I live a quiet life these days, and I’m glad of it. For years my professional life was busy and important, sometimes a tad risky, often very strange. Now I mostly deal with words and images. Now I take walks.
Last week I had breakfast at a favorite joint directly across the street from the Iowa State Fairgrounds, which is one of my favorite places to walk. There’s usually something going on there — a gun show, a llama/alpaca event, a swap meet for car enthusiasts, something. Last week it was a cow thing.
This is where I confess to being almost completely ignorant about farm stuff. I know this is a Hereford bull. I know it’s a Hereford because 1) people on Facebook told me it was a Hereford and what the hell, I’ll take them at their word, and 2) I have another photo of this creature in a stall with similar animals, and there’s a small sign identifying them as Herefords. I know it’s a bull because this guy had massive cojones that were the size of cantaloupes. I declare, I don’t know how he was able to walk.
I spoke with the guy for a while. He was quietly pleased. This particular bull had just been sold at auction for enough money to buy a used Harley Sportster.
Here’s a thing I’ve learned about farm folks. They tend to be quiet and sort of shy around strangers, but if they find you’re really interested in them (or in what they do), they’re incredibly friendly. They’re also pretty tolerant of the odor of large mammals and large mammal shit. I mean, they clean it up right quick; farmers are not lazy people. But when you have that many cows lounging around and being moved through the building, you can just count on getting some cow shit in the treads of your sneakers.
While I enjoy the agricultural stuff, that’s not why I walk the fairgrounds. I do it because it’s quiet, and because there’s always some sort of unintended beauty to be found. Like a lot of photographers, I find something attractive in the gradual degradation of buildings falling into disrepair — abandoned factories, old barns, decrepit houses. But there’s something different about the way a fairground degrades.
It’s different because the disrepair is mostly temporary. The fairgrounds is active all year long, but it really only comes alive for a couple of weeks around the end of summer. A few days before the fair begins, folks arrive and start tidying up and re-asserting their footprint on the grounds. Then, of course, you have a week and a half of the fair. After which there are a few days when folks are breaking down their businesses and moving on to the next fair gig.
Then for eleven months things slow down. Eleven months of wind and rain and snow and heat and cold and storms and hail and all that leaves its mark — temporarily. For a photographer, it’s like renewable decrepitude.
The thing about a fair is that it’s meant to draw the eye and ear. Every corndog stand and deep-fried Twinkie booth and beer emporium and barbecue joint is competing for attention. We’re not talking about gentle competition here. This is a sort of economic combat. It’s a tawdry affair, all flashy color and noise — survival depends on it.
But when it’s over, the bright, garish, vulgarity starts to fade — and it fades quickly. This is a big part of what I love. The visual memory of cheap glitter, and the chance to look behind the make-up and see the bone structure. There’s a surprising amount of beauty to be found.
Some places — not many, but a few — manage to withstand the onslaught of neglect. Even though they’re closed for the season, some places remain loud and gaudy and weirdly attractive. Jalapeno Pete’s, for example. I’ve never been inside JP’s during the fair; it’s always much too crowded. I’ve never had a margarita in their rooftop cantina. But the sheer audacity of the colors, and the name itself — Jalapeno Pete’s — makes it impossible for me to walk past the place without wishing I had.
We won’t see Jalapeno Pete’s open again until August 10th. When it does reopen it’s unlikely I’ll be willing to bang my way through the crowds. But I can enjoy it now.
It’s still February; the fairgrounds is empty except for the farmers and their cows — and the occasional guy wandering around with a camera. It’s February, not as cold as it should be, and quiet. But the fairgrounds offers constant reminds that it’ll eventually be hot enough to warrant ice cream.
But in truth I don’t really care. I’m not here for the ice cream, or a margarita at Jalapeno Pete’s, or the Hereford bulls with their astonishing testicles. I’m here for the weird-ass giant cone.
Like I said, I live a quiet life these days. And I’m glad for it.