by Ari McKee

Urban beautification is a merciless force that sweeps across even the toughest old eyesore. Take the State Fair midway, for example. You remember the midway - bright lights, fast rides, loud dance tunes. The slightly sleazy u-shaped corner of the fair, far from the tractors and bake-offs.

The dark alley of the midway was one of the last places you could see a tube top out of captivity. The people who invented homemade tattoos, chainsmoking and parole violations - you were in their house party. It was the least dangerous couple of square acres where a high school girl could take off a layer of clothes, put on a layer of makeup and flirt with some nasty old felon chained to his booth or some great clot of Four H farmboys cheating on their calves. Thirteen-year olds tried to look eighteen, forty-three year olds tried to look thirty, football captains looked around for a fight after looking bad at the ball toss. It smelled like alcohol exhaled, bug spray, cologne, cigs and ten day old sweat. Maybe older. Maybe sweat left over from the drive up plus ten days in Indiana. Sweat you never smell anywhere else in Minnesota, sweat you could hang your hat on.

When it got dark at the midway, the baby strollers scurried back to the parking lot. The genteel vendors at Heritage Village closed up shops, folks started wandering over from the beer garden. The stoners from the KQ booth pooled their money at the french fry stand near the midway entrance and dribbled in through the gates. Older kids separated from their parents and whined about when and where to meet up again, and whether they had to bring their younger brother. Money changed hands.

Through the gates the oldest french fries fryer was on his break buying a pina colada for his coworker who's underage. Dark haired boys with the thinnest little ballpoint mustache held hands with their girls and let them pick out their own handcuff earrings or death's head lighters at the jewelry stand.

Even though the carnies looked at us like we were the worst kind of idiot they'd ever seen, we wandered over there, smiled sort of Swedishly, threw their damn projectile, badly, winning neither Motley Crue mirror nor stuffed purple snake. The carnies didn't even try to hide their disgust at our polo shirts and hemmed denim shorts, at our patently lawful lives, stripped of any manliness or ability to toss a softball into a milkcan, something anyone who's lived life under a restraining order can do blindfolded. While smoking and spitting chew. And especially while leering at our wives. "This guy," we were sure they said about us later in their double-wide opium dens, "couldn't throw a #$%&@ softball if it was &$%#-ing him in the @#$*#%!! What a $&#%# loser. His wife was hot, though. I'd like to @#$#$% a little @#$%&#* with her."

Whoever coined the word, "sneer," saw it in the face of a carny.

You don't see that kind of carny anymore, not at the State Fair. Maybe they hired a new amusements company or maybe the smoking car came loose around Tallahassee and no one noticed until Des Moines - whatever the reason, the State Fair midway carnies are looking . . . . well, they're looking a lot like Valleyfair, as a matter of fact. They're clean, they're young, they're in uniforms, they seem to feel no need to attach their wallets or cigarette cases to their belt loops with chain link. They're like camp counselors, for crying out loud.

There's no point to the midway anymore. If you're going for rides, Valleyfair is better, Como is cheaper, the Mall is cleaner, and any of them is quieter. If you need to throw money away, any casino or lottery-peddling gas station will take it, and either place serves better drinks. If you have some inexplicable craving for rock-hard, overpriced, barcalounger-sized unfluffy stuffed animals, there's always taxidermy.

But if you want atmosphere, a walk on the wild side - bright lights, big hair, bad behavior, throbbing music, shady characters, con artists, lost innocence, domestic dramas, poor parenting, unbridled lust, invisible dogs, inflatable bats, inflammable fabric, and days of unparalleled people-watching - if you are looking for all of that in a safe, contained space under a smoky blanket of Minnesota summer sky . . . good luck. It ain't at the midway anymore, folks. What's there is well-groomed and well-behaved. You could make it sit in the backseat with the merry-go-round and it wouldn't complain. Not only did they tame it, they . . . they landscaped it.

And it doesn't bode well for the rest of the Fair. What if they cleaned the whole thing up? Got rid of the weirdest of the attractions, like Little Irvy and the Snake Zoo and even those nutty tax revolters in the Hippodrome? There's people out there who would like to do that, you know.

Throw out the odder elements like the DNR gamefish pool or the seed art gallery, or, God forbid, overhaul the Old Mill, dismantling the mysterious and beloved Three Little Pigs diorama. The same folks who came up with a "prairie" motif at the Children's Museum are probably already hot-gluing tree limbs and turning the Old Mill into the inside of a beaver's dam (no beavers will be injured in the process).

Me? I'll get my slice of seamy underbelly somewhere else.

I'm just not dumb enough to say where.