Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Scoop on the Perry County Fair

Have you ever been to the Perry County Fair? Well, I hadn’t. Until the other day, anyway.  My friend Patti the ag banker (if you need an ag loan— say for that organic heirloom marijuana farm—call her!) was looking for volunteers to work in the Perry County Dairy Promotion booth there.  While fairgoers are checking out the farm animals, eating French Fries, and cruising the eye candy near the Pick-A-Duck trailer, the Perry County Dairy Promotion folks sell ice cream and milkshakes to raise money to promote the dairy industry.  Patti served on the Arts Festival’s trash crew, and more importantly is a helluva  lot of fun, so how could I say no? 

When I said, “Count me in!” She looked at my artfully producted hair and said, “You gotta wear a hat”.  “What about gloves?”  I asked, remembering my ten exciting years on the State College Board of Health.  She explained that gloves were not necessary since weren’t selling ice cream cones. Even without the chance to work (as my fashionista friends say) the full-on lunch lady look, I was in.
So I wore cargo shorts, a blue polo shirt, my special festival/fair Nikes and a Virginia Wahoos  baseball cap. Think of it as Wandering Wahoo summer county fair chic. I thought I looked worthy of a dip or two. Wanna  photo? That’s four ride tickets please. 

For those of you worldwide readers lacking in Central Pennsylvania geography, Perry County is between State College and Harrisburg. Translated into New Jersey-ese, it’s the Newport/New Bloomfield exit on Rte. 322. Or, put another way, it’s the exit with the McDonald’s in the middle of nowhere.  Perry County is named for Oliver Hazard Perry (“We Have Met the Enemy and They Are Ours”) the naval hero of the War of 1812 rather than Luke Perry ("Valerie, I'll only stick it in a little bit.") the anti-hero of Beverly Hills 90210. It’s rural alright. The entire county—all 556 square miles--has just one traffic light.

You exit Route 322, pass the McDonald’s in the Middle of Nowhere, and drive down the road to Newport. Right before you cross the Juniata River via one of those old fashioned trestle bridges with a metal mesh bridge deck you pass the Honk if You Love Jesus gas station, which also sells produce.  They were having a squash special the other day.  I drop lots of F bombs but rarely the L bomb, so even though I am quite fond of Jesus, I didn’t honk.

The directions to the fairground were to drive to the four-way stop in Newport and then just follow the signs. It was as easy as homemade, county fair worthy pie.  After a short drive through both historic and suburban Newport, it wasn’t long until I was pulling into the concessionaires’ parking area. It occurred to me that although I have a checkered past, I’ve never been a concessionaire before. 

As I stepped out of my truck, I heard a big whoosh that pretty much scared the crap out of me. I looked around and there on the edge of the fairgrounds was a group of kids (and adults, I learned later) launching model rockets. Yes, model rockets. I didn’t know kids did that anymore!  When I was a kid, my brother Rob and I went through a Wernher von Braun phase. We  never bothered with the actual rocket body, nose cone, fins, and loading them up with explosives and aiming them at London, and instead just used a piece of coat hanger taped to the Estes rocket engine to turn the engines into bottle rockets on steroids. What they lacked in aerodynamics they made up in immediate gratification. I thought about walking over and checking out Perry County’s home grown Pennemunde,  but I had an appointment with an ice cream scoop.
On my way to the ice cream stand, I wandered through the not yet humming fairgrounds. Compared to the Centre County Grange Fair and Encampment, the Perry County Fair is tiny.  The whole shebang might fit on two soccer fields.

There was a vintage tractor display, and of course, there were carnival rides. The rides actually looked clean and safe.  I had no clue that rides came in anything other than in a scary and obviously unsafe condition.  

Things were just starting to open in the midway, but everything was clean, well maintained, and even rather charming. I was beginning to think that I was in Mayberry.
Even with my detour through the midway, I made it to the Perry County Dairy Promotion trailer in plenty of time, since the plumber was still connecting the water line.  I had a few minutes to spare, so I watched the sheep judging in the nearby barn.  All the contestants (as in both 4H-ers and sheep) were scrubbed and neatly dressed, and the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles crowded around the show rink watching the action.

Soon enough we had water and it was time to get the scoop on my job. There were four flavors (chocolate, vanilla, raspberry, and peanut butter) of Hall’s Ice Cream, a locally made, high-butterfat, absolutely delicious ice cream. Patti told me that the milk from her cows (she's a farmer and a banker) could be in the stuff I was dishing out.

The serving options were a small dish, a large dish, or a milkshake. Milkshakes and large dishes were four bucks and small dishes were two bucks. Patti operated the heavy equipment—good idea, she probably heard about my escapade with a Segway—while I dished out the ice cream. Patti makes a milkshake the way my father made a highball: heavy on the key ingredient (i.e. booze) and just a splash of the filler. So Patti hit the metal cup with a splash of milk and I filled it the rest of the way with ice cream. The small dish was a scoop plus not quite a scoop, and three or so scoops went into a large dish. 

We had just gotten into the swing of things when two inspectors for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture came by. Inspector #1 (not his real name) was a middle aged white guy, not what you’d call handsome (even at 2:00 am I wouldn’t have looked twice). You knew he was the real deal since he wore a badge on his belt.  He was accompanied by inspector #2 (also not his real name), a silent African-American bodybuilder type with forearms like Popeye’s.  Inspector #1 did the actual work, while Inspector #2 played the role of the PennDOT worker who stands around and watches everyone else work.

Inspector #1 did some inspecting, complained about the people back at the office, and checked the freezer temps with a sort a gun that was really a thermometer. As thermometers go it was extremely manly and seemed like an excellent use of my tax dollars.  He wrote a short citation directing Patti to get a different time of thermometer for the freezers. And then he was on his merry, moderately officious, middle management way.  Patti said to me “A thermometer in the freezer.  The stuff is either frozen or it’s not. You need a thermometer to tell you that?“

Pretty soon we were in the swing of things and there was a steady stream of customers, most of whom wanted milkshakes.  Patti knew a bunch of them of course, including the guy in the Crocs and ankle bracelet, who, she told me, was a great, if a tad slow, mechanic. In addition to scooping the ice cream, I promoted myself to overseeing the witty repartee, of which the locals weren’t exactly expecting. They came to buy milkshakes and some went away thinking WTF, it’s the Algonquin Round Table.

Yes, I had a blast.  In the blink of an eye, my few hours were over and I was replaced with a seasoned pro, Patti’s friend Audra.

I don’t think of myself as lucky. I mean, I’ve fruitlessly entered my share of stupid contests and have even  purchased lottery tickets when the jackpot was a kabillion dollars. But I’m lucky in the sense that I have good health, a good job, great friends, and of course my wacky family.  I’m also lucky to have met Patti, and to have enjoyed a memorable afternoon at a quintessential American county fair. I had a super time dipping ice cream, meeting interesting people, and promoting the dairy industry. Now that I think of it, you can’t get any luckier than by being dairy queen for a day.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Shop Until You Drop

There are many modern circles of hell. They include the Verizon store, waiting in line at the post office behind someone mailing all his worldly goods to a country whose name contains no vowels, and discussing current events with someone whose sole news source turns out to be Lindsay Lohan’s Twitter feed. Oh right, there’s also going to the supermarket at the Jersey Shore.

Whoever came up with one of New Jersey’s former tourism slogans---“New Jersey and You: Perfect Together” obviously never hung out at the Acme in Cape May Court House. Yes, that’s really the name of the town, though locals call it Court House. For all you folks who are fluent in Jersey, that’s Exit 10 on the Parkway.  There isn’t much perfection in a shopping trip to Acme.

For starters, the parking lot is a poorly designed sea of macadam and, in the summer anyway, more than a tad crowded.  There are plenty of cars parked near the other stores in the strip shopping center, so some folks apparently shop at those places, too. Do people really go to that scary looking nail salon?  Or to that excruciatingly bad Chinese restaurant? Or to Fashion Bug Plus (And Then Some)?  Apparently they do. Who knew?!

And because we’re at the shore, people in the parking lot are eager, no, make that anxious, to get out of there and back to their rental to start having real fun; like getting a sunburn, talking about playing miniature golf but not actually doing it, and going to the liquor store for a couple of handles of gin. Consequently, it takes more patience than I usually have to find a spot in the midst of parking lot mayhem.
When you finally park, somewhere near Bayonne (Exit 14 on the Turnpike), it doesn’t take long before you notice that you’re not in Happy Valley anymore.  Cars sport decals you never see in State College.  In State College, it’s no surprise the vast majority of school decals on cars are about Penn State. Sure, there is the occasional decal for an Ivy League school on some upmarket ride like a Volvo, but Penn State rules the day. At the shore, you see a wide variety of car decals such as: Barbizon School of Modeling, North Carolina Institute of Taxidermy, and, of course, St. Fill-in-the-Blank Prep.  There’s also the occasional bumper sticker that says “My Daughter Is a Goth at Monrovia Junior High.”

Once you make it into the store, you see that the chaos in the parking area was only foreshadowing of the chaos in Produce. And in the Bakery. Not to mention in Snack Foods (both sweet and salty). And everywhere else, too. Since almost everyone is a tourist, no one knows where anything is and shoppers meander around willy-nilly looking for a jar of capers or a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese dinner or an inflatable orca (hint: it's in the mascara department).  

But hey, if you want sushi, there are two Asian people, working a little bamboo enclosure, and they’re wearing sushi uniforms so you know it’s authentic sushi and not the Mrs. Paul’s version. It all seems vaguely, well, culturally insensitive to me. I don’t know why the store manager didn’t make them wear plastic buck teeth, super thick eye glasses, and Kamikaze scarves around their foreheads. In for a penny, in for a pound, I always say.

The deli section is a gridlock of shopping carts as people order stuff you’ve never heard of but want it sliced to tolerances worthy of NASA.  I’m often tempted to say, “Get a grip, lady. It’s just pimento loaf, not the heat shield on the Mars Lander.” 

But hey, if you want pork roll, they’ve got it. Pork roll is the key ingredient in a Jersey Breakfast, which, contrary to popular belief is not a cigarette, a wad of gum, and a WaWa coffee. 

When you’ve had all the fun you can take and it’s time to check out, you do the standard line roulette, hoping to get out before you become eligible for Social Security.  If you’re as lucky as I was the other day, your wait will be brief and you’ll meet the team of Cashier Marcia and Bag Boy Patrick.  I should warn you, there is the issue of her hairdo. Or hair don’t as they said in Hairspray. It’s sort of a Julius Caesar meets Betty Boop. My first thought was, "My God, don't you own a mirror?" Even by the low standards of community theater costume drama, it’s bad. And then on second look I wondered what was worse, her hair or her teeth, since regular dental care and fluoridated water have obviously not been a part of her life for quite some time.  As I stood there pondering this conundrum it hits me that her worst feature isn’t her hair, or even her teeth:  it’s her disposition. She’s like a bear with a sore ass. No amount of pleasantries, jolly banter, chit chat, or even the occasional bon mot is going to move her needle from the “I’m tired, my feet hurt, and I’m missing The Price is Right” reading on the deportment meter. 

Bag Boy Patrick is, however, the good cop to Marcia’s Joe Friday suffering from hemorrhoids and a nicotine fit. He says hello. He smiles. He packs my L.L. Bean tote quickly and carefully. I want to nominate him for Employee of the Month.  If this were the movies, Cashier Marcia, playing Dorothy Brock, would twist her ankle trying to scan a runaway watermelon and Bag Boy Patrick, in the Peggy Sawyer role, would go out there a bag boy but come back a star, I mean, cashier.  But alas and alack, it’s real life. And I can’t daydream too much as Bag Boy Patrick loads my groceries into my cart. If I do, I won’t have time to hotfoot it out of there to get my starter sunburn, then consider and ultimately dismiss the idea of miniature golf, and finally dash over to the liquor store before some tourist buys all the gin in town.