The bus driver threw the engine in gear and rumbled away from the State Fair Transit Plaza. “NEXT STOP, MALL OF AMERICA,” she shouted. Instant panic ran through the bus, because, of course, no, we were all going to the U stop. Ha ha, she said. Just kidding. Everyone relaxed, and smiled: We got a fun driver!

“ON MY BUS WE PLAY TRIVIA,” she shouted. (The PA was broke.) “THE SPACE TOWER. WHERE WAS IT BUILT? HINT. IT WASN’T THE UNITED STATES.”

“FRANCE,” someone shouted, thinking perhaps of the Eiffel Tower. Zut alors, it has been 60 years since we gave America something big and pointy on top. Let us give them a tower for their Annual Exposition, and put around it a metal doughnut that will be dusted with cinnamon and sugar, and shower down upon the people the sweetness of doughnuts as it travels up.

No, that’s not it. Someone else said “GERMANY,” which was correct, I guess, but I don’t recommend you belt out “Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles” when it begins its ascent.

“WHAT YEAR WAS THE PRONTO PUP INTRODUCED?” she said next. I don’t know; introduced to whom? Mr. Pup, this is Hubert Humphrey. He’s a politician who will chew on you while grinning for the cameras. Try not to scream. I guess there’s no formal introduction, just as no one was introduced to Sweet Corn Ice Cream. It just happens. One day you’re the sort of person who thinks, “If there’s anything I’d like less than ice cream with unexpected vegetable nodules, it’s a Beef Suet Smoothie,” and then you’re standing in line at the Blue Moon Cafe hoping they have the Sweet Corn Ice Cream this year. How did this happen? It just did.

“HOW OLD IS THE OLD MILL?” That’s easy: 100 years. An entire century of bobbing along in darkness through a space designed to make a claustrophobe feel as if they were tunneling out of a Nazi camp, except in here you could steal a smooch or two. Although maybe they did that in camp tunnels, I don’t know.

A century is a long time, but it’s open for 12 days per annum. That’s 1,200 days. So I shouted “THREE YEARS.”

Groans and snickers: newcomer.

“WHO SELLS THE MOST FOOD AT THE FAIR?”

I almost went with Fresh French Fries, because I’d been there the day before and watched people queue for spud-slivers in lines whose length suggested they were selling deep-fried twenty dollar bills for five bucks. The fries came in three sizes: Reasonable, Share, and Hate Yourself. The biggest one came in a “souvenir bucket.” I imagine someone cradled it all the way home and placed it on a shelf, thinking it might be worth something on eBay in 10 years. Wife asks you to get rid of it; you say, “It’s for the kids. Something to hand down.” Well, at least scrape off the bugs.

“SWEET MARTHA COOKIES,” people shouted. Of course. Because the Fair is the only place where you can walk around with a tub of cookies, which in any other context would be like sword-swallowing a 10-foot Twinkie, using frosting as a lube.

Who had the record for the most pie-related awards?

“MARJORIE,” said a guy in his 20s. Not bad. The irrepressible Marjorie Johnson, who has won 2,500 State Fair ribbons, and more than 1,000 Blue Ribbons. There should be a statue of Marjorie at the fair, perhaps in tree-trunk form. You know how a tree perishes and some chain saw artist finds a bear or a farmer in the wood? Like that.

They could use some of the trees by the Giant Slide, which appear leafless and sickly. Looks like the emerald ash borers got to them. If you had an attraction where people could step on emerald ash borers — 10 for $1, all-you-can-squish for $20 — there would be lines around the block. I’m sure there’s a booth somewhere that has information and tips for dealing with the things. Last year, I recall, there was a huge version of the bug to show you what it looked like, but you couldn’t punch it.

The bus rumbled to a stop, and I looked out the window at one of those elegant light posts arrayed around the U. Last year — year before? — a driver took one of those out, and it lay on the pavement for a day in a mute reminder that nothing in this world is permanent, particularly your job as a bus driver.

The fair is full of objects that have meaning if you’ve been around a while — there’s a fire hydrant by the All the Milk You Can Feasibly Consume Without Bursting Stand, and it deserves a plaque. A bull got loose back in ’07 and made a break for it, and his headlong, heedless path took him right into the hydrant, which answered the question of whether hydrants can absorb 100 percent heifer-panic. You imagine it must have sounded like someone shooting a watermelon at a gong with a cannon.

One last question as we passed the TCF Stadium: What are those names on the building?

“COUNTIES,” shouted a few. Right. And how many are there? One person shouted out “83,” but another said “87,” and that was correct.

As I walked back to my car, I thought, “If I was a complete hack, I’d write something like ‘the best part of the fair can happen after the fair,’ and hope people mistook that for wisdom when it was pretentious twaddle.”

But what else can you say? Really. It’s the sort of thing that reminds you how the big fair is just a small town. A place where people know who built that, who owned that, who Marjorie is. And when asked, they answer.

Or, as the bus driver laughed: “You’ve taken this bus before.”

 

jlileks@startribune.com 612-673-7858