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Carnival of Soul-Searching

Looking for a taste of the good old days at the Altamont Fair

By David King

There is a cow giving birth, and my companions want to see it. I don’t. I really, really, do not. But this is how the Altamont Fair begins for me on this sunny Friday in August. I was lured here by some odd interest, a longing for some missing piece of my past, but what I’ve been promised so far is a very up-close-and-personal, graphic demonstration of cow anatomy.

Live cow births take place on a seemingly regular schedule, conveniently near the very entrance we’ve chosen to use. And as my companions wander toward the birthing station, leaving me in the lurch, whining like a child who wants cotton candy, I realize I have no choice but to follow them.

I stare sideways, making sure that if there is a cow exiting its mother I will have a chance to avert my eyes.

But luckily, all I see is glowing and cute.

The newborn calf already has made a clean escape and has taken residence in a small pen, which, I am told, is affectionately called a “cow condo.”

The mother looks up exhausted, perhaps grateful for the accolades she is receiving but perhaps a little bit embarrassed by the attention. Luckily the cute calf is holed up in its hutch, unwilling to entertain the crowd, so my companions are ready to move away from the cow patties and sneeze-inducing straw.

Don’t be so quick to judge. I grew up on a farm—I just never got used to it.

On our way to find some $5 lemonade, I hear: Itsthh oh, oh, oh, only rock and roll! Followed by a deadly eerie warble—but . . . I . . . like . . . it—pronounced as if it were being read off of a cue card by some sort of gremlin hell-spawn.

I gaze through the screens of the beer garden expecting to see a pair of drunken and drugged circus clowns trading lines on a karaoke machine. But I am shocked and slightly disappointed to see a man and his young son gleefully taking turns.

Things have changed since I was a young boy forced to visit multiple fairs every summer. Things aren’t as shocking; there is less mystery to the throw-a-dart-at-balloon-game when you know it’s rigged to make sure you don’t win.

It’s about then that we cross into carnie territory. Giant Spider-Man dolls and other huggable toys line the walls of carnival games run by men with stark, stern, occasionally toothless faces.

I wait for it, but it doesn’t come. This evening the carnie folk seem uninterested, unmotivated to harass me for my hard-earned dollar. No one is shouting at me, “Hey chunky, try your luck! What are you, scared?” I’m somehow offended that none of the fair folk are even trying.

I meander toward a water-squirting game. The carnie barely acknowledges me.

Suddenly, a jolt of hope—I have yet to visit the oddity barns, the ones that are always chock-full of politicians and snake-oil salesman ready to charm your wallet out of your pants.

But there are no real politicians. Instead, a booth representing Albany for Obama draws my companion’s interest. My girlfriend buys a bumper sticker for her car. Although she is a supporter, this purchase is simply to anger her mother, a McCain supporter. My mother hands over 10 dollars for an Obama shirt, so she can anger her conservative neighbors in rural southern Albany County.

We move on to an ATV/scooter retailer. I eye a Vespa scooter and inquire about it.

I hope to be helped by a gritty mechanic type ready to do some fair wheeling and dealing. Instead, a preadolescent girl approaches. “Do you need help?” she asks.

“How much do the scooters cost?” I ask.

“Um . . . ,” the girl says, her finger to her chin, “they cost 200 dollars—or 1,000!”

My girlfriend laughs, excited that with my salary I might be able to afford a Vespa, depending on the young girl’s mood.

Finally it is time to cap the evening with fair food, the one reliable thing about a fair. As we stand in line for barbecue chicken and ribs, I wonder if it is me or the fair that has changed. Could anything about a fair be as shocking, mysterious, and amusing to me as it was when I was 12?

Then the musicians on the stage next to the food vendors start to play. A woman with a huge voice belts out Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” followed by C&C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” My companions are horrified. Their tastes and ears are clearly offended. But I am grinning ear to ear and bobbing my head.

By the time they begin “Billie Jean,” I realize that I got what I came for. For the next 10 minutes, I am a kid again.

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