Food Feature: Round and round

We've been sitting on the Himalaya for about five minutes, waiting for it to start. The ride's grizzled operator is taking his time, doing what appears to be a rather crude safety check of the aging equipment, yanking hard on the restraining bar of every third or fourth car. He doesn't check ours.

The ride is full, mostly with teenagers hopped up on sugar bouncing in their seats, though a few younger kids, who obviously stood on their tiptoes to reach the height mandated by the official "You Must Be This Tall to Ride This Ride" placard, also wait anxiously for the Himalaya to do its thing.

All are momentarily terrified when squalls of bad heavy metal music (which may or may not have been Dokken), suddenly come bursting from the Himalaya's sound system at ear-bleeding volume. But I seem to be the only one who's actually nervous about the ride itself. It's not the safety of the Himalaya that concerns me (though perhaps it should), it's my weak stomach. I spent countless hours of my testosterone-heavy teenage years hunched over garbage cans at fairgrounds, after having proved my manhood on things called the Twister, the Corkscrew and Demon Drop. Around the age of 15 or so, I discovered alcohol and realized there were far more sophisticated ways of proving my manhood.

As such, this is my first trip to a fair in about 13 years. Almost nothing about them has changed. This particular fair is in the coastal town of Brunswick, Ga., but it could be just about anywhere. It could certainly pass quite easily for the Birmingham Fair, the carnival which, each spring, rumbled through the suburban Detroit enclave where I grew up.

It'd be fairly obvious to point out that the rides themselves — the Matterhorn, the Scrambler, the Zipper — are probably the exact same physical structures that were being toted around the country over a decade ago, but that can be chalked up to the presiding theory of carnival economics: If it ain't broke, don't fix it — and sometimes even if it is broke, don't bother. But how to explain the rest of the fair's retro chic?

The food selection (which ranged from funnel cakes and cotton candy to more nutritious treats like caramel apples and nachos) was untouched by the developing tastes of the American masses, tastes that have ensured that even relatively small Southern towns like Brunswick have a place where you can get sushi. The games were the same grifts (throw an oversized basketball into an undersized hoop, toss a plastic ring around a coke bottle, etc.) that for years have resulted in either spending upward of $30 to win a $3 stuffed animal or coming home with plastic bags full of goldfish that will be dead before morning. The carnival-goers themselves (overweight parents with their overweight kids, young teens roaming in packs, older teenage guys with their arms wrapped possessively around girlfriends) seemed like transplants from a place where acid-washed jeans never go out of style and Styx is still king.

It's as if this particular American amusement was frozen in a moment — in this case, May 12, 1985 — with only the most cosmetic of changes allowed since. For example, the choice object of derision at the fair circa 2001, as expressed through the populist medium of T-shirt slogans (both worn by patrons and sold by vendors), is now Osama bin Laden, just as it was Saddam Hussein a decade before and "the Commies" a decade before that.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. These sorts of fairs have always been a bastion of a particular brand of knee-jerk conservatism that engenders the belief that "Nuke 'Em!" is a legitimate and proportional response to almost all perceived foreign threats and "America: Love It or Leave It," is a reasonable domestic policy. It's not completely clear how this same brand of conservative thought also enables a middle-aged father to wear a shirt emblazoned with the words, "If You Can Read This, the Bitch Fell Off," while walking the fairgrounds with his wife and four children, but I have a feeling there's a connection.

If all this sounds rather dire, consider this: People were having fun. Amid the blur of bright lights, loud noises, nausea-inducing rides and teeth-rotting food were young kids running wildly toward the Funhouse, 13-year-old boys trying to convince their girlfriends to go for a "walk" in the woods, and parents, walking, talking and occasionally gazing up at the old-country Bavarian designs decorating the Tilt-A-Whirl and Ferris Wheel, content in the fact that some things don't change.

The Himalaya finally gets going. With the music blaring and lights flashing, it whips us round and round on the track, gradually picking up speed to the screaming delight of most of the passengers. After a half-dozen or so loops, I begin to feel the uneasiness in my stomach. With a few more laps, it grows to actual queasiness and, soon after, full-blown nausea. Round and round and round. I take a deep breath and then something strange happens. It passes. A few more times around and the ride slows to a stop. I wobble off unsteadily, and then move out of the way as a charge of kids behind me runs to get back in line.


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