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Multiple messages 

What's the first thing I run into at the fair? A big Bush-Cheney banner, atop the Republican Party's booth, and--as I push down the aisle of the so-called Education Building--Bill Fletcher, a member of the Wake County school board who's already running to be the Republican candidate for state Superintendent of Schools. Fletcher's not waiting for the world to come to him. He's reaching out and touching folks. "I want to lead your public schools," he says, offering a "Fletcher" sticker. "Is this a good place to get your message out?" I ask him. "Nah, I'm not sure there's any political message you can get out in 2 1/2 seconds," he says. But shortly, he tries: "We need a Republican to lead our public schools." To which the next fellow replies: "I agree with that. And you're the man?" "I am," Fletcher answers back.

Well, there's a message, because it's easily understood that putting a Republican in charge of the schools would constitute a change from the status quo, which is that the Democrats running everything in North Carolina except the Labor Department ('cause we're anti-labor) and the Supreme Court ('cause we're tough on crime). Over at the Democratic booth, the message is steady as she goes. The party's handing out cards listing all the stuff they've done--like "Exhibiting the best business climate ..." and "Receiving one of the highest overall grades on Education Week's seven annual 50-state report card ...." Now, that'll get your heart racing.

Of course, the Republicans aren't saying exactly how they'd change any of the Dems' list (except perhaps that the GOP's proximity to the N.C. Right to Life booth is a tip-off on the abortion issue). But at the fair, do you really need to spell that out. The whole place is backward-looking--it's all about giant pumpkins and rusty (sorry, antique) farm implements.

In the official State Fair guide, I notice they had electricity in 1884, a photography exhibit in 1894, and their first airplane exhibit in 1910. (First ham biscuit: 1916.) Things were forward-looking, it seems, until 1950, when the Village of Yesteryear opened. Since then? There was a CyberSpace exhibit from 1995 to 2000, but it's gone now, and with it any sign that our objective as a state is not to weave better rugs or slice thinner carrots (with the Original Borner V-Slicer, $20).

Oh, here and there are signs of a sentient culture. The Scrap Exchange, a Durham nonprofit whose mission is recycling the detritus of our material existence, is set up outside Dorton Arena with educational fare for the kids. I'm struck by the futility--and necessity--of it, given that litter is everywhere on the fairgrounds, mainly, I think, because there are way too few trash barrels. There are no recycling containers anywhere. Jeff Hughes, the board president, says fair organizers have tried in the past, but the public consistently "contaminates" recycling bins by, for instance, throwing garbage in with the bottles. This year, Hughes says, they've got a few of the vendors set up with bins. "We're just gonna see how it goes," he adds doubtfully.

Will there come a day when all at the Fair is recycled? "I hope so," Hughes says. "The key is to get the kids, and let them work on their parents."

Elsewhere, one of the small out-buildings houses exhibits by the state Division of Public Health, GlaxoSmithKline, the Duke Diet & Fitness Center and the N.C. Soybean Producers Association, all of which are aimed at making you think twice before ordering large fries--or any fries--with that multi-burger. The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association's exhibit promoting organic farming--"fresher, tastier and more nutritious"--was especially eye-catching. Bill Dow, the group's chairman, says more people need to buy healthy foods, but first, more people need to grow them. His 2003 message: "We gotta have more production."

Needless to say, though, theirs was a lonely outpost in the vast agglomeration of sausage, cotton candy and cholesterol.

Finally, two notes on urban living. On Saturday night, I took the Raleigh CAT bus out. $4 round-trip, exact bills required. And there were three of us, so it cost $12. On Sunday, I didn't have four ones, and the ATM wasn't gonna give 'em to me. So I drove my car, avoided the congestion in which the bus got trapped by taking Edwards Mill Road, and parked for free at Carter-Finley Stadium. Is it any wonder transit doesn't work in the Triangle?

And could anything be more apparent about the fair than that people are dying for something to do with other people? Put enough cheesy rides, games and pig races together in one place, and out come the crowds, partly because they like the people-watching and a chance to walk where it's safe, because so many others are there doing the same thing.

Create a real downtown in Raleigh or Durham, and people will come. Don't, and they'll head for the mall. EndBlock

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