The State Fair is an annual ritual for so many people. As a local photojournalist I assigned to cover over more than 30 years of the fair and a wide spectrum of names who have dropped by the fairgrounds. I’ve photographed visits by a sitting U.S. president and his senate-candidate wife, as well as other political figures, popular music performers , and oddball celebrities. All of them drawn, however briefly, to that 10-day event held in our community. Not one of them was remotely as interesting as the countless other folks I met whose names I don’t remember. And certainly no one more than memorable the lady who cried.
On the first day of the fair one year, I was sent out to the Horticulture Building to photograph a woman from Madison County. The homegrown garlic she had entered in the produce judging had won First Place Premium. In the whole state. Right from her garden in Madison County to first place in the whole state. And not only that but she was going to get her picture in the paper so everybody could know all about it the next morning. By the time I met her she had already been crying. I made the pictures in short order and then we talked for a little while. She was as you might imagine a lady from a rural area. She was very sweet, in a flower-print country dress, with grey hair and glasses, and quite overwhelmed by the experience. I was humbled to consider that I was part of a big moment in her life.
I had never given much thought, especially at that early point in my career, to the idea that for most of the people I met every day, being photographed for a newspaper or magazine was a really big deal. In the course of my everyday job, I never saw the point of view of the high school athlete or a person with an achievement who didn’t normally command that kind of attention. All of the famous people I’ve covered sure as hell didn’t share that perspective. But my experience with the garlic lady at the fair, and her own reaction to unexpected attention, came back to me in another way just a few years later.
Living in upstate New York is such a joy for me because we’re surrounded by beautiful countryside. Things like our farms, lakes, streams, woods and fields, that so many other people come from other places to experience here, I get to be around all the time. One year, for example, a friend offered me a little garden plot to play with. So I decided to grow tomatoes. I did that in no small part with that lady from Madison County and her prized garlic in my mind. I immediately imagined how cool it would be to even enter something in the state fair. With that I got to work on the tomato garden. I put in the manure and I staked and trimmed the plants and made sure they were watered every day. Then in June I had to go over to the fairgrounds and pay the five-dollar entry fee for my Roma-variety tomatoes. Cool. Every day I tended the garden and talked about rain and fretted about wind storms with people at the farmers’ markets as if I knew what the hell I was doing. It was a blast. Then one day I got my entry tags in the mail along with my complimentary fair passes and exhibitor’s parking permit and now this was just over the top. Never mind that I would have my usual press credentials that got me into the fair and let me park wherever I wanted. No, I had to experience this as purely as I could. I didn’t just take a day off for it. I took the day before, the day of, and the day after the start of the fair. At sunup on opening day of the fair–Judgement Day–I went over to my tomatoes, carefully selected the five best representatives from among them, according to the judges’ specifications of color, condition, uniformity, and the other two I’ve forgotten. Then I took them over to the fair.
As soon as I got into the Horticulture Building I felt like a fraud. I mean look at these people–their straw hats and denim overalls and flower aprons. These are crazy people. Ringers. They’re probably looking at me like I just bought my entries from Wegman’s. Jeez, if some idiot runs out of tomatoes over at one of the sausage stands they’re gonna come for mine first. I must have been an easy read because the woman at the check in could see that I had no idea what I was doing. She asked politely if it was my first time entering and after a mumbled reply, she kindly helped me set up my spot. I might have been clutching the hem of her dress during all this, but the tomatoes had to be sweating from their own nervousness. That was it. I left my entry on a straw plate in the midst of all the other tomato entries and went home with a really good story that would certainly end with humiliation the next day. That would have been fine because I had already had more fun than I ever expected. I was thankful the lady from Madison County got me to try finding out just a little of what she felt leading up to the day I took her picture.
I really don’t remember many of the details from the next morning. Just that I was standing in front of the straw place mat with my five tomatoes on it. But those couldn’t mine because there was a ribbon for Third Place Premium next to them. But that was my name right there on the tag and now I’m can’t move and here comes the nice woman who helped me set up yesterday. She was all smiling at me, “Third Premium on your first try. That almost never happens,” she said. Then I was crying big fat tears and shaking and my nose was running… That was what the lady who cried was all about. Right then and there I understood exactly what she had felt on her own day just a few years before.
I walked on air for the rest of the morning. I under the impression that everybody at the fair was looking at me thinking I was wearing a Third Premium ribbon for having faded jeans. I had pinned the thing to my pants leg. The prized tomatoes ended up at the food bank. I went back to work photographing famous people, and also, most especially, other folks who I understood a little better now. I knew something.