Fair Game

She looks as though she's going to a prom. Elegant, well-groomed, hair shining in the morning sunlight. The guy she's with is understandably proud of her, and the spectators are impressed.

She's the hottest little sheep I've ever seen.
No, this isn't a sex show for rednecks. It's the livestock exhibition at the Maricopa County Fair. And the winners and losers have something in common--they're all likely to end up as someone's dinner.

Phoenix in the spring is the perfect place for a fair. The day is hot, but the evening is just warm. The dusty fairground under a luminous night sky creates the ambiance of an archetypal carnival, seductive and just a bit gothic, like the setting of Something Wicked This Way Comes.

It's perfect. So why is no one here?
Or rather, almost no one. On a Thursday night, I'm here from seven in the evening until it closes, and it never gets busy.

There's something poignant about a forlorn fair. Some of the midway rides aren't moving, and the others have only a few people on them. Since the excitement of such a ride is based on a thrill, which in turn takes its impetus from shared experience, the lack of a crowd makes the scariest rides look like a form of torture, with the guy at the controls doing his best to terrorize a small group of people.

Of the customers that are here, the demographic is obvious. The biggest group is made up of blue-collar families, white or Latino. There are a few black people, and a few teens of uncertain social class. All of the people I speak to say they're enjoying themselves. No one seems to know why it isn't busier, and no one seems to care until I mention it. "Maybe not that many people are into it," theorizes Chloe, 19, tattooed and pierced. Wouldn't it be better if it was really packed? "Yeah. But then you'd have to wait forever to get on anything."

No one has to wait forever tonight. In fact, no one has to wait at all. The carnies aren't barking as usual, they're pleading. As I walk by a stall, the guy tells me, "If you don't win one, I'll give you one." The guy at the next stall says the same thing, and I hear it throughout the evening. Really, these guys aren't challenging you to a game where you might win a prize--they're just trying to sell you something. They're so desperate for trade that they're going to give you the teddy bear or whatever as long as you pay your money, so the game itself is irrelevant.

It's the same with the rides. It can take as long as 10 minutes for a ride to get started, for the carnies to get enough customers on board to make throwing the switch worthwhile. They yell to people walking by, telling them how great and scary/not scary (depending on the potential customer's objection) the ride is. If you stand and watch a ride, the carnies ceaselessly try to talk you into taking it.

I walk around and talk with the carnies. Because this seems such an archetypal American circus, I'm hoping to find the archetypal American carny, a gangling, toothless guy with a gurgling laugh who'll tell me how he killed a man in Arkansas and has been traveling with the fair ever since . . .

No such luck. Aside from their gypsy lifestyle, these people don't differ widely from their customers--hardworking and undereducated. I tell one guy why I'm here. "Yeah? You a pretty smart guy, then?" he asks me. I don't know how to answer that, so I don't. Instead, I ask him where else the fair has been. "Everywhere," he says. "Texas . . . California . . ." Were crowds better elsewhere? "Hell, yeah. But I think they'll be better here at the weekend. I hope they will."

I don't tell him that attendance at this year's fair is actually up over previous years.

A woman selling lemonade is clear about where she stands. "Arizona sucks." I don't feel the need to ask her to elaborate.

In this litigation-happy society, you can't sell anything without covering your ass. So even the slide has a long list of things you're not supposed to do. "Expectant mothers, heart and back patients are advised not to ride. . . . No one under two permitted to slide, even if sliding with an adult."

There's no such warning in sight at the American Rodeotec, a mechanical bucking steer. There should be. It should read, "Management will not be held responsible for customers' ruptured balls."

When I get there, a young guy is climbing on to the mechanical beast, cheered on by his wife and children. He doesn't last long after it starts bucking, but gets thrown off and lands hard on the padded surrounding.

You can't really tell how violently the thing bucks until you're on it. You hold on with one hand, other hand raised in the air in classic rodeo style. I last longer than my predecessor, but at a price. I'm not a big guy, and weigh so little that I fly into the air with each buck, but hang on so doggedly that I land on the machine again, taking the impact in an anatomical region not designed for it. After a half-minute of this, I'm ready to sing an aria.

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