Pleasanton Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - July 16, 2010

A profound romance with the Alameda County Fair

Pleasanton resident offers her reflections on annual rite

by Diane Farrell

I didn't expect to feel the way I do about our local county fair. I look forward to the three-week summer festival as I would anticipate the arrival of a long-lost best friend or my kids returning home from college.

It didn't start this way. Twelve years ago, bringing the family to the fair was a mixed experience at best. Happy kids and bored parents, riding ridiculous rides. Carnies shepherding tender children onto stomach-churning rides. Youngsters begging parents to play impossible games costing small fortunes to win stuffed animals worth $3.

But it grew on me. The kids aged, as did we parents, and the unique beauty, nostalgia and familiarity of the fair took root.

Where else can you go and find such comfortable diversity? The young, the old; all sizes and colors of human flesh. Gray-haired ponytails alongside shaved-head 5-year-olds. Baseball caps, cowboy hats and fedoras. Broomstick skirts, Hawaiian shirts and halter tops.

Where can you go and smell that special mix of fragrances ... grass and cotton candy, grilled meat and live animals, flowering plants and popcorn? Where else can you hear the sounds of squealing kids, bleating goats and the hawkers of wares? Where do you see the flashing colored lights of carnival rides and funnel cake stands, canopied trees swaying in the wind, and middle-school kids dueling with light sabers?

Where else can you experience the special flavors of carnival cuisine? The taste of soft frozen yogurt, grilled corn on the cob, and melt-in-your-mouth spun sugar. Slushie-style margaritas, weak enough for a pre-teen. Giant beers and fatty, foot-long corn dogs. Fresh fish tacos and hand-dipped caramel apples.

Where else can you hear top-quality musicians playing their hearts out to a half-filled bandstand? Moths hover above the players and disappear into the colored lights. During a smokin' rock concert, a toddler with her hairbrush microphone is belting out with unrestrained passion in uncanny time with the music. Her face contorts with seemingly genuine anguish, unlikely given her limited years on earth. A rock star in the making, she moves out into the crowd who wonders why they didn't bring their cameras so they could be the first to post the video on YouTube.

Where else can you move from rock concert to country band within four minutes, CD and T-shirt table alongside the stage? The band plays a truck-driving song while two youthful blondes ride a nearby mechanical bull, in time to the music and to the delight of every male from 18 to 85. You can't script this stuff. The band moves smoothly from truck-driving sound to Texan to Cajun, and the lead singer sets aside his guitar for accordion and then for harmonica. The fiddler is more gifted with his hands than a brain surgeon. Two fair-haired brothers perform break-dance, clog-dance moves with spectacular athleticism. An elderly Asian woman in mandarin-collared red blouse claps in time to the music.

Then it's off to the wine garden for a jazz-blues band, where 1-year-olds bop to the beat among the Arthur Murray-trained couples. Is there a more heartwarming sight than mother sashaying cheek to cheek with her baby beside the middle-aged couple swing dancing?

The fair. It's hip to call it a stay-cation these days. But it's much more than that to me.

It's where I entered and sold my first photograph. Where I saw favorite bands up close and where Barry Williams signed my purse. Where my kids grew from elementary school to too-cool-to- go. Where we've had the same guy dispense my frozen yogurt six years in a row. A place where my husband is regularly photographed in the winner's circle at the racetrack because he's been there so frequently he knows horse trainers and jockeys. He comes home, more often than not, with pockets full of cash and great stories.

The fair is where I can find hot tubs and model trains, fine art and hot sauce, rabbits and old tractor equipment. I know the layout like the back of my hand. I know where to park my car or I can walk if I'm in the mood for exercise.

This is no ordinary fair. It's my hometown fair and I watch it leave Pleasanton with emotions like those I feel when my kids go off to college. It's a bittersweet, poignant moment, but they'll be back. So will the fair and so will I.

-- Diane Farrell grew up attending the San Mateo County Fair. She has lived in Pleasanton going on 14 years and is director of the Career Resource Center at University of Pacific in Stockton.

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