Fair be hell: Fat men in tight shirts, a demolition derby, and a two-headed calf
by Summer Burkes

“Dilettante” column originally published at the turn of the century on 06.30.1998 in the SF Bay Guardian. Re-intro July 2018 here.


THE COUNTY FAIR in America is an exercise in modern anthropology — a place where some of the most boring people on the planet gather to have fun for the day. Being from the notoriously undereducated South, I wasn’t sure that this lowest-common-denominator phenomenon was congruent to events out here in Cali, but it is — primary objectives of the fair, any fair, for the large portion of attendees (breeders raising kids away from urban and cultural centers in a relatively sterile environment) are universal.

and the rides! yee haw

and the rides! yee haw

They pump themselves full of sugar and grease, flaunt the entertainment prowess of their children to their peers in lengthy talent shows, compete for ugly toys, leer at smelly animals, and scare themselves half to death with creaky rides and fake-dank haunted houses.

The only basic difference between the county fair here and in Tennessee is the number of patrons’ teeth (more) and bad haircuts (fewer), but since this is the weirdo state, I was able to see a lot of firsts: a human cannon; a pig the size of a killer whale; a sword swallower who pushed a six-inch nail up his nose; a live, dilapidated, yellow-toothed camel; an awfully cute Frisbee dog show; a (dead) two-headed calf; an egg roll on a stick; and something my Southern ass should’ve seen a long time ago — the demolition derby.

especially the Zipper, squee

especially the Zipper, squee

The walkway of the Alameda County Fair grandstand before the derby is peppered with souped-up hot rods and T-model cars. People mill around them, touching only the ones with “please do not touch” signs pasted in the windshields. Outside, the field serves as a massive horse-racing track and low-rent golf course, and an oval section of the lawn has been barricaded with cement freeway barriers and stripped of its sod to reveal the brown mud beneath.

A harmless blues band plays harmless blues covers as fat men in tight shirts, mall-haired women smoking cigarettes longer than dollar bills, and surprisingly sedate children find their seats. One of the things I’ve feared since childhood, a man in a stuffed suit representing some cartoon character (who are those people?), appears after the blues band to rap some songs ripped straight from Cibo Matto’s sampler in a creepy high-pitched voice.

He’s called Tommy the Turtle (looks like a Ninja reject), and he’s wearing a sideways baseball cap, ostensibly to absolve his pathetic shtick with some real b-boy representation. The words, muffled by an inch and a half of hair and fiberfill, are unintelligible, and as he continues to perform I wonder why something like this is needed to command anyone’s full attention immediately prior to an entirely purposeful exhibition of reckless driving.

AND we saw a guy get shot out of a cannon

AND we saw a guy get shot out of a cannon

Tommy the Turtle thankfully over, a garbled voice comes over the loudspeaker, and then Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American” tinkles through to pump up the crowd. Five ’70s cars that look like they’ve already been smashed, stretched back out, and sloppily repainted line up next to the track as a water truck resoaks the mud pit.

The national anthem drifts across the stands, the hands-on-hearts audience looks around, unsure of where to patriotically focus, and the first derby car rolls into the pit with a small flag stuck to its hood. We salute the car. God bless America.

The other four cars rumble into the pit and they line up (two over here, three over there) against the ends of the oval with their trunks facing the center. Apparently the demolition derby isn’t about completely mindless destruction — there are points to be won, and the highest points are scored while driving in reverse.

“Hard” hits (reverse) are rewarded with more points than “soft” hits (side, etc.), and the last car left running isn’t necessarily the winner.

& who doesn't love the sideshow

& who doesn’t love the sideshow

The checkered flag starts the smashup. A red car barrels into the American flag car, crumpling its passenger-side door like a piece of empty tinfoil. A station wagon hits two cars at once (score!) before crashing into and jamming itself on the barrier (boo!) for the remainder of the race. A pink car, in a striking display of color choice determining personality, sits there not really hitting much, begins to smoke from underneath the hood, and is promptly disqualified.

A blue car is smashed repeatedly and with such force that one of its back wheels no longer turns and its trunk is obliterated. It smokes, remains immobile for a while, and then suddenly revives itself with stunning tenacity. It gets in a couple of good hits before dramatically catching fire, and the owner, forced off the track by the officials (yes, there are officials) for safety’s sake, jumps on top of his car and stomps the already-precarious ceiling all the way in. Punk rock.


The second match is more of the same, except with cars that are even darker, crumplier, and more macho. My companions get restless for more beer and food on sticks. We pour back into the concourse and purchase cowboy hats, Icees, and airbrushed T-shirts. We make ourselves sick on the rides and count the number of mullets that pass by, and when the sun goes down we head for the parking lot.

Moving with the crowd, we get stuck behind an ambling man wearing a shirt that says, “Winning isn’t everything … Yeah right — Hold my buckle while I kiss your girlfriend.” (Strangely, he and the woman on his arm walk without fear of retribution.)

We get on the freeway and head back to San Francisco, exchanging the pathology of the fair for the more comfortable, urban pathology of the city, the demolition derby for Van Ness Avenue, and the dilapidated, yellow-toothed camels for dilapidated people with Camels and yellow teeth.


This is the 15th piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; this post’s intro here, and Dilettante’s first installment is here

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aw, cmon sugar, it aint that skeery

aw, cmon sugar, it aint that skeery



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