State fair.


This just in: The freak show, long banished from polite state fair midways, seems to be making a comeback.

OK, I can’t say for sure. Every lifestyles editor knows you need three to make a trend, and I’ve only been to one state fair this year. So make of that what you will. The freak show was a busy part of the Ohio State Fair midway in my youth; I attended once. There was a man there with hanging tumors all over his body, and I forget his Nom de Freak — Snake Man, whatever — who took the microphone and gave a canned, insincere-souding statment about the horror of his condition, which had a polysyllabic name I cannot recall. The shock of seeing his skin was momentary, though. What freaked me out was this: He smoked a cigarette. My dad smoked cigarettes. It was a more unifying gesture than any phony speech could arouse.

Not long after that — I guess this would have been around 1970 or so — the freak show sort of slipped away. There was a growing sense that it was wrong to put human beings on display like zoo animals, and mainstreaming meant there were more job opportunities than those available in carny culture. (I once patronized a credit union with a real bearded lady teller. She shaved, though.) And the subtext of the shows — that these conditions were curses thrown down by God — dissipated as more people trooped onto talk shows to “raise awareness” of this or that once-unspeakable condition, from cancer to sexual dysfunction. The idea of hiding in a tent and charging admission to look upon one’s hermaphroditic sexual organ seemed impossibly …quaint. Why go for small change when you can get a book contract? Anyway, I saw “Freaks” and at some point it boils down to this: We all gotta make a living.

So I don’t know what’s behind this attraction at the Michigan State Fair. Reality television? Carnivale? Who knows? I always overthink these things. (Actually, when you think about it, the freaks market should be at rock-bottom. What possible appetite for freakishness, in any area of life, can’t be satisfied by the internet or Discovery Channel? Or real life? As my colleague Mike Harden once said (paraphrased): “In my day, we had to pay extra to see the fat lady and the tattooed man. Today they walk freely among us on the midway.” But there she was, Little Linda, with a tape-loop barker reel and a fairly low admission price. Kate and her friend wanted to go in. I briefed them the way any 21st-century parent would: “She’s a person just like you, so don’t stand there and stare. Say hello. She’s just small.”

So they paid their money, walked behind the barrier and exchanged hellos with a Haitian woman with dwarfism.

Of course they were disappointed. Can you guess why? They expected to see someone small enough to sit in your hand, like the painting on front of the attraction. (The painting of Little Linda also features a rather impressive rack, which I’d wager was also no match for reality, although I didn’t ask.) “But the sign says she’s 29 inches tall,” I pointed out. Kids never read the fine print.

I hope Little Linda found the trip to Michigan worthwhile. It’s hard out here for a dwarf, and everybody else in this state, these days.

Now this guy…


…this guy wasn’t a freak at all, just a guy on stilts in a tree costume. The girls wouldn’t go near him, and I can see why. I don’t know what he was about, sorry. Maybe something about the emerald ash borer.

UPDATE: Treeman, identified.

Fairs are all about wholesome family entertainment, so of course they clamored for tickets to walk through a gaping head wound into the Fallen Giant, a giant inflatable dead guy. It was hard to get a read on it from the ground. The website is more instructive — by day a “lightly educational” walk through a giant inflatable dead guy, by night a “scare event” in which pygmies chase you out the exit, in the giant’s armpit. The girls pronounced it cool. I just found it unnerving:


And there were rides and junk food and animals and the milk-a-cow exhibit and the bottomless-glass-of-chocolate-milk booth. We saw the Miracle of Life tent, which will make a vegetarian of anyone. And the pig races were a special treat, if only for a glance at the grandstand, which included an orthodox Jewish couple (don’t eat the pig) sitting next to a Chinese family (eat every part of the pig), as well as a Sikh in a turban (don’t eat the pig or any of his barnyard friends) and a Kentucky-sounding family hootin’ and hollerin’ to “Cotton-Eye Joe” and all the Arkansas hog-calling jokes (eat the pig? Hail yeah!). This is my America.

Finally, inspired by Detroitblog’s recent series of posts on the State Fair neighborhood, I took a little driving tour of the area as we headed home. He did not lie. The whole area is going back to prairie, with some of the most astonishing decay you can see in the city. In a single block, we saw three burned houses, still standing, the worst sort of hazard a neighborhood can have, but apparently not high on the city’s list of demolition priorities. This was the best of the bunch:


“Wow,” said Kate’s friend. “This is a bad neighborhood.”

It certainly was, although probably not an unsafe one for a drive-through. Still, I had two little girls with me, one not even my own. We headed home to suburbia, having met the country and the city, just a few miles away.

Posted at 11:27 am in Popculch |

14 responses to “State fair.”

  1. ashley said on August 27, 2006 at 11:15 pm

    Gabba gabba hey!

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  2. brian stouder said on August 28, 2006 at 9:24 am

    When we were in Disney World’s Animal Kingdom a few summers ago, there was a woman with stilts and extended arms dressed like a lush green tropical tree. If she held still you’d walk right past her without seeing her; but she would then move in a sort of controlled, slow, modern dance kind of way – and all the folks in the vicinity would stop in their tracks! It was quite interesting, although it terrified several children (the terror/wonder dichotomy seemed to be a constant sub-theme all through the Disney parks; the MGM movie ride[!?] was utterly terrifying thing to them!)

    I think I would have passed on the massive head wound deal

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  3. MichaelG said on August 28, 2006 at 10:19 am

    For some reason I haven’t looked at the Detroit Blog lately. My loss. It’s wonderful. That State Fair neighborhood dropped my jaw. I had no idea. You can see great coverage of it at, Microsoft’s satellite picture deal. Switch back and forth between it and Detroit Blog as you read DB.

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  4. MichaelG said on August 28, 2006 at 10:21 am

    I had highlighted as a hyperlink. It got lost in the posting. I guess I should have paid closer attention to Ashley’s directions.

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  5. mary said on August 28, 2006 at 11:15 am

    I think the freak show thing got a second wind about ten or fifteen years ago with gen-x types. I know people about ten years my junior who got into seeking out freak shows then. Why? I have no idea.
    The foliage man reminds me of one of the best Halloween houses I’ve ever seen. At the top of my hilly neighborhood is the headquarters of the Self Realization Fellowship (it’s not some nouveau California religious thing…it’s been around for a long time) and they do a Halloween house for the neighborhood kids every year on the grounds of what used to be a luxury hotel. A few years ago they cut holes in the ivy ground cover and had people in ivy costumes lying in the holes. Occasionally they would get up. It scared the whiz out of kids, and I admit it was pretty creepy.

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  6. Rich B said on August 28, 2006 at 12:18 pm

    I don’t know what he was about, sorry.
    I think he’s an Ent. From the Lord of the Rings?

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  7. mary said on August 28, 2006 at 6:10 pm

    I think the guy with the gash in his head and the weird tree man have put a huge damper on the comments. Especially the head wound guy. What is there to say?

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  8. Nance said on August 28, 2006 at 6:13 pm

    How about: “Boy, what a crummy parent Nancy is! She let a 9-year-old go into that thing?” But it was just a beating heart! Really!

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  9. mary said on August 28, 2006 at 6:36 pm

    I, having two sons who hold gross out contests with me, would NEVER say that. In fact, the last time I had to attend a medical conference, I brought hom catalogs from a company that makes medical simulation dummies as souvenirs for the kids. They can see Mr. Hurt, who has a hole in his head, or various simulations of hideous wounds, tumors and amputations. Just to make it really educational, there is the simulation of a woman’s pelvic region. It has all the parts, and you can buy a newborn mannequin to simulate birth. I figured that might act as a psychological contraceptive device. Or warp them for life, or something.

    It’s the photo you posted of the giant with the hole in his head that’s offputting. Letting your daughter and her friend go in there gets you points in my book, but I have some odd parenting theories.

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  10. Dorothy said on August 29, 2006 at 6:33 am

    Nance you and Mary are most excellent moms. IMHO it’s better to expose your kids to all sorts of things that stimulate conversation. You are definitely NOT a crummy mummy.

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  11. alex said on August 29, 2006 at 11:44 am

    Considering the colon cancer people had a giant simulated poop chute for children to walk through at the mall right here in Fort Wayne, Mister Gash Head ain’t shit. I didn’t see the colon exhibit in the flesh, so to speak, so I don’t know whether it had a big ass at the entrance.

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  12. brian stouder said on August 29, 2006 at 12:11 pm

    I don’t know whether it had a big ass at the entrance.


    Well, I heard the display was a gas

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  13. mary said on August 29, 2006 at 12:29 pm

    Did I mention the prostate exam simulator?

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  14. Dorothy said on August 29, 2006 at 1:01 pm

    I need to remind myself not to take a sip of diet Coke as this page is loading.

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