The NC State Fair’s midway shimmers under the stars

mquillin@newsobserver.comOctober 24, 2013 

  • Today at the fair

    Hours: Gates, 8 a.m. to midnight. Midway, 10 a.m. to midnight. Exhibit halls, 9 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.

    Tickets: Adults (13-64), $9; Children (6-12), $4; Military with ID, $5; Children 5 and younger and adults 65 and older, free.

    Dorton Arena concert: MercyMe, 7:30 p.m., $15.

    Forecast: Sunny, mid-50s

    Wednesday’s attendance: 68,252

As the sun sets each evening on the N.C. State Fair, it’s as if the picture window in Steve Troxler’s upstairs office has been replaced by a warped fun-house glass that exaggerates everything in view. Lights seem brighter, rides look bigger.

“At night it seems like even the food smells are magnified,” said Troxler, who heads the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which puts on this 11-day party.

“When it gets dark, that’s when you kind of see the magic start.”

Part of the appeal of a carnival is the way it distorts the familiar – when else would people wait in line to have their photo made with a 799-pound pumpkin? – but when it’s all set against a black velvet sky, the grotesque somehow becomes gorgeous and alluring.

“It’s beautiful,” said Shawnte Sanders, who came with her husband and their 6-year-old daughter Wednesday evening. They faced a stiff, cold wind and stayed past all their bedtimes so Kymora could enjoy the rides and see the fireworks. Then the family dragged themselves back toward Gate 11 and their car, parked somewhere on the other side.

Sanders gave a look back at the lights that flashed in garish rainbows above the rides in Kiddieland. “It’s so much prettier at night,” she said.

The nightly fireworks demonstration at 9:45 p.m. is the signal for many families with small children that it’s time to head home. If they’re still looking at the blue-ribbon vegetables in the Exposition Building or perusing the student art displays at Kerr Scott, they’ll be gently ushered out as all the buildings are shut down, too. By 10 p.m., all the action is on the midway.

An electric wonderland

Nighttime on this electric wonderland is a sensory assault. With the replacement of old light bulbs with LED displays, rides like the Freak Out, the Ring of Fire and the Orbiter can mesmerize even the designated prize-holder, the one who stays on the ground while friends spin around above. The scent of fried onions commingles with the acrid smoke from grilled pork, the sweet smell of cinnamon buns and the underlying funk of a barnyard.

As you walk, sounds come in and out like loud radio stations during a lightning-fast cross-country drive: hawkers who want to guess your weight or sell you a ham biscuit, music that blares from rides, the disembodied voice of the guy at the freak show whose recorded spiel about the two-headed sheep and other wonders starts over every 48 seconds from 8 a.m. to closing.

The sheer decadence of it all, the intensity, makes some people worry that it’s vaguely dangerous to hang out on the fair in the last hours of the day. That’s a distortion, too. What looks like chaos as 344 acres of land are filled with 100 rides, 160 games, hundreds of food vendors, thousands of animals and more people, many days, than live in the city of Asheville is actually a carefully monitored law enforcement event.

“The advantage we have here is that we’re a fenced-in compound,” said Joel Keith, who retired from one police job and then took over as chief of police at the fairgrounds.

No drink, no drugs, no weapons

A couple of years ago, the department got a federal grant to add metal detectors at all the fair’s ticketed entrances. Since then, Keith said, officers patrolling the outside perimeter of the fairgrounds have found knives and other weapons tossed on the ground or hidden in planters, but they rarely find anyone inside the fence with anything sharp enough to cut a Krispy Kreme Sloppy Joe in half.

No one is allowed in who is intoxicated, and the handful who cause trouble are escorted out and can’t come back for a year, and then only if they write a letter of appeal to Keith.

Tonight, when 10,000 people, mostly teenagers and college students, are shuffling around the midway, Keith’s army of officers will be watching them through some of the more than 100 cameras around the the fairgrounds, or walking among them, in uniform or plain clothes.

Just before midnight, a phalanx of officers will convene at the bottom of the midway, near the refurbished haunted house, and at closing time, they’ll get the command from Wake County Sheriff’s Maj. R.E. “Chip” Hawley to begin “the push.”

They’ll start walking, telling people the fair is closed, and ask them if they need help finding their way back to their gates. Most patrons still won’t be ready to leave, Hawley says. They may only come to the fair once a year, and they’ll want to ride one more ride, play one more game, stand in line to buy that candied apple they’ll find in the back seat of their car tomorrow.

Hawley and the officers will wait. It’ll take an hour to get all the people off the midway so the ride operators can shut down all those lights, turn off the music, unplug the disembodied freak-show voice.

“I’m a patient man,” Hawley said. “I want their feet hurting and their stomachs full. We want everybody to leave happy.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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