We arrive just in time to catch the tail end of the Youth Talent Showcase, drawn through the maze of fried-food stalls and dim animal-smelling warehouses by a thin, brave warbling. The crowds are thronging already at this mid-morning hour, but the stands here are sparsely populated, just a handful of proud parents, coaches, other performers. We settle directly on the asphalt, taking refuge from the relentless sun in the shadow of the bleachers. After the warbler, there’s a modern dance routine, then a tap-dancing number, all glitter and jazz hands and jaunty fedora. These tweens in their sparkly spandex, shellacked hair, and bright lipstick, move through their routines with a determined, rhythmless industry. I guess they enjoy it, but it’s hard to tell. I glance at Ellie, who cried all the way through Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, something about the pure joy and innocence of it, but now they just grin and shrug.
Javier, meanwhile, has gone off for a cigarette, already mystified by this outing to the Great New York State Fair. Ndinda is texting frantically that she and Emma are hopelessly lost somewhere near the expo building. Meet us at Hollywood Racing Pigs, I text, Family Fun Zone. This is Ellie’s first State Fair and we’ve got lots to fit in. I feel almost panicked looking at the schedule—Rooster Crowing Contest! Little Shepherds! Butter Sculptures! Am I equal to the task of introducing my Australian sweetheart to this quintessential bit of Americana?
It’s not until we all convene at the pig-racing track that I realize we are, in fact, mostly non-American. Nicaraguan, Kenyan, Australian, and a dual Australian-American citizen. I’m the only plod-footed American-American veteran fair-goer, though Emma, whose family is from these parts, has actual heritage here; her great aunt won first prize for a chocolate cake recipe back in day. Or something like that. Among our merry band of five, we are also two people of color, four queers, four writers, and an academic. Not your typical fair crew, perhaps, but here we are, enthusiastically so.
We belly-up to the pig-racing track to watch swarthy swine in numbered blankets trundle their way around the course while an announcer narrates their progress—“Taylor Swine is in the lead, but Kim Kardashee-ham is gaining on the inside track!” She’s got a big, circus-hype kind of voice, and I wonder what path in life leads one to become a pig-racing announcer. Ndinda, who grew up on a farm and knows something about raising animals, wonders aloud, with some unease, how they make the pigs run.
In the next race, it’s Lindsay Lo-Ham, Harry Porker, Britney Spare-Ribs, and Donald Plump. “He’s been getting into a little trouble lately but I love him,” offers the announcer, unsolicited, “I voted for him.”
We raise our eyebrows at each other, and then throw our voices in for Lindsay Lo-Ham. The race is short and confusing—the pigs wear numbers, not names and we’ve been told to back away from the track to give the people in the bleachers “who were here early, twenty minutes early” a view. I turn to see the middle-aged, polo-shirted, pink-faced crowd cheering from the stands.
“And the winner is Donald Pluu—uump!”
We walk away, wondering whether the race was rigged.
“Maybe she’s being paid by Russia,” Emma offers, nodding toward the announcer. But no one really laughs. Ndinda, who is due to start, along with me and Javier, a teaching position at a cushy liberal arts college in a week, is anxiously awaiting her overdue visa, wondering how long she can get by without being paid, or how patient the college will be before finding a replacement for her position. In the news, we’re reading about how, amidst Trump’s more dramatic bids to deliver a Muslim immigration ban and build a wall along the Mexican border, new directives from the White House have slowed routine immigration processing to a gridlock, and record numbers of work visas are being denied. But we’re trying not to think about any of that right now. We’re trying to take a break, to have a day at the fair.
There are prize-winning vegetables to be appraised, rabbit-hopping contests to witness, and so many fried foods to sample. In the Goat, Llama, and Swine Barn, we moon over a sow collapsed on her side, nursing some half dozen perfect pink piglets, tails bouncing, quivering with the urgency of the effort. Mama looks to be in complete bliss, eyes closed, a contented almost-smile stretching her pig mouth.
“See, I told you they looked like breasts.” A man and his girlfriend have sidled up beside us. “I said they looked like breasts and you were like gross!” He’s whiney and dumbly superior and I hope his girlfriend breaks up with him. What do you think a breast is, dumbass. But I have to concede his point—they are rounded and plump, much more breast-like than a cow’s teats, say, and looking at them reminds me that I, too, am just an animal body. “Imagine having twelve breasts all down your front,” I say to Ellie, and we both shudder.
This animal intimacy is one of the strange joys of the fair for us urbanites. We’re little kids at the petting zoo again, cooing over baby goats, laughing at the plaintive cries of the sheep. When we enter the Dairy Cow Live Birthing Center, one of the cows is already in labor, a muddy bubble of amniotic sac popping in and out of her as she paces the pen.
We shuffle into the stands. Excitement grows and wanes as the bubble swells, then slips back in. She ambles and munches straw for a while, lies down with a moan, stands up again. This event feels like some obscene violation of privacy—and makes me wonder how we will be censured by some future, more enlightened humans—but I am completely, guiltily, riveted.
There are dairy workers in matching shirts everywhere, ready to answer our every question. “We all work in this industry. We all love this industry,” promises the emcee. Oh, so this is what this event is all about, I think, some sort of involved propaganda for the dairy industry.
Yes, the labor is induced, the emcee explains in response to an audience question, otherwise it would be impossible to assure three births a day for the course of the fair. No, the cows are not named, but numbered. But that does not mean the farmers do not love their cows, she assures us. Each cow has a unique personality, and some of these old farmers remember their cows from ten, twenty years ago, “like their own children.”
Methinks the lady doth protest too much. My bullshit detector is singing. Near the entrance, there’s a poster detailing the “sustainable” cycle of dairy production. I don’t read it, because I am trying to have fun, and I don’t want to spend four hours on the internet tonight googling “what is the most sustainable milk?”
We get bored after a while—one of the dairy workers tells us the birth could still take hours. Emma, Javier, and Ndinda head off to the circus tent but I’m not ready to give up yet. Ellie and I go in search of a snack, and when we return, Mama’s got two legs, still encased in a thick, brownish amniotic sac, protruding almost two feet out of her backside. We hurry back into the bleachers, eyes glued to the scene.
Mama paces and moans, collapses with a sigh, stands again, lies down, stands up, and then it happens astonishingly fast—baby slides out in one smooth go, skids onto to the straw-covered floor in her amniotic sac like some alien-bean delivered from a distant cosmos.
The emcee warned us not to cheer when baby emerged, to preserve the calm and quiet for the newborn, but the audience bursts into spontaneous applause anyway. It makes me laugh and love everyone, all of us surprised into delight, because despite the tent and the dairy workers and the induced labor, it is astonishing to see a new life tumble into this world, all bloody and blinking. Like, who ever knew that a cow came out like that? Who could imagine it?
A farmer has stepped in to make sure the calf can breathe, and now Mama is licking baby all over, dissolving, digesting the amniotic sac. Another cow in the pen noses in to help. They’re removing evidence of the new birth, explains the emcee, evidence that could endanger baby and herd in the wild. I imagine David Attenborough narrating this scene while predators circle, sweating in their t-shirts and clutching frozen lemonades.
Mama’s not yet finished licking off the amniotic sac when baby, impatient, heaves up on her back legs. She teeters there, wild-eyed and wide-legged, butt in the air, then collapses. She lies there, trembling and wet, while Mama finishes cleaning her off.
I’m trembling, too, worried about the fate of this baby born into a circus tent, wondering what she understands, whether she knows to fear us yet. How quickly do we learn our parts in the particular side-show we’re born into, mistaking tent walls for sky?
We leave just as the farmers are leading Mama away to be cleaned up—she’s got a bloody string of placenta like a giant dribble of snot hanging out of her. I’m worried this separation is for good, and I don’t want to know.
Feeling sort of wobbly, we step into the bright sun and meet our friends just emerging from the circus tent, where they’ve been watching a troupe of dogs in tutus parade around on hind legs.
It’s time to feed our own animal bodies. We buy nachos and fries and frozen cheesecake on a stick. Ellie gets a very phallic frozen banana dipped in chocolate and peanuts. I buy six-dollar fresh-squeezed lemonade from a booth in the shape of a lemon. We eat Mexican street-style corn covered in mayo and chili and cotija cheese, bending over to keep the drips from our clothes. We are spending with abandon, all money we don’t have, but it seems impossible to rein ourselves in. Impossible that a day at the fair would not include every gross passing-whim snack we can dream up.
We feel sick and lounge in the grass for a while, listening to a folksy family band play gentle Dylan covers. Javier, our post-colonialist, is reading the manifesto of some new internet religion and keeps saying “reality is a simulation” in a way that makes me unsure whether or not he’s joking. Ellie and Ndinda take naps on the grass, and I watch the crowd pass, counting the number of children I see with “Lost Kid” tags hanging from ponytails, backpack straps, buttons.
It takes me a while to realize that not all, or any, of the kids sporting these neon luggage-tag-shaped identifiers are actually lost. The tags are being distributed somewhere, and parents, moved by the fear, or the suggestion, that their kids might not only become lost but panicked, incoherent, unable to remember or articulate their own names or addresses, the names and phone numbers of their parents, are tagging their kids as they might tag their dogs. You never know what might happen at the fair. If reality is a simulation, it was a devious mind that dreamt up this jungle.
Eventually we rouse ourselves for the alligator show (Ellie has never seen an alligator!). The fair is ripe for all sorts of animal encounters, it seems. Somewhere along the way, we pass a giant tent selling Trump flags and MAGA shirts and we elbow each other and glance sideways but don’t move any closer. I know so few actual Trump supporters that it’s a bit of an anthropological curiosity to be so close to them, and I try to catch sidelong glances without being seen.
What I catch, instead, is a T-shirt on display reading: “If you don’t like Trump, you probably won’t like me, and I’m okay with that…” I’m simultaneously indignant and called out.
Today happens to be Pride Day at the fair, “Gay Day,” we’re calling it. It’s also Canadian Friendship Day. (Honorees on other “special fair days” include women, new Americans, law enforcement, Native Americans, beef, and grapes.) We all agreed to skip the flag-raising ceremony, gay choruses and the parade because we get to be gay every day, but not every day is a day at the fair; but now I start to notice, with silent gratitude, little round rainbow stickers I presume are being handed out at the pride booth somewhere. When we pass groups of youngsters with undercuts and pride patches hand-sewn onto their jean jackets, I want to give them high-fives and hugs; I’m starting to feel that perhaps there is something subversive about being gay at the fair after all.
As our American tour guide and the instigator of this outing, I’m nervous about what I’ve led us into. Sure—this is not Ohio, where activists have repeatedly tried and failed to ban the Confederate Flag from the fair, not the south of my youth where even my vegetarianism raised eyebrows when I ventured outside of my liberal Atlanta bubble. This is not cornfed Illinois, where David Foster Wallace, positioning himself as the skeptic East-Coaster on an ethnographic mission into the heartland, noted the aggressive whiteness of the state fair. This is solid-blue New York State. The Great New York State Fair!
But I’ve noticed the “Pan-African Village” on the map, the name a bit too reminiscent of the way indigenous people were trotted out as human zoos at the World Fairs and circuses of centuries past. I don’t know whether to warn Ndinda, who’s Kenyan, about a potentially racist encounter, or not to mention it, let her have a day at the fair.
Lately, I find myself more and more unsure of my ability to read the signs, to accurately interpret or predict the social and political landscape of this country. Growing up in the South, I knew the coded, and less coded, cues signaling racism, homophobia, or a general aggression toward the sort of hippie-liberal-elites my family represented. Confederate Flags are not subtle. I knew where to keep my head down. And I also knew that as a white girl, I could go almost anywhere without being harassed. I’d be sugar-pied and baby-girled by all the diner waitresses, no matter their race or political bent.
But my South was also diverse and complex. When college friends from the northeast or northwest visited and howled in fake fear about being shot if we turned around in a dirt driveway, I felt protective of the South that is so often a convenient scapegoat, shorthand for the violence and racism that have reared their heads more overtly throughout the country in recent years. At college improv shows, the “redneck,” “white trash,” butt-of-the-joke characters always had Southern accents.
But where I’d once countered their prejudice by claiming that it’s not like that, or it’s not like that everywhere, or promising to take them only to the “cool parts,” I no longer claim that any part of this country is “not like that.” I’m no longer sure that I know where I am, where I’ll be safe, or where my friends will be safe.
And in many ways, I feel more nervous, and more disoriented, here in Central New York than I ever did in the South, where at least the signs are overt. When my landlord introduced Ellie to his handyman as “Emily’s friend,” I wasn’t sure whether the omission revealed his own discomfort, or the need to protect us from the handyman’s homophobia. And when two women glared at Ndinda and I as we passed them in the farmer’s market smack-dab in the center of our college town, muttering “liberals” under their breath, I wasn’t sure whether their ire was brought on by my vintage Mondale/Ferraro t-shirt, my short, queer-ish haircut, Ndinda in her bright-patterned Kenyan jacket, or all of it. I’m more vigilant these days, but I don’t always know which direction I should be looking in.
What I don’t see at the fair today, though I definitely could have missed it—this place is vast—is a single booth selling pride flags, even on Gay Day. At the midway though, I see a t-shirt for sale reading “I’m not GAY,” with something else printed smaller beneath. It makes my stomach hurt a little, and I don’t go closer to read the rest because we’re waiting in line for the ferris wheel and I just want to kiss my sweetheart at the top like the kids do in all the movies.
After the rides—I’m nauseous from a spinny thing Ellie talked me into and Ndinda is elated by the thrill of the roller coaster—and a funnel cake shared in the grass, we decide we want to find the pride booth after all. We are sweaty and exhausted and sorely in need of vegetables, but we want stickers for our water bottles and office doors. Or maybe we just want to see that we are, in fact, welcomed here.
A woman at a fair info booth is apologetically vague, telling us she thinks she saw something off by the main stage, flapping a hand that way. We go in the direction she indicated, now looking for people with stickers. When we pass the Pan-African building, Emma says, “should we go in and see how wrong they got it?” Ndinda doesn’t say anything and we walk on.
We ask a security guard, consult our maps, cover what seems to be a great distance. Javier jokes that the gays have been ghettoized. It’s evening now, and maybe the booth has closed. Maybe we’re in entirely the wrong part of the fairgrounds. When we wind up near the exit the second time, we give up, spill onto the shuttle to the parking lot.
The next morning, I post a picture to Instagram—the midway beneath the most beautiful sunset, swirls of clouds lit mauve and gold, the silhouettes of the rides lacing the skyline. To take the picture, I’d lifted my phone above the heads of the people, the Trumpies and the queers and the rest, framed my perfect shot.
I hesitate before posting, feeling slightly dishonest about what I’ve left out. Within minutes, a Central New York tourism account likes the photo and comments “gorgeous!” Immediately, I feel queasy, my discomfort clarified; I’d wanted to claim a bit of innocent state-fair nostalgia for myself, but here I am complicit in upholding an ideal of a carefree politically neutral America that doesn’t exist.
But what do I say? That an endorsement of a pig named Donald Plump feels like hate speech to a group of internationals and queers?
Because I’d have to admit that I went to gawk, too. To gawk at rural America. To laugh at the hokeyness and serve it up as entertainment to my friends. I wanted to curate the perfect slice of fair life, cotton candy and romance on the midway, sheep-shearing contests and prize-winning pickles. To say look how cute and funny and wholesome. I wanted to be the watcher, not the watched.
And maybe I saw what I expected to see. Later, I look up the history, and learn that the Pan-African Village is actually the result of a push by local NAACP leaders to diversify the fair, providing representation and economic opportunity to the local African American community. And when I search the slogan on the t-shirt on the midway, I realize it probably read “I’m not GAY/ Just kidding.” Hackles already up, I’d misread tongue-in-cheek self-identification as homophobia.
But even now, my misimpression corrected, the slogan makes me uneasy. With its self-conscious, bait-and-switch aggression, it’s the gay equivalent of the Trumpie t-shirt: “If you don’t like Trump, you probably won’t like me, and I’m okay with that…” I am exactly who you think I am, the wearers of such t-shirts proclaim, self-objectifying. We make ourselves into spectacles for the other.
And so. But the sunset was spectacular. And I kissed Ellie at the top of the ferris wheel, anyway, swaying in our basket above the lights of the midway, above the dairy workers and the prize-winning quilters, the gay kids and the Trump voters, and all those not-yet-lost kids begging for another ride, another ice cream, another hour at the fair.
Emily Strasser is a Minneapolis-based writer. Her work as been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Colorado Review, Ploughshares, Catapult, and The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, among others, and twice been listed notable in Best American Essays. She was a 2018-2019 O’Connor Fellow in Creative Writing at Colgate University, and a 2019 McKnight Writing Fellow.