Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Wisps of a Bygone Era

I spent a day, recently, at the Canadian National Exhibition. TQL was making an appearance as an "honourary judge" for some contest involving farm animals. That's much more boring than it sounds.

Oddly, these contests involving farm animals require one to dress to the nines - I had to wear a tuxedo - which forced upon me the need to go by a new one - the last one apparently had shrunk a tad. I chose a tux that looks more like a suit - thinking that that would be more practical, but knowing it will likely die of disuse.

I had been secretly hoping that TQL would actually have to touch a cow or a pig. I had my camera ready just in case. She tends to only touch such animals in restaurants. I admit I giggled when I first thought of her judging them.

They say the Canadian National Exhibition is an "institution." What they mean by that is that, as a fair (open a little less than 3 weeks a year), it is very, very old. It consists of a large midway (i.e., rides, and booths to play games, like throw the basketball into a hoop whose circumference is smaller than that of the basketball, and other equally compelling games) and a bunch of buildings housing animals, an arena, and booths selling unsellable junk. There is a small depressing casino as well, only for the addicted.

The Ex, as we call it, has undergone a slow, purposeful transformation.

At it's western end there is a grand old building, with its name engraved on the front - The Press Building.

It housed, when first built, the reporters who covered the daily events of the Ex. It's a big building. Think about that for a minute. Back in the day, the Ex received major national coverage. Why?

Well, as little as 40 years ago, the Ex was the place where most anything that was relevant to Canadians was likely to first appear - or so the myth went.

There was the Automotive Building - all the major automotive manufacturing firms had their displays set up. If you wanted to see (with wide eyes naturally) the latest Buick, this was the place to be. Today, the Automotive Building houses animals. The animals used to be in the Colliseum, which is now the Ricoh Colliseum - a hockey rink.

There was the Better Living Centre - the latest appliances and the latest furniture made their appearances here - and you could be the first to buy them here, and often at a discount. It seemed so futuristic - to see all the gadgets that weren't out on the market yet. We don't seem to have quite the same sense of wonder today, at the latest technologies - like plasma tvs. Now it houses that for-addicts-0nly casino.

There was the food building - a truly great building, dedicated to food - some of it free. It's still there, though now comprised of very unfree and largely bad fast food stalls of every ethnic persuasion. I'm old enough to remember when you could buy a pepsi there for a penny.

The events at these buildings would be dutifully reported upon, daily, in all the nation's major newspapers. Detailed accounts, too would appear about the events involving animals (cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, and horses, of course). It was considered so particularly newsworthy. If you read the appropriate columns, you'd know exactly how each farm fared.

I'm not here talking about some rural small town newspapers. I'm talking about Canada's largest.

Dutifully, every day these newspapers listed the Ex's daily attendance, and compared it to the previous year's. It was of grave concern if attendance was down. You'd see pictures of the Prince's Gates - the Eastern entrance to the Ex. We were to assume they were as glorious as Versailles.

The Human Freak Shows are now long gone.

And yet the Ex remains. Attendance is down significantly from its heyday. Prizes are still given for "best cow" (and there are still honourary judges), but it doesn't make the national papers anymore. The rides are in a pretty sorry state. There's no major roller coaster anymore (thankfully) - the landmark known as the Flyer, has long since been dismantled.

Even the Hockey Hall of Fame - the exhalted shrine of all Canadians - has moved away from the Ex.

Still, the Ex endures, perhaps currently running on those terribly provincial fumes of that bygone era where it mattered which farm the best cow came from.

No - TQL was kept a reasonable distance from the animals. Still, I got my kicks out of watching an assorted bunch of farmers in tuxedos , some with their families, get their picture taken with her - and in some cases, their prize winning creature.

We brought clothes to change into, so that we'd look less abnormal after the event. This allowed us to roam about and partake in a few games where winning is impossible.

I do so very much enjoy the Ex. But I spend my time there thinking about how it should be different. I'm not the first person, by any means, to think that. But it is the story you read, when you just look at those buildings.

Twice a day a seemingly normal man fires himself from a cannon, travelling some 80 feet, into a net. The press isn't there anymore to report on it.

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