Book Excerpt: The Fair

THE fair - Thank you, Mahopac Volunteer Fire Department

This is an excerpt from my memoir in progress. Happy 4th and happy summer!

“Round and round! Well love will find a way, just give it time!” blasted over the rides, the games, the roulette wheel and a thousand clipped conversations. We watched the train of cars woosh by, climb, circle, and pass by again. They always played Ratt on the Vortex. Ratt, Crue, Scorpions — anything hard and heavy. We waited on line, ears throbbing, just to hurtle around and around that circle, music and motion giving us chills and sending us back to do it all again. But that wasn’t the magic of the fair, just one of the perks. The real draw was that everyone went — everyone in town.

During the school year, we saw everyone every day, from junior high through high school. There were 383 kids in my graduating class – about the same for the other grades – but everybody still knew everybody. And everybody knew everybody’s business, at all times.

Summer separated us, though. Once school got out, we retreated to our respective lakes, confined to our neighborhoods, unless we were lucky enough to run into someone at 7-11 soliciting the over-21’s who’d help high school kids score beer.

We had two fairs – the Mahopac Falls Firemen’s Fair and the Mahopac Firemen’s Fair. The Falls fair came in June – usually during finals week. Everyone went anyway, our last farewell before a lonely summer. But the Mahopac Fair was THE fair. They held it in late July. By that time we were starved for gossip, and drama, and a glimpse of our one true love, who lived on another lake and didn’t even know our name.

We’d pass by the firehouse on the way to Caldor’s during the week, noting the activity and its progress.

The rides came folded on trucks, paint peeling, red and white light bulbs dark; waiting for the magic hour. The Ferris wheel, the Salt and Pepper Shaker, the Tilt-a-Whirl, all unfolded for us over several trips to Caldor’s or Shopwell. Sometimes they’d assemble a huge slide, in the back of the parking lot, tucked away, but we could see early in the week, when the rides were bowed in their metal frames. The slide took a few days for the carnies to finish. Every year, they’d put all of the rides in the same spots. We didn’t know how they remembered, but the fair always looked the same, unless some add-on ride like the slide surprised us.

The grill was just right of the front entrance – no accident – the smell of grilled peppers, onions and sausage lured kids and parents alike to check out the stand’s menu. The firemen themselves cooked the sausage and peppers, burgers and dogs. Their sign told us that every penny from food proceeds went directly to the fire department, as if we needed persuading. Sometimes 18-year-old seniors from school volunteered for the fire department. They got to look brave but they were the first to admit they did it for the beer. They told us that the firehouse had a soda machine that dispensed cold Budweisers and the older firemen looked the other way when they drank them. Lucky for us, we had our 7-Eleven connections.

Next to the grill was a tent with the car they’d raffle off. Adults would gather around and admire the shiny prize. We didn’t give a rat’s ass about the car. It was a boxy, adult car – better for Boca Raton than Mahopac. We said if we won it, we’d sell it and buy a nice Camaro or a Mustang.

Next to the fence separating the lot from the street were the game tents. Roulette for the adults, water-gun races, ring toss, milk jugs – they were all there. Once I won a goldfish and Mike, who I used to like in junior high, came up to me and said, “I’ll eat that for five bucks!”

“Eeew, no, I’m taking him home. His name’s Sparky.” Sparky was a floater the next day.

Then there were the rides. The Vortex, of course, the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Spider, the Round-Up, sometimes the Salt-and-Pepper-Shaker, and always the Ferris wheel. On the big slide, we’d climb up with a burlap sack (we never wondered where they got them) and we’d ride down on top of it.

Back behind the firehouse there were vendors with t-shirt decals and bandannas and a bunch of other stuff that appealed to our parents. That’s where they’d stroll, see and be seen. My parents never bought anything at the Fair. The vendors offered cheap household stuff. My mom wouldn’t buy anything without a name brand.

In direct contrast to school, where we dressed like miniature Manhattan models, high fashion at the fair had us in competing T-shirts, the more off-color, the better. We’d shop all year for the perfect fair shirt — not specifically, but we’d always keep an eye out for the most tasteless of T’s. A compliment on your shirt was a badge of honor, to be worn proudly through the night and ensuing weekend.

Sometimes the fair started Wednesday or Thursday, but those days were for little kids. Everyone who was anyone went Friday and Saturday night. You could ride the rides or shoot water at the clown’s mouth to blow up the balloon, try to knock down the silver milk jugs with a softball. You could eat. Firemen spend most of their time cooking for the guys in the firehouse so we knew their food was good. Beth’s family would go to the fair for dinner. Her mom couldn’t stop talking about the sausage and pepper sandwiches.

Our parents may have driven us to the fair but as soon as we got there, we split off and went separate ways. Sometimes we’d have them drop us off down the road, depending on how embarrassed we’d be to be seen with them. The adults went and got ice cream and took younger kids on rides but mostly they socialized with other parents they ran into.

We usually chauffeured one of my friends, so I wouldn’t have to walk into the fair alone. As soon as we got there, we’d take off for the ticket booth, get a long strip of tickets and head for the rides. On the way we’d cruise the game booths, check out the prizes, and note which denim-clad butts we could recognize from the back.

We’d get on line for the Vortex, chatting excitedly about who was here and who wasn’t. The blaring music ensured our privacy. Then we’d see a couple walk by – a new couple since the last day of school. Holding hands at the fair was a huge deal. It meant you were going out, no question. Going out was serious. You were committed. There was something called “seeing each other” at Mahopac, but it was more of a precursor to “going out.” You dated that one person, but seeing each other meant you weren’t quite serious. No one ever played the field at our school. That’s why it was such a big deal when a girl slept around. In Mahopac, a girl could date 50 guys in the course of her school career and sleep with all of them, without any repercussions. But if a girl slept with guys she wasn’t dating, even if there was only one, she was a slut.

In any case, the fair was THE social event of the season, and fair relationships sparked gossip, as well as envy, at least from me. I never had a fair relationship. The one time I had a boyfriend in high school, I went on a class trip to Spain during the Mahopac Fair. The other years, I focused all of my energy on finding out whether my latest crush would be there. Once I was there, Beth and I would walk around searching for those elusive crushes. We’d take time out for the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Ferris wheel – Beth always wanted to kiss a guy on the Ferris wheel. I don’t think she ever did.

I never got my kiss, either. I only had one boyfriend in high school, senior summer into senior year. But I went to the fairs. Year after year, we rode those death-trap rides, ate fresh-grilled sausage and pepper wedges, and trolled the crowd for gossip or love. When I remember Mahopac, I usually focus on the bad – the drugs, the sex, the alienation – but nothing can sully my memories of the fair. For a few days every summer, I felt what growing up in Mahopac was supposed to be – safe, innocent and idyllic. For those few days, I was just a normal kid, growing up in a small town, enjoying all it had to offer.

Book Excerpt: The Stick Game

That’s it! The gold glow rising from the green depths – my quarry. I hold my nose and jump in. I hear two more splashes behind me, but I’m the first one down. Where is it? All I can see is green. Oh, wait, there it is! I reach out, feel its smooth wood. Got it! Clutching it like the Olympic torch, my fist breaks the surface before I do, but everyone sees. I got the stick!

I swim around to the ladder, climb up on the dock, dripping on the turf rug, and we start again. This time I get to take it down. Hmm, dive or pin drop? Pin drops take you deeper. Standing at the edge of the dock, facing the beach, I hold the stick in one hand, plaster my hands to my thighs for optimum aquadynamics, and drop, pointing my toes straight down. I feel the bubbles around me and when the water feels coldest, I let go. I float up and hang on the dock, looking up at the row of expectant faces. I pull myself to the ladder and climb up. It’s my turn to watch.

Donna’s whole body twitches. She spots it, dives; a few more kids jump after her, and she’s got it. Donna’s the best swimmer in our lake. She always beat me when we raced on Family Day, and I always admired how strong and swift she was in the water. The lake goes right up to her backyard, so she swims all the time, without a lifeguard. We live across the street from the lake. My mom always tells my dad we should have gotten a house on the lake, and he says “Oh, Viki, please, you know how expensive that would be?” and waves her away.

Everyone goes to the beach anyway. We walk down the road in our flip-flops, rolling my big inner tube in front of us, past Donna’s house, past Karen’s, past the people who live next to the beach but never go. We see the whole neighborhood there, grownups and all. Donna and her sisters, Cynthia, Rob, Alison, Dan. Cathi and I get there and we wade to our knees and then jump into the cold. But it’s not cold for long, and with the sun warming our faces, it always feels good to be in the water. When my cousins visit and we take them down here, they blow air out their noses and say the lake smells. It does. It smells like lake. Green, cool, and wet. We like it.

And then we swim out to the dock and play The Stick Game. We use an ice cream stick or an Italian Ice spoon, someone takes it down, and we go after it. Whoever gets it takes it down next. We play all day, or until we hear the bells.

“Jing Jing! Jing Jing!” Everyone runs for the edge, the front of the dock dips almost to the water but then everyone dives in and heads toward the beach. White wakes can’t catch up with us as we race for shore. We ransack our pockets or beg our parents and run up the ramp to wait outside the white truck on the sizzling pavement. We’re pretty cool from swimming but sometimes someone will order a Bomb Pop, Fun Dip, Bottle Caps, a Snow Cone and a Chocolate Éclair and the water under our feet will get hot, burn off and then we all jump from foot to foot, waiting for our Toasted Almond or Strawberry Shortcake and candy.

One by one, we walk down the paved sandy ramp, hands clutching bundles of ice cream and candy, we sit on our towels to eat. No one swims while the ice cream man visits or for a half hour after, because we’ll get cramps and drown. That’s when the moms put their babies in the water, in front of the yellow rope with the blue and white floats. Sometimes the grownups swim then. My dad swims across the lake and back. But we all sit on the beach, in twos and threes, licking orange push ups until we see that plastic Fred Flintstone or Yogi Bear or bite the chocolate off Nutty Buddies as we drip dry.

When our ice cream’s gone, we open our candy. Candy doesn’t count toward our half hour out of the water, so we eat while we wait. I have a purple ring pop and Cathi’s got giant Sweet tarts – the chewy kind. Chews

“What days are you going to the fair?”

“I think Thursday and Saturday. My dad wants to go to the movies on Friday.”

“We’re going Saturday too. Maybe you can come with us.”

“I’ll ask.”

At the fair, it’ll be me and Cathi or me and Alison, Rob will walk around with his friends, Cynthia with the stuck-up pretty girls, Donna and Corinne with their sisters. Same thing at school, except for Donna and Corinne. They’re in different grades, so they split up at school.

Then our half hour’s over. One by one, two by two, we throw our trash in the can and head straight for the water. When we get to the dock, Rob says he had a cherry Italian Ice, so we’ve got a new stick, stained pink. Spoons are the best sticks — fat and easiest to see. It’s his stick, so he dives off the dock and takes it down.