Fair warning about cheap souvenirs

Posted Aug. 15, 2010, at 7:30 p.m.

Souvenir gift shops are proof to Dustin that evil does exist. He calls them “fun vacuums,” and he would rather live the rest of his life trapped inside a petting zoo than leave through a strategically placed gift shop that doubles as a park’s only exit.

Asking Dustin to purchase an overpriced bobblehead can turn this normally calm man with exceptionally low blood pressure into Jack Torrance from Stephen King’s “The Shining.” Dustin is that guy in the middle of the souvenir shop who looks like he’s suffering from a heart attack when he says, “You’ve got to be kidding me? Five dollars for this piece of junk?”

So you can imagine how Dustin feels about county fairs, especially the kind that no longer center on local agriculture, but have mushroomed to include an overwhelming sideshow of rides, cheap toys and overpriced food. Once, when we lived in Florida, I desperately wanted to pay a dollar to “step right up and see the head of a woman on the body of a snake” at the county fair. I thought Dustin would leave me at the suggestion. Eventually, however, he reasoned that it would be educational for me to see how Americans spend their hard-earned money.

I walked up a metal ramp and onto a platform. Below me in a black box was a giant rubber snake folded onto itself in several coils. Its head had been cut off. In its place was the head of a woman whose body was hidden behind a black curtain. I couldn’t decide which was worse, the fact that this woman agreed to be the head of a snake, or the fact that I had paid to see it. I covered my mouth with my hand and walked down the ramp. I thought I might vomit. Dustin was visibly pleased as he put out an arm to hug me. He was sure I would never spend money at a fair again.

Then we had children. It is one of life’s great mysteries that kids (the same ones who scream about a spider on their bedroom wall) are attracted by a force greater than themselves to things that defy humanity, such as costumed individuals with giant round heads that wobble on their shoulders.

Last week, when the fair came to town, our children begged to visit it, and we took them despite knowing that not one of the three boys would ride on a single attraction. We paid our $40 total admission price for the privilege of walking around a parking lot in the blazing heat, explaining to the children in a continuous loop why we wouldn’t pay more than $1 for a cup of lemonade, and why fried dough with powdered sugar does not qualify as “lunch.” When Dustin learned that our admission included unlimited rides for the whole day, he called a family huddle and said, “I’m not leaving this park until we have gone on $40 worth of rides.”

The kids said, “We just want to buy souvenirs.”

We passed a kiosk selling $10 light sabers, and the begging began. Dustin and I were a powerful, unified wall of “No” until Ford pulled out a $20 bill from his pocket and said, “We’ll buy it with our own money.”

“If you want to waste your money on a cheap toy that will be broken tomorrow, go ahead,” Dustin said. And Ford and Owen did. But Lindell, 3, didn’t have his own money, so he couldn’t get a light saber. We were reminded of this with ear-piercing screams for the next seven days. Eventually my mom gave Lindell $10 to get his own. This was about six days after Owen’s light saber broke. So on a hot afternoon, I walked three miles from my home to the fair, with Lindell in the stroller and Owen by my side, to buy a new light saber and replace a broken one. Only, I wouldn’t pay $30 admission to do it. At the first entrance, I explained my situation to the staff: “I just need to go to the light saber kiosk and then we’ll come right back out.”

The guard studied me. “How can I be sure you won’t ride any rides?”

“Because I’m with a 7- and 3-year-old who were too afraid to ride anything the first time I paid $40,” I said.

Then, in a stunning move, the guard said, “You’ll have to leave the child [nodding at Owen] here while you go inside.”

Basically, he wanted to keep my 7-year-old as collateral. For a brief second, I considered the idea. That’s how desperate I had become. I hadn’t walked three miles in the heat for nothing. Then I thought better. Leave my kid? Seriously? Just how crazy did this man think I was?

I thought about this on my way to the next entrance in search of a new, better answer, like “Sure, come on through, but make it quick.” That’s when it occurred to me. I looked just about as a crazy as a woman who would walk three miles to buy a $10 light saber that would break tomorrow. Shoot, I probably even looked like the kind of woman who would pay $1 to see the head of a woman on the body of a snake.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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