It’s county fair week around us. Ah, yes, the county fair, where idyllic rural farm life meets the crazed mania of the Midway, where you can watch a tractor pull, dance to some bluegrass music and win your kid a giant stuffed animal, where you can dine on delicious but overpriced Italian sausage sandwiches, corn dogs, caramel apples and elephant ears, all delivered fresh from portable trailer restaurants, where you can walk through barns full of horses and cows and cattle and pigs and goats and sheep and rabbits all raised by proud 4-H kids, where you can see giant alligators and other reptiles and where you can “people watch” folks from all walks of life. It’s the county fair and it’s an all-American tradition.
We have been attending the same county fair for the 16 years that we have lived in our house. We don’t make it every year, but we have most. Sometimes, like this year we will go twice. A friend of my daughters was showing her horse in the riding competitions and we spent Sunday afternoon watching her and walking through the barns and looking at the animals. We hope our daughter will be riding in these same competitions next year. Later this week we will go back for an evening and ride the rides and eat cotton candy and elephant ears.
At this particular fair, as people walk the main pathway from the barns over to the midway and back, somewhere in the middle, just past the grandstand, they have typically come upon a large congregation of people standing in a half circle and watching something. Often there are kids in the front row and adults squatting down. From the back it’s tough to see what is going on, to see what all these spectators are riveted on. Pushing through, however, one can finally witness the strange event that has drawn this crowd of onlookers.
There, facing the crowd is a tall, gangly and scraggly looking man, dressed in an old tattered suit that has seen better days. The man looks tired as if Fair life has worn him down. He doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t smile or perform any tricks. He doesn’t speak or show any emotion, he just stands there… for he is not the performer. In front of this man, on a thin string-like leash is a monkey, dressed as well, in a charming little vest and shorts and a hat with a string around his chin, and he is working this crowd of kids and adults hard. But he is not juggling, he is not opening and eating a banana, he is not riding a unicycle… nothing like that. He is collecting coins from the spectators. The people in the front row are reaching into their pockets and grabbing coins and holding them towards the monkey who walks up to them and takes the coins and returns them back to the man in the suit. Parents are handing coins to their children so that they too can experience this monkey taking coins from their hands. One after another after another, coin after coin after coin. It’s cute and adorable and weird and sick and twisted… and absolutely brilliant!
It’s the Monkey Money Collector…
One year while at the fair, after seeing this Monkey Money Collector do his thing, I succumbed to my urges to participate in this bizarre spectacle and I grabbed a quarter out of my pocket and squatted down with anticipation. There we were, that cute little monkey and me, facing each other amongst this crowd of people. I smiled and held my hand out and the monkey saw the bright, shiny quarter. With a gleam in his eye he came running over to me and with his tiny little monkey hand he grabbed the quarter from me. Then he ran back to his owner and gave him the quarter. Just like that, with only seconds of time having ticked off the clock, I was 25 cents poorer and the man in the suit was 25 cents richer. He quickly left me and moved onto the next participant. I don’t quite remember, but I’m pretty sure I then handed coins to my kids who in turn gave them to the monkey.
I have to admit, as amusing as the whole concept is to me of training a monkey to take money from people, I have always felt sorry for this little fellow, as I tend to with any animal that I see out of its normal habitat. In hindsight, I suppose he probably has a good life with the strange, un-emotional man who is his keeper. I’d venture to guess, as well, that this man and his monkey are not living the high-life somewhere, off of the income earned at the county fairs they worked. But capitalism works in strange ways and somewhere, deep down inside, I hope that they have a decent life.
As my family and I walked through the fair on Sunday, I didn’t see the Monkey Money Collector and I wondered why they weren’t there. Maybe they just weren’t working this day, or maybe one of them has passed away… or maybe they have retired to a tropical island somewhere! If they are there when we attend later this week, perhaps I’ll search my pockets for a shiny new quarter.