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.

I don't know what happens next, if I just get tired or if the guy flips a switch that makes the machine more violent. In any case, it throws me, and the cushioned floor comes up and slams into me.

This ride is exciting, but it isn't scary. So I look for the nastiest ride on offer.

That turns out to be something called the Kamikaze, which looks indescribably horrible, so I won't try to describe it. I settle for the second nastiest, which is called the Top Spin.

But there are two problems. For one, I'm terrified of heights. For another, I have such a weak stomach that I get motion sickness in cars. I, however, am a reporter who takes his work seriously. If I'm going to write about the fair, I feel compelled to experience a scary ride . . .

Actually, that's a lie. So, I'll fess up. I had no intention of getting on the Top Spin. I planned to interview a bunch of people who did it and just write about their experiences. But none of them had a single quotable thing to say, so I find I have no choice.

Fear is a powerful factor, though. As I walk toward the ride, I find that I literally can't do it, can't make my legs take me over to the carny or make my tongue say the words. But the sight of pimply teenagers smirking at me as they prepare to take the ride is just too much . . .

I go outside to the parking lot and get in my car. I drive to a liquor store and purchase a small bottle of Southern Comfort. Then I drive back to the fair and park my car. I sit in the car, open the bottle, and, in the space of about 15 minutes, drink the lot. Then I go back into the fair.

I stand watching the Top Spin until I have a good buzz on and the ride doesn't seem so terrifying. The carny asks me if I'm ready and I say I am.

Here's what this ride entails. They fasten you into something that resembles a giant couch. There were 12 other people in it with me. All that holds you in is the fastening over your torso. The other customers have the look of patients in a dentist's waiting room.

The giant couch lifts into the air, very high into the air. Some people scream. To combat my vertigo, I don't look down. I look up at the night sky, which comes closer and closer.

Then the thing starts to spin. I mean this literally--you go upside down, over and over, fast. Stuff falls out of people's pockets. Hats fall off. I whimper and try not to hurl. Then we're dropped toward the ground at what feels like the speed of a rocket. I think I'm going to pass out, and I think I'd like that, but it doesn't happen. Instead, we're lifted into the air again, and the process is repeated.

I am being sincere when I tell you that this is the most horrible experience of my life. The next day, my stomach will lurch anytime I remember it. If I'd been sober, I'd probably be catatonic.

Finally, it ends. We get off the couch. Everyone else is laughing. Everyone else is walking straight. One couple starts making out.

I just stand there. I notice a sign that says the proprietors are not responsible for lost items. In that case, they're not responsible for the contents of my stomach, because I stumble to a trash can and heave for a long time.

When I stop throwing up, I sit on the ground for a while. Then I go get some water and a hot dog. I sit and eat and drink and watch the thin crowd getting thinner, and wonder again why more people aren't into this.

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: [email protected]

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Barry Graham