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When I was a kid the summer ended when Jerry Lewis sat on a stool and smoked and cried. I got to stay up late to watch the Telethon, and was always amazed when it was still going on after I woke up. I always felt as if I’d missed something, as if they got loose and carefree and messy at 3 AM.
I thought of Jerry Lewis primarily as a telethon host, just as I thought George Gobel had no existence prior to Hollywood Squares, or didn’t know the entire cast of “The Jungle Book” had careers before they voiced their characters. We all come in at the end of something, but we never know it until we look back later.
Summer ends today, and we all know it in our bones. Which is odd, since bones cannot read a calendar. Why, summer goes on for another three weeks! Uh huh. Sure. I guess it’s bred deep from childhood: Labor Day is the last day summer can call its own. After that, no matter how warm, how sunny, how green and sweet, the days belong to Fall, raking in our chips on behalf of the house. The month marches towards the playground graveyard of October, then to the iron gates of Winter. It’s a good season, with all the necessary lessons. But this is Labor Day, summer’s property, and Fall can cool its heels outside while we play.
I always end up at the State Fair the last weekend, for work. (Haven’t gone to the Fair just to be at the Fair for years. The job requires columns, videos, and recently, appearances: I stand on a small stage and hector people into answering questions for prizes.) The day before Labor Day was a perfect day at the Fair, without a hint of what’s to come. There was no end-of-summer mood, no get-it-all-in-before-it’s-over mood. It was a perfect day in our communal Brigadoon.
COVID killed the Fair last year. This year there’s a minor mask request in the barns. Wait a minute, I have to wear a mask in a poorly ventilated room full of flatulent pigs? Forget that! Uh – hold on, let me rethink that. It didn’t kill it in 2021: The streets were filled, like a dry creek bed after a downpour. It was as if nothing had happened.
Except it had. The lack of a mask mandate made the timorous stay away. Attendance was halved, I think. (The Fair after the Thanos snap.) In a way, it made for an easier day: you can get to the Fair by parking in a distant lot and taking a free bus. I park at the U of M, my old alma mater, and for years have known better than to expect an open spot in the free lots on the weekends. You find a meter and hike. But the lots never filled. The buses were full, but not packed. The lines at every wonderful food stand were halved. It was a demonstration of a new world where some will resume life, and some choose to stay home.
On the way to the parking lot I passed all the frats and sororities. It’s pledge week. Parties on every frat lawn. One sorority had all the members out front in cheerleading costumes. All the usual fertility rituals. I always felt divorced from that side of college when I went to the U, but you can’t help but smile, and remember what it was like to be that age, at college, on a perfect day that was all the better for being not yet Fall. On the Minneapolis subreddit I saw people clucking about these parties, predicting the ICU would fill up in two week’s time. You wish, I thought.
Anyway. The Fair ends, the summer ends. The last fireworks crackle and fade. The next day is usually exactly like the one that precedes it. The buildings on the Fairgrounds are still there, after all. But the knowledge that the Fair is going on, even if you’re not there, is something that sustains you in the last ten days of summer, the trailing edge of the green smooth fabric that ran through your hands with such constance you never thought to grab it and make it pause. The day after Labor Day, you know the Fair is over – the friers are cold, the rides knocked down, the Grandstand cleared, the gondolas that crossed the sky taken down and put in the shed. It’s time to get back to work, even though you never really stopped. It’s time to get ready. Fall is our ally right now, our friend, but it will leave our side soon enough. Jerry Lewis has ground out his cigarette, and that means winter is next.Published in