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Photograph by Eric Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

County Fair

By Eric A. Carlson

"All Happy, None Rich, None Poor."

--Anderson Valley Advertiser

ON THE NIGHT BEFORE SHAKING HANDS with a monkey at the Santa Clara County Fair, I stopped by Fourth Street Bowl to unleash the fury of my Jade Pearl Scout reactive-hulled bowling ball. An eerie calm befell me when I marked an X in the first two frames. It was a false positive. A soul-sucking 7-10 split brought me down to earth--like a rifle-butt to the head of a fledgling sparrow--and I began worrying about the rash on my arm, and the San Jose Redevelopment Agency's plan to firebomb downtown San Jose, and marriages dashed on the rocks. I should have been fretting over not having enough money for the fair.

The Santa Clara County Fair is an event that stretches back to the dark, dank, first rustlings of San Jose. In 1857, Antoine Delmas won a prize for "best grapes." Delmas Street in San Jose is named after this man, and the ephemeral "Lou's Living History Donut Museum" is there located--a story nigh unto itself. The fair petered out at some point before reviving in 1941. Lately it has struggled mightily to attract customers--in large part because of no free parking (see downtown San Jose) and obscenely high admission fees. Not everyone is comfortable with shelling out seven bucks to park and another $8.50 to get in the door. Multiply that by three kids, and a spouse, if so blessed, and the ordinary Joe is seriously ripped off before buying any cotton candy.

Beyond the savaging of your wallet, the fair is a splendid and glorious event. The mix of sullen shadow-spirit carnies, 4-H cherubim, farm animals, gut-wrenching rides and flea market booths is mysterious and satisfying. The sideshow element has diminished over the years. Once a staple, this year's geek exhibition consists of a two-headed snake and the World's Smallest Horse--billed at 27 pounds. I paid a dollar to see the diminutive equine--which appeared to be a pound or two over fighting weight. Dave X, the impresario, dutifully hammered a rusty nail up his own nose as a 200-pound African Rock Python curiously examined the crowd from a cardboard box.

Once upon a time, The Hell's Bells Museum set up in a yellow tent at the livestock area. Mme. X describes standing in sawdust, in 90-degree heat, to witness a succession of freaks appear from behind a red drape. First up was Fat Peggy--880 pounds of woman. Followed by a tattooed lady snake dancer doubling as a contortionist (so to speak). Then a Fire Eater. Then a man who jumped into broken glass. The extravaganza climaxing with a midget and some sword jugglers. Hell's Bells has not been at the fair since 1985. I would like to think they are performing somewhere.

In the livestock area, Lorie became intrigued by a sleeping pig. "This guy is really stackin' Zs!" she said, as she gamely pulled on the pig's hind leg. The pig snored on, unperturbed. And then we entered a sea of lambs. Jennifer Vickroy's lamb, Mickey, had just taken 4-H Grand Champion Market Lamb honors and I stopped to chat with her and her parents. Jon Vickroy described the benefits of the 4-H program, which include learning responsibility and caring for something other than yourself. Jennifer, 15, was well spoken and graciously allowed me to take her photograph with Mickey (a girl lamb named after Mickey Mouse) and ribbons galore. Jon, Cheryl and Jennifer are from Morgan Hill. Cheryl and Jon told me that buyers are crucial to the success of the 4-H program--so if you know how to bid for a lamb, please do so next time the fair is in town.

Steve Barbato and his Capuchin monkey, Jo-Jo, were entertaining on a dusty corner. When a dollar was held out to Jo-Jo, he would stuff it in his little pocket and then extend his hand. His fingers felt very tiny, like a parrot's talons.

Final note: I wonder how many children are ultimately excluded from this odd and educational event because of prohibitive parking and entrance fees.

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From the May 31-June 6, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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