When I was twelve and visiting my grandparents in California, we made weekly stops at the Naval Postgraduate School Thrift Shop, where the proprietress suggested that I enter a competition—she wanted me to submit my own concept for the theme of the next summer’s Monterey County Fair.
The fair was a highlight of our annual summer visits: the rides, the crop shows, the 4-H cake booth—all of it seemed magical to those of us from fair-deprived regions of the country. Raised on a steady diet of 1950s kids books, I fiercely envied the challenging but rewarding existences of those 4-H kids. I knew I could never raise my own livestock (let alone have the character to auction it), or work the cake booth, or display my crafts in the dedicated exhibition buildings. My talents, such as they were, lay in other directions. But each year, the posters and exhibits were organized around a central theme, and someone had to come up with that.
I dashed off page after page of increasingly hackish ideas. In the end, I submitted about twelve, in the spirit of playing the odds. And, come February, back in New York, I received a fat envelope from the Monterey County Chamber of Commerce: my concept of “Ribbons, Lambs, and Raspberry Jam” would be the theme of the summer’s fair. (Except that in deference to the region’s booming strawberry industry, the flavor of the jam would be altered accordingly.) It was the most exciting moment of my life. It was considerably more exciting than receiving similar envelopes from colleges six years later. For one thing, there were way more perks involved: in exchange for this top-notch ad work, I received a check for twenty-five dollars, a free family-pass to the fair, and a gift certificate to an establishment called Grandma’s Kitchen.
Needless to say, what followed was thrilling. Everywhere we went, we saw posters emblazoned with my doggerel. Ribbon-bedecked cartoon lambs gamboled amongst groves of large, ruddy-hued jars. And on the day of the fair itself, I felt like a visiting dignitary. Pies, dioramas, original art: all had been forced to bend to my idiotic theme. Random stuffed lambs poked their blank faces out of arrangements in the horticulture building. A bow-tie quilt displayed an enormous strawberry. The jam-makers, needless to say, had gone wild. Wherever we went, my grandfather announced to people that I was the originator of the theme. I pretended to be bashful; I was delighted.
After three days of glory, the excitement had dimmed somewhat. The fairgrounds were dusty, the flowers wilted. But one treat yet remained: the gift certificate to Grandma’s Kitchen. My whole family dressed up and piled into the station wagon. What a treat to be able to take everyone out myself! In the back seat, I clutched the gift certificate.
Grandma’s Kitchen sounded fantastic. I imagined homemade pies, rocking chairs, maybe a flower garden. My excitement mounted as we drove the half hour to the address we had carefully mapped at home. When we reached it, though, there seemed to be some mistake.
It was a cinderblock building in the middle of a parking lot. There were no other cars there, but that might have been because it was five-thirty. Were we in the right place? There was a sort of little guardhouse at one end of the lot; we decided after some consultation to make inquiries of the person whose shadow we could see moving about within. My grandmother slowly pulled the car abreast of the window.
“Excuse me,” she began, “is this—”
“Get out of here,” hissed a disembodied voice.
We were all sort of stunned.
“Get out of here,” the voice said again.
So we went home. I could take a hint.