Friday, July 6, 2007

The Slushie Racket

Yesterday was Slushie Day for Robin and me at the local fairgrounds. Her swim team uses this as a major fund raiser. Total newbies like us are allowed into the Slushie-On-Wheels trailer, given a good thirty seconds of in-depth instruction, and left to fend for ourselves. Fortunately the Lemon Sisters hung around to guide us through the hard parts. Robin and I are slotted in at 2-6 pm, although Robin will be heading off to the 4H Olympics at 5 pm, and there is no one, I notice, slotted in after us for 6-10 pm.

The Slushie, as you remember, is the uniquely American sweet: a fast-track brain-freeze delight. No doubt there was at one time a way of making these things which involved hard labor: grinding the ice to the right consistency, extracting fruit juice from berries, mixing with granulated sugar, and then whipping it all together somehow. Today, we pour mysterious concentrate (mixed, I kid you not, with water from a hose out back) into The Machine, and voila: you have Slushie Basic! On a tray above the dispenser sits several truly evil-looking bottles of flavoring: two squirts into the bottom of a large dixie cup, fill the rest with Slushie B, and you're in business. Our flavors today are: cherry, lime, Orangutan Orange (Ha! just kidding about the orangutan!), lemonade, and the kids' all-time favorite: Blue Raspberry. Veterans of the brain-freeze concoction will ask for a squirt of cherry, followed by a squirt of the B-R. Teenaged boys occasionally ask for All-Of-It--a small squirt of every flavor-- which results in a brownish concoction which is truly disgusting. You can't look at it; you can't consume it. The boys line up for it.
It is a hot, bright, breezy day: just right for marketing Slushies!
Next to us is the de rigeur cheese curds stand, and next to it the lemonade and cream puffs place. We know this because we see a steady trail of hearty Norwegian Americans strolling along bearing these goods. I try to figure out the process by which our clients opt for a Slushie. There are those who just know: "I am going to have a Slushie today, and now is the time!" They only have to narrow it down to which flavor. There are those who approach, eyes narrowed, just beginning to consider the possibilities. Clearly they ponder the upside of buying a Slushie; the downside. At $2.50 on a hot day, a Slushie is almost a slam dunk for many people. But do we have it in Root Beer? Ah, no? Gotta think about this. So many choices here on the midway.

The social life inside the Slushie stand: Robin and I have brought books. A book, as you know, is a social communication tool, nothing else. Well, actually, the Alan Furst book I'm rereading is also rather good, but that isn't its primary purpose. The book is brought Just In Case. It provides a gracious means of social escape should the level of conversation in the stand go south towards drivel. This is a real possibility in mid-Summer, on a midway at a county fair in a Slushie stand served by volunteers. Fortunately, we have the Lemon sisters, accompanied by Mrs. Lemon. There is nothing dull about the Lemons. Both parents are hearing-impaired, to one degree or another. They have three very, I mean very lively daughters, all of whom have full hearing but are also well-trained in signing: bilingual! Last week at a swim-meet dinner I watched as Father Lemon told jokes across the room to one of his daughters, and then launched into a rather detailed discussion of the half-life of plutonium. To his daughter. Across the room. I think it was plutonium: I was reading lips.
Mrs. Lemon and I attempt to have a get-to-know-you discussion. Soon enough it gets complicated enough that Athena, the oldest daughter, starts signing to her mother, and responding to my requests for clarification. As the afternoon unfolds, I start to get better at understanding the verbal speech of the mom. We begin to relax. I don't have to retreat into my book. These folks are not only used to long silences, but are also great conversationalists!

Ah, the midwestern county fair! What a mingling of divergent folks! The farmers are all out at this time of year, as are the carnies. There is going to be a rodeo tonight! We begin to see cowboys, all sewn up in their Rodeo best, strutting along the midway. Farmers, carnies, cowboys. And Norwegian Americans! What a place this is. I begin to surreptitiously take pictures with my camera phone.

The Carnies: How to describe this subset of America? Are theirs full-time jobs but for only part of the year? Are these employed hobos? What do they do in Winter? I see faces that have spent too much time in the sun; hard living, chain smoking. The community they are a part of travels with the amusement rides; the houses of horror and the shooting galleries; the twinkly cotton candy stands. About a travelling troubadour, Paul Simon once wrote, "Every town looks the same to me, the movies and the factories....and every stranger's face I see reminds me where I long to be...". This life may be like that. Do these folks have homes to go back to? Or is home that place where "when you have to go there, they have to take you in", as in Robert Frost's famous poem? Is the carnival their home? Surely it is; surely they feel at ease only or mostly with those they work with. I see them from the safety of their booths watching as the townspeople and farmers stroll by. They are The Other: a persona first formed perhaps in grade school. The landed gentry, those grounded in the land and the towns don't understand them or don't want to. The carnies know this, and surely have their own way of staying separate; maintaining a sense of pride in their own right: "We are the true Americans; blue-collar travellers, we are better in touch with what America looks like than anyone else! We are night-dwellers, day laborers, roamers, the vestige of that American prototype--the wanderer--before the land laid its claim."
Well, maybe not in those exact words.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I've always wondered about carnival folks, too -- watching them always causes my mind to ask a lot of questions like you -- where do they live, do they have a home, etc.

Midwestern county fairs rock!

A Cheesehed writing from Door County

Anonymous said...

Ah, County fairs and slushie machines.

A great time to slow down, smell the grease and sugar.

Bruce Gee said...

I'm afraid to ask them: the answer is going to be too pedestrian. I'd rather write their life stories for them. Orphans and paupers. Hitting the road with a dollar in their hand. In the early morning rain. Don't know when I'll be back agin.
Hurtin' music.

And no, we don't use grease in our slushies. We are a respectable merchant's wagon.


Unknown said...

Perhaps the farmers and the carnies look upon the slushies as leaches, making a huge profit for what they sell.
In any case, the farmers and the carnies love the land in a very different way. The carnies might not be able to sit planted in one spot, yet their hard life is not one to be envied. They are able to see, but not know well, a great variety of land. The farmers, know one area well and have a love for the soil that most city dwellers can't understand. They have deep roots connecting them to their past families. They are connected with a community and know their place it in. They may have a peace of mind which the carnies might not know. I don't know what the slushies love. Meeting and helping others?