Night and Day at the Fair
Our intrepid travel reporter takes us inside the Great New York State Fair, where he and his wife brave deep fried foods, rides of questionable safety, and cow-pen buckets full of mystery (and manure).
Our state fair is a great state fair,
Don’t miss it, don’t even be late.
It’s dollars to donuts
That our state fair
Is the best state fair in our state.
– “State Fair” musical (1962)
My wife and I were visiting New York for a wedding. Not the city of New York, but the Upstate, and specifically the city of Rochester. It was a journey down memory lane for me, as I spent a year at the University of Rochester as a graduate student in 2013. Now, the same family that so graciously hosted me then took us both in for the weekend. Little did we know that in their brilliant minds brewed an extravagant idea. “Let’s go to the State Fair! I heard they have a giant butter sculpture!” John exclaimed on Sunday morning while we descended into the kitchen, slightly sleepy and marginally hung-over from the nuptial celebrations of the previous night.
Two coffees, a mountain of Jackie’s blueberry pancakes, and a shower later, we were on the road.
The Great New York State Fair covers an enormous amount of land. Different gates, a gigantic parking lot, and shuttle services all work together to provide the most efficient circulation of people. Streaming in: an unending trickle of families, curious accidental tourists, and lovebirds going on a date. Everything happens under the watchful eye of the State Troopers, who – as we learned upon arrival – were celebrating their centennial anniversary. The fair chose to temporarily immortalize them by commissioning the giant butter sculpture depicting two troopers tending to a young calf.
There’s a family there discussing broccoli, right in front of the lady in the truck. There seems to be a hint of irony in their tone, but I might be reading into things. These are all true stories—the real life consequences of bad commercial choices at the Great State Fair.
It seems the fair’s organizers curate the light and darkness separately. Things happen in the broad daylight and in the shadows alike. Under the roofs of exhibit buildings, farmers tend to their animals and silent competitions take place. The immaculate white of the handlers’ jeans contrasts beautifully with cowhides of all shades of brown. Men and women, boys and young blond girls of no more than 17 years of age, wrestle rare breeds of dairy cows into reluctant obedience. The quiet voice of a judge praises competing dairy cows, and silent bleachers watch intensely. Two ladies wearing tiaras and Miss Dairy Princess sashes hand over the trophies to the winners. There are few smiles, but the sense of confidence and pride appears to be so natural, it’s almost intimidating.
We quickly realize how alien we are to this world. I stumble around, trying to take a couple pictures with my bulky camera, but I feel like a home invader and after a few shots I give up and start to simply look around. My wife tries to feed one of the cows in its pen, and reaches for some hay in a shallow bucket. “Ma’am you’ll want to be careful. I’m not even a farmer, but I know which end of a cow is which, and that bucket is where they crap,” a man with a broad smile and a thick, white mustache informs her, as she’s about to reach in for some cow treats.
Outside, rain clouds fight with the sun for dominance of the skies. The explosion of colors and sounds that surround us are nothing if not overwhelming. The rows of food trucks and vendors, who trade in everything imaginable as long as it’s made of plastic (and in China), remind me of the fantastical markets of the Far East I’ve read about in adventure books. The Great Fair is just as over-the-top. Even though everything should be familiar—the deep fried foods and the glowing sticks—the synesthetic intensity of it all leaves us gasping for air. The smells have sounds and colors translate into bold flavors. The pavilions with ancient-column lookalikes have to compete with the radiant lights, bright marquees, and colorful signs.
The crowds are merciless. It seems like there is no time to be spared or wasted, with everyone running from booth to booth. We spot a single truck with healthier foods. It stands out by the virtue of its abandonment. There’s a family there discussing broccoli, right in front of the lady in the truck. There seems to be a hint of irony in their tone, but I might be reading into things. These are all true stories—the real life consequences of bad commercial choices at the Great State Fair.
We make our way across the fairgrounds, passing more pavilions and a concert stage. The theme of sculptures is strong this year. After the butter sculpture, we come across a gigantic sand sculpture—its four facades facing four directions of the world. Later on, we are about to complete the triad with an ice sculpture, but the price on the admission stub breaks the spell, and we refrain.
There is a giant amusement park in the middle of the fairgrounds, with a Ferris wheel, a rollercoaster, and other contraptions that don’t bring safety to mind but nevertheless enjoy devotion from all ages and creeds. The sight is dizzying, like almost everything at the Fair, and we crane our heads back to catch a glimpse of machines whizzing by at high speeds and even higher altitudes.
Not far away from where we are, we spot an entire exhibit dedicated to the New York’s State Troopers. There are patrol cars spanning the past 10 decades, and an ex-military, armored vehicle capable of enforcing the law with its sheer looks. There was even a miniature prison-like compound open for touring.
The last stop on our tour is once again a quiet pavilion filled with animals and their caretakers. The goats, pigs, and llamas are much calmer than the hectic crowds outside. The contrasts come into focus one last time as we map our way out. We make a full circle and end where we started. Why does it feel like we can see clearer in the dimmed light of the Dairy Cattle building? This time around it’s almost completely silent and abandoned. There’s one more day of the fair left, and the farmers and their kids are tucking in for the night, side-by-side with their prized stock. The sense of well-defined purpose and accomplishment they emanate makes me envious. We pet a couple of beautiful calves, ready to call it a day, and make our way to the gate.