The Broken Bus, Dead of Night, Gone to Prison Blues

by Taffy Cannon

A funny thing happened on the way to prison.

I awoke at four-thirty in the morning in Southern California’s Tejon Pass and discovered that the bus on which I was riding was no longer moving.

We seemed to be parked on the shoulder, as enormous semi-trucks whooshed by at dizzying speed, often shaking the bus as they hurtled north. The trucks passed in nearly-constant blurs of light and sound, sometimes edging left a bit but often remaining in the far-right lane. That’s the lane trucks habitually use to cross this notorious pass on Interstate 5 through the Tehachapi Mountains, known as the Grapevine. It’s the primary route between Northern and Southern California.

I sat up right away.

Eighteen-wheelers were passing what seemed like inches from my head, the head that had been sleeping peacefully on a pillow propped against the bus window. Okay, maybe not inches. They were probably passing feet away, though you wouldn’t need more than one hand to count how many. And maybe not sleeping peacefully, either. We were, after all, on a bus going to prison in the dead of night.

The other occupants of the bus were mostly the children of women incarcerated in the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, nearly 400 miles north of their San Diego homes. We were participating in the Get on the Bus annual Mother’s Day trip to briefly reunite these kids with their moms in prison. For many this would be their only visit of the year. I’ve written about Get on the Bus previously, and it’s a program dear to my heart. Started by nuns with a prison ministry, it focuses on the youngest and most forgotten victims of crime, children left behind when a lawbreaking mother winds up behind bars. At least one child on our bus had been born in prison.

Chowchilla is midway up the agricultural Central Valley and home to two major prisons, a company town where the product is Corrections. Chowchilla is also remembered as the site of a kidnaping of a busload of children in 1976 by three rich kids. A busload of children. Hmmm.

I’ve participated in Get on the Bus many times, but I’d been mildly queasy about this trip for several days, without any logical reason. Now I had a pretty good idea what had been bothering my subconscious. I could only hope that my earlier anxiety did not also include a next act in this drama, something like the bus exploding after being struck from behind by an eighteen-wheeler going 65 uphill.

What we were told by the bus drivers and what I could overhear was not reassuring. One of the alternators had gone out, they told us, and they hoped to get a push start from the tow truck they kept calling. The truck was taking its sweet time showing up and was based seven miles north, or maybe fifteen south. There might also be a bus that could come up from San Diego (or, ideally, someplace closer) if the push-start didn’t work, but there was no indication that alternate transportation was being arranged. It was all disturbingly vague and the semis just kept roaring by, shaking us over and over again.

Also, nobody seemed terribly sure where we were.

Three green-and-white highway signs stretched across the road too far ahead for any of us to read them, taunting with the prospect of civilization and help. My phone locator showed us just south of 138, the Lancaster Highway, and the general consensus seemed to be that we were somewhere around Gorman. Landmarks were no help, however, since it was pitch black except for the lights on the passing trucks.

It never occurred to me until much later that we might have stopped on the side of  a precipice, though I found it very disconcerting when we coasted downhill a bit to edge slightly farther onto the extremely narrow shoulder. But I did spend a lot of time figuring out the best and fastest way to get everybody off the bus in a hurry should we need to. Like when some trucker drifted absentmindedly and smashed a semi into the bus’s rear end.

Once the engine was going again, the drivers told us, we would get to Chowchilla with no trouble. Absolutely. Guaranteed. Furthermore, the braking system was entirely unaffected by this problem, so going down the far side of the pass—a much steeper grade than the incline where we were now stuck—would be no problem.

Time passed.

Mercifully unaware of our predicament, most of the kids on the bus slept soundly through it all. The adults accompanying them—mostly caretaker grandmothers—sat upright, wide awake and calm, with the dignified resignation of people who learned a long time ago that they have very little control over their lives.

More time passed.

The sun began to rise, briefly bathing the surrounding hills in soft rosy light. Alas, that soft rosy light revealed other issues that I hadn’t noticed when we boarded the bus at 1:30 am. The rest room, for instance. Previous travelers had crammed the toilet cavity full of tissue, so the toilet was unusable, though on the plus side it didn’t smell too bad. The rest of the bus was filthy and strewn with trash. When I pulled down my tray table, a wad of garbage fell out. And the seats themselves had basketball-like protuberances in the lumbar area.

We served the now-awakening passengers brown-bag breakfasts we had brought, and after a couple hours—yes! a couple of hours—the tow truck showed up. It was a pretty good-sized vehicle, but not remotely capable of pushing a bus full of people uphill, much less fast enough to push-start its engines. I’ve owned Volkswagens, and I know about push-starting. You want to be pointing downhill with a tail wind.

Once the mechanic began performing last rites on the engine, the official call for a replacement bus went out. Around then, we also learned that we weren’t the only Get on the Bus vehicle having engine trouble. Another one was broken down seven miles ahead of us. Or maybe fifteen behind. (You know, by the home base for the tow truck.) We plotted how to cram everybody into the replacement bus.

And where, you may be wondering, were the police during the three hours that this bus full of sleeping children teetered by the side of a mountain pass as the goods of America roared past to market?

The Highway Patrol, responsible for Interstate traffic in California, showed up just as the second bus arrived. Three hours after our abrupt stop.  It was never clear why they hadn’t come a whole lot sooner, or when they learned there was a broken-down bus filled with children and grandmothers in the Grapevine. That bus, come to think of it, had anonymous black windows and might well have been filled with cadres of terrorists.

When the replacement bus arrived, suddenly everything was all a-scurry. We emptied the dead bus down to the bottle of hand sanitizer we’d duct-taped to the wall of the nasty rest room, and transferred everything and everybody onto Bus #2. This bus turned out to be clean and comfortable, featured a working engine, and didn’t even need to be shared with the other broken-down bus passengers. I’m not sure what happened to them. Maybe they hitch-hiked.

Did I mention that it was raining on and off through the entire trip? At one point the wipers on Bus #2 shut themselves off during a torrential downpour, but Replacement Driver stopped for gas and made a mechanical adjustment to the wipers, which behaved for the rest of the trip.

*****

Our prison visit was the customary fusion of heartwarming and heartbreaking.

Our group of volunteers had originally been slated to arrive first and was assigned to take informal group portraits as mementos for both inmates and family. We actually arrived last, but slid into the second shift of the photo booth operation. I shot dozens of pictures against two backdrops that tantalized with desert and garden scenes unknown here behind the miles of razor wire, and I loved every minute of it. These pictures would be all that remained at day’s end—sometimes posed seriously, sometimes clowning, always brimming with an agonizing blend of joy and loss.

And then it was time to leave, as always too soon. We boarded the bus and headed south into our own realities while the mothers we had visited were strip-searched and locked back in their cells.

*****

We stopped for a fast-food dinner just north of the Grapevine, and I noticed that southbound traffic appeared sluggish as it began the climb. Still, it was Friday afternoon and I’d just learned that even Fresno has rush hour traffic, so I didn’t pay too much attention as I turned my phone on for the first time since sunrise.

I stopped cold at a Google News headline announcing that the Grapevine had been closed mid-day in both directions, following a flash flood and mudslide. Flash flood! Mudslide! Two more potential problems I’d never thought of in the dead of night as we waited for the tow truck and the bus and the Highway Patrol and maybe also Godot.

But by now we were back on I-5 and climbing, albeit slowly. And if we were going to be detoured off the Interstate there wasn’t much we could do about it anyway.

The northbound lanes across the median were eerily empty, with occasional maintenance vehicles pushing around rocks and debris, and stretches showing giant wet brush marks on the pavement where previous work was complete. Up ahead, we saw northbound traffic being routed off the road at Highway 138, the same Lancaster Highway exit near where we’d stopped fifteen hours earlier.

Moments after we passed the first of the stalled northbound traffic waiting to head out onto its lengthy high desert detour, the bus driver turned and pointed.

“That’s your bus over there,” he said. And by golly, it was.

It’s been almost two weeks now. I hope somebody has finally gotten around to moving it, or at least to checking it for terrorists.

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Outed

by Taffy Cannon

I have been outed by the Danbury Mint.

I have no idea how this happened, but one day last week a remarkable piece of advertising arrived in my USPS mailbox. It is far too slick to be called junk mail, and it is personalized beyond all reason.

The necklace it offers is called “Forever Together.” This 14K gold-plated, heart-shaped pendant features both partner names and Swarovski crystals to identify their birthstones. A sprinkling of diamonds tops the heart and an “elegant” storage pouch is included for only $69 plus shipping.

Names are involved, indeed integral. This mailer is personalized to identify the two halves of the heart as “Amy” and “Taffy.” The copy begins: “From the moment you first met her, you knew you were destined for each other. Express the depth of your eternal bond with a pendant that truly celebrates your love. A gift that says Taffy and Amy will be … Forever Together.”

They’ve even gone to the trouble of writing in our names on the order form in tidy printing worthy of a 1950s grade school teacher. Both names appear at least ten times on the supporting letter and order form and flyer, which suggests on the address page: “Taffy, Give Amy a gift she’ll remember forever!”

Amy & Taffy.jpgIt’s a lovely sentiment, and the Danbury Mint is to be congratulated on being so in touch with the times. There’s only one small problem.

Amy is my cat.

Yes, we are close, and I love her dearly. And all that sparkly stuff would undoubtedly be gorgeous against her sleek black fur. I’m even pretty sure that, as the letter suggests, “Amy will surely be delighted by such a unique and thoughtful gesture.”

However, this is a girl who climbs trees and removed her post-hysterectomy cone of shame in exactly fourteen seconds. A pendant on an eighteen-inch chain—what could possibly go wrong? And how do we explain all this to Rebecca, the other participant in our ménage a trois?

Or to my husband, with whom I just celebrated 42 years of marriage?

I didn’t ask for any of this. I have never purchased anything from the Danbury Mint and have no idea how they got on to me and Amy. Are operatives lurking outside my bedroom window?

I don’t even want to think about what kind of solicitations may follow.Amy by Ditty

 

The Mystery Class of ’93

by Taffy Cannon

If you are known for the company you keep, then the 1993 publication of my first mystery, A Pocketful of Karma, puts me in the mystery world’s master class. At this point in my life I’ve had a lot of different peer groups, but none quite like the group of talented women whose first mysteries were also published that year.

Every one of these authors has developed an extensive and international following. Their work highlights specific areas of expertise – medievalism, law, forensics, and much, much more. Most have written series with the occasional stand-alone, some have produced more than one series or have interrelated characters in a single location.

Location is critical to all, of course, and generally a character in its own right. The other more traditional characters are splendid and multidimensional. If it’s possible to find any fault with this sisterhood, it’s that they can’t produce as many books as we might wish for.

Most of these women have won major awards in the mystery community, and the awards year when they competed against each other (and against me, as well!) for Best First Novel may have been the most star-studded in mystery history.

These are the women with whom I made my mystery debut in 1993, and the first novels for which they were acclaimed:

Nevada Barr, Track of the Cat
Jan Burke, Good Night, Irene
Deborah Crombie, A Share in Death
Laurie R. King, A Grave Talent
Sharan Newman, Death Comes as Epiphany
Abigail Padgett, Child of Silence
Lisa Scottoline, Everywhere That Mary Went

Proud to be among you. It was a very good year.

The Golden Age of Mystery Bookstores

by Taffy Cannon

Part of the magic of any Golden Age is that while you’re in the middle of it, you tend not to recognize just how remarkable it is. So it was with the Golden Age of Mystery Bookstores, which flourished through the 1990s and early 2000s.

The first mystery bookstore in the country was Murder Ink in New York, which Dilys Winn opened in 1972 with a stunning concept: all mysteries, all the time. Over the next couple of decades, the ranks grew as bookstores opened and thrived from San Diego to New England and Seattle to Miami. By the time my own first mystery was published in 1993, a wide and wonderful network supported both mystery writers and fans from coast to coast.

Almost every major city had at least one, and major metropolitan areas often featured several. The Los Angeles area had so many that at any given moment you might need both hands and a spare foot to keep track. Each served a particular community or geographical area. Book ‘Em was in Pasadena, The Mystery Bookstore in West LA, The Mystery Annex in Venice, Mysteries to Die For in Thousand Oaks, Book Carnival in Orange, Grounds for Murder and Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego. Lots of others came and went in other neighborhoods, sometimes so quickly that a place might open and close between my own publication dates.

These stores’ mystery-related names were more clever than wince-worthy. Accessories to Murder. Aunt Agatha’s. Black Orchid. Booked for Murder. Big Sleep Books. Capital Crimes. Clues Unlimited. Deadly Passions. Foul Play. Grave Matters. Murder by the Book. Mystery Loves Company. Once Upon a Crime. Partners & Crime. The Raven. Remember the Alibi. Scotland Yard. Whodunit?

Most stores developed special programs to accommodate the interests and desires of their customers: discussion groups, seminars, books of the month, teas, newsletters. Those newsletters also served as major pre-Internet sales tools, and I loved to find the ones from Rue Morgue and Poisoned Pen in my mailbox. They’d let me know which new books were out, who was new and exciting, and what was going to be published soon.

Sometimes they even included nice reviews of my own books.

 

Book signing schedules were grueling in those olden times, and not just because being charming in public requires an entirely different skill set from writing.

It was not uncommon for an author in SoCal to visit three mystery bookstores in a single, exhausting day, and those three were likely to be scattered all over the place. New York publicists unfamiliar with Southern California geography had a tendency to schedule back-to-back crosstown signings that would barely have been possible if they’d also provided a helicopter.

Most of us weren’t working with publicists, however, at least not as much as we might have liked. Most of us couldn’t even get our alleged publicists to return phone calls. So authors bore the primary responsibility for scheduling their own signings, and a newby quickly got to know local booksellers, their stores, and their foibles. It was expected that you would sign at all the reasonably convenient bookstores, promote those signings, and do it all on your own nickel.

Before the Internet, publicizing a new book included hundreds of postcards sent with each and every publication to mystery booksellers, indies with strong mystery sections, and everyone you had ever known in your life. These cards were also handy to announce signing schedules.

Sisters in Crime offered mailing lists, published the member-written Shameless Promotion for Brazen Hussies, and provided a connection to a Virginia printer who could set you up with the requisite piles of paper: bookmarks, flyers, postcards, posters, and more. He’d also handle addressing and bulk mailing, though most of us did the clerical work ourselves. By the time I got off this particular train, my mailing list was in Access and my tongue always tasted like stamps.

 

The stereotypical mystery bookseller was a lady of a certain age who loved to read, fully intended to learn more about business one of these days, and had a cat named Agatha sunning in the window. The reality, of course, was far more complicated and eclectic, and might be a burly male with a shop heavy on private eye books or the preternaturally savvy Barbara Peters, whose Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale fairly reeked successful business methods. The common denominator, of course, was always a passion for crime fiction.

These stores succeeded for a long time because of the symbiotic relationships between booksellers, authors, and readers. If you loved mysteries, you were finding a home, a place you might not have even imagined possible. Here you could find all your favorite authors and every book they’d ever written, along with new authors you might not have discovered if an informed bookseller hadn’t told you about them. These people knew their stock, and recognized that if you liked Ellis Peters, you’d want to read Sharan Newman.

Any weekend in America, dozens of mystery bookstores featured signings of new books attended by fans eager to buy those books and meet their authors in person. The format was generally the same: a brief author chat, questions from the audience, signing and schmoozing. The bookseller was almost invariably gracious—hovering, asking questions when the audience was shy, making conversation when things were slow.

Most stores had a group of regulars, and many authors had dedicated followers who’d arrive with bags full of multiple copies. I always liked to set up signings with one or two other writers. This would bring out more people, cross-pollinate fan bases, and give me somebody to talk to if nobody showed up. Often there were cookies, and frequently parting gifts as well: mugs, pens, paperweights, keychains, magnifying glasses.

Sometimes real life intersected with fiction. I once did a signing at The Mystery Bookstore in LA with Anne Perry, right after the story of her unfortunate teenage brush with firsthand crime became public knowledge. Her line snaked out of the store, and she was fantastically gracious to supportive fans, even when she had to repeatedly correct them about the name of the movie which had outed her own indiscretion. Meanwhile James Ellroy, the son of a murder victim, waited in the back room wafting testosterone. His signing would immediately follow ours. I remember him having a bull terrier at his side, though I’m pretty sure he didn’t.

You quickly learned that when people started drifting into a store during your signing and positioned themselves around the back walls, it wasn’t because the parking lot was really full or they were late. It was because you were the two o’clock, with Michael Connelly up at three.

 

Any time you traveled anywhere, you’d try to work in signings at whatever mystery bookstores were local or within striking distance. This had some tax implications but mostly was just smart business.

You’d get to spend time with the local bookseller, meet the local mystery community, get your name in the Books column of the local newspaper, and feel like a star as you met loyal readers who urged you to write faster. Sometimes if you hadn’t signed previously at a store or in a town, folks would turn up with piles of backlist books that had been purchased when you and your pen weren’t handy. Books ordered by customers who couldn’t make it needed to be signed, along with whatever stock remained unsold when things wound down.

It should be noted that in this signing-crazy era, many chain bookstores were also good about scheduling signings for local authors. These events featured more inquiries about restroom locations than actual book sales, though they did get your name in the paper. But they lacked the personal touch of the mystery bookstores, plunking a writer at a small table near the mall entrance, alone for two hours with a Dixie cup of water.

Sometimes they even got the basic facts wrong. I once arrived at a chain store signing for Tangled Roots to find a 24×36 poster announcing that Taffy Cannon would be signing Tangled Books.

 

The mystery fan convention scene was fairly limited during the Golden Age of Mystery Bookstores. Mostly Bouchercon, Malice Domestic, and the upstart Left Coast Crime, with an occasional one-off for private eye authors and fans.

Each con featured an enormous book room packed with bookseller booths. All the local and regional mystery bookstores would be represented of course, along with faraway folks like Rue Morgue’s Tom and Enid Schantz, who routinely loaded stock into their van in Boulder and traveled great distances to cons around the country. Used, antiquarian, and out-of-print books were also available from specialty ooksellers who segued from paper catalogs to websites as the Internet grew.

Conventions were a great opportunity to meet booksellers from areas where you didn’t have travel plans or relatives, though this required a level of social energy that was often difficult to muster. Luckily I persevered. A lot of booksellers I met in the early 1990s remain my friends today, though we mostly see each other on Facebook.

Those convention book rooms bustled with activity and customers, and I was stunned to see how tiny and empty the 2014 Bouchercon book room seemed by comparison. Even more shocking was the realization that Maryelizabeth Hart and Mysterious Galaxy dominated the center of the room, the only participating brick-and-mortar retail operation.

 

The Golden Age of Mystery Bookstores, with its nonstop signing schedules and perpetual promotion, was stressful, exhausting, time-consuming, demoralizing, and exhilarating.

It was also doomed.

First the big chain bookstores muscled onto the scene, targeting independent booksellers who had proven that a market for readers with coins in their jeans existed in a particular area. Sometimes these big boys would also crowd each other out of an area, though by the time that happened, most of the indies had already been driven out of business. This included a lot of independent bookstores which featured strong mystery sections and sponsored regular mystery author signings.

The mystery bookstores mostly survived this shakeout because they were too small to be seen as threatening and their customer bases remained solid and loyal. Also, these stores could still bring in internationally acclaimed mystery writers to meet their customers, on a fairly regular basis.

Then the Internet arrived and moved in everywhere, whether or not it was invited.

We will skip most of the relevant history that features Amazon.com, save to note that discounts available online were simply never possible for mystery bookstores. Mystery bookstores began to close. Some lasted longer than others, and many became online only. A few are still in existence.

Twenty eight mystery bookstores remain today, according to the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. http://www.mysterybooksellers.com/member-directory/ I remember nineteen of them, and signed at six.

And I guess this is an appropriate spot for full disclosure. I actually closed several of those Golden Age mystery bookstores myself, along with a small indy or two. I was the first and only author to sign at a coffee and books shop that didn’t make it six months. Mostly, though, I attended going-out-of-business events with other authors. These tended to resemble subdued Irish wakes.

It never felt like an event to me when a mystery bookstore closed, however. It always felt like a knife in the heart.

New Word Needed: Fear of Running Out of Books

by Taffy Cannon

For a recent overnight visit to a town three hours from my home, I packed a history book I’m using for background reference, a mystery by a writer I haven’t yet read, and three re-issued paperbacks of a series I enjoyed 45 years ago. I also brought two current magazines and the L.A. Times, which I hadn’t read because I was busy making book choices. I did not bring my Kindle, which made me a little nervous.

I suffer from a phobia I was surprised to learn has no name: the fear of running out of books. Its corollary is fear of not having enough to read.

Plenty of other phobias have names. There are at least four different names for fear of cats. Scriptophobia is fear of writing in public. Koumpounophobia is fear of buttons. Halitophobia is fear of bad breath. Ranidaphobia is fear of frogs. Melissophobia is fear of bees. Pogonophobia is fear of beards. Syngenesophobia is fear of relatives. Nomophobia is fear of being out of mobile phone contact. Arachibutyrophobia is fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth. Phobophobia is fear of fear itself.

And let’s not forget that perennial favorite: coulrophobia, the fear of clowns.

So why am I left out?

Nomenclature is tricky when you work with a negative: fear of not having something. Obviously bibliophobia is not the problem, and anti-bibliophobia lacks pizazz.

I know I’m not alone. My friends round the country with bulging, double-tiered bookshelves and boxed faves in the basement and Kindles loaded with freeby classics just in case are fellow … fellow what? Not sufferers, surely, because we’re plenty happy except when the shelves need to be thinned.

We have TBR piles toppling in corners, and stacks of magazines, and current bestsellers on reserve at the library, and paperback editions of favorites for travel. For an intermittent, non-writing job in Texas at a home full of wonderful books, I always bring the Kindle, half a dozen current titles and my carryon paperback of Lonesome Dove, in case we get stuck on the tarmac somewhere.

I confess that I’ve only turned to Lonesome Dove once in all its travels, but I felt mighty smug that I had it when I needed it. Okay, maybe “needed” should be in quotes.

We who fear not having enough books lack a name, a shared identity that might lead to a secret nod or wink or handshake. Perhaps you the reader can help with this one.

Because while we may be individually adrift at the moment together we are mighty enough to build a fortress out of our aggregated libraries. That fortress can have no moat, of course, because we also share a fear of damaging the books we don’t want to run out of.

I don’t want to be cured. I’m sure I can stop any time I want to. I’d just like a name.

Take Me to the Fair

by Taffy Cannon

I started with the biggest in the nation, the Texas State Fair. Big Tex

I’d seen this fair on the silver screen, as it happened, when Ann-Margret starred in the remake of State Fair in 1961. On the last day of school, I took the Rock Island to downtown Chicago, where the star herself was attending the premiere on State Street at one of the Loop’s grand old movie palaces. She was the first movie star I’d ever seen, surprisingly tiny with flaming red hair. I thought the movie was wonderful, and even managed to believe this hot young performer would be smitten with Pat Boone.

When we moved to Dallas in the mid-70s, I was delighted to discover that the Texas State Fair was held right there, in a huge Art Deco park built for the 1936 Texas Centennial, Depression be damned. Here the Fair events were overseen by Big Tex, a man of few words repeated endlessly. From his size 96 boots to his 75 gallon hat, the 52-foot-tall Big Tex was actually kind of creepy, with a hard-chiseled face that made his previous incarnation as a Santa Claus seem almost impossible to believe.

Big Tex burns[Big Tex turned out to be a bad boy of the James Dean/Jett Rink school. He was smoking behind the barn one night in 2012 and burned himself up, sixty years after he first arrived at the fair. His inevitable replacement, Big Tex 2.0, is even larger: three feet taller, twenty gallons more to the hat, etc. etc.]

When I first visited the Texas State Fair, I was fascinated by the exhibits. No product was too minor or obscure not to merit its own state-sponsored booth. Beef, pork, and pecans, of course. But Mohair goats? Who knew? I’d made half a dozen mohair sweaters by then, without ever giving a moment’s thought to where that filmy yarn came from.

And then there were the FFA (Future Farmers of America) and 4H (Head, Heart, Hands, Health) entrants in the livestock competitions.

Livestock is a major matter in Texas, and these kids were damned serious about their animals. I watched in fascination as they teased and hair-sprayed cattle tails into puffy concoctions that looked a lot like the hairdos on their mothers. Their sheep, meanwhile, wore snug-fitting coveralls and terrorist masks to avoid getting dirty before judging, sheep having a tendency to roll in anything that might be on the ground in their pens.

Other competitions came to symbolize fair culture for me, particularly the pride of craftsmanship in culinary and needlework projects. (In the State Fair movie, success seemed dependent on adding vast quantities of hooch to the mincemeat.) I was pretty sure I could compete in some of those events, though the mechanics of entering were always a little fuzzy.

I was hooked on Going to the Fair. How had I come so far in life without having ever attended one? Pretty easily, actually. I grew up in Chicago. I defy anybody to say “Cook County Fair” without at least a snicker.

The next year I went out to Fair Park a couple days before the Fair opened, thinking I’d sell an article about this wacky event to some New York magazine, even though New York magazines were seriously disinterested in my work.

I met a kid named Joey as I walked around, and he offered me a job.

Joey was a carny, with a two-booth operation selling carnival jewelry. I decided on the spot that there was no reason not to do this, which would provide all sorts of interesting material and pay me a little at the same time.

Very little, actually. I talked myself up to $2 an hour, an executive wage in the carnival business back then. I also insisted on being paid daily, which they were reluctant to do because unless you owe your underpaid help money, they have a tendency not to show up.

Perhaps my lowest moment in the hiring process came when Joey’s coworker, who would be my boss on the Midway, asked if I could make change.

“I have a master’s degree,” I told her, a trifle insulted.

“Yes,” she said, “but can you make change?”

The booth where I worked was at the heart of the Midway, between Big Bertha the Fat Lady and the Freak Show, a collection of ten physical anomalies. Loudspeakers touting both ran constantly, though I mostly remember hearing about the Human Blockhead, who drove nails into his head. After about the six hundredth time I heard that recording, I wanted to do the same.

The specialty of our operation was metal pendants and bracelets with your name engraved for free. I am here to tell you that you get what you pay for, though I was never entrusted with that task, being busy making change. It was hard work, this carny business, and I went home exhausted every night.

My favorite of our wares was the Half-Eaten Food Collection, from which I purchased two items: a marshmallow cookie with a bite out of it and a heavy metal apple core, very realistically painted. That apple core, which came on a lengthy leather thong, would make a very effective lethal weapon.

I still have both pieces of jewelry. You just never know.268

When we moved to Los Angeles, I figured my fair days were over, but we discovered that there was in fact an LA County Fair in the eastern part of the county. There was no icon comparable to Big Tex, no Big Marilyn or Big Sinatra. You probably wouldn’t have been able to see their heads through the smog anyway. The thick September air not only obscured the nearby mountains, but seemed to hang in palpable chunks on the fairgrounds.

There were plenty of Home Arts exhibits and competitions, which I always thought I should enter and never did. Radio host Dr. Laura Schlesinger won a lot of ribbons for sweaters with complicated patterns and designs. This conflicted me a bit, since she made these on knitting machines, which somehow felt like cheating.

Still, most of the people at the LA County Fair—particularly in the home and livestock events—were very different from those in the beach towns and celebrity enclaves of the western part of the county. Here jeans were clothing, not a fashion statement, and nobody had to lie down and writhe in order to get them on. Kids had a wholesome look, and they too were spraying and ratting the hair on their heifers’ tails, just like their cousins fifteen hundred miles east in Texas.

I never much took to the LA County fair, which among other problems required hours of unpleasant travel across the entire width of the county, right through downtown LA. After a couple of years, we stopped going.

But then we got lucky, and found the Ventura County Fair. On the coast northwest of LA, this fair was probably no closer to our place in Venice, but there was much less traffic and the scenery didn’t involve backed-up underpasses or eighteen-wheelers.

Compared to Texas and LA, this was a tiny little fair, but by then we had a small child and the reduced size was perfect, helping to provide a far more charming experience. My two-year-old daughter ran gleefully around the barns in a pink romper and we discovered the Swifty Swine piglet races, for which I still retain a soft spot. Once again I felt a yearning to compete in Home Arts, though here I had the excuse of nonresidency to cover my failure to enter.

I don’t go to the Fair every year any more. Some years it just doesn’t fit the rest of my life, and my local fair seems huge because it is, seventh largest in the nation. (Texas remains #1 and Los Angeles is a surprising #6.)

The San Diego County Fair renamed itself from Del Mar Fair a few years ago for reasons that were never clear. “Del Mar Fair” sounds more sophisticated, even mildly exotic—but perhaps that’s the problem. Sophistication isn’t really on the agenda at the Fair, which this year featured $20 barbecued turkey legs, each swaddled in a full pound of bacon.266

The San Diego County Fair sponsored a lot of the same kind of Home Arts competitions I’d seen elsewhere, and I still kept telling myself I should be entering. I still never did, though the urge grew stronger when I discovered the Collections competitions.

Many were straightforward collections of similar items: tickets to musicals, Pez dispensers, shot glasses, Barbie dolls, coins and stamps, doilies, bakelite purses, Wheaties boxes with famous people on them. Others were more whimsical: a year’s worth of junk mail or dryer lint. The ones from kids were always fun: My Little Ponys, Happy Meal toys, dump trucks, Big Bird in every incarnation, trolls, things found on walks.

I began to notice certain entrants whose names were all over the competitions and collections, including a home-schooled family from a neighboring town entered in multiple categories. They were forever trimming Christmas trees, setting special occasion tables, making jams and cookies, decorating cakes, and collecting, collecting, collecting. I confess I found this overachieving household a bit annoying, though I later got to know the entire family and liked them very much.

After Texas, I never went back to a Midway. I don’t like thrill rides and had met enough carnies to be a little uneasy about maintenance anyway. Nor do I eat much Fair food, particularly of the deep-fried-Snickers variety. But there’s plenty else to see.

I like to start with the garden exhibits, which in recent years have leaned heavily toward xeriscaping and succulents as California slogs through its current drought. Floriculture was once a major industry in this frost-free region, and people still grow plenty of amazing flowers here. These are displayed by the dozens in single-stem vases, and I am always intrigued at the notion of timing rose-pruning to produce a major bloom on a certain date. I am generally grateful if I get everything pruned, period. Of course I always think I’m going to enter some of those competitions, though I never do.261

I also love to visit the Gem Show, paying regular homage to a collection of rocks and minerals that so closely resemble food that they used to be set up on a full dinner table. Gems are right next to the Woodworking exhibits, which are also extraordinary, and invariably feature at least one exquisitely crafted surfboard.

I am sad to see that the Collections competitions have diminished in recent years, and a year ago I vowed to finally enter my political memorabilia. Besides plenty of great buttons and bumper stickers, I’ve got a life-sized blowup bust of Ronald Reagan. Put him in a Pat Buchanan t-shirt with a Governator cap, and how could I possibly go wrong?

Yep, this was definitely going to be the year. I even subscribed to Fair emails so I wouldn’t miss any deadlines. And then my daughter scheduled her wedding for the mandatory setup day.

I’ll do it next year, for sure.