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August 25, 2010

My date at the state fair

We are now well into the sweltering days of August in Kentucky. The kids have returned to school. The late summer flowers are in bloom. And if you smell hard enough, you can catch a whiff of fried food and livestock in the air that can mean only one thing: Kentucky State Fair.

An estimated 600,000 thousand people from across the state will agree this year to be jam-packed together at the fairgrounds, standing in line for overpriced, greasy novelty food like chocolate-covered bacon, most often followed by the dizzying exhilaration of surviving two minutes on some possibly janky rides. It’s expensive. It’s crowded. Not a whole lot of it makes sense. And at the end of the day, you better believe it’s worth it.

Or, at least, that’s the attitude my girlfriend and I took with us when we decided to get our state fair on last weekend. After the long walk from the Sahara Desert of parking lots, we first joined the masses in the livestock wing of the Expo Center, dodging strollers and Oak Ridge Boys fans, enormous cows and the milking of goats. I felt a bit out of place when we first arrived, as if someone in overalls and a straw hat might single me out and yell, “That artsy urban lesbian is talking to my cow!” Being an avid animal lover and vegetarian with a flair for drama, there is a part of me that wanted to open all the cages of the hundreds of rabbits and roosters being judged on their conformity, to untie the cows from their fence posts with a slap on the rump and a “Go! You’re free!” But after realizing the animals would only get so far, I decided just to talk to them and tell them they are pretty. Plus, I wouldn’t want them to see what was served up to eat on the Midway during their escape.

By the time we shuffled outside and into the heat, past Freddy (the huge, permanently smiling, talking farmer), I had gotten a good visual dose of just how many different kinds of people attend the fair. Maybe it’s the cheese fries, corn on the cob and ice cream talking, but I think the fair brings people together. I could see every size, shape, color and age in the swarming crowd, as if the fair were a microcosm of both the rural and metropolitan communities of Kentucky. Against the backdrop of a giant octopus made of balloons, say, or the Ultimate Dog Show and juggling clowns, most everybody seemed like a caricature of themselves. The old people seemed really old. The Mexicans seemed really Mexican. And I was glad to see everyone having a genuinely good time. To be fair, my girlfriend and I probably seemed extra gay, especially when m’lady reached out to hold my hand in a simple gesture of affection, or maybe just to keep track of me. “Aww,” I thought. And then wanted her to win me a giant stuffed something.

We jumped into the moving amoeba of people, and no one really gave a flying funnel cake that we were holding hands and having a gay old time. Who cares when there are corn dogs, Ferris wheels and airbrushed T-shirts starting at only $25! There was too much to see and do, too many other people and strange things to look at. The crowd offered a collective, pleasantly surprising level of pre-occupied apathy at our outness, and the fair began to truly feel, well, fair.

We made it down the long line of gravity-defying rides to the sounds of high-pitched happy screaming and all types of music. We saw my favorite ride, The Inverter, which swings its passengers upside down in what looks like a bus without a roof, for fun. And I realized that when upside down, two stories high, being flung around at high speeds, we all feel the same fear of death or of public regurgitation. I don’t care if you are white, black, straight, gay, Dolly Parton or the Dalai Lama, everybody on that ride was thinking the same thing: Oh shit.

When we piled onto the shuttle to get back to our car, I felt closer to the rest of Kentucky. As two cheerful lesbians walking hand-in-hand, we had managed to simply blend in with the thrills of the state fair. Besides, we had nothing on the bacon cheeseburger served between two doughnuts.