Sunday, September 30, 2007

durham fair

The Durham Fair is the biggest in the area. A massive draw for bored teenagers, the fair is a mish-mash of "country" and "hip hop" symbolism, with both cowboy hats and baggy pants visible in the teeming open spaces.

All fairs seem to provide random re-circuitings of things in the larger society. For example, when S and I walked in, we saw that 38 Special was playing that night. 38 Special was a group that had a couple of hits in the '80s. Who would have thought that 20 years later I would hear them play at the Durham Fair? At the distance we were sitting, their age was not too obvious. Though the lead singer's address of the crowd: "yerr a good lookin' crowd!" was more revealing.

Later, as S and I perused the hundreds of snapshots and professional images of the photography exhibition, I paused at a photo of an Arab man in red and white checkered kuffiyah (head scarf). Amidst all the kittens and gleeful babies, it was odd. I glanced at the name, "Janice Karpinski," and a tiny circuit clicked in my brain. The name was familiar. Surely the former commander of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (during the torture scandal) had not spent her time since returning submitting photos to contests in country fairs! Further down the wall there was another with her name, of an Iraqi woman looking dully and passively at the camera. When I returned home that night I googled the name, and indeed, it was the same name.

Compared to the Big E, this fair was more compact and more intense. Booth on booth of games batter the consciousness, with ceilings laden with massive dogs and clown fish and pink panthers; whirling machines blinked their Las Vegas lights against the dark sky, strewing the screams of kids encased within across the crowd. With only three days to run rather than the Big E's 2 weeks, one does not sense the unbreakable ennui of the vendors at the Big E, mechanically spooning chili on hot dogs or sitting like statues, eyes glazed over at the swarm of humanity.

The Durham Fair is also on a hillside, making the exploration seem more adventuresome. Durham makes an effort to create activities that go beyond spending money and watching paid performers. Near 38 Special's stage was a hay free-for-all, where anyone could go in and wage war with armfuls of hay. It was more fun to watch than Washington Square Park's dog run at 8 am, with tykes and pre-teens alike spitting out bits of hay. There was one intrepid mother in there as well. Near the cow barn was an oval dirt race track for. . .souped up lawn mowers. It was not just funny, the riders hunched on the tiny machines, it was also fun: watching them bounce around the track one couldn't help imagine doing it. The mowers even had the blade guards still on. After a victory, the winner would take the checkered flag and do noisy donuts inside the hay bale circle in the middle. The "drivers" wore helmets and had painted absurd names on their machines like "streak of fire." Down near the horse pull was a climbing wall, and a trampoline for kids. They sat in a harness with big elastic cords that lifted them high into the air, so the lightest touch of the foot on the trampoline would project them skyward.

There was also the melancholy of the detritus of a culture: those rides and games used beyond their prime, sitting silently under blinking lights. There was a water gun game with rows of grotesque clown faces, mouths wide open. The heads were antique, of wood, and hand painted. They were battered by use, and neglected by the passing crowds. A little knot of kids in black with streaks of dye in their hair leaned against the counter, talking and joking and kissing. Or there were the cars that run in an endless circle. I had not thought of the ride for over 3 decades, but the second I saw the glittery, rubberized surface of the cars, the blinking tail lights, and the steering wheels that spin uselessly, I remembered. And of course there is the sense of vast loneliness one gets in looking at the proprietors of unpopular games, sitting faces fallen, the ones who are no longer even calling out to you. There was a game made cheaply, a ball-tossing game, constructed out of the recycled pieces of an earlier kiddy game, so the back boards were mismatched scenes of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet. A sign proclaimed a "ladies special, winner every time," and appropriately horsey and pony prizes.

There was a "Pharaoh's Fury" ship, and an archaic but oddly popular "Kentucky Derby" game with mechanical horses driven onward by successful sinkings of balls in little holes. With every stride the horses made, their tails would lift, making an oddly squirrel-like movement.

There was a whole building for "youth exhibits," which were also hugely entertaining: pumpkins painted as witches or lobsters, "my little pony" collections, cakes plastered into resemblances of Sponge Bob, robots made of kitchen utinsels (beaters for eyes). If the "local" means that which is not industrially produced or professionally performed, the Durham Fair was rich in that: the human touch not ironed out of a perfect surface. Spectators are invited by human scale productions to imagine themselves taking part. One sees the ordinary snapshots, or the missed throws of the baseballs, or the scrawny or overweight bodies lugging at the weighted sled (there was a rowdy "person pull"), and is not reduced into passive observance the way one is in watching professional performances. One is not kept at a distance -- a distance from which desire springs.

A young girl of 12 or 13 cradled the head of one of her sheep in the crook of her arm, casually, as people perused the animals, telling us they were "Shropshires," raised for meat, sheared to show off the meaty shanks. Her other hand gestured, patting the flanks or scratching the sheep's nose. The sheep's eyes were glazed in complacent restfulness, a scene so touching I was too ashamed to blaspheme it with my camera.

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