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Fairs of the Heart: A Fan's Notebook : Flower Fanaticism, What to Look for in a Sheep, and Other Essentials of the Season

September 14, 1986|WILLIAM MURRAY | William Murray, the author of "The Hard Knocker's Luck," is a staff writer for The New Yorker

Want to strike up a conversation with a native at any California fair? Insult a cow. I found this out a couple of years ago when I was leaning up against a fence beside the main show ring in the livestock pavilion at the Big Fresno Fair. Half a dozen very tense 4-H kids were maneuvering their placid Guernseys over the sawdust in front of a small audience of parents, other relatives and assorted hometown rooters, while a lean, solemn female judge in faded blue denims silently weighed the merits and defects of the lethargic beasts. The spectacle looked like an assemblage of overweight French bourgeois spending an afternoon at some favorite gastronomic oasis, and I commented aloud about the avoirdupois on display. "Aw, don't say that," the man standing next to me replied. "Some of them cows out there look good enough to take to a dance."

He was a farmer, and to him most animals, if properly cared for, would outscore Bo Derek. Nothing delighted him so much as a barnful of bleating, lowing, grunting, neighing four-footed guests, each intent on its digestive prowess. The only time he became depressed during the two weeks of the fair, he confided, was toward the end, when the 4-H kids and Future Farmers of America, the junior exhibitors, went home, and the pavilion was only half full. "It's a damn shame," he said. "All them empty stalls, and it's so quiet in here a man can't think."

We all have our own reasons for going to fairs. As a city kid, I didn't discover the pleasures of fair-going until I moved to California from the East 20 years ago. I went out to the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona one September because of the horse races and found out there were other attractions as well--a glitzy amusement zone, big-name entertainers, game booths, junk-food stands. And then there were the displays, with all those animals, vegetables, fruit, flowers and homemade items, most of them for sale. A fair is a cornucopia of goodies and a place to compete, a yearly whing-ding in which the ordinary citizen can win himself a moment in the public spotlight and take home a handful of blue ribbons.

He can also make a buck. California fairs as a whole rank among the top 60 industries in the state, and they share one primary function, that of a trade center. They create a market and stimulate business in their communities. There are now about 80 district, county and citrus fairs in the state every year, and the larger ones attract more than 50,000 people a day on weekends and holidays.

Statistics, however, don't really tell the story of any fair. That is written primarily on the faces of the people who go to them. People who live in cities tend to forget that we are still members of an essentially rural community, with roots deep in the soil, and I always find it an enlightening experience to be someplace where I am surrounded by citizens who obviously spend most of their lives outdoors. "Now, Wendell, you hush up," I once heard a mother at the L.A. County Fair admonish her small boy, who had begun to cry at the explosion of light and sound at the opening of a rock concert. "This don't mean nothing. It's just Hollywood."

"I come here every year," a gray-haired woman from Poway told me at the Southern California Exposition in Del Mar a few weeks ago. "I've kept on coming, even though my kids have grown up and stopped showing. I guess it's because this fair brings the whole area together once a year. It tells us who we are and what we're up to. I like that."

The best time to go to any fair is early, before the crowds begin to arrive. Though preparations go on all year, almost everything really crucial seems to be accomplished only at the very last minute. At the Del Mar Fair this year, a couple of days before the gates opened, the atmosphere was very much like that of a big musical on the road, with people buzzing around backstage on mysterious but obviously urgent missions and sounds of preparation in the air. In the amusement area, the action bordered on the frantic, as if the Titanic was going down and nobody had quite figured out where the lifeboats were. The rides, shows and concessions were mostly in pieces strewn around the parking lot, while gangs of roustabouts labored over spaghetti snarls of electrical wiring--hoisting, clamping, sawing, hammering, painting and testing their equipment. They had been drifting in by twos and threes from previous gigs on the fair circuit, and they seemed to be functioning on nervous energy alone. Their bodies and faces were grimy and streaked with sweat, their eyes deadened by lack of sleep. The few lucky ones who had finished lay sprawled by their games and stands, their eyes closed or staring dumbly at the sky.

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