As the sun sets each evening on the N.C. State Fair, its as if the picture window in Steve Troxlers upstairs office has been replaced by a warped fun-house glass that exaggerates everything in view.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, thats 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 its all set against a black velvet sky, the grotesque somehow becomes gorgeous and alluring.
Its 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. Its 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 its time to head home. If theyre still looking at the blue-ribbon vegetables in the Exposition Building or perusing the student art displays at Kerr Scott, theyll 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 its vaguely dangerous to hang out on the fair in the last hours of the day. Thats 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 were 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 fairs 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 cant 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, Keiths 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, theyll get the command from Wake County Sheriffs Maj. R.E. Chip Hawley to begin the push.
Theyll 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 wont be ready to leave, Hawley says. They may only come to the fair once a year, and theyll want to ride one more ride, play one more game, stand in line to buy that candied apple theyll find in the back seat of their car tomorrow.
Hawley and the officers will wait. Itll 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.
Im a patient man, Hawley said. I want their feet hurting and their stomachs full. We want everybody to leave happy.