State Fair

Hilby, the Skinny German Juggler, performing at the New York State Fair (courtesy New York State Fair)
The wonders of an old, and continuing, American tradition

Editor’s Note: The below is an expanded, Impromptus-style version of the piece that Mr. Nordlinger has in the current issue of National Review.

Being a modern type, I catch an Uber from the airport. The driver says, “What brings you to Syracuse?” I tell him I’m going to the fair — the New York State Fair. He says, “Are you working at the fair or just attending?” A little of each, I tell him: I’m going to write about it.

The driver has had far more interesting passengers — including a guy he picked up last week, who said he had a job at the fair. “Oh? What do you do?” asked the driver. The passenger responded, “I dive from an 80-foot platform into an 8-foot pool.” He does, too. I will see it later: an extraordinary feat.

• I think it’s extraordinary that state fairs are still going, in this age of screens, large and small, and whiz-bang entertainment. Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote their musical State Fair in 1945. It seemed old-fashioned, tinged with nostalgia, even then.

The musical is based on a 1932 novel by Phil Stong (also called “State Fair”). It concerns a farm family and the Iowa State Fair. The best-known song from the musical is “It Might as Well Be Spring” (a charmer).

• In 2018, believe it or not, all 50 states have a state fair. Yes, they do. Even Washington, D.C., is in on the act. It has a traditional, sure-enough state fair (or district fair, if you like). D.C. has a pie contest, for example, with several divisions — including Best Apple, Best Fruit (Non-Apple), and Best Non-Fruit. D.C. also has a vegetable contest, in which you can compete for Longest, Heaviest, or Funkiest.

• The state fairs are held in accordance with the weather — by which I mean, the New England states have their fairs in high summer, whereas the southern states wait till October, when the weather cools off. Florida has its fair in February (its most heavenly month, a native has told me).

• Popularity? Consider the New York State Fair. Last year, over a million people attended. This year, more will attend. The fair is growing and growing, even in our screen-crazy age.

• The state fair here in New York is the oldest one in the country. It began in 1841, right here in Syracuse. Among the activities was a plowing contest. For the next 50 years, the fair moved around to other cities in the state, including Poughkeepsie, Elmira — even New York City itself. In 1849, the Ferris wheel was introduced to the world at the New York State Fair. (This was sort of a precursor to the Ferris wheel, I should say.) Before long, the Civil War came, but the fair was held every year nonetheless. In 1890, the fair made Syracuse its permanent home.

• On my way to the fair, I have a song running through my head, so help me: “Heigh ho, come to the fair.” Kiri Te Kanawa used to sing it in recital, at encore time. Here she is with an orchestral arrangement, which I don’t care for, but heigh ho.

• At the entrance, a man is saying that entrance is free to those 18 and under today. He says that Native Americans are free too. That strikes me as a tad condescending, but heigh ho.

• The cost to me is ten dollars — a bargain of bargains. I will get to that in due course.

• They have every farm animal you can think of — and some you couldn’t think of (or at least that I couldn’t). They have plenty of non-farm animals too. One exhibit offers “Birds of Prey,” for example. There is also an aquarium.

Do you know what cavies are? I didn’t. Conies, I can do, thanks to the Bible (they are a type of rabbit, I believe). But cavies? Let’s consult the dictionary: “any of 14 species of South American rodents.”

And a cavy is not a cavy, mind you: They have Abyssinians, Abyssinian Satins, Americans, American Satins — and I’m not out of the A’s yet.

• I have been e-mailing with a friend of mine, Professor Barbara J. Fields, the historian of the American South (Columbia University). We’ve been talking state fairs, my topic du jour. She is curious to know “whether enough urbanites attend to abate, to any degree, the prevailing ignorance about agriculture — which, as I love to remind my students, is the world’s oldest profession, whatever they may have been told.”

Well, I hear a young woman with a honking New York City accent say, “Do they have a baby cow every owa” (hour)? The fair indeed has a Live Birthing Center, located in the Family Fun Zone. Whether births are every hour, I’m not sure. Another city woman says laughingly to her daughter, who’s roaming among the cows, “Be careful — that one over there got action.” She means that this cow is producing what we will later call “manure.”

The farm kids who are here with their animals are, of course, total naturals. They must marvel at the other kids who marvel at their animals.

Care to see a picture?

• One building is for “Goats, Llamas, and Swine.” I wonder whether the goats and llamas are offended. I wonder if the swine are.

Can you see Hazel in this cage, sleepin’ it off? (Sorry about the bars, blocking our view.) Her ribbon indicates that she has won second place. She doesn’t seem too upset not to have won first.

These little guys, you can see better — no bars:

• A goat is not a goat, you know. The varieties here include Alpines, Nubians, and Toggenburgs. And the pigs? Berkshires, Chester Whites, Durocs, Hampshires — I could go on.

• In the Poultry Building, a song runs through my head — not “Come to the Fair” but “Pick a Little, Talk a Little.”

• Here in the Poultry Building, I attend the Rooster Crowing Contest. It’s nothing to crow about, unfortunately: a bust. The roosters keep largely mum. One woman mutters about her entry, “He ain’t doin’ nothin’.” The judges are seated in the front row, with their pencils poised. They look forlorn, with nothing to judge. I feel a little embarrassed for all concerned.

The scene:

• Hmmm — pretty libertine, if you ask me. And no privacy . . .

• Careful now, as teams of horses rush by, including this one:

• Here at the fair, you have old-timey things such as the Rooster Crowing Contest, and three girls for one guy, but also new-timey things such as the Ninja Experience: A corps of martial artists will dazzle you. You have a collection of antique tractors, but also . . . well, the latest tractors. Big suckers, too. Parents hoist kids into the cockpit.

Check it out:

• There is an alligator show that’s pretty fun — part education, part shtick. One man does the talking; another man goes into the water — a pool — and deals with the alligator (just one). The second man is silent, although he makes some entertaining faces. It’s like Penn & Teller.

Introducing the man who will go into the water, the talking man says, “We like to get his applause up front in case he don’t make it.” That’s my favorite line of the show. Along the way, the man in the pool puts his hand inside the gator’s mouth. When he withdraws it, he melodramatically counts his fingers, smiling on reaching the number 5.

• There is an ample midway, with your usual rides. Carnies still look like carnies, interestingly enough, with teeth not guaranteed. Barkers still bark. One man runs a game of chance, and recites his lines robotically, as if he has done it for a hundred years. “Annnnd number 3’s the winner. Winner, winner, chicken dinner.”

Here is a ride, the Orient Express, kind of a dragon-coaster. Hang on, is that cultural appropriation?

• The fair has a spanking-new expo center, a mammoth building, which the fair’s website tells me is 136,000 square feet. A man tells me something I can better relate to: “You could slide the Statue of Liberty in there, on its side.” On the outside of the building is our national motto: E pluribus unum, i.e., “Out of many, one.” I am very pleased to see that. As I am the New York State motto inside the building: Excelsior, or, “Ever upward.”

Sitting in the middle of the building is a large ice rink, on which young figure skaters are now performing their routines. Any future Olympians in the bunch?

Elsewhere in the building, you have a sand castle, or rather a huge, elaborate sand sculpture. Here’s a bit of it:

You also have carved pumpkins — which have been assembled to depict a turkey. So you have Halloween and Thanksgiving in one. Behold:

• The fair is chockablock with food, of course — including your usual carnival fare, such as funnel cakes and saltwater taffy. You can also sample deep-fried Pop-Tarts — or deep-fried anything else. I see a sign that says “Detroit-Style Pizza.” Hang on, now: I’m from southeastern Michigan, and I have never heard of Detroit-style pizza.

Little Caesar’s? It started out there. And Domino’s is based in my hometown of Ann Arbor. But “Detroit-style pizza”?

Okay, let’s get far-out. One item, one dish, has been voted Craziest New Food for 2018. It’s called the Heart Attack, described as follows: “Two Hofmann hots [locally made sausages] stuffed with chili and cheddar cheese and pickles, wrapped in bacon and deep fried. Topped with cheddar cheese and jalapeños. Drizzled in chocolate sauce and served with a piece of Hershey’s chocolate. Served on a stick.”

I think of an old song about lollipops: “It’s a lick on a stick, guaranteed to make you sick.” They hadn’t seen anything yet.

• The fair also has wonderfully wholesome food — for example, in the Dairy Products Building, my favorite place. They had me at “Colossal Sundae Center.” And how’s this for a slogan (advertising Perry’s ice cream)? “Life’s a bowl of Perry’s.”

What I wind up having is a bowl of mac ’n’ cheese and a cup of pumpkin custard. Bliss.

• The Dairy Products Building also hosts the butter sculpture, a tradition begun in 1969. That first sculpture depicted the cow jumping over the moon. This year’s sculpture, made from 800 pounds of New York butter, features a kid taking a selfie with his calf. Great stuff.

• I have a food truck for you, whose slogan tickled me: “It’s a Utica thing!”

• I must say, they think of everything, here at the fair. What’s this cute little cottage for? Baby care. It’s the baby-care cottage, should you need it . . .

• On another part of the grounds, you can check out military hardware, such as a helicopter and a tank. Nearby is a boxing ring, where youngsters slug it out. (I’m surprised they allow it, even with headgear.) There is an Indian village, an Iroquois village, which has been here ever since 1928. Men and women sing and dance and chant. There is also a pan-African village.

• The fair has some big-name entertainment, including Blondie, Smokey Robinson, and the Temptations. But what about the small-name entertainment? What about, for example, Hilby, the Skinny German Juggler? He is no joke, let me tell you: He is positively brilliant, both physically and mentally.

He juggles, true to his name. He’s also skinny. And German. Indeed, he wears lederhosen. It’s part of his shtick. More than a juggler, he’s an acrobat, a dancer, a rider of a very tall unicycle. He can do practically anything. He’s a phenomenon.

And he’s funny as hell. If he had no physical skills whatsoever, he could be a comedian. At least one joke is at his own expense: “If it weren’t for men like me, you’d all be speaking German.”

There are more German lines in the course of the act. A black woman wanders by, and Hilby calls out, “Ma’am, are you German? Yes? I knew it, because you wear socks with flip-flops. A dead giveaway.”

He asks the crowd, “How many Germans do we have here? [Counts hands.] Seven? Fine. But I need at least ten to take over Syracuse.”

His tone is devil-may-care, and even anti-PC. “I need a lighter. Kids?” Before lighting the torches he will juggle, he says, “My probation officer tells me I’m supposed to say, ‘Don’t try this at home.’ Personally, I don’t really care. Actually, I do care — which is why I recommend [looks at label] Coleman Camping Fuel. It ignites faster and burns longer.”

While juggling — amazingly — he says, “I know that fire-juggling by itself is not that exciting, so let me throw in some sexy body motions.” He does a little Mick Jagger dance. And then says, “That was for the seniors.”

Soon, he asks for a volunteer. “I need a cute kid.” Hands go up. “No, I said ‘cute,’” he quips.

He seems to be aware that the tricks he does — these incredible feats — are underappreciated. After one of them, he says, “And the crowd goes mild!” After another, he says, “Let me do this trick differently now. This time, you clap.”

Honestly, it is stunning, what this man is capable of.

• The same goes for the divers, those platform divers, one of whom I mentioned at the top of this journal. They are stunning. And they perform their feats with nonchalance, as if they were rolling out of bed. There are jokey parts of their act — indeed, the name of their act is the Jolly Jester High-Dive Show — and these are not necessarily to my taste. But there is no obscuring the skills of these guys.

It comes time for the 80-foot dive — the 80-foot dive into an 8-foot pool. The man walks up the ladder, a skinny, seemingly insubstantial ladder, rising and rising. There is no way I’d even get on the ladder, much less dive. It seems to be swaying in the wind. By the time the guy reaches the top, you can hardly breathe. He has just a little square to step on. And the pool below looks like a postage stamp, we hear (and believe). The diver himself is just a speck to us. You hold your breath — and he executes a superb, graceful dive, with twists and all. He doesn’t merely perform the feat, he does it artistically.

I think of what it must have been like to watch Blondin — the famous Frenchman who walked a tightrope across Niagara Falls in the 19th century. That took place not too far from here.

After the diving show, I talk to one of the men and say, “It must take a lot of nerve.” “Confidence,” he replies. “It’s confidence, and lots of experience.”

• I reflect on what I have seen. And this thought occurs to me: “The musicians I routinely review at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House: Are they more talented, and more impressive, than Hilby or the divers? How about professional athletes who are paid millions? Are they more talented and impressive? I don’t think so.”

And Hilby is hustling for tips at state fairs. What the divers are paid, I don’t know — probably peanuts. That’s how it goes.

• Speaking of money, a state fair offers the customer a lot — a lot for the money. I’ve paid ten dollars to get in, as I mentioned (and I’ve paid nothing inside, except for food — which has been cheap). Yesterday, Three-Dollar Thursday, I could have gotten in for that. The fair even has a Canadian Friendship Day, by the way: Canucks get in free. That’s not a bad idea in light of current U.S.-Canadian relations, which are strained.

• The people-watching is hard to beat. I will offer a few observations — starting with parents and their children. I see many parents with children of other races (obviously adopted). I also see many parents with Down Syndrome children, whether young or grown.

There is a variety of political types. How do I know? Am I judging books by their covers? No, by their T-shirts. A lesbian couple has matching T-shirts that depict a rainbow and say “Love Wins.” A muscly young man has a T-shirt bearing Old Glory. It says, “Stomp My Flag, I’ll Stomp Your A**” (no asterisks on the T-shirt). One woman has a T-shirt that’s apolitical and interesting: “Feed Me Tacos and Tell Me I’m Beautiful.”

• This fair is beautiful. It offers a pageant of people, and a pageant of events, not on screens. They are live and in person. And live and in animal, so to speak. I think of an old slogan, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Somewhere, a PA system is playing a song from the 1980s: “Shine, sweet freedom, shine your light on me.” What a beautiful day.


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