Fairly nerdy, exhaustedly perfect

By all accounts, we shouldn’t like the California State Fair.

Launched in 1859, the fair has been held at its current Cal Expo location since 1968 and embodies everything that is crazy-making: large, loud crowds; oppressive heat; an overabundance of insanely unhealthy foods; rides that make us sick; and pushy sales people hawking overpriced, overrated gadgets.

And yet we can’t stay away.

And so for the second time in a week we made our way through the annual celebration of all that is fried, sweaty, raucous and just plain wrong.

Joined by four other friends—the fair is enjoyed roaming in packs—we committed to the usual agenda: cute animals, food and booze, people watching and the requisite photo-booth trip.

Arriving just after 6:30 p.m., we beeline it to the food court, trying to decide on various fair delicacies as the sun beat down upon our necks.

Ignoring the deep fried Kool-Aid balls and chocolate-covered bacon, we start out healthy: roasted corn, sprinkled with lime juice and Cajun seasoning. Naturally sweet, it subscribes to the anything-and-everything-on-a-stick fair ethos.

Still, it’s a little nerdy to go to the state fair and not indulge in something decadent.

And so it doesn’t take long to track down the wine slushies. Tucked somewhere between Big Bugs exhibit and Kangaroo Joey’s Big Adventure, the girls order the blackberry merlot concoctions—rich wine paired with fruit, frozen and blended into a convenience-store-worthy sweet treat. If only it came in a Big Gulp. Soon after, the boys order strong beers and, armed with icy goodness, we meander through exhibits, squealing with joy over baby kangaroos, emus and majestic, rainbow-hued birds.

From there we hit the exhibition halls—that unholy alliance of bright lights, shuffling crowds and gaudy As Seen on TV products. Here, we gamely make our way past the Vitamix blenders and laser teeth-cleaning lamps, Bedazzled baby tees and shoe polish, “hotel quality” sheets and iron-on heavy-metal patches.

The trick to the expo halls: Avoid eye contact with vendors at all costs. Perchance eyes should meet, souls are sucked and wallets drained.

The need for food strikes again. This time healthy aspirations are abandoned in favor of something—anything—fried. After much debate we finally settle on feta fries that, consisting of a thickly sliced potato wedges sprinkled with meager clumps of salty feta, sounded much better than they end up tasting. Dissatisfied, we nonetheless eat the entire basket, all the while lifting crunchy, cheesy, spicy jalapeño nachos off a friend.

Thick, congealed cheese from a can. Heaven.

At long last, we head toward the Magnificent Midway—only to be sidetracked by a stop at the crazy bike display, where just $5 buys you three attempts to ride a stability-defying cycle across the finish line. The prize: $100.

Even though the toothless carnie and his undernourished girlfriend both offer demonstrations, however, the finish line is never reached, and so it’s off to drift—$5 poorer—through the neon lights of nausea-inducing rides. As we make our way through a jungle of looming gap-toothed SpongeBob SquarePants dolls and slutty Hello Kitty knockoffs, we feel like safari explorers, mentally taking notes on the scene—this mind-boggling mix of class and ethnicity, culture and family, body type, fashion choices and taste.

It’s quintessential California. It’s overwhelming. It’s amazing.

The night ends with sugary treats and the search for just the right photo booth—black-and-white with good contrast—where we squeeze in to quickly move through different expressions and poses.

When the picture strip finally drops from the machine, we grab them, excited to study the evening’s endnote.

In them we appear bleary-eyed with messy hair, exhausted by fun.

They are, of course, perfect.