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SANDY BANKS

Undiscovered treat for longtime Angeleno

September 09, 2008|SANDY BANKS

I've grown my own vegetables and made my daughters take horseback riding lessons. I've pulled off the freeway in search of the carnival attached to distant Ferris wheel lights. My favorite childhood memories are of helping slop the hogs and collect eggs from the henhouse on my grandparents' farm.

But until this weekend, my 30 years in Southern California had never included a visit to the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona.

It was too far from my home in the San Fernando Valley; too hot, too crowded, too country, I thought.

But I was bored this weekend and tired of being alone. So I went online and printed out the fair's nine-page schedule for Sunday, then circled attractions that appealed to me: wine tasting, cow milking, healthy cooking, rose-pruning. . . .

9:10 a.m.

I arrive early at Union Station downtown for the 10 a.m. train to San Bernardino, which stops this month at the fairgrounds shuttle. It costs me $14 to park and an additional $10.50 for the round-trip Metrolink ticket, but I'm glad to have company.

The train was an hour late. But the crowd on the platform is mellow, and I feel among friends by the time we board. Patricia, a fair visitor for 20 years, warns me that the last train back is 6:15, but if I miss it, I could take a taxi to the bus.

Not a chance. I'm thinking the 4:10 train will be just fine.

11 a.m.

We're heading east on a near-empty train, past tract homes, bus yards and trailer parks. An old guy wearing a hearing aid and a purple baseball cap is fretting that we won't arrive in time. He doesn't want to miss the first post at the Fairplex racetrack.

11:50 a.m.

I follow Mr. Purple Hat into the grandstand. I've never been to a horse race and I'm not much of a gambler. But I love horses. A nice man explains the wagering system and I spend $2.25 on a program. I choose my horses by the names I like (Sweet Pretty Girl and Play Nine) or the way they prance as they warm up on the track. I lose $8 betting on three races, then win -- $3.80 on a $2 bet.

I take my winnings to the bar, where a mojito in a plastic cup is $15. I get a $3.25 soda instead and listen to the Joe Vegas band's version of Carlos Santana. With no one I know around, I'm free to play air guitar and dance.

2:05 p.m.

I head out to the midway -- passing booths boasting the world's largest ant farm, snake and steer -- and decide on grilled turkey for lunch. A turkey leg is $9.75, half the cost of the entire bird I cooked last Thanksgiving. But what the heck . . . you only live once. With the dry, tough turkey meat settling in my stomach, I make my way toward the Home and Gardens pavilion with its wine tasting corner.

I've never been to a wine tasting before and I feel like a rube. But the lady behind the counter couldn't be nicer. I get the feeling I'm not the only novice. It's the county fair, after all, not Robert Mondavi's wine cellar.

It costs $11 for a flight -- that's wine-tasting lingo for five 1 1/2-ounce plastic cups of wine. I ask the lady to pick five Merlots, then discover they pretty much all taste alike. One's a little too fruity, another seems to stick around my mouth too long. . . . I wonder if any of them are Club Card buys?

3:15 p.m.

Heading back out into the sun-drenched midway feels a lot like entering a casino . . . all booths and shouts and clanging bells. How will I ever find my way back to the racetrack again?

I take the shaded route past the shopping stalls, but pledge not to take my wallet out. Still, I can't help but marvel at the choices: I could get my fortune told and my sneakers cleaned; buy a giant safe or a Scripture bracelet; invest in a mutual fund or a Vita-Mix juice maker. It's a full-throttle display of Southern California's quirky sensibilities, entrepreneurial optimism and belief in a niche market for anything.

5 p.m.

I'm drawn to Tapestry Hall because it's air-conditioned. And it's next to the racetrack. It's solemn and quiet, with glass cases full of quilts, wall-hangings and crocheted tote bags.

I watch a gray-haired man with an earring knit alongside a middle-aged woman. They sound so happy and relaxed, talking about difficult stitches and knitting clubs.

I could do that!, I say to myself. I start a mental to-do list: Learn to knit.

Then I discover the scrap-booking display. It takes me a while to figure out what's going on. A 50th birthday invitation, a collage of Winter Formal pictures, a family's vacation photos from Hawaii. . . .

These people actually develop their photographs and assemble them into books that they share with friends and family, instead of tossing them in drawers, shoe boxes and plastic bins, which sit untouched in the closet for years.

I could do that! I add to my mental to-do list.

5:40 p.m.

I head for the shuttle that will take me back to the 6:15 p.m. last Metrolink train. My feet hurt, I'm hot and sweaty, and my purse is crammed with a $3.50 bottle of water, the remnants of a funnel cake, a Fairplex baseball cap, crumpled maps and a near-empty wallet.

So why does it feel like I had so much fun?

--

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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