A Fair to Distemper

Last Thursday, I did the Wisconsin State Fair badly. In my defense, I meant well. But having been to only two state fairs in my life–Arizona’s in 1990 and New York State’s in the Shea Stadium parking lot–I was ill-prepared for the scope of Milwaukee’s century-old annual festivity. Not to mention the heat.

I was looking for a brief break from my Windy City work-at-home day to day, and a ten-dollar Megabus ride to rekindle an old friendship with my Milwaukee friend Big Buddha on the first day of Dairyland’s State Fair seemed like just the ticket.

My inability to figure out how to work the A/C in my overly sunny, upper-deck front row seat on Megabus should have been a clue as to the impending tenor of the day, though the bus’s speedy WiFi made the two-hour trip a multitasking dream. Big’s thirty-minute late arrival at the Cream City’s Intermodal Station to pick me up should have been another.

Late or not, it was fun to take a spin through Chicago’s smaller, northern neighbor. New Yorkers often call Chicago a little NYC due to our town’s smaller but still-imposing skyline, though nothing could be farther from the truth. Yet even for its almost non-existent skyline, I often have a similar impression of Milwaukee: all the lakefront yuppiedom and mid-town slumminess of Chicago, but in a convenient, travel-sized dose.

Even with one-fifth the population, though, driving across Milwaukee’s industrial Menomenee Valley from the staton to Miller Park and back–then south to St. Francis–then further south to Cudahy–all in search of a Chase bank, made the city seem postiviely enormous last week. Big works at an Apple Store and we both have iPhones, so there was no excuse for not Google Mapping the nearest branch. But I wanted to see the city–especially it’s less-touristy side–so I settled in for the ride.

Eventually, we made it to the Mitchell Domes, which provided a respite from the morning’s 80-plus heat. Last time I saw them was with Devyn. They’ve since been renovated and are more spectaular than ever. The modernist in me has to love any botanic conservatory squeezed into three massive, breast-like 1960s conoidal domes.

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(Photo: Milwaukee’s version of the Garfield Park Conservatory always puts me in a happy, Jetsons mood. More in my flickr.)

But after an hour, I felt the clock ticking on my already-delayed day trip. So canned goods in hand for a nifty $7 Hunger Task Force Day admission discount, off we headed for West Allis, the near-west suburb that hosts the Wisconsin State Fair since (incredibly) 1892. The town sits in the same location relative to Milwaukee that Oak Park sits relative to Chicago–but with yuppies and BMWs replaced by mechanics and Harleys.

I bit my tongue–mostly–as we parked half a mile from the fair to save on the parking fee. As we reached the ticket booths after a sweat-infused walk back to the fairgrounds, I noticed a woman trying to pass off a roll of toilet paper as a non-perishable food item. I inwardly begged God to bring Twitter back up from its Denial of Service attack to let me tweet the moment.

Once inside the mile-square fair, snap judgment gave way to the pleasure of surrendering to a big, fat, grassroots, down-home day of fun. The kind that urbanites like me only admit to at the time and later on blogs, but rarely in mixed company once returned to our metropolitan high rises.


(Video: No, I didn’t. Yes, I wanted to.)

Food and beverage booths extended into the distance down multiple pathways as far as my eyes could see, punctuated by gargantuan show houses, with a lazy skyride hanging above all. How much did I get into the mood? I stood on a ten-minute line to buy a four-dollar ticket to stand in another ten-minute line to buy a “famous” Wisconsin dressed baked potato. And liked it.

It was the Midwest my New York friends warned me about when I moved here in six-and-a-half years ago, and it was a blast. But it was also something just short of 1,000 degrees. That kept Big and me off the sky ride. That and Big’s distaste for amusement rides kept us out of the Midway most of the day. And that, my damnable lactose intolerance, and a line of hundreds kept me away from the equally “famous”, gargantuan cream puffs.

Good sense didn’t keep me away from a Noon-time, open-air beer in full sunlight, though. Nor did good sense motivate me to stop taking “No” for an answer every time I tried to maneuver Big into a shaded, air-conditioned show house. (Much as I respect the guy, refusing to enter a livestock barn at a state fair because it would “smell like animals” reached so far up my nose I could feel my brain hurt.)

So by day’s end, what should have been a relaxing end to a really fun, absolutely out-of-character stint in Laverne-and-Shirley town headed south, and quickly. As we exited the fair, I could feel a dehydration headache growing.

By the time we reached downtown’s uber-urban Historic Third Ward to hang out before my trip home, headache had grown to a migraine of historic-hangover proportions. As I sat with Big on the second floor of the Public Market with my sunburned head on the table and a frosty Sprite Zero held tight to my forehead, it was all I could do to apologize–in what feeble voice I could muster–for the unspectacular end to the day.

Big drove me back to the Intermodal Station–a trip that could have been a five-minute walk from the Third Ward if my head hadn’t wanted to explode so badly–where I ditched Megabus for a speedier Amtrak Hiawatha ride back to my home downtown. I did my best to think happy, healthy thoughts the whole way to try and avoid my rampant sense of spew-at-any-second nausea. Thankfully, by the time the train pulled into Union Station, my head had pulled itself together enough–with the help of a pint of vitamin water–to allow me to make the 20-minute walk to my house in relative comfort.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad day. I still love Milwaukee–though next time I’ll stick to the lakefront neighborhoods I’ve frequented in the past. (For Milwaukeans, that would be the yuppie spine of the #15 bus from the East Side, down through downtown and the Historic Third Ward south to Bayview.) I’ll do State Fair again, too. Only I’ll be sure to arrive with a stash of Lactaid pills so I won’t have to avoid the cream puffs. And friends will enter air-conditioned buildings with me voluntarily or via being moved there bodily.

And considering the flu-like symptoms I developed the day after returning home, if ever again I run into a small child hacking his lungs up in the Milwaukee Intermodal Station, I’ll run like hell.

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