A few years back I invited a well-heeled friend and his children to join me and my kids at the Salem Fair. His face twisted into a scowl.
“Have you seen the people there?” he asked hesitantly.
Such elitist attitudes toward the 24-year-old Roanoke Valley institution are unfortunate but not uncommon, and have been spreading in recent years.
The basic complaint goes like this: It seems as if every strange-looking bumpkin within 150 miles shows up at the Salem Fair.
Mostly they come out at night, like vampires, except many are missing incisors (or other teeth).
They sport beastly tattoos, bizarre piercings and brightly dyed mohawks. Some men wear camouflage garb, even though hunting season is long past. Some women are clothed in tube tops or halters about eight sizes too small.
They are so unusual looking they might even kicked out of the world-famous Texas Tavern, which serves everybody.
Mind you, this is what snobs like my friend say. Not me.
I believe the elitists are missing out on the best people-watching experience the Roanoke Valley has to offer.
Because — let’s face it — the fair is a wonderful and wacky menagerie of humanity, more eye-popping than the paintings in the Taubman Museum of Art, and far more interesting than the slumbering animals at the Mill Mountain Zoo.
No question, plenty of normal-appearing people will be among the 250,000 to 300,000 souls who will pass through the fair’s gates between now and next Sunday.
But you also see those folks walking downtown, or dining at Famous Anthony’s, or shopping at Valley View Mall. Because they’re ordinary, they fade into the summer’s background like a green leaf on a 100-foot oak.
The others stand out like streetwalkers in a Christian bookstore. And there’s a high concentration of them at the Salem Fair.
Wednesday morning, I visited the fair organizers to suggest they highlight this aspect in their promotional advertising. For years that has mostly focused on carnival rides, blue-ribbon jams and cakes, a petting zoo, racing pigs and the Abe Lincoln-act by U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith.
“I think you’re missing a prime marketing opportunity,” I told Carey Harveycutter, lord of the Salem Civic Center and the fair. With him was John Saunders, his assistant. The fair was their idea, back around 1986.
Now, I didn’t hint a bit about what they were missing. But Harveycutter is no fool. He’s probably the smartest and most effective municipal civil servant in North America.
“Are you talking about the people who come to the fair?” he asked.
“That’s it!” I exclaimed.
“They are a microcosm,” he replied with the diplomacy of an ambassador to China.
The Salem Fair draws people from a 170-mile radius that includes southern West Virginia and northern North Carolina,Harveycutter explained. He knows this because of surveys every few years.
Unlike my snobby pal, Harveycutter said he respects the folks who show up.
“We have the affluent, and the non-affluent,” he said. To his credit, not once did he use terms such as “freak,” “yahoo,” “knuckle-dragger” or the phrase, “people who look like they’ve crawled out from under a rock.”
But he did recall the words of one long-time fair T-shirt and cap vendor, a fellow named Bob Pinson, who recently died.
“You all have a higher propensity of women who wear their underwear on the outside than anywhere else,” Pinson once confided to Harveycutter.
Saunders said he already has taken baby steps toward developing my people-watching idea.
For this year’s fair, he’s installed a 24-foot sitting bench just opposite the bathrooms. This will be prime viewing territory for sure.
Like everything else, the fair is constantly changing. Of course, greasy funnel cakes are a constant, and so is overpriced cotton candy, ice cream and soft drinks, and the rides.
But this year, there are fewer carny games than in the past, Harveycutter said. And there are no sideshow booths where you can pay 50 cents to see a bearded lady or the world’s tiniest woman.
The latter, Harveycutter noted sadly, retired from the road because her husband got shot in Jamaica.
Anyway, in the subculture of carnivals, “sideshows are all but dead,” he declared.
Which is understandable, at least for the Salem Fair.
Who needs a sideshow with all the fascinating-looking people walking around who you can gawk at for free?
See you on the midway. I’ll have my eyes peeled.