don't change. If you're 20 today, you can be certain it'll all be there when you're 80, somehow. It'll be a hot night, and the wind will carry the dubious perfume of the barns; the neon wheels will plow the night. It will be every fair you've ever known. And it will be different. When you leave you'll know it's a farewell to summer, but just for the duration. Winter is never closer to summer than during the days of the fair, but it seems a strange, amusing, abstract idea.
Planning your annual return for this weekend? Thought so. Do all the things you always do, of course, but something you've never done before. This year, for example, we finally tried the Old Mill, a ride that's almost a century old. We had no idea what it was, but Child wanted to go. Looks fun! We entered the ancient wooden boats and were pushed through a narrow slot into a dark, winding tunnel. It took a while to realize that the ride consists of passing through a pitch-black tunnel the size of a birth canal, with fluid sloshing through the bottom of the boat. Oh, right: It's a Tunnel of Love. This was where swains in straw boaters sat next to nervous young ladies in 1913 and tried not to think about the fact that their ankles were touching. The only place where a couple of courting kids could get out of society's sight and buss unobserved. Although in 1913 there was probably a minister at the end of the ride to pronounce you man and wife.
I flipped on the camera to get some light, and the narrow dimensions of the tunnel reminded me I'm hideously claustrophobic. If this thing stops, I thought, the kid's on her own. I'm wading to freedom, and devil take the hindmost. The boat rumbled along, the route occasionally illuminated by folk-art dioramas from 1947, and when the daylight finally shown at the end I was as happy as a miner rescued from a cave-in.
"What was that about?" Child asked. Ah, innocence.
"Tradition," I said. She shrugged; fine.
But of course.