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No longer fair-minded in September

by John Pixley

 

It used to last longer. She said it used to go on all month. Didn’t it? She said she doesn’t remember the last time she went. Has she taken her first child there? She wondered about taking her two toddler sons this year.

She probably wouldn’t. She and her husband had annual passes at Disneyland. So what’s the point? I don’t have an annual pass to Disneyland, but I feel the same way—like the fair is not there. Or barely there.

It used to be that the Los Angeles County Fair was a big deal. I remember when I was growing up here, and people talked about “fair weather.” “Fair weather” was some of the hottest weather of the year, which at least during those years always came in September when the fair was going on.

It fit right in with the other old line about Claremont: how the new professors at the Colleges start off here during the hottest, smoggiest time of the year after being lured from colleges in the frozen east. The trick was they were hired in February, when the weather here was perfectly balmy, with oranges glistening in the sun and the only snow in sight capping a mountain off in the distance.

That was “fair weather.” It was something to celebrate and something to joke about, if not curse.

Along with having its own weather, the LA County Fair itself was a big deal. What’s more, it was just two or three miles away, right over in Pomona. It was almost as big a deal as the start of school, which was also in September at that time. As a Claremont kid, it felt like we had to go to the fair like we had to go to school.

For many years on the first day of school, I would be sent home with a free ticket to the fair. My mother would use them to take me every year, but the fair was longer and we had more time to go. My friend was right—this year the fair closes this weekend—but I remember many years when the fair went on through early October.

We would always go on a Friday evening or sometimes on a weeknight—a school night!—when it wasn’t so crowded. We would start off looking at the animals and end up, as it got dark, in the exhibit halls where there were fewer people and not so much noise.

I don’t remember eating deep-fried avocadoes or deep-fried Oreos. The deep-fried craze hadn’t taken hold at the time. In recent years, vendors have been known to one-up each other with outrageous offerings. Or was it that we just weren’t that culinarily adventurous? Or maybe we thought such things tasted bad, just gross?

It could be that this and wanting to avoid crowds has something to do with the LA County Fair being relegated to my past, along with orange groves and unsightly smoggy days. It could be why the fair, instead of just its weather has, for me, become something of a joke. But I suspect there’s more to why I haven’t gone to the fair in years. It’s been about 20 years, which was about the time I attended the Nevada County Fair in Grass Valley. And that was really by accident.

Talk about not avoiding crowds. I was in the middle of a long summer trip and had a reservation for a night at a hotel in Grass Valley, but when my friend and I arrived to check in, it was no longer the hotel at which I had made the reservation and we no longer had a room for the night. To make matters worse, all the hotels in town were booked.  Why? Because the fair was going on that weekend. Not that month, but just that weekend (actually something like Thursday through Sunday).

My friend and I managed to find a room in town.  Because the air conditioning wasn’t working, we decided to go to—yes—the fair. Why not? After all, it was what everyone was doing.

I had my doubts. By this time, I hadn’t been to the LA County Fair in some years, at least on a regular basis, but the Grass Valley Fair wasn’t a hot, crowded mess. It was cool because the Nevada County Fairgrounds aren’t a barren blacktop, like here in Pomona, but pleasant grassy fields. What’s more, there are many tall pine trees, providing lots of natural, cool shade.

Maybe because it was only on for that one weekend, but it felt like something special. It felt like a real county fair—a country fair. It felt like a community gathering in a huge, nice backyard or on a pleasant field like the pie social in Oklahoma.

No doubt the rural nature of Nevada County also had something to do with it. Grass Valley isn’t much bigger than Claremont, and it’s a big town up there, miles from other towns with many farms that housed pigs and cows and offered canned goods to show off with pride. A fair with cows and pigs and canned goods makes more sense in such a place than in the bustling, concrete suburbs of LA.

As I travel up and down the state during the summer and see signs for other county fairs, as well as fairs like the Artichoke Festival in Castroville and the Broccoli Fair in Greenfield, often scheduled just for a single weekend, I imagine they are similar affairs.

The association that runs the LA County Fair and the fairgrounds insist that a significant part of its mission is agricultural. It argues that the fair provides a valuable opportunity for people, including children, in these suburbs to see live animals. This argument is shaky and laughable, considering that very little of the fair is devoted to animals—and how “live” is a pig stuck in a tiny pen anyway? In the past year, the association has been under investigation by various agencies for shady financial doings and using the fair as a cover.

It doesn’t help that in recent years (although no longer) when the fair isn’t taking place, the fairgrounds has been hosting raves, at which young people have died of drug overdoses. This headline news, as with the investigations, isn’t good PR. And it’s a far cry from the great experiences I’ve had in recent years going back to the Nevada County Fairgrounds to camp and attend the well-run and very pleasant California WorldFest, featuring an amazing array of bands and musicians from many countries. (Imagine camping at the Pomona fairgrounds!).

It looks like the days of getting free fair tickets are long gone, at least for me. Going to the fair isn’t cheap. Far from it. With it costing something like $18 just to get in—not to buy food, fried or not, and any number of other things—an annual pass to Disneyland may start to look like a pretty good deal.

But there’s an even better deal, I think, as I had on a recent Sunday at Pomona College. Getting to see a free concert, which included a new piece by resident composer Tom Flaherty featuring four people playing two pianos and two people playing toy pianos. Inspired by Stravinsky, the composition is called “Igor to Please.”

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