By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Big sleek farm animals with blue ribbons attached to their harnesses. Ladies in gingham unveiling the perfect chocolate layer cake or lemon meringue pie. A calliope playing carousel tunes, the gleeful shouts of children, somebody picking at a banjo somewhere or sawing away at a musical saw, and the sweet smell of burnt sugar in the air.
Ah, the county fair -- you can't beat it. It's that perfect mixture of American ag life, good eats, and a smidgen or two of carnival hooey.
Tailpipe couldn't wait. On his way up to the Pompano Racetrack for the Broward County Fair last week, with the wife and a couple of pipettes bundled into the family vehicle, he waxed poetic about that magical time when fruit ripened on trees and all the chickens were free-range. There weren't alarm clocks back then, kiddies. Folks woke up to rooster calls.
Then three men in orange vests energetically directed Tailpipe's car toward the racetrack parking lot.
"That'll be five dollars," said the attendant, clutching a fat roll of bills in one hand.
Wait a minute. There was supposed to be free parking.
"Ooh, you want free parking. You have to turn back around and make a U-ee. It's over there on the other side of the street."
The old bait and switch. That five dollars for parking would have saved the 'Pipes the trouble of walking an extra 30 feet.
Tailpipe should have known. The greed and flimflammery of the modern age has -- despite the usual knee-jerk pre-event stories in the Miami Herald and the Sun-Sentinel hyping the fair's "good, clean family fun" -- caught up with the Broward County Fair in a big way. What the 'Pipe family found in Pompano wasn't rural America or even the lightheartedness of a traveling amusement show but a drossy black-tar domain where the air is filled with diesel fumes and the smell of overflowing toilets -- and where the first order of business is to suck all the money out of your wallet.
All right, let's be, well, fair about the fair, which ended its 11-day run last Sunday. There were some farm animals. The Tailpipe family came in just as the competition for best Angus/Limousin hybrid in the show was coming to a climax. A heavyset guy in a raffia hat nodded at one of the two black bulls in the ring. Somebody clapped, and that was that. No last-minute fire-spitting heroics by the losing bull, no victory lap by the winner. Then the 'Pipes passed into a room full of caged rabbits and chickens, including a white feathered cock with feathery anklets and a jazzy combed-forward do. "This one looks like a dog," a woman told her husband, and Tailpipe had to admit she was right. The plumey "silky" rooster reminded the 'Pipe of his feisty little bichon frisé back at the ranch more than any chicken he'd ever seen. But where were the pigs and plow horses, the goats and the geese? Where was the big spread of pens with bleating, mooing farm animals?
From the lackluster animal tents, it all seemed to go downhill.
The kids wanted rides, of course. There may not have been many animals, but there were Tilt-a-Whirls and Megatrons galore. Tailpipe sprang for 40 coupons, paying $25. That should keep them busy for a while, he thought. But a half hour later, there were the two little ones, eager for more. Forty coupons paid for exactly four rides apiece, including a slow turn or two on a Ferris wheel and a one-minute run through the Fun House, with the requisite slippery-slidey walkway, distorting mirror, and rolling tunnel.
"Can we go through again?" one 'Pipette breathlessly asked the attendant.
"Four more tickets, sister," he said.
About then, Mrs. 'Pipe noted that it looked as if the state penitentiaries had opened their doors to a contingent of lifers and long-termers, with battered-looking visages and brusque grumbly attitudes, to staff the fairground rides. "Did you ever see such a surly group?" she asked.
Come to think of it, Tailpipe had noticed the ticket-taker at the House of Mario, an intricate climbing structure popular with the preschool set, collar an errant 4-year-old like a Miami cop nabbing a senior citizen at an international conference, a big fist into the boy's throat. Up against the wall, kid.
One of Tailpipe's own kids mistakenly got into a bumper boat ride that was designed for the younger set. Her knees couldn't fit under the dashboard.
"I told her not to get in there," said the attendant, slogging through the artificial pond in rubber waders.
Well, let her out then, said Mrs. T.
"Yeah, I'll let her out." The man waded over to the 'Pipette and poured water down her back and splashed her hair before pushing her back to the little dock. Tailpipe considered whether to give the man a taste of metal pipe in his teeth until the little one came out laughing.
At the county fair, you do rides, and then you do food. Vendors at the fair were offering some of the most unsavory-looking grit Tailpipe has seen since he came down with a bushing inflammation severe enough to stump the boys at Jiffy Lube. The kids had hot dogs, shrunken little things that looked something like bite-sized Vienna sausages. Tailpipe ordered the Italian sausages. He should have known something was up when the woman behind the counter asked him several times to reconfirm the order. "Uh, Italian sausage, right? You did say Italian sausage..." The sandwich came out heaped with black, tar-like vegetable matter, which the counterwoman said was peppers and onions. One bite and Tailpipe threw the mess into a trash can.