Ched’s American Epiphany: Discovering the County Fair

Last Sunday afternoon, at the heart of summery August, and at the ripe age of 58, I finally attended my first County Fair.  I was moved by my encounter with this venerable American tradition.  Admittedly, I’ve never been any good at “normal” leisure pursuits, being an inveterate workaholic.   But this experience was one of those occasional epiphanies revealing what is undeniably lovable about America (something I don’t write about often).
My first 17 years in Los Angeles took place in suburban Pasadena, far from where the County Fair is held in Pomona.  There was simply never any discussion of attending the fair in my family; indeed, the perception of most everyone I knew growing up was that such things were run by and for “country bumpkins” (about whom we were ignorant and frankly prejudicial).  My second 17 years in LA (which followed a decade in the Bay Area bracketed by year stints overseas) were in the barrios of the city’s northeast quarter.  The County Fair remained remote in my adult consciousness, if for different reasons (focused as I was on more sober issues of peace and justice activism and theology).
When I turned 50, and Elaine and I moved north to Oak View, I became for the first time in my life the resident of a small town, nestled in a mostly rural and mountainous county with a total population 1/12th of its megalopolitan neighbor to the south.  I’ve taken to this new context gladly, even gratefully.  But I’m still shedding my “urbane” biases—not least concerning the County Fair. 
It’s no longer out of sight and mind—in fact, the fair is impossible to miss in Ventura.  The fairgrounds are right in front of the most popular surf break.  The vast parking lots are, for most of the year, empty, except for a weekly flea market and the occasional specialty show (though I recall during the Day Fire of 2006—the sixth largest wildfire in California history—being deeply impressed at the sight of the entire fairgrounds transformed into a staging area for hundreds of fire trucks and crews from all over the west).  I quickly learned that during the two weeks the Fair is on, the only way to get out to the surf at C Street is a long walk along the river berm, since access and parking are either jammed or cordoned off.  Downtown is a zoo, traffic knotted, and the night sky lit up with garish neon.  All this has deepened my prejudice against such fairs, and for eight summers here I’ve avoided the whole spectacle studiously. Until this week.  
The circumstance snuck up on me.  Because of reduced work on the road, I’ve been at home more this summer than any over the last 30 years—a delight in which I’ve been reveling.  This also means I can get more involved in local environmental movements.  One such group is Surfrider, which sponsors some of the more effective local conservation activism.   Our home was “certified” last year by their Ocean-Friendly Gardens campaign, which educates and trains concerning water conservation, native landscaping and watershed restoration.  So when an email a couple of weeks ago requested help staffing their OFG educational booth at the County Fair, Elaine and I signed up to volunteer.  Besides, we reasoned, after our three-hour shift we would wander around the fair for a few minutes to see what all the fuss was about; it was, after all, the final day.
We rode our bikes down to avoid the traffic, and after searching for 15 minutes, found the Surfrider booth tucked away in a corner of the “Floriculture” hall.  The venue for the gardening geeks turned out to be a quiet oasis amidst the din of the fair, contemplative almost, with just the right trickle of interested folk coming by.  We had enough good conversations to keep things interesting, including with: representatives of “Growing Circles,” a group which builds capacity for neighborhood cooperative gardening in Ventura; a woman working as a consultant trying to persuade golf courses (!) to landscape with native plants; and a young couple who collaborate with the well-known “Farmer and the Cook” farm/restaurant in Ojai.
The revelation, however, came afterward.  I imagined we’d just look around quickly and head home, but as we waded into the late afternoon crowd, I was immediately struck by the demographics.  More than half of the folk, both workers and fairgoers, were Latino.   Not only was this a decidedly blue collar scene; it was also a truly intergenerational one, a kaleidoscope of families, from cholos pushing baby carriages to abuelos walking hand in hand with wide-eyed toddlers.  Then there was that odd mix of animals, music, food, handcrafts and of course whizzing mechanical rides—most of which included some variation of hoisting people upside down.  Grizzled carnies rubbed shoulders with fresh-faced 4-H adolescents, heavy metal groupies with garden show seniors, face-painted kids with charros decked-out in caballero finery.  And everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves amidst the chaos of greasy corn dogs, piercing sound-effects, and an unflagging chorus of shouted invitations to win a giant stuffed animal.  
It seemed right to start out with a frozen banana, which I knew would invoke for me childhood memories of the Balboa boardwalk.  Then it was on to my one goal: the Ferris Wheel, the only ride I figured I could endure, but also a nod to tradition.   Elaine then suggested we check out the rodeo—also my inaugural taste.  The stands were packed, but just as we were about to give up on finding a spot, a Mexican family in the very top row kindly signaled us toward two seats.  
Chomping on the best kettle corn I’d ever tasted, we watched for two hours a steady parade of roping, riding and racing, delightfully narrated bilingually, with performers of both genders.  The events were all new to me, but it wasn’t hard to sense the depth of the cowboy tradition (with its Mexican roots especially acknowledged in this setting).  By the time it was over it was dark, and we looked for a quick bite before taking off.   But we decided to sit down to enjoy carne asada tacos and beer, only to stumble across a lively performance by a local R&B/salsa band, complete with horns.  Even after a slow dance we still couldn’t quite bring ourselves to leave, having eyed a stall with one of my favorite things: fresh baked raspberry-rhubarb pie and black coffee, which we enjoyed as we watched the end-of-fair fireworks display.  This should have capped our evening, except that right at the finale, as if on cue, an amazing string band struck up nearby, old guys in overalls playing rock and roll classics in a wry bluegrass style with unflagging energy despite the dwindling audience as closing time neared.  Then, as we walked toward our bikes, we stopped to watch a gaggle of young boys hip hop shufflin’ in the street, as weary fair workers packed up. 
So much for our brief look-around; we didn’t get home until well after midnight, tired but strangely enchanted. 
Besides being reminded how delightful a complete diversion can be, I learned that the County Fair is an American house of mirrors.  To be sure it reflects some of our worst excesses: acres of cheap trinkets, an overwhelming wallpaper of annoying sights and sounds, overpriced and inane distractions predicated on the low art of huckstering and titillation—not to mention a shameless carbon footprint that makes one cringe.  But it also reflects the irrepressible human diversity that is America at its best: a wild array of foods and costumes, spectacular performances and trivial pursuits, teenagers necking in dark corners and screaming kids darting about, a mosh-pit of white and brown and redneck, all swirling in democratic chaos.  In short, I found the County Fair to be not only partly repugnant (as I expected), but also partly crazy fun (which I didn’t).
I should not be so surprised.  After all, the Episcopal theologian William Stringfellow and the Catholic artist John Swanson agree that the traditional circus represented the closest that western society ever got to the undomesticated, imaginative and edgy character of the Kingdom of God (on this see Kate Foran’s reflections for the World & World school).  
I saw shades of this at the County Fair.  Let that be a lesson to me.