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Thursday, Aug. 19, 2004 11:14 am

A fair full of Grace

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There are two kinds of people in this town: those who like the Illinois State Fair and those who don't. I have always loved the fair: The food. The rides. The Butter Cow. The Society Horse Show in the Coliseum, always a great opportunity to sit and enjoy some fine organ music while watching fancy horses prance around and around. And, of course, the people -- people-watching at the Illinois State Fair has always been an endless source of fascination for me. Where do all of these people come from?

This year, I decided to see whether I could find new stuff at the fair -- go on a scary ride, maybe, and try something new in the fried-food category. I spent Thursday night and the opening day of the fair expanding my state-fair experience.

Thursday night. Right away, I did something new: I ran the two-mile race held right before the Twilight Parade. The race began just inside the main gate, down the parade route to North Grand, and then back to the fair. I won't bore you with details of why I decided to run; I'll just say that a certain guy, MNB (My New Boyfriend), was involved in the decision.

Because of the freakishly cool weather, at least the run wasn't hot. And it was fun seeing the crowds lining the course. And it was only two miles. But I was glad when it was over. We watched the parade for a while; it featured a bigger collection of Shriners in cool old cars than I've ever seen amassed in one place, and some good bands, too, including the Mahomet-Seymour Marching Band. The band members wore natty uniforms that reminded me of the ones in The Music Man. The flag-twirling girls wore unfortunate long blue dresses, but they were impressively adept at the twirling, and the determined expressions on their faces made it clear that they took their jobs very seriously.

I started going to Illinois State Fair parades when I was a child. Every single time I've seen one, there's been a float or a band or whatever and then maybe one more entry -- and then a good five- to 10-minute wait for the next thing to come along. Why? Why has no one remedied this? Who's in charge? Surely, over the years, many different people have been in charge of the parade. Next year, hire somebody with a bullhorn to bellow, "Keep moving, people!" over and over again to close the gap. How hard can it be?

New Butter Cow. Because of the chilly temperatures Thursday night (what happened to global warming, anyway?), I only had time for a quick corndog and a cruise around the Ethnic Village. Oh, and I stopped in to see the new Butter Cow. It's pretty good, but I'm not so crazy about the addition of the butter kittens; they kind of look like tiny cows, or maybe chipmunks. Also, the butter flies (butter flies!) attached to the butter cow's tail looked like . . . pieces of floating butter. A family next to me had a long discussion about whether the flies were small cow chips.

Opening day! I'd never been to opening day before. The weather was perfect, the crowds not too large (the number of people, not the girth of the average fairgoer). Right away I saw a goth guy dressed in black with black-red lipstick and plenty of leather jewelry -- but he was pushing a stroller. A goth dad! See, you get all kinds at the fair.

Opening day was "County Fair and Horseracing Day." Many county-fair queens strolled about, complete with tiaras and sashes. I stopped to chat with a couple of them; they were quite friendly and clearly pleased to be at the fair. They said there were about 59 queens milling about the fair that day, which explains why you couldn't walk more than a couple of feet without bumping into another one.

Massages. I spent my first two hours giving free chair massages at the St. John's Hospital booth in the Illinois Building. The hospital also offers free bone-density and blood-pressure testing, as well as body-fat measurements. I don't know why anybody would want his or her body fat measured before eating at the fair, but plenty of people were in line to have it done. I like giving massages at the fair because there are always plenty of people to watch. Last year, one old farmer sat down in the chair without uttering a word and didn't talk during the massage, but when I was through, he somberly looked up at me and said, "Will you marry me?"

The Illinois Building offers other senior-center activities, like bingo, and you can also get the delicious honey ice cream. Upstairs is the wine garden, featuring Illinois wine -- I finished working in the building before noon and decided it was a little early to be sampling the wine.

Rides. When I was a child, the carnival was down in Happy Hollow (now the Agri-Expo). I had a love/hate relationship with the place -- I loved the double Ferris wheel but was scared to death of the freak show. As you walked toward the end of Happy Hollow, there were huge, lurid posters on display, advertising the half-man/half-woman, the two-headed baby, a woman who turned into a gorilla. An eerie voice blared from the loudspeakers, challenging you to come inside and take a look. Of course I never did; it was all I could do to walk past without breaking down into tears.

I never went on the spin-upside-down-twirl-really-fast rides, not the rides where the bottoms dropped out, none of that. My two favorite rides have always been the Giant Slide and the Sky Ride, which we always called the Up and Up. You get a great view of the fairgrounds from both of these rides, and a great appeal of the fair for me lies in the grounds -- the old buildings, the abundance of beautiful flowers everywhere.

Friday, I went on both the slide and the Sky Ride, and I did intend to think about going on something a little scarier, but I ran out of time. I went through the new attraction called the Beast, a giant blow-up dinosaur/dragon-type thing you can walk through. The literature says you "experience the sights and sounds of its internal organs," but it was mostly just walking through big red rubber corridors. Maybe it appeals to kids, but it didn't seem nearly gross enough for children.

Hobby, Arts, and Crafts Building. I entered a loaf of French bread in the culinary contest because it was one of my New Year's resolutions. I actually baked two loaves; the second one we devoured the night I made it. I was excited about seeing my bread on display because the loaf we ate was particularly tasty and I was sure I was going to snag a ribbon.

Nope. No ribbon at all. How did this happen? I wanted to break open the case and taste the prize-winning loaves, because I knew they couldn't be as good as mine. But I decided I'd probably get arrested, which would diminish my overall fair enjoyment, and so instead I marveled at the 441-pound pumpkin. How do you grow a pumpkin that big? I love the arrangements of fruits and vegetables on display, not to mention the fancy cakes, the rows of jams, and the handmade baskets.

Fair food. All those foodstuffs made me hungry. MNB said a ribeye sandwich is required eating at the fair, but I've never had one there, and I wanted to find the best one. Randy Williams, who owns the Coliseum Corner Restaurant, told me the best ribeyes could be found at Guzzardo's, in the Food-o-Rama (Randy doesn't sell any ribeyes himself, but he serves a mighty tasty barbecue sandwich). He was absolutely right; the ribeye was delicious.

While eating, I noticed people wolfing down big piles of orangey fried stuff and realized it was "freshly battered cheese curds" they were eating, so I decided to try them (but only because I was trying new things). Even at $6 per greasy box, I have to admit, they were delicious -- not quite as good as the fried Snickers bar I tried last year and still have dreams about, but darn good.

Another new food item at the fair is "pizza on a stick." I think this crosses the "let's invent something new and gimmicky" food line; it seems silly to put pizza on a stick. It's not as if you're improving on the taste of the food, as you are with the fried Snickers.

Illinois Lottery. My friend Randy works for the lottery, and I stopped by to win some big money. I didn't win, but I did get to drop my nonwinning ticket in a box for a chance to win a 1995 silver Mustang convertible. I'll let you know if I win -- or you'll see me driving around town in it!

Gun-twirling. Randy Williams' 12-year-old son, Mitch "the Kid" Williams, puts on a highly entertaining gun-twirling show in front of the Coliseum a few times a day. The kid is mighty impressive. When I watched him, he seemed somber about it, only cracking a smile when somebody put a big cowboy hat over his eyes. Mitch is paired with an adult gun-twirling champion named Bob Hamm, who sort of reminded me of Elvis Himselvis in terms of costuming and black hair, but Mitch is the real star of the show. Afterward, they let us come up on stage and attempt gun-twirling, which is much harder than it looks (and it doesn't look easy).

The grandstand. I stopped in at the north end of the grandstand and looked at the displays for the State Fair Historical Museum and the Illinois State Police Heritage Foundation. There was a cool old police car, plus lots of Illinois State Police stuff for sale. I toyed with the idea of buying a T-shirt, thinking people might treat me with much more respect if I looked as if I might be a trooper, but ultimately I decided I'd fool nobody.

Conservation World. I watched the Purina Incredible Dog Team perform an amazing, energetic show with Frisbees. The dogs were all champions who had been rescued from abandonment. I like watching Frisbee-catching -- Frisbee is one sport I'm not completely horrible at. I decided I'm going to try teaching my parents' Pekingese, Gizmo and Shortie, to catch a Frisbee. So far the only thing they excel at is barking, but I figure maybe they're not such old dogs that they can't be taught at least one new trick.

The Purina dogs caught the Frisbees while standing on the trainer's back, caught 10 Frisbees in quick succession, and did every tricky thing you could think of involving the procurement of Frisbees. Those pooches were fiends for the Frisbee.

Conservation World gets more interesting each year; if you've never been there, you should stop by, at least for the homemade root beer. You can see all kinds of cool entertaining things, like lumberjacking, fishing, and archery for kids.

Fancy chickens. The Orr Building holds a cacophonous cacophony of crowing roosters. One crowing rooster must cause other roosters to follow suit. I'd never been in the Orr Building during the fair and had no idea there were that many different kinds of chickens: Huge chickens. Fluffy chickens. Very, very fancy chickens with interesting patterned feathers. Colorful chickens with lots of feathers on their feet. Little bitty chickens. Polish Goldens, Plymouth Rocks, French Faverolles, English game hens, Australops. It was late afternoon by the time I got to the Chicken Spectacle, and I was pretty tired, so I sat down for a while to observe the chickens closely.

Chickens are extremely nervous creatures. A few napped (who could sleep with all that racket?), but most of them scratched and pecked and paced nervously like so many crack addicts. I don't want to be a chicken farmer anytime soon.

Cow-milking. It's not as difficult as you'd think, milking a cow. It was easy, as a matter of fact. The guy in charge of the cow (not that she really needed any leadership) said they'd used this cow two years in a row. "What's her name?" I asked. "Uh, I think it's Thyme, spelled like the herb," he said. Wait a minute -- this poor cow has been standing here two years in a row, obligingly letting people (mostly small, inept children) squeeze her udders all day long, and you're not even sure of her name? Doesn't seem right. Cows have feelings, too. But I did get a free carton of chocolate milk for my efforts, so I deemed the event a success.

The garlic dude. Near the end of the day, I walked through the Agri-Expo, which used to be Happy Hollow and now seems like a lot of wasted space. Set up at the Farmer's Market was a man with a garlic display. "Frisco Red" proclaimed the sign. I stopped to talk to the man; his name is Pat Gillen, and he has a stand at the farmers' market downtown every week. He had a lot to say about garlic; to grow it, you plant a clove in the ground, which clones itself to produce the whole bulb. Lots of people were coming by and buying lots and lots of Pat's garlic, so I figured it must be pretty good stuff. Pat said he got the garlic 25 years ago from a guy in San Francisco. He said that a witch in Los Angeles told him that garlic wards off vampires because vampires commit a mortal sin to have eternal life and garlic has eternal life but no sin (because it clones itself). Gee, pretty deep musings for a day at the fair.

I bought a bunch of Pat's garlic (it smelled incredibly good), admired his mid-'70s Saab parked next to the garlic, and decided I'd seen and experienced enough new things at this year's fair to last me till 2005.

More and more stuff at the fair. But wait a minute: What about all the stuff I missed -- the Society Horse Show, the Swampmaster's Gator Show, dancing at the Twilight Ballroom? I didn't get into the Exposition Building to gawk at the vendors, I didn't make it to the beer tents (I don't like beer anyway), and I didn't take a camel ride. No harness races, no Illinois wine samples -- the list goes on and on.

Fortunately, I'm going to be at the fair every day next week, giving more free massages. When my workday is done, I'll get to everything. Top of my list? A fried Snickers, of course.

See you at the fair.

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