When I was 11 I went to the Wisconsin State Fair alone for the first time. Well, not alone actually: I went with my best friend David. His mother drove us to the fairgrounds in her steel blue Impala, David in the front seat staring out the window as she listed for him all the things he shouldn’t waste his money on at the fair. By the end of the list, the entire excursion—and, for that matter, money itself—seemed pointless.
It would be kind to say David took this in one ear and out the other, but the fact is it never made initial entry. When she wrapped up with “And remember: Corn on the cob isn’t kosher,” she paused a moment, her face pinched into something not even remotely maternal, and snapped, “Are you even listening to me?” But David was too wise to get pulled into this sort of thing. He suddenly pointed out the window, faux-avid, and said, “Oh wow, look at that hardware store!”
I was in the back seat with the flags. David’s mother had her real estate license, and today she had a showing. So I was in the back, huddled against a large bundle of multicolored lawn flags and a metal “Open House” sign, slightly rusty on the “H,” old grass clinging to the anchor pole. She’d taken us along to a showing once: a Sunday afternoon when David’s father didn’t want us distracting him from the football game. (This wasn’t about football at all, of course. It was pure grudge: David and I had recently gotten rather creative on a basement wall with his father’s electric drill.)
There was something great and kind of creepy about an empty house, and after we put the lawn flags in, we ran up to the second floor and re-enacted horror films, stalking each other from room to empty room. Our voices hadn’t changed yet, so we could still scream pretty well, and it was the screaming, I think, that finally put David’s mother over the edge. She told us to go out and play quietly in the backyard or else wait in the car. So we sat in the Impala and listened to a top-40 station, and then rearranged the flags on the lawn to spell out “HELP!”
Today she was having none of it: She was dropping us off at the state fair, doing her showing, and would pick us up at the west gate at 4:30 (“Sharp!”). We were going to have no immediate adult supervision for the next five hours, and I felt like someone had slipped a hit of acid into my Flintstones Chewables. I could’ve waved those flags out the window. Every year I went with growing impatience to the state fair with my family, always wondering what I would do there without them, what fun I’d have without them hanging around my neck. This was the year I would find out.
The air itself shifted dramatically as soon as we walked through the gate and became redolent of cotton candy, fried cheese, and somewhere far off, manure. The walkways were covered in sawdust and wood chips, which after nearly a week of thousands of plodding Midwesterners and several thunderstorms was now a soft carpet of pink-blond mulch.
Free at last, David and I were confronted with the question faced by free men everywhere: food or rides? And like free men everywhere, we answered, “Food.” We figured it would be better to go on the rides with something in our stomachs, the logic being that it was better to puke than to dry heave on the Tilt-a-Whirl.
Since David’s mother’s primary advisory had been “Don’t go eating a lot of crap,” we immediately found a small tent where not only did they make fresh donuts right in front of you, but you could then take your still-warm donut over to a table of sauces, icings, and candy decoratives and create a confection that laughed in the face of child-onset diabetes. David and I had three each, which seemed a reasonably vomitable amount. It also put our bodies on notice that they would be sustained on nothing but oil and sugar for the next four hours.
As far as ride dynamics went, I preferred spinning to plunging, and felt there was no sensation that couldn’t be improved if it was done even faster. I particularly liked a ride called the Calypso, which, as might be expected, had great music, and made you feel like you were going in four different directions at once. David, however, was more a plunger than a spinner, and started getting a little green on the Calypso. I didn’t throw up, but I did pray briefly on something called the Zipper. Total plunge. Nothing but plunge. Locked in a cage. Afterwards I steadied my nerves with fried ice cream.
People think of state fairs as wholesome family events. Yet always lurking just below the surface wholesomeness are the brutal realities of animal husbandry.
We made our way through crowds heavy with the August sun and the smoke of grilled bratwurst. We had to get to the Dairy Pavilion. Not going to the Dairy Pavilion at the Wisconsin State Fair is like going to Rome and skipping St. Peter’s. Many things go on there, all of them within six degrees of lactation. The chief attraction is an assembly line in which cream puffs are made right in front of you using milk from cows milked, again, right in front of you. There’s great value at the state fair placed on having things done right in front of you. There was also a large tent with all-you-can-eat pancakes, and you could watch hundreds and hundreds of pancakes being made right in front of you. Years later in a Marxism course, when the professor introduced the idea of capitalist overproduction, I thought, “Oh, like those pancakes.”
The Dairy Pavilion was also your last stop in civilization before you hit the livestock barns. I always got a weird feeling as I approached the livestock barns, something primal, heavy, pulling my Keds deeper into the mulch. A dull charge of fear, a sweet panic. People think of state fairs as wholesome family events. Yet always lurking just below the surface wholesomeness are the brutal realities of animal husbandry. They can have quilting booths and apple pie contests; Family Day and Miss Wisconsin; Up with People! on the main stage every noon. It can’t conceal the fact that at bottom the state fair is all about breeding and slaughter; that the livestock barns are temples of Eros (or at least rutting) and Thanatos, and that half the animals you thought were so cute and so interesting would be dead and devoured within the year. The blue ribbon would be on the farmer’s mantle, and the bacon would be next to your eggs.
And then there were the farmers themselves, who, to a suburban kid, were nearly as foreign as the cattle and hogs. The only encounters I’d had with farmers had been when we’d stop at a farm on our way back from the lake. There’d be a rough sign on the side of the road—”Corn Ahead”—and my parents would have an interminable conversation about how good corn would be with dinner until we’d finally see the roadside stand and pull over. I would stay in the car. For one thing, I’d seen corn before. For another, there’d always be a dog at the stand, and I never trusted farm dogs. I always thought they had rabies. (I’d only recently learned about rabies, and had somehow projected it onto the majority of the animal world. I even suspected our parakeet, an unassuming budgie, was riddled with disease and might start foaming at the beak at any moment.) So I’d never actually heard a farmer speak, just watched him through the windshield. Farmers, gas station attendants: They were just people outside the car to me. So when I saw the farmers in the barns, standing around in small groups talking, I couldn’t imagine what they talked about to each other. I thought maybe they were talking about city people. They were saying, “Do you believe how much corn they eat?”
As we were walking through the main barn, surrounded by hundreds of large mammals with very small brains, we suddenly noticed a commotion of some sort over by one of the stalls. A large crowd had gathered, tightly packed, craning their necks, taking pictures. I thought maybe it was an appearance by Miss Dairyland. She was on the TV commercials for the state fair. I liked her crown. But when we finally got close enough to see what the fuss was about, it was a preternaturally large sow with at least eight fresh piglets sucking at a couple rows of elongated teats.
I’d never given much thought to nipples till then. My own prepubescent pair was of little interest to me or my peers. I noticed my older brother’s were different when he came out from swimming in the lake, tighter, more squoonched. I assumed my mother had them, my sister. I wasn’t too sure about David’s mother. But the sow’s teats were a revelation to me, and I now looked back on my time at the Dairy Pavilion as a time of delusion, a total lie. A lie about tile floors and milking machines and cream puffs when the truth was a little messier; when the truth was about sucking a teat on a hot August afternoon.
He had his hair slicked back with some glop, a sharp nose, sharper eyes, and in general carried himself like an eagle in a tight T-shirt.
We hadn’t been on the midway long when I saw my first carnie: He was running a game where you had to throw coins on a plate, and was standing over on the side by a cloud of pink, blue, and green teddy bears. He had his hair slicked back with some glop, a sharp nose, sharper eyes, and in general carried himself like an eagle in a tight T-shirt. The carnies were one of my favorite things about the fair. They worked the rides, maintained the tents, the generators; ran some of the scammier games, and with some of them, while they guessed your weight or how tall you were, you could guess how many years they’d done. Like farmers, carnies were another world to me, another species, but the similarity to farmers ended there. I’d get out of the car for a carnie. I’d talk to a carnie. I think running a rigged ring toss game is far more interesting than farming could ever be. It was when I saw carnies that I wondered what it would be like to come to the state fair alone.
A tinny PA system down the way was oozing something that, at a distance, sounded like jazz, but to ears more mature than mine was clearly stripper music. It was the Club Lido, a burlesque show tucked away in one of the darker corners of the midway. The barker was droning over the music about the beauty and particular talents of the Lido girls, an assortment of which was lined up in front of a silver foil curtain framed by blood red velveteen. I thought they were pretty, but by the same standard of beauty I would, within 10 years, be applying to drag queens. Best of all, they were all wearing fishnet stockings. The only time I ever saw fishnets was either at the state fair or the circus, and it was a key factor to my interest in these events. I hated the clowns and I hated the lions, but the lady who held onto the rope by her teeth … in fishnets…
The barker summoned one of the Lido girls to the front of the stage: a not-so-young woman with long legs and eyeliner wings named Aileen Tate. The barker made suggestive remarks I didn’t entirely understand as Aileen slouched into various poses and tried to turn her boredom into something a little more sultry.
“Nice tits,” David said, forcing his voice into a lower register.
“Yeah,” I said, not bothering.
What I actually thought was nice—and what I was actually looking at—was the ribbing on Aileen’s bustier. It cinched the waist perfectly and supported the raspberry satin—or, more accurately, sateen—as it rose and rounded into the cups of the bra. But the roundness resolved itself into very sharp points at the end of the cups, and, as I admired their architecture, their raspberry aggression, I suddenly realized that they were where Aileen’s nipples would be. And that that’s what the whole costume was about; that’s what the whole show was about. That’s how it was with the Aileen Tate. Even dressed, even not dancing, the show was somehow all about her nipples.
“Really nice tits,” David said
“Yeah,” I said again. “Really.”
Unlike the guy at the Club Lido, the barker at the sideshow would go on forever before he finally brought out a teaser: a contortionist or some minor freak, a bearded lady or something. But by the time we got there he wasn’t bringing anyone out. It was too late: It was showtime. We had five minutes to get our tickets.
Bob Johnson, the left side of his mouth pulling into his mutation, said something, I think, about being happy to be there; about growing up; about how hard his life had been.
That was the day I learned that there’s a big difference between the freaks on the posters and the freaks inside the tent, a lesson I’ve applied throughout my life, everywhere from business to romance. For example, Popeye, on the poster, was a vaguely Eurasian-looking young man whose eyeballs extended in blunt cones several inches from his face; in the tent he was an old black guy with a drinking problem who for some reason could push his eyeballs entirely out of their sockets. But the eyeballs, even dangling, especially dangling, were so bloodshot that you suspected he first learned he could do this at a bar. Some people get weepy when they drink. Some push their eyes out of their head.
I was already getting woozy during Frog Man (some guy with all these horrible little bags of skin on him; I don’t know where they got the frog thing from; I guess they couldn’t call him Out-of-Control-Pimple Man). But then they brought out Bob Johnson, the Two-Faced Man. Again, the poster had depicted a man with two perfectly formed faces, one facing east, one west. Bob Johnson, however, had a perfectly formed face on the right side of his head—that horrifically segued into a blob of shiny pink flesh on the left, from which, at the top, emerged sparse patches of reddish hair.
As unprepared as I was for the visual, it was the audio that finally did me in. The freaks were handed the mike and asked to say a few words. Bob Johnson, the left side of his mouth pulling into his mutation, said something, I think, about being happy to be there; about growing up; about how hard his life had been. And then his one eye seemed to fix me as he said, “Just thank God you are the way you are!”
I turned to David.
“I gotta get outta here.”
“I just gotta go outside.”
I felt better as soon as I got out of there. I told myself it was too hot in the tent. I just needed air. I needed to walk. I needed to get rid of Frog Man and Popeye and Bob Johnson. I didn’t know: Maybe I needed to go back to the Lido. I walked a couple tents down. There was spot on the side of the walkway where they’d piled some bales of hay, and sprawled across two of them, napping or just enjoying the sun, was a carnie. One arm was above his head: farmer-tanned, sienna on the forearm, alabaster on the underside with a tattooed snake slithering up the pale skin to the crook of his elbow. Wonderfully dirty jeans and a nearly-as-dirty T-shirt, against which one of his nipples pushed a gentle dent into the cotton.
Girls made little sense to me from my earliest memory, so my sensibility for studs lounging on bales of hay was fully in place by the time I hit the state fair. Adult memory wants to Photoshop in a healthy male member pushing an insistent outline against the denim, but at 11 it wasn’t genital for me. It was the whole thing, everything: the denim, yes, his body, yes, but also his body in the sun, his body with the sound of overheated families around us, the sound of overheated Midwestern vowels, the smell of the hay, of corn, of animals. The fact that his eyes were closed. Everything. His nipple. Everything.
Suddenly David was upon me.
“What’re you looking at?”
I turned (jumped, really).
“Oh. Nothing,” I said.
At dinner that night my family wanted to know how the state fair was, how were the creampuffs, etc. I didn’t tell them about the Club Lido; I didn’t tell them about the Bob Johnson the Two-Faced Man; and I didn’t tell them about the guy on the hay. I told them I saw hogs and geese. I told them about the rides I went on. I told them I nearly got sick, even though it wasn’t true. The possibility of vomiting somehow made the day more interesting. I also just felt like lying to them. They said I’d probably had too many creampuffs, and I said, yeah, I probably had. And that night as I got ready for bed I wondered how Bob Johnson brushed his teeth.