The great thing about any state fair is not the midway, nor the agricultural exhibits, nor the animals, and not even the butter cow and calf. The great thing about the state fair is the meeting of country and city, a few days of courtship when we can all forget what it is we dislike about one another and just have fun. City folk can try their hand at shearing a sheep or milking a cow, and country folk can bet on a trotting race or slip off the fairgrounds entirely and go check out the casinos downtown.
I was raised in a state fair city, Columbus, Ohio, home of perhaps the nation’s greatest state fair. (Yes, this includes you, Texas.) It runs for more than two weeks and I couldn’t imagine missing it when I was growing up there. If I still lived there I’m sure I’d still be attending, complaining along with everyone else about the heat, and the smells, and the ridiculous prices, and the scuzzy guys running the rides. Complaining is part of the fair experience. But actions speak louder than words, and you always come back. Because secretly? You love it.
Michigan’s state fair is held in Detroit, which shocked me. I figured it would be in Lansing or Grand Rapids or another more centrally located city, but when you think about it, it makes sense. Detroit is Michigan’s city-est city, so it should host a tribute to the country. Kate and I and one of her friends attended today.
Not only is the fair in Detroit, the fairgrounds are on the infamous 8 Mile Road (motto: “Seeing that your liquor-store and strip-club needs are met in every block — sometimes twice”). A century ago Joseph L. Hudson sold the land to the state agricultural association for a dollar, and there the fair remains today, just inside the limits of the decaying city with the worst national reputation this side of East St. Louis, and every year farm kids come from all over the mitten to show their goats and pigs and cows and horses. They’re joined by pitchmen selling waterless cookware and aluminum siding, beekeepers displaying a see-through section of the hive, 4-H clubs with their blue-ribbon squash and pumpkins, vendors of fried dough and mystery meat impaled upon a stick — oh, you’ve been to the state fair somewhere. You’ve inhaled the odors of saltwater taffy mixed with manure. You know.
I covered the fair for the Columbus Dispatch in ’84. There was a new exhibit that year — the cow maternity ward. The fair management thought a few people might want to come by and watch a heifer give birth, what the heck. By the third day they were erecting bleachers, so great were the crowds. Apparently the last two decades have been growth years — the Miracle of Life tent at the fair this year is sponsored by Chrysler and Jeep, and has a generous space featuring cows, pigs, goats and sheep. Michigan State vet students staff the pens, holding up the new babies for petting and answering questions about why things are happening the way they are inside the birthing pens.
When we visited, a cow was closing in on delivery. She stood in the corner of the pen with a faraway look of concentration, breathing shallow, a little hump-backed. Her bag of waters had already broken. The vet students said if we cared to wait, we’d see the calf emerge in about an hour. Kate was already totally grossed out and was relieved to vote for coming back when it was all done.
“What’s coming out of the cow’s butt?” she asked.
“That’s not her butt, that’s her vagina,” I said. “Probably just remnants of her amniotic fluid. Birth is messy.”
I could see the wheels turning, the mammal-to-mammal connection being made. She wanted the hell out of there, and I couldn’t blame her. So we hit the midway, where I tried hard not to think about metal fatigue and how the ride operator lost all of his lateral incisors. When we returned, the calf was on the ground being rubbed down by the students while the vet waited on the placenta. I’m sort of glad we missed the middle of that movie, because by now I was getting hungry.
I found a trailer nearby — Trudy’s All-American BBQ. (Thank you, southerners, for inventing the pulled-pork sandwich served Carolina-style, with the slaw on top.) The girls ate their carny food, and we went inside to escape the heat. We ended up at the booth of the people waging war against the emerald ash borer, the reason I hear wood chippers so many mornings lately. We left with green pencils and a handful of emerald ash borer temporary tattoos.
It was freebie city all through the ag exhibits — drinkable yogurt and bottomless cups of chocolate milk from the dairy folks, more temp-toos from the cherry growers and insect-control folks. We filled our bags with them, and paid too much for everything else.
But that’s the fair, isn’t it? By the time we sat, exhausted, in front of a dog agility contest, we felt we’d seen not everything, but enough. We missed the fishing pond shaped like the lower peninsula, but we saw the butter cow. We rode the rides but missed goat showmanship. We saw the rabbits but skimped on the sheep. I knew it was time to go when I found myself seriously considering buying a pair of racing pigeons offered for sale in the poultry building.
We drove home along 8 Mile, and I marveled again at the wonders of capitalism — all the strip clubs have signs advertising their low cover charges, which competition has driven to $3. Juliet fell asleep. Kate clutched the stuffed bear she won throwing darts and sorted her tattoos.
I guess we’ll be back next year.
NOTE: Your comments in the preceding thread touched me, and I thank everyone who rang in. I guess I gotta keep doing this.