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Debt Noir

How much could it cost a mom to take 3 kids to the fair?

July 23, 1998|SUSAN HOWLETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was at the drive-through ATM, en route to the Orange County Fair, that I uttered the words any other seasoned mother of three would dismiss as a rookie mistake.

"A hundred bucks should do it," I said, smiling and tucking each twenty into my wallet as if they had a quiet resting place for, say, a few hours.

A doe in the headlights.

As it turns out, "a hundred bucks should do it" rivaled in credibility "Honest Ted," the carnival barker who promised my 8-year-old: "Everyone's a winner!"

With the carpool discount, it cost $14 for the four of us (Dad was working)--not bad compared with entry fees at Disneyland and other theme parks, or so I thought.

We had a great time, but a few hours, an armful of cheap stuffed animals and close to $200 later, it seemed more like a bad case of vertigo than an evening of amusement--and I don't even drink.

I found myself flanked by others on the steps of one the many automated-teller machine trailers conveniently situated within the fairgrounds. Like mine, their eyes seemed to glaze over as they clutched withdrawal receipts, too embarrassed to say aloud, "Where on earth did the money go?"

There wasn't a hole in my pocket--I checked. So, as with the loss of any item of value, I decided to retrace my steps.

Since the roast beef sandwich with that generous dollop of nose-hair-searing horseradish is as much a tradition for me as the fair itself, that was our first stop--at $4.25. My kids like to watch my eyes tear over.

After buying two $15 unlimited-ride wristbands for my youngest kids, I have a vague recollection of some blackened corn-on-the-cob, a palm reading, temporary tattoos and someone asking if they could have a cheesecake-on-a-stick before supper.

By design, I suspect, most of my Orange County Fair spending this year--and every year previously, come to think of it--seemed to take place as if I were strapped into the Zipper ride, the one where your money tumbles right out of your pockets.

For me, it was a blur of lights, noise, and loud people with a handful of darts inviting me to win "a Tweetie for my sweetie" at brightly colored booths.

For my kids, who each left wearing really tall hats with South Park characters on them, it was "sooooo much fun."

I do, however, have an idea where the bulk of my cash went. It wasn't the corn dogs, funnel cakes, or even the handwriting analysis charts that confirmed my romantic nature.

No, it was those toss-the-whiffle-ball-in-the-apple-basket type booths--where you trade up to win a bigger prize. They are dangerous for a mom who clearly was walking around the fair with a flashing "sucker" sign over her head.

Just ask Honest Ted, who these days dresses for his fair gig in khaki slacks, an oxford shirt and a tie. He introduced himself at the softball toss, saying: "My name is Ted, one day I'll be dead; let me show you how to play the game."

I'm not saying I fully trusted Honest Ted, but I did give him a lot of my money. After all, the game looked so easy when he did it.

It wasn't until after my final toss at his booth that Ted confessed the milk bottles I was trying to topple off the whiskey barrel weighed "a little more than 3 pounds apiece."

Looking for a second opinion about the true cost of an evening at the fair, I tapped a weary man, sporting an attractive face painting, on the shoulder. He was pushing a stroller next to the dime-pitch booth.

"Excuse me, sir, but do you mind if I ask you a personal question?"

"Not at all," he said, a bit too quickly.

"How much have you spent tonight?"

"Ohhhhh," he pondered, as if I had asked him to calculate the national debt. "I don't know. A lot."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Fare at the Fair

Battered potatoes: $4 ($5 with cheese sauce)

Eggroll on a stick: $2

Cheesecake on a stick: $3.25

Electric foot massage: 25 cents

Three-minute photos: $4

Water bird whistle: 75 cents

A peek at BlackJack the Giant Steer: 50 cents

A peek at Hercules the Giant Horse: 50 cents

Face painting: $3 to $5

Inflatable hammer or giant crayon: $5

Petting zoo animal food: $1

Elephant ride: $3.50 ($5 extra for photos)

Chili cheese fries: $3.75

Roasted corn on the cob: $2.50

Personality analysis: $2

Cow chip bingo: $2 a square

Rock climbing: $5

Rocket Launcher Reverse Bungee: $29

Pinwheels: $1.50

Palm reading: $5

Handwriting analysis: $1.50

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