That Hand in Your Pocket

Old McDonald is making room at the County Fair for the guys with dollar signs in their eyes

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.

Well, at least they couldn't mess up lemonade.

"Big or small?" the counterman asked. "Might as well get the big one. It's twice as big, and it only costs a buck more." So the price would be...? "Four dollars." Looking at the only digestible food substance in sight, Tailpipe, reeling slightly, forked over the money.

In truth, the fair is a philanthropic organization that turns some of the proceeds over to charities like Ronald McDonald House, the Museum of Discovery and Science, and the Shriners. If Tailpipe is reading the organization's IRS filing right, that amounted to about $21,000 last year, or slightly more than 1 percent of the organization's take, from admissions and a percentage of the amusements. Spend your money generously, folks. But the fair's all-volunteer board of directors has little to do with the down-and-dirty part of running the event. For more than 15 years, that has been turned over to Orlando-based Strates Shows, which brings in about 60 carnival rides as well as 300 or so workers to run the machines, pop the popcorn, and fry the, ugh, sausages. The strictly-for-profit Strates and a few small food vendors really rake in the dough, if the anticipated 340,000 fairgoers actually showed up (final figures have not yet been compiled).

"This is affordable family entertainment," fair spokesman Chuck Malkussaid.

After a little more than three hours at the Broward County Fair last week, the 'Pipes spent more than $90. That included $32 just to get in (no breaks for kids unless they're under 5), $41 for rides, $19.50 for food and drink (after the sausage, Tailpipe got wise and planned a stop at a fast-food place off the fairgrounds), and $4 for dart games and toss-a-Ping-Pong-ball-into-a-goldfish-bowl games.

That darts game, by the way, came toward the end, when one of the 'Pipettes actually popped a balloon target and won a prize.

"Take your pick," the dart man said.

Spread out on the display counter for Tailpipe's 8-year-old were: a framed picture of the Playboy rabbit, a portrait of a barely clothed babe with boobs of steel, and a glass-encased picture of a blood-red rose inscribed with the words, "I love you."

"I'll tell you the truth, we're a little low on prizes," the man said.

Affordable? This sounded to Tailpipe a lot more like high-end entertainment. There are money-saving admission packages, Malkus said, and deals on the carnival rides -- but you have to purchase before the fair even opens.

Finally -- how could Tailpipe forget? -- there was Angel the Snake Lady, who could have served as the county fair's poster girl. "See the girl with the face of an angel and the ugly, scaly body of a snake," her announcer said.

Tailpipe bought the tickets and stepped into the little exhibit booth. There, behind screened windows, was a middle-aged woman, her head stuck through a hole in a table and the stuffed body of a python coiled loosely around her neck. Black cloth was draped over the place where snake and woman came together.

Why am I feeling you're not connected? Tailpipe said.

The woman looked over, flashed a wicked smile, and said: "Oh, I'm connected."

-- As told to Edmund Newton

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