Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Friday Fair Follies

COSTA MESA - It was already past 11:15 a.m. Friday morning as I was locking my Anaheim apartment and I could already feel the imminent noonday sun calling attention to my sweat glands. Just moments before local television news served as background noise while I hastily prepared to depart on this Friday, July 10. During one of the many the weather segments the “happy-talk” between the weathercasters and news anchors were enthusiastic as today temperatures were “finally going to be at or above average.” 

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Photograph of the OC Fair midway with its rickety rides. Photograph used under a Creative Commons license. 

The typical summertime weather arrived just in time for the opening day of the Orange County Fair, otherwise known as the O.C. Super Fair.

Why grumble about the noonday heat and just wait until later in the evening when the few stars struggling to shine amidst the haze are out and the temperature is cooler to attend the fair? Waiting till the sun sank below the Pacific Ocean and being more comfortable would have been idyllic, but there was just one reason to force myself in the unsympathetic summer sun, the fair was free.

Recently becoming an added statistic to the economic crisis the words “free admission” caused my ears to perk up and my mouth to think out loud, “why not?”

In all the years living under the Orange Curtain never once have I attended the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa. I have always had affection for things like a county fair since I was young, but every year when this fair came into town I always meant to go, “next week.”

“Next week” was now, why, because during the first hour of the opening day of the O.C. Super Fair admission and parking was free.

Why is “Getting there half the fun?”

Opening my car door felt like opening a redbrick oven as a wave of humid heat rushed over my body. Sitting in the car turning on the engine I switch over and blast the scarcely working air condition and then hastily rolled the windows down as beads of sweat begin rolling down my cheek.

Entering the I-5 freeway from Lincoln Avenue in Anaheim traffic was smooth, until motorists slammed on their brakes to read a Cal-Trans freeway condition sign. The sign advised us motorists attending the fair to take the 55 freeway south and “exit Fair Drive for The Fair.” Growing up in Southern California I know when a freeway condition sign has to alert you to something not directly concerning the freeway, like an accident, something somewhere is not well. No sooner than I entered onto the 55 freeway I realized I was na├»ve in believing me and just a few other fellow Orange Countians looking for idle entertainment would show up for the free offer. At about 11:30 a.m. nearly being completely unable to move along the 55 I realized everybody else in Orange County had the same splendid idea.

Inching, literally, along the 55 looking over to my upper right I can see the top of the Ferris wheel, while looking down to my lower right I see cars in every direction making their way to the Fair Drive off-ramp. It looked eerily reminiscent of the Holland Tunnel during rush–hour, a colossal number of cars all vying for the narrow golden off-ramp.

Between attempting to get over a lane, checking my slowly rising engine temperature gage and feeling the burning sweat landing in my eye, I discovered it was just about 12 noon.

At about 12:20 p.m. I was finally off the freeway, only to be diverted by orange cones and jammed into a single lane on Fair Drive soon discovering the fairground’s first two parking lot entrances were blocked off. Overlooking into the fairground’s parking lot was a sea of cars. I begin looking around the side streets seeking possible parking, or maybe buying an $1 permit at Orange Coast College and foregoing swimming in the sea of cars.

As I was plotting my parking move somehow I was swept up in the wave of cars and found myself suddenly trying to swim in the sea of cars inside the parking lot.

Crossing that sacred line from road to parking lot suddenly the rules of the road hardly required to obtain a driver’s license elapsed and what follows is something that could only be described as a real life version of bumper cars. Within the course of three minutes inside the parking lot four cars “bump” into each other racing for one vacant parking spot among the quarter-mile car parked filled row.

While those four bumper car drivers were photographing their cars to have memories of the fair, I found a spot one row away.

As I shut the car off I discovered the time was now 12:52 p.m., only eight more minutes, or I would be forced to pay $10 whole dollars. Now called me whatever cheap pejorative you must, but I did not endure traffic, even beyond Southern California standards, to pay money to stand among a large crowd in high noon summer heat. If I desired such things I would have splurged and just gone to Disneyland. Now briskly walking across the chaotic parking lot profusely sweating I hear Men At Work’s “Land Down Under” playing out of the speakers, followed by a rather catchy jingle welcoming patrons to the O.C. Super Fair. In the front of my mind I am preparing to hear that dreadful announcement, “Today’s fair promotion is now over!”

With ensuing traffic issues holding up hundreds of people hoping to beat the deadline all I could think about is what an unfortunate position the literal gatekeepers of the O.C. Super Fair must be in when they must tell families huffing and puffing from running across the heated blacktop pavement, pay us money. With Orange County Sheriff Deputies standing ready in their full visible tan and forest green uniforms with full gun belt in tow, preparations were being made to tell the frugal fair patrons, “NO more free admission, pay now or go home!”

Being at the main entrance by 12:58 p.m. a nondescript female who appeared to be in her later 30s, maybe early 40s, wearing an baggy blue official O.C. Super Fair two-button polo-shirt yelled out, “Enter here, hurry up!” Indeed I entered there and finally found myself at the O.C. Super Fair.

Standing some 15 feet away from the main entrance feeling the heat of the sun vigorously bouncing back on me from the black pavement and the smell of barbeque smoke coming at me from all directions I saw three very crowded paths to discover. Wanting out of the sun I went in the direction of buildings that hopefully were air-conditioned. Entering into this large-space building I discovered the Americana spirit of county fairs, the arts and crafts contest.

Inside quilts filling up walls with colorful designs adorned most of the building. Also there were a variety of glass displays including an toy collection and silverware collection. Yet what caught my eye was the large orange cake just temping you to break the glass and eat it.

In the adjacent room was the art gallery. One of the things about various fairs and other similar events I have attended is the art display by local artists are often hidden and the public is denied the immense trove of local artists. Here in Costa Mesa I was very happy to see an entire large easy-to-access room dedicated to Orange County artists. The art was decent, as this being a county fair (read: family event) the art displayed avoided being controversial. Art is very subjective and since this is not an art review I shall just say any artist who takes the time to create and display in the public eye I have tremendous respect for. Amazingly there were pieces of art that truly belong in the Guggenheim.

Walking out into harsh sunlight I have now entered an area where lots of cold beer is being served and witnessed a rather awful cover band. This band, who’s name I did not catch, who’s singer is covered in black tattoos and wearing an torn button-up shirt is performing a really horrific cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” Several people around the band were aimlessly nodding their head in drunken enjoyment. Having enough ear abuse I walked into another building and found, aside from the bad cover band, that other ubiquitous aspect of the county fair, vendors.

Vendors at county fairs are unique in the sense you can see and experience an infomercial come alive right before your eyes. Hawking products using the thin black handless ear-to-mouth microphone you quickly can learn and see in action how this cooking pan will change the way you eat, this cleaning product will change your life and all the other late night infomercial products come to life in one big building. In-between the live infomercial are aggressive salespeople hawking satellite television; medicine wagon shows exploiting health fears headed by chiropractors that discover with an metal detector looking wand simply waved down your back how your spine is out of alignment and only their “professionals” can “fix it;” and time-share salespeople promising a free vacation to an land foreign for most in Orange County, San Diego. (Whatever happened to “winning” the big houseboat for one week on Lake Mead “just for attending” an timeshare presentation?)

Befuddled at what could best be described as carnival capitalism, I walk out of the building and discover greener pastures. This is what county fairs were meant for, displaying local farming and agriculture.

Backed against the parking lot and divided by the fence is a pen with little piglets feeding off the obscenely large mother pig lying carelessly on her side asleep. The cute little piglets draw a huge crowd around the pen with little children determinedly wedging their way to the front to see the young piglets in action. This, at least during my visit to the fair, was the most popular attraction.

Near the pen is a building that houses the Orange County Woodworker’s Association’s display. Entering the building and jumping at you from your left is a wood carved steam locomotive, and you suddenly appreciate the fine precision of woodworking. It was quite astonishing seeing grandfather clocks to little toy cars made by an block of wood. At the end of the small building was a booth where patrons could watch the punctilious woodworking in action. After appreciating the art of the woodworker’s craft fatigue began to set in, so I figured it was time to embark upon finding something to eat.

Finding something to eat at any fair is quite the challenge if you have certain dietary restrictions ranging from medical, religious and/or ethical. Your selection of foods is not what you will probably ever find at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, not even Food 4 Less. Walking towards the midway a big-rig, described as “The largest BBQ” with the trailer being one long barbeque pit, quickly gets your attention. “The largest BBQ” at the fair was just one of many various barbeques offered at the fair, from pork, beef, fish, chicken and carcass pig rotating over the grill. Between the many smoky barbeque pits other food offered was the standard food fare at the fair, hot dogs, popcorn, nachos, ice cream and cotton candy. There was one stand offering up sushi, that was the closest alternative to “fair food.”

What to eat? Well, falling in the dietary restrictive categories above it was a dilemma. Figuring I need “a little something” and a drink to sustain me I decided to see what sweets the fair has to offer. There was one stand where your favorite candy is fried, such as fried Twinkies, fried Reese’s, and fried Oreos, among other artery clogging offerings. Need something fried, but want to feel healthy about it, how about a fried avocado. The end result is something that looks like genetically altered hormone induced corn dog. While it all smelled and looked intriguing, the thought of a just out of the fryer fried Oreo on this summer’s day did not sound very appealing.

While wandering in something short of a peripatetic state contemplating why fair food must be questionable in nature I gladly came across the other livestock display, this one put on by Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapters from Orange County high schools. Inside the improvised barn were cattle, goats and a sheep being shaved. The attention immediately turned from sheep shaving to a loose goat. The bellow of laughter thundered through the echoing metal structure when a goat that was being tended by a Fullerton High School FAA member became loose and ran to the nearby skateboarding competition. With a small horde of people quickly following the goat, the prospect of a goat running loose in the fair and jumping up and grabbing a pork loin from an unsuspecting fair patron's grease soaked paper plate was slim. The goat was quickly captured and paraded around for curious young children to pet before being returned to its enclosed contraption for not-so-distant future fair attendees to gawk, point and pet.

The amusing side trip to the FAA livestock exhibit was fun, but my body is craving food.

In what was becoming the never-ending quest to quell my hunger I did not rule out fried things altogether, after all that is part of the county fair experience. After smelling and examining the food offerings among the crush of people I settled on food that harkened back to a simpler time of fair food, the funnel cake. Not just a simple funnel cake, but funnel cake more than generously sprinkled with powdered sugar and overtopped with strawberries and whipped cream rapidly melting away in the heat.

Eating my funnel cake this ski lift to my right caught my eye. There was an small moment of hope perhaps the ski lift transported high paying ticket holders to a secret snow packed room, but of course no such luck, only raising patrons a few feet higher to the sun above the crowds. Surely, say, teenagers would not take advantage of being high above the crowds looking for some cheap thrills of their own? (Further investigating showed at the entrance of the ski lift reveals a very long list of “don’ts” shortly followed by “CRIMINAL PROSECUTION” typed in bold letters.)

As for my funnel cake, it was very delicious and one of the better funnel cakes I have indulged in (sorry Knotts'), thinking to myself as I cleaned bits of powdered sugar from my lap.

Now that I satisfied the hounds of my stomach I feel prepared to tackle a riskier gamble not even the Las Vegas Strip could offer, the carnival midway. With carnival rides you never quite know what to expect. At least with the aggressively zealous vendor salesperson or one of the many barbeque grills you probably know what you’re betting on, but with carnival rides you never know if the roller coaster is going to snap apart or if the ride operator is going to nod out at the controls in the middle of the afternoon and keep the ride spinning. Or, if the said ride operator tries to keep himself awake as he is looking at you with desperate bloodshot eyes saying he will give you all the free rides you want, if you only give him a hit.

This year’s carnival is operated by Ray Cammack Shows (RCS) of Laveen, Arizona, which has had a monopoly on major fairs in Southern California for the last 20 years. To be fair RCS has made an effort to eradicate the stereotypical carny, but walking through the midway they still have their work cut out for them.

Entering the midway towards the rides is the carnival’s life blood, carnival games with barkers jumping on you like an ghastly dream you had right before you woke up this morning and you cannot quite shake the unpleasant memory away. As you seemingly mind your business as you eagerly rush over to an ride these people behind the game booths unrelentlessly yell at you, “Hey my man I wanna tell you something, come on over, I’ll give you a free game.”

What is suppose to persuade you over to the booths are the oversized knockoff stuffed characters, like “Stewie” from Family Guy or “Spongebob Squarepants.” Or if big stuff characters do not fancy your pleasure, you can throw darts hoping to puncture a balloon and have your pick at an large photograph portrait of your favorite late 1980s hair-rock band, or late 80s big hair busty lingerie model. Now in the middle of such portraits being offered were several Michael Jackson portraits, circa somewhere between “Thriller” and “Dangerous,” and at least one booth already had a tacky sun-damaged tribute portrait of The King of Pop.

Many books, articles and televised specials have discussed in-length the exceptionally unscrupulous methods of carnival games (even the mobsters once running Las Vegas had better scruples and odds on their gamming floor), and despite RCS’ efforts at promoting a family friendly carnival, looking around and observing games being played, RCS sticks to what makes money. While I cannot speak of RCS directly, it has been well documented many barkers who work games quickly practice the art of hustling as they are not paid an minimum wage, but money they bring into their booth from fair patrons. Of course a large cut goes to the carnival owner who demands a quota, and combined with the inevitable skimming as part of the barker’s profit margin it is painstakingly clear what their motivation is to keep luring the gullible. Think about it, after the fair leaves town that could be the barker’s money for the next week until the carnival sets up in another town.

Passing by the games I am surrounded by rides, rides painted with tacky bright colors and designed with copyright infringements of famous cartoon characters, and even the name of an haunted ride shares the very exact name of an famous haunted ride at Disneyland, just mere miles away. To the side of most of these rides is a large Peavey speaker blaring what sounds like some Poison song, or maybe it was L.A. Guns? Whatever the song it is another peculiar hallmark of midways, blaring music to ear-deaf levels that is about ten to 20 years old. (Though knowing the likely answer, I always wondered if they paid royalties?)

Moving about the midway I count four rides around me that spin the rider up sideways, backwards, around, back around, and upside down about ten times. These rides must be an experiment in gonzo physics. Inevitably I saw some man in his early 20s, wearing an brown button-up shirt and white pants that fit, at best, clunky on his body, stumbling off an ride called Revolution (which spins you upside down while the seats are continually rotating) in a daze that appears between learning he won $1 billion dollars and the love of his life just died. Now standing a couple feet from me he speaks incoherently as his friends taunt him. One of his friends, a bulky man with nondescript tattoos written in old-English in seemingly random areas of his arms standing about 6’4 wearing a yellow Lakers’ jersey and dark blue Levis’ cutoff shorts, begins to pick him up and shake him, and within seconds vomiting commences and the roar of laughter from friends and barkers from nearby game booths are widely heard.

The laughter gives way back to taunts between what appears to be six friends with two baby girls by the group’s side. The two baby girls sitting in an twin stroller appear to be no older than 2-years-old, both with pink “SpongeBob” hats, and who have an bemused look as if attempting in vain to cope with the stimulation surrounding them.

The group of taunting friends begins to wander off blending into the crowd and the puddle of vomit stays. There are no shiny white-uniform janitors here to quickly clean up the vomit. For a few minutes people make an point of swerving around the vomit, some pointing at it and the nearby ride, but the vomit is quickly dried up by the unforgiving heat of the sun and just becomes an stain, one of many, in the black pavement. People, without missing a beat, begin walking over the stain, and still, no shiny white-uniform janitor is found to methodically clean the stain.

Exiting out of the midway I find myself passing by an ersatz Hussong’s Cantina that, unlike their Ensenada, Baja California cantina these days, is doing brisk business. Passing by the bar the smell of beer is prevalent, and there is an emergent line at the identification and wristband booth with an bold note stating, “ONLY 2 BEERS!”

Passing by Hussong’s I find myself back where I started, in the main entrance with what I think are blisters developing on my feet. Feeling I missed something plotted somewhere atop of this massive burning blacktop asphalt I thumb through the magazine size O.C. Super Fair guide and discover I missed “Al’s Brain in 3D,” staring parody musician Weird Al Yankovic. The show features the workings of the brain as narrated by Lakewood’s favorite son.

Once more I follow the crowded path filled with smoke from many of the barbeque grills. Discovering the makeshift building adorned with Weird Al I attempt to find an entrance. About 200 hundred found the line before me as they stood in the searing July sun waiting to figure out Weird Al’s brain in an zigzag line. As much as I adore Weird Al (especially his latest song, “Craigslist,” done in the style of The Doors) and would love to pick his brain, the unrelenting heat and blisters on my feet regrettably say to me, “next time.”

Exiting the fair walking to my car I am sidetrack by a Dr. Pepper big-rig truck and trailer blaring techno music. Walking up to the roped off entrance I can feel the pulsation of the techno music as an 19-year-old man with an two-button black polo shirt with a small Dr. Pepper logo sewed into the upper right of his shirt says to me, “Welcome to Club Doctor Pepper,” as he opens up the rope. Walking up the metal ramp the loud music is making me tense up, but I proceed and open the curtain and find what appears to be an ersatz Miami Beach nightclub jammed in this trailer. Upon entering the trailer there is dim pink colored fluorescent lighting lining the upper sides and videogame consoles on each side of me with an group of children forming an half circle around the television either cheering each other’s progress or badgering the player to lose so they can play. At the opposite end of the trailer is a deejay creating beat mixes using a small Apple laptop and a turntable. Between the entrance and deejay booth is a fake wood panel dance floor, but only two people are making any attempt at dancing. Acute to the deejay booth is the bar offering up free Dr. Pepper served by two women who appear in their early 20s and have the look desiring to be somewhere else.

After taking up the offer of free Dr. Pepper I quickly exit the rambunctious sounding trailer and attempt to look for my car.

Driving back home feeling my newly acquired sunburn slowly tightening up my face I had that same thought when departing county fairs across the country before, in theory it is a good idea having an event that celebrates the county, its people and their achievements, but despite these achievements displayed, no matter how prominent, regrettably they take second billing to an glorified swap meet with little identity of celebrating the said county.

Yet, I still look forward to going again.

The O.C. Super Fair runs until August 9 and open daily except Monday and Tuesday, located at 88 Fair Drive in Costa Mesa.

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