Without even kneeling to ask the Great Google, I am certain that minds much finer than mine – many of them 100 years dead – have written on the attraction, the cultural function and the spiritual resonance of the carnival and, in particular, of midways: those cheap pop-up cities of the night (by daylight mere propped corridors of trampled rubbish, gas spill and wood rot) that would lose every last volt of magic were they ever to employ a single instance of technology more modern than late Victorian. For therein lies much of their spell: fake cities designed to fool our great-grandparents, not us, patched and repatched (absolute frugality serving, as it often does, the higher purpose of continuity) and, we pray, routinely and scrupulously inspected by local certifying bodies where such bodies still hold the authority and own the knowledge, but effectively unchanged since the days, in the late 1920s, when my father’s uncle Stanley left his house and family while my father played in his yard. My father said, “Where are you going, Uncle Stanley?” and Stanley said, “to the store.” And my father asked, “Can I go with you?” as he often did, and Stanley said, “Not this time, Jack.” And no one saw Stanley again for years and years, until someone thought he recognized him passing through town with the carnival.
If we study the ways of ghosts, we see that, for their forms and gestures, they prefer the antique. The first thing they do when born is to shed the clothes, language and technologies of their own time and adopt the habits not of one fixed period, but of a certain sliding ghost-lag interval behind the present. They cleave forthwith to the version of the weird old world they acquired early in their organic lives, transmitted to them via cigar boxes and print adverts for tonics, meters saved in shoeboxes by grieving and frugal grandmothers, instruments designed to measure output in units no longer recognized. But, of course, my grandfather’s ferambules and grotchets are your grandfather’s half-wex spanches and torsillaries. Thus does ghost culture inch forward, conservatively, angrily, through time, a full gaggle-and-a-half of generations behind, and always lagging like a recalcitrant child hand-pulled through a school-clothes shopping trip by his (my) trend-conscious mother.
We are at a momentous and defining time in ghost history. I don’t believe they will ever figure out how to inhabit digital, perhaps out of sheer distaste for it and a ghastly certainty, based on knowledge vouchsafed at their moment of passage, that digital is pyrite and gutless soy cheese, a rosy, parched dead end for humanity. It is drying our souls. Get thee to the carnival!
My carnival is the Ulster County Fair – “a real country fair,” says its local TV ad, the emphasis a seeming dig at the high-fiber, old-money affair across the river. But as we have established beyond dispute above, in the world of county fairs, real means fake. My county’s fair only ever disappointed me in that its city of night did not extend in all directions, unfolding in never-ending variety and surprise, through danger, through rausch, through dream. In retrospect, that was a lot to ask. It is a good old fair.
The Ulster County Fair lights up the fairgrounds in New Paltz from July 31 through August 5. On the music front, headliners include Thunder Ridge, Billy Bob Thornton and the Boxmasters, the Charlie Daniels Band, Keith Anderson, Jenny Tolman, Cale Dodds and former Journey lead singer Steve Auger. Always a value-conscious event for the people, the fair charges a general admission price of $17, which includes all midway rides, shows, entertainment and parking. Tuesday is Carload Night, where cars carrying up to eight people are admitted for $50. Wednesday is Senior Night. For more information and a complete schedule of events and performances, visit http://ulstercountyfair.com. The Ulster County Fairgrounds are located at 249 Libertyville Road in New Paltz.
Some (not all) of what’s happening this year:
Daily / ongoing
Robinson’s Racing Pigs: Watch adorable pigs race around a small track to get an Oreo cookie. Four shows daily (Wednesday through Saturday): 12:30, 3:30, 6:30, 8:30 p.m.; Sunday 12:30, 2, 3:30, and 5:30 p.m.
Two by Two Petting Zoo: Includes some animals you can pet and feed (like goats) and others you can observe, like black leopards, monkeys and kangaroos. 1:30, 4:30, 7:30 p.m. (Wednesday-Saturday), 1:30 & 5 p.m. (Sunday).
Josh Landry – Chain Saw Carver: four shows daily (11 a.m., 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.) Wednesday through Saturday; 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Sunday with auction of all pieces at 4 p.m. Watch Landry turn a three-foot log into an intricate piece of art in 45 minutes.
Senior day: Seniors 62 and over will receive free admission up to 4 p.m.
12 p.m. Mini Draft Horse Pull
4:30 p.m. Light Weight Draft Horse Pull
7 p.m. Heavy Weight Draft Horse Pull
Entertainment: Billy Bob Thornton & the Box Masters (yes, the actor), 8 p.m.
Fireworks at dusk (9:30 p.m.)
7 p.m. Truck Pull: Got the biggest and baddest truck?! Come to the Fair to win bragging rights!
Entertainment: Charlie Daniels Band, 8 p.m.
Entertainment: Keith Anderson (country music), 8 p.m.
Entertainment: Jenny Tolman (country music), 7 p.m.
Entertainment: Former Journey lead singer Steve Augeri, 5:30 p.m.