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North Carolina Travel Guide
North Carolina State Fair

It can take a trip to the NC State Fair in Raleigh to remind some of us Chapel Hillians that we  live in North Carolina

NC State FairThe early autumn in mid-October is always welcome in North Carolina. It chases away the last debilitating days of the long, hot summer, and brings with it relief—the cooler weather means I don’t have to mow the grass for another six months. Over in Raleigh, around this time, the State Fair cranks up, beginning on a Friday, and continuing each day and night until midnight, two Sundays later. Every year, I try to get over there at least once, sometimes twice. This year, my wife Ellen and I drive over from Chapel Hill, a twenty-five mile trip each way. If it’s the first visit of the year, I look for a spot to park near the railroad tracks that run parallel to Hillsborough Street approaching the city from the west. We find a space, and then cross the four sets of tracks, and scamper up the embankment, where state troopers signal you when it’s okay to cross the road, after you’ve dodged the Amtrak and crossed the road anyway.

NC State FairWe approach the big entrance gate, and note that the old mission-style folly has been freshly painted in bright colors once again this year. In a misguided attempt to control traffic jams by evenly spacing the twelve entrances, the fair organizers have seen fit to close one of the two original main gates, and its massive wooden doors solemnly forbid entry. At the open entrance, the ticket window, built for the average North Carolinian when the average North Carolinian’s height was about 4’9”, is occupied by an unsmiling middle-aged black woman. One of the perks of seniority in a low-paying state job must be a sweet gig at the state fair. I slip my twelve dollars under the bars. Two tickets are passed back. My “thank you, ma’am” is greeted with mute contempt. The tickets are taken by an unsmiling middle-aged crew-cut white man sitting beside a barrel, into which he drops the tickets. There is no stub, no souvenir, of your attendance to tack up to your wall or wedge inside the mirror’s frame above your dresser. When I ask if I can have my ticket stub as a souvenir, I am told no, I can’t. No apologies. A middle-aged state trooper sits nearby, unsmiling, sidearm holstered. I decide not to press the issue. Welcome to the grand entrance to the grandest of all fairs, the 153rd annual North Carolina State Fair!

To the right, the old exhibition buildings’ aisles form a loop around an array of what are presumably North Carolina products, grown in field and factory—pickles from Mt. Olive, jewelry cleaner from someplace, shilled by someone, the Raleigh News & Observer giving away umbrellas with the Sunday color funny pages printed on the fabric in exchange for a year’s subscription. Cookware, baseball caps emphasizing southern pride and the confederate flag, mock road signs for sale declaring “Blue Devil Fan Parking Only” or “Tar Heel Parking Only”, or “Wolfpack Parking Only” or “ECU Pirate Fan Parking Only”. For those that never matriculated, there’s also “Redneck Parking Only”.

To the left, there’s gardening and handicrafts, featuring delicately tatted lace, embroidery, some beautiful, some tacky. Jams, jellies, 4-H displays from Anson or Watauga County. The state Republican party recruiting booth, featuring good-looking, well-groomed young apparatchiks. Miracle mops. North Carolina honey. The dowdiest handmade clothing imaginable, including a cocktail dress (I envision the wearer at a country club party in some town like Mocksville, indulging in maybe a shrimp cocktail and a Virgin Mimosa) and lots of crocheted vests, worn by old ladies at Christmas and stout lesbians all year round.

Dorton Arena, NC State FairContinuing west along Hillsborough Street, we pass through the perfectly groomed “field of dreams” in full ripening, likely tended weeks and months in advance of the fair by ag students from “State College” as the old folks call NC State University in Raleigh. It’s good to see tobacco treated respectfully here, not as a noxious weed of death as some would have it, but as a proud historical reminder of North Carolina agriculture and industry. I light a cigarette next to a patch of broadleaf, cough, and nod appreciatively. A tent draws a small but rapturous multi-racial crowd of heavyset backyard chefs and pig-pickers, all wearing baseball caps, while a video featuring the latest in barbecue technology plays on a monitor and a pig-cooking expert answers tough questions about tenderizing techniques. Food venders selling dripping sandwich wraps, barbecue, Brunswick Stew, ears of corn and shoelace fries for the Lions, Elks or Shriners charities. Beyond the food vendors, you catch a view of Dorton Arena, the mid-century futurist elliptical and parabolic cow palace where, during the rest of the year, you can see professional wrestling or badly organized hip-hop events that often enough degenerate into fights. During fair week, the event programmers bring in the country acts, guys with names like Josh, Kenny and Trace. In a nod to “diversity”, there is always at least one show featuring a top-name African-American performer that can play well with white people, usually someone like Gladys Knight or Aretha Franklin. This year, Fantasia Barrino capitalizes on her American Idol amateur-hour fame and North Carolina roots, even as she disses her hometown of High Point’s school system for allowing her to become functionally illiterate in her, as-told-to (I’m just guessing) autobiography. Last year, another Idol finalist and local Raleigh boy, Clay Aiken got the nod. I actually thought he had a good voice for singing Euro-Vision kinds of pop songs, but I just wish he’d wear a regular t-shirt and dungarees, get a bowl haircut and embrace his inner Opie-ness instead of getting all spiky-haired and sport-jacketed-with-rolled-up-sleeves, and looking for all the world like a small-town talent who’s got too big for his britches—you’d think any North Carolinian would have learned that valuable lesson in hubris from Sheriff Taylor growing up. Or, if not from Andy Griffith, from Elvis.

Cow Milking at NC State FairPast the arena, but further west along Hillsborough Street, we reach the so-called “meat” of the state fair, the livestock buildings. The biggest one is named after the biggest daddy of agriculture commissioners, Jim Graham, who held sway for something like 70 years over all things farming in North Carolina, and always wore one of those big, LBJ-style white hats. Jim Graham retired just a few years ago, and his replacement, Meg Scott Phipps, from an ancient political family of governors and senators herself, was quickly indicted and charged with egregious campaign finance violations, but I wondered at the time if it was because she had the temerity, as one of her first acts in office, to change midway vendors after 40 years of James E. Strates Shows. Maybe she somehow fell outside the old man’s graces, and I tried to guess who in politics might still be pulling the strings in the commissioner’s office. That kind of power never is succeeded peacefully (it’s like a post-Saddam civil war, really), and the agricultural interests, dominated as they are by regressive social prejudices, might not have been ready for the 21st century and a woman in the commissioner’s office. You just can’t mess with business as usual at the state fair without stepping on somebody’s toes.

TurkeyIn any case, it’s always best to pass through the livestock shows starting with the worst-smelling, and advancing toward the less offensive. That meant stinking poultry, first up. Beautiful, proud, colorful and entirely foul-smelling, the caged roosters and hens peck about their cages, with the prizewinners going for $6 each. I have always threatened to build a chicken coop in our yard, two blocks from the middle of downtown Carrboro. When we first moved in 12 years ago, Mr. Neal, the last of the old millhands, kept a henhouse in the woods, out of sight but within earshot. His neighbor Phil would feed the birds, and everybody on the street had fresh eggs until some raccoon or fox got in one night and broke the supply chain. In any case, I have always enjoyed the fact or fancy that livestock still has a role to play in small-town life, and I was sad this past winter when my next-door neighbor Vicki decided to give away her two goats to a farm outside of town. Right around that time, our little dog Bongo died, as did Rita the German Shepherd, from Brad & Christine’s house, and I felt a tremendous void as the animals of Maple Avenue left us for life beyond the rainbow bridge. My wife, always keen on the idea of chickens, nevertheless exercises her veto power time and time again in this matter, citing an unwarranted rooster attack on her person when she lived in Ireland thirty years ago that has left her terrified of cock-eyed birds ever since.

Still, in the back of my mind, I want to keep chickens, or guinea fowl, or goats, or a mule, or even a pair of draft horses to pull a vegetable cart through the old neighborhoods of my town while shouting at the top of my lungs, at least as a performance art piece. We as a small-town culture need to be exposed to farm animals, not only because we need to think about the creatures we eat as sentient beings, but on another, less moral or ethical level, as we become more and more distant from our food sources, we become less and less exposed to the germs, the bacteria, and the viral infections these animals carry. We know that Vietnamese and Thai farmers and market stall attendants seem to be immune to the avian flu, so my solution to imminent epidemic is to get lots of birds, and feed them every day.

The last stop in the poultry building is the baby duck station, where little children get to pet the adorable little things, and then put their hands in their mouths.

Cow, NC State FairFrom there, it’s on to the Graham Building to see the beef cattle—or, if it’s later in the week, the dairy cattle. I like them both. Massive, hormonally enhanced, and unable to conceive offspring naturally, I am in awe of them, the prize picks of each herd arranged in rows from smallest to largest. I speak with the farmhands who contract-manage the herds. Many of the cowboys (they wear ten-gallon hats and affect enormous belt buckles, at least at the fair) go to NC State. They don’t mind answering my questions about what happens to the non-breeding females of the beef cattle breeds (they become veal). I don’t want to ask them about their opinions on the health issues surrounding the use of Bovine Growth Hormone, as I don’t wish to offend their political sensibilities (kind of like how reporters treat President Bush). To them, it’s all part of agribusiness, and if you can’t raise your beef for less than 50 cents a pound, or whatever price point their ag agents tell them, you’re out of business. I resolve next year to study the issues and engage the farmhands in lively economic discourse without fear of getting punched out by a 210 lb. guy in a huge belt buckle.

NC State Fair, sheepBecause these huge bovines are taking massive, flopping, dumps all the time, the Graham Building, while not smelling nearly as disgusting as the chicken building, still reeks, so I move on to the next building where they keep the goats and sheep, and from there, to the pygmy goats. The goats only smell goaty, and it’s not so bad, kind of a pleasant aroma. Plus, college chicks seem to dig goats. They wander by the pens in their own herds, with their sorority sisters or boyfriends. Leggy blondes, they find the animals cute. I find them cute. The girls, I mean. Goats are mysterious and contradictory animals. Ancient, wizened, yet dumb as a box of rocks, they are stubborn, but still have an air of resignation about them. It’s their lot in life. They are penned. They are shorn. They are milked. They are slaughtered. It’s okay, they seem to say, I will have 30 virgins in the afterlife, and will re-unite with my cousin, the camel. We will meet, God willing, in the high meadows, to prance, to caper, to breed unselectively, another day.

After the goats, I move to the newest building, the expo center, where an auctioneer is taking bids on some of the show goats. The NC Farm Bureau and Southern States co-operatives seem to be taking turns on high bid, but the animals consistently go for $35, with the prizewinners fetching $70. The prize-winning junior Angus cattle are penned up beside the barrow hogs, who always seem to have litters of at least two more piglets than the sows have teats for. In livestock, as in life, there will always be runts, destined to receive an inequitable share of goods and services. Let that be a lesson to you, you bleeding-heart liberals, lest you think of disturbing the natural order of things with your policies of social welfare.  And let that be a lesson to you, you radical anti-abortion fundamentalists, lest you think of legally preventing humans from self-managing and culling our own herd.

Pumpkins at North Carolina State FairI love to listen to the monotonous rapid-fire chatter of the auctioneer, and I pause and sit in the bleachers. I am wearing work boots and a cowboy hat, and a normal sized belt buckle, but I am at one with the barnyard crowd. A stranger approaches me and asks me where the horses are kept. Beyond, in another corner of the building, some prizewinning vegetables round out this section of the state fair. I marvel at an 856 lb. pumpkin, some perfect peppers, a table full of fat-assed eggplants, and move on. When I retire, I want to be around the fair during the weekdays, when they judge the pies, the pickles, the jellies, the cheeses, the apples, the honey, and the sweet scuppernong wine, and when presumably, there are free samples.

Inexplicably, there is a photographer posing people for $5 (four photos) with life-size cutouts of your favorite president (as long as his name is either Bush, Clinton, or Bush) in an oval-office mockup. I think about posing with W., and pulling a Three Stooges poke-in-the-eye move, or holding up a couple of fingers behind his head, but I imagine there are probably homeland security enforcers lurking about, and I don’t want my loyalty questioned, or my family hounded (well, maybe some members of my family), so I reconsider, and move onward.

Polish SausageFrom here, you have your choice. If you want to move to the next part of the state fair that doesn’t involve fried candy bars or nauseating rides, or games of skill and chance at booths burning 20 kilowatts of electrical power, where you can win a stuffed white Siberian Tiger (Siegfried and Roy may be finished as a Las Vegas institution, but their legacy in American kitsch lives on), you have two choices. The first choice is to slip behind the tightly woven trailers and cut through Carneytown (my choice, naturally). Because tonight I am accompanied by my wife, and because she does not find the midway as appalling as I do (I am, after all, a man of exacting standards of lowbrow taste, intent on catching the horse-shoe pitching competition or listening to the salesman selling miracle mops) we elect to take a stroll through the midway. For some reason, we are bucking the tide of humanity. There seem to be 200 people continually moving past us in the opposite direction. Ellen grips my hand, my arm, and my belt loop, hanging on for dear life, and we bravely press onward. I remind myself that if we had only remembered to bring our cell phones, we wouldn’t have had to worry about losing each other over a 4-foot separation:

Ellen: “I’m in front of the Polish sausage stand. Can you see me?”
Ellen: “Which one are you in front of?”
Me: “Smitty’s. Which one are YOU in front of?”
Ellen: “I’m in front of Skinny’s”.
Me: “Well, can you find out where Smitty’s is?”
Ellen: (asking a passerby) “Excuse me, do you know where Smitty’s Polish sausage stand is?”

And of course, the only people who know the names of the food stands are the people who run the food stands. As it turns out, Smitty’s and Skinny’s are probably the same sausage stand, just with a different sign on each side. I’m sure the Lion’s Club marketing studies have shown that to be an effective branding strategy.

NC State FairAfter this harrowing experience, I must sit down and have a funnel cake. A funnel cake is the same thing as an elephant ear, but without the cinnamon (I think). At this point, I don’t really care. My blood sugar is low. I’m cranky from swimming upstream in the midway, and I need deep-fried southern comfort food. Some fried sweet battered dough, equivalent to about half a dozen glazed donuts, dusted with powdered sugar, should do nicely. I stand in the endless line (actually, I’m behind one person who seems to be having a lot of trouble trying to decide between the elephant ear and the funnel cake and the fried candy bar), rolling my eyes in supercilious, low-blood sugar, apoplectic annoyance. I want to shove this person aside and order my damned funnel cake, but I wait, impatiently sighing, and rolling my eyes, making sure the person in front of me gets the message. He does, and I instantly feel like a jerk. But I’m still hungry, so I forgive myself. Finally, I order my funnel cake, and it arrives, along with a dire warning about how hot it is.

NC State Fair foodWe look for a place to sit at a picnic table which is currently accommodating nine other people, next to another picnic table where ten people are sitting. Of course, there are two completely empty dining areas nearby, roped off, with about six picnic tables each. But part of the charm of the state fair is dealing with a certain level of discomfort and stickiness. I consider asking someone who is finished with their food to please give up their place, but instead, we sit down on a convenient bale of straw, next to a trash can which is overflowing with paper plates and wax paper napkins stained with grease, powdered sugar, and ketchup. I sit in mute hoarding pleasure, protecting my greasy funnel cake from the dust being kicked up by passerby. I pick at the extremely hot little stubs of fried batter, my fingers blistering, trying to wipe up the powdered sugar which has fallen onto the plate. The evening fireworks are beginning to go off behind me above the dirt racetrack. I offer a piece of my funnel cake to my wife, who tentatively accepts it, while crinkling her nose at the caloric emptiness of it all. The fireworks continue raging  behind me, ever louder and more frequent. I look over my shoulder once, grunt, and keep scraping up the powdered sugar with the bits of fried funnel cake. Rocket mortars are reverberating in my chest cavity, but what do I care? A funnel cake is the crack cocaine of the food world, the first bite providing an incredible rush of pleasure. Each subsequent bite is an ever-diminishing anti-climax, until at the very end, you’re completely disgusted with yourself for being such a fast food slut, a worthless sugar whore, and you’re ready to do two weeks rehab in Hazeldine. But you just want one more of those damned funnel cakes.

State Fair Pony RideBack in the real world, we continue on. At the edge of the midway, in a forgotten corner, we pass a tent where you have a choice of riding on a sad pony, or a swayback camel, or a very sickly looking elephant. I wish we could have been walking past Skinny’s trailer, or past Smitty’s Winnebago, in Carneytown, but instead we are here, in the thick of a miserable carnival of lost souls and abused animals. We are in state fair purgatory.

Finally, a clearing, and we approach the hobbies and crafts exhibit, a long gallery with a single aisle, with display cases on either side. The hobbies and crafts are mostly crap (I didn’t know Legos and Tinkertoy ferris-wheels qualified as either), with corncob pipes and handmade toys, but some displays are beautiful, like the delicately painted eggs, which shake nervously in their glass case as I wearily lean against it. I guess that selling miracle mops is considered a craft; in any case, there’s a guy selling them here, and although he seems to change every year, he is still the same amazing salesman. During each demonstration, he’ll spill an entire liter of Pepsi just to show you how much liquid his mop can soak up. At the other end of the gallery, a team of fudge-sellers is giving away free samples. Not many buyers, but lots of free-loading samplers. I resist temptation, still feeling guilty about the funnel cake.

We’re back out in the nighttime air, and we wander into the old farm machinery building. Wagons, Tractors, iron-bound wooden wheels that must have broken all the damned time, and plows, and plows, and plows abound inside. A Prairie Schooner is particularly amazing to Ellen. She doesn’t believe that families could have existed in such cramped quarters for a drive across country—I remind her we used to take camping vacations with the kids in a Honda Accord, and besides, don’t forget, the average North Carolinian was 4 ft. 9 inches back in the day. I like old forgotten technology. When I worked in the telecommunications industry, my first job was insuring that the old analog phone equipment could still work with the new digital technology, and while the switching system we produced was the first 100% digital switch to hit the marketplace, I was busy ensuring my eventual obsolescence by working with old relay systems and mercury switches, and for such astute career planning I was rewarded with a layoff in 2001. In any case, no hard feelings, and I still retain a life-long love of obsolete tools—a 40-pound manual typewriter sits in my workshop, along with an old check-writing machine. My slide rule awaits my recollection of how the damned thing works. Every fall, I park my old ’65 Ford F100 pickup in the front yard beneath the old maple tree, lower the tailgate, and set up my autumnal display. It’s my own harvest fair, Maple Avenue-style. Three tiers of hay bales one behind the other. Pumpkins, squashes gourds, Indian corn, mini-corns, and chrysanthemums are brightly displayed. I rig a couple of trouble lights up in the maple tree branches, and put the lights on a timer set to switch on from sundown till 11 PM. In front, some old metal leaf rakes are flanked by a mule-drawn plow, one handle missing, the yoke split but hanging on, and a push mower on the other side. I rigged an old metal watering can with a pipe emerging from the base and running up the side of the can, terminating in a brass faucet which redirects the water back into the can. It’s an idea I got from a display I saw in a supermarket when I was a kid that totally amazed me. A small electrical pump inside the watering can pumps water through a plastic catheter inserted into the attached pipe and back into the can through the faucet. That is, when it works. When it doesn’t, I have an internal debate with myself about whether or not to troubleshoot an electrical pump submerged underwater in a metal watering can, while it’s plugged in. Next year, I’d like to incorporate a Conestoga Wagon into the seasonal display. If, by coincidence, one goes missing from the exhibit of old farm machinery at the state fair, please understand it’s being used by someone who appreciates this sort of thing, even if his neighbors seem not to particularly care one way or another.

Pumpkin Carver NC State FairWe can visit the horticultural exhibits or we can visit the Village of Yesteryear, a craft show reminiscent of a bygone era when sane and sober people held positions of responsibility, and the gravity of their moral certitude mattered. Or we can do both. But it’s nighttime, and we’ll save the flowers for another visit. We’ll miss the small, well-tended gardens. I’ll miss the carved pumpkins, which the master pumpkin carvers have taken to another level. Instead, we head into the octagonal pavilion housing some of the states most skilled artisans. All of them must dress in traditional garb. Lots of bonnets, braids, puffy shirts, and leather vests and aprons. Woodcarving. Tinsmithing (possibly my new “teeny hobby” as my kids would say when they notice me spending way too much effort and money on a passing interest which allowed me to spend more time in the shed away from the family). Basketry. Marquetry. Quilting. Pottery from Seagrove and Jugtown. Some old bearded guy with falconry gloves carrying a cute little screech owl.

This year, I missed the events at the horse complex, which is outside the fairgrounds near Gate 8, just past the lake. I guarantee that the horse crowd saw to it when they built the Governor Jim Hunt Horse Complex twenty years ago that even though they would stage events during the fair, they’d situate the complex beyond the fair gates, so that they wouldn’t have to ante up the six bucks to get in to see themselves compete, and wouldn’t have to mingle with the hoi polloi. After as much walking as I do at the fair, I just wasn’t up for seeing pre-teens in derbys and checkered vests crying because they fell off their mounts, or finished second in a two-horse competition. At least the 4-H kids in jeans and t-shirts know how to behave. These horse children are just a tad high-strung, with their over-indulgent stage mothers. And the exhibition schedule has way too many Saddlebreds, Morgans, Hackneys and Roadsters, but I guess that’s what the kids are riding these days. I keep telling myself I’ll make it to see the Arabians, or the Donkeys and Mules, but I always miss them, and end up watching Morgans and Hackneys, year in and year out. What I want to know is, where are the draft horses, my favorites of all the breeds? Huge, snorting Clydesdales, Percherons, Surreys and Belgians with white tufted bellbottoms about their ankles. Ready to pull giant wagons stacked high with barrels of beer across town. Maybe there was a falling out with the main governing body of horse shows, because for as long as I’ve been coming here, draught horses have only occasionally been seen, and even then they were inside the fairgrounds, away from the horse complex, and kept in temporary stalls outside the tack trailer. Those snobs! Come here, you old Swayback, and get some sugar!

Across the lake near Gate 8, a sign points to the men’s dormitories. I wonder if they are there for the unmarried carnival workers (presumably 98% of them), or are they for the year-round gatherings of various Christian faiths, who come here, presumably for retreats during the rest of the year? I imagine in times past, when wardens might have enforced the rules about no fraternizing with the opposite sex. No such decorum these days. The fairgrounds consist of hundreds of acres. The event facilities are used all year round, accommodating the Southern Garden Show, the weekly flea market, the Ham Radio Show, the Ideal Home Show and the Dixie Classic Gun & Knife Show and numerous other conventions in between. Chances are there’s a Baptist or Methodist retreat thrown in for good measure, every now and then. Near the shore of the lake, the departments of Forestry and Conservation, presumably at perpetual war with each other, manage to set aside their differences long enough each October to put together their exhibits. My favorite one is the steam-powered sawmill, where taciturn old men straight out of central casting saw thick logs into rough lumber. I look out over the lake, at a small replica of the Hatteras lighthouse. Back inside Gate 8, Geico Insurance has a promotional minivan, which alerts the unwary: “Attention: Live Gecko On Board”. Beside the Geico minivan, the US Navy Bomb Squad maintains a diving tank with windows, mounted on a flatbed trailer, where trained naval personnel swim underwater in scuba gear demonstrating the correct technique used in Underwater Ordnance Disposal. A crowd gathers to hang around outside the tank, looking through the windows at the divers. On the other side of the fairgrounds near Dorton Arena, a Bradley tank sits, a little forlorn this year. All the good eligible young men are taken, it seems, to another place, beyond the rainbow bridge, to a land of trouble and strife.

Toward the rear of the fairgrounds, outside Gate 9, the participants in the demolition derby are making last minute repairs and adjustments on their cars, colorfully smashed-up orange, yellow, red and blue muscle and not-so-muscle cars, stripped, dented, and pounded back into shape. I try to get a picture, but my digital camera, as usual, is showing Error 91, which basically means I’m screwed. I turn my attention to the carney trailers, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, reveal a high percentage of Florida license plates. I marvel at how these gypsies create a sense of home and hearth in their peripatetic lives. One has dragged out a potted fern. Another has a little mo-ped chained up. A small grill sits on the grass outside a third trailer. My wife observes that all the carneys are “Jack Sprats”. Lean. Mean. With mustaches. And Leatherman Multi-Purpose Tools in their belt holsters.

State Fair MidwayI pause at the Gate 9 entrance, and watch the parade of people, coming in, pausing, congregating, leaving. Lots and lots of very fat people. In baseball caps. In wheelchairs. With beards. And those are just the women! Ba-da-bing! Really, the state fair brings out an incredible mass of humanity, all shapes and sizes, all colors. Miscegenation is alive and well, and I find it a great hallmark of the modern south that mixed race couples seem to co-exist alongside their confederate cousins at the state fair. I need to use the port-a-john. There is a sign is posted inside, citing examples of foreign objects NOT to be disposed of: MRE’s, ammunition and feminine hygiene products. They must have been brought up from Fayetteville. Maybe they’ve been used in Iraq. MRE’s are Meals Ready to Eat, the latter-day equivalent of what our fathers would have called “K-Rations”. Army field food. Tastier, the MRE’s are. Just add boiling water. Less, for solid food, more for soup.

Inside Gate 9, I have a cup of bad coffee, with lots of refined sugar and powdered Cremora, and check out the results of the apprentice competitions. Electricians, plumbers, and brickmasons all compete with their fellow apprentices, and are judged on speed and style. I imagine fat, cigar chomping contractors, betting that “Mah Mexican can beat your Nigra”, but it probably doesn’t happen that way. I pass by the horseshoe pits, where the competition is fierce. A judge sits in a wheelchair, in front of a trailer that must have been stolen from Mark Martin, the Viagra-sponsored Nascar driver, scrutinizing the pit action, waiting for the call to determine whether it’s a ringer, or a leaner. I find it deeply satisfying that brickmasons, electricians and horseshoe pitchers all seem to know when their events are scheduled, and that there remains a keen interest in the competition, at least among the contestants. My idea would be to situate this kind of stuff front and center at the fair, not near the rear entrance, behind the carney trailers. But money trumps everything, and since the 1940’s, the midway has been undisputed king of the fair. And the farmers and small industrialists are a proud, but slightly embarrassing reminder of less sophisticated times. We keep pushing them to the edges, and they still keep coming back, year after year.

North Carolina State FairIt’s time to leave, and we make our way back to the main gate, and we are again outside the fairgrounds, the sounds and smells and lights diminishing in the distance. We find an opening through the hedges along Hillsborough Street, and pick our way back down the embankment. Listening carefully for trains, we step across the railroad tracks, carefully, almost losing our balance stepping over the grade stones between the ties. We duck under a rope, and step over some erosion fencing which has been ground down into the red clay by hundreds of other fairgoers before us, and finally we are back on the access road which stretches along the other side of the tracks, past Capitol City Lumber, the Caterpillar dealership, and the state road maintenance depot. Somewhere along this half-mile of road, we parked the car, and I have to urinate. No port-o-johns here, just plenty of bright street lights. I look for the tell-tale roof-rack of my car, a distinguishing feature. I would have it even if I never needed it, just so that I can find my car in giant parking lots, or along dark stretches of road at night. Before long, we find the car. I create a makeshift urinal stall by opening up the front and back doors, and relieve myself on the patch of grass in between. Steam rises in the cool evening air.

Satisfied, we get in the car and begin the drive home. Ellen promptly falls asleep, leaving me to my reverie. Back in Carrboro, we brew a pot of tea before bed, and I pick up last Sunday’s Times crossword in the hopes of finishing it off before sleep overtakes me. Sipping my tea, my stomach gurgling with the indigestible remains of the fried funnel cake, I work through the clues, drifting off, the souvenir of another state fair under my belt.

Mitch Virchick

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