Just up from the Toss-a-Ball kiosk, a man named Zion was discussing the best ways to burst balloons with a hacky sack. “You kind of just have to throw it right at the balloon,” he explained to a fairgoer who’d gotten into the Arizona State Fair for free with a grocery receipt from Fry’s Food Stores. “There’s a nail behind the balloon, so if you even just get close, the balloon will pop.” Three popped balloons won you a fluorescent koala bear, Zion explained to the man. The most popular prizes were the Pikachu doll and a stuffed pig wearing a little black cocktail dress.
When Zion wasn’t working the Fun Factory game at the state fair, he attended a high school for people who wanted to be firemen. “That’s how I got the idea to work the state fair,” he said. “My school is right across the street, so I could just walk to work after last class.”
A woman named Theresa who didn’t want to throw beanbags at balloons said she’d worked at the Arizona State Fair in the 1960s. “I wanted to be a dental assistant, but my parents wouldn’t let me,” she said, then rolled her eyes. “So, I ran away and joined the fair!”
The state fair was different then. “The midway had air rifles and you didn’t have to buy a thousand million tickets to win a stuffed bear,” Theresa said, glancing at Zion. “Back then, the dime pitch was rigged, though. But the concerts were better.” The year she worked the fair, Theresa saw Sonny and Cher perform there. Another night, she saw Lynn Anderson. “After her show, she came out and rode the rides,” Theresa said. “I mean, she was a superstar and she just got on the Whirlybird like anyone else.”
Zion said the machine he used to inflate the balloons was broken, so he had been blowing them up himself.
Sometimes things went wrong at the fair, Theresa agreed. Up ahead, a woman who said her name was Christina didn’t want to talk about how a ride called The Tango had malfunctioned last week.
“I wasn’t here,” she shrugged. “I heard the people were hanging upside down for like five minutes or something.”
Christina was taking tickets for the Big Top Swinger. This ride, she said, never got stuck or hung people upside down. “You have to be 48 inches tall to get on, though,” she offered.
In the agriculture center, a state fair employee named Francine stood near a table heaped with prize-winning vegetables. “You have got to go look at our giant gourds,” she told a visitor, pointing behind her. “I mean, if you see just one thing in here today, look for them gourds. They’re positively huge!”
It was hard to hear Francine over the emcee of the pig-judging contest. He congratulated the winners of Division Two, Class Four, and called for all Class Five pigs to make their way to the makeup area. “There’s a makeup area?” an audience member asked a young man named Rod who was wearing a bright turquoise shirt. “Are they putting lipstick on pigs?” Rod, who’d brought three of his pigs to compete, said he didn’t think so.
Across from the pig pageant, a large turkey with a baleful expression squatted beneath a sign that explained where poultry came from. “It’s educational,” a retired teacher named Glenda said of the livestock exhibit she was hosting. She nodded at a pen full of sleeping goats. “You’d be surprised how many people think only cows give milk.”
At the art exhibit in the next building, a third grader named Chayne Clevenger had won fifth prize for a crayon drawing of Johnny Depp. “You can’t be over here,” a little girl at the coloring station told a man who tried to sit down. “It’s just for kids who want to draw stuff. See? The chairs are super-little.”
Near the exit, a pair of teenagers shared a club-sized turkey leg. “My mom has a wedding cake in a glass box over there,” one of them said, pointing to a nearby display. “Did she win?” her friend asked. “Just some dumb ribbon,” the first girl replied.
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Outside, on the midway, Theresa waited while her niece got a cheek tattoo at the face-painting booth. They were killing time waiting for Mini KISS, a tribute band, to take the stage. “They’re little people that dress up like KISS and play KISS music,” she explained. “They’re a total hoot.”
Later, Theresa planned to do something called the Ferris Wheel of Beer. Right now, she was hungry. “I’m trying to decide: Do I want a deep-fried pickle with hot Cheetos or some frozen cookie dough balls?” she moaned. The problem, she thought, was that she was too old to ride on rides.
“In the old days,” Theresa explained, “it didn’t matter what I ate. Because I would get on the Tilt-o-Whirl and everything I ate just came back up.”
She looked over at a young couple popping balloons at the Fun Factory. “Nowadays,” she said, sounding a little sad, “I never throw up at the state fair.”