I suppose most people have a story about something that happened at the fair. Usually it has to do with the consequences of eating too much fried dough and then riding something called “The Scrambler.” My favorite memory involves a different kind of carnival attraction.
The big fair is always a feast for the senses, gaudy, odoriferous and noisy in equal measures, but it was the quiet that attracted me to the trailer with “The Busy City” painted on the side. There was no one in line. The old man sitting by the door sold me a ticket and pointed me through a canvas curtain.
As I entered I could hear what sounded like someone shaking a pillowcase filled with wooden blocks. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dim interior light, but what I saw amazed me. The Busy City was actually that, a miniature town all carved from wood, jointed figures at a sawmill cutting the same log over and over, wash women hanging clothes, children riding bikes in circles, girls leaning out of windows waving to boys on the wooden street below. A cart was overturned in a ditch and every time the driver pushed it onto the road the swaybacked horse (who had broken free of his burden) would kick it back over. It was dazzlingly complex, all carefully made and painted by hand.
I noticed that one small portion of The Busy City was out of order, lifeless. I pondered this for a second, but how any of it worked was the greater mystery.
I also had no idea how much time I was entitled to for the price of a ticket, but no one else was there, so I lingered. Then I noticed another curtain to the side of the display pull back as an old woman looked out and gestured with her finger.
“Come,” she said. “Come and see.”
Of course I followed her behind the curtain and looked. She pointed into the heart of the mystery. The clockworks that ran The Busy City were a buzzing hive of wooden gears, escapements and pulleys. She gestured at the section that wasn’t moving and explained that the leather belts that operated the city would wear out and were hard to replace.
I left happy and returned a few times just to get to know the woman and her brother: the old man who sold me the ticket. I learned that their German father had built the device and left it to them as a legacy. They’d traveled with various circuses and fairs ever since. When the fair left town, so did they and that’s the last I ever heard of The Busy City.
For me, a trip to the fair is never about the livestock, the rides, the food or even the peculiar people you can watch while they watch you back. Ever since I peered behind the curtain of The Busy City, for me a fair is a place where mysteries are revealed and where memories are made.
So even if you don’t win the big plush toy, or take home a blue ribbon like our buddy Mike Morin did, you never leave the fair without something worth having.