as a lifelong inmate of toronto,I'm supposed to have memories of childhood trips to the Canadian National Exhibition. But an entertainmentally deprived youth has left me free from such associations. Saturday afternoon, and there are plenty of CNE Special $10 parking spots off Dufferin. I lock my bike to the "Welcome to Parkdale" sign. Women are handing out "Rescue the Falun Gong Practitioners Persecuted in China" literature. On the overpass, Samuel Sings Country And Gospel and sells tapes for $10. "Two for one -- CNE special!" A smiling armless man plays a Casio keyboard for donations.
Admission to the 123rd Ex is $9 for us in the under-55 set. It couldn't possibly be a worse value than a movie. Just inside, a pair of placid elephants are ferrying children around a ring for $5. It costs the same to get a Polaroid with a "large snake."
In the Backyard Circus, the man is asking for children who want to be lions and tigers. "Any more?" He's ignoring the girls who raise their hands. He has selected only boys. He's just demonstrating the time-honoured tradition of stereotyping. The girls play "beautiful butterfly ballerinas."
Well-worn scrapbooks document the career of Daryl Maddeaux and his "Rock on Rock" art. This is his first year at the Ex. He was booked after someone saw his work at the Calgary Stampede. As the title implies, Mr. Maddeaux lays one rock upon another, the balancing challenge increasing with each addition.
As he turns the fifth rock around on the pebble beneath it, I hear a cynic. "See! He's screwing them in!"Her partner argues that there's no hole in the rock and no screw. Imagine. A Zen magician at the Ex!
The artist is completely absorbed in his task. Adults watching can appreciate his feat more than the attention-deficient children can. Those of us capable of concentrating do. Applause breaks out as the master takes his hands away from the seventh stone in his impossible-looking spire.
Today is Chinese Day, but the bandshell is empty. Shoppers Drug Mart has sponsored inflated tubes for children to hide in and junior Jeeps for practising road rage.
Scadding Cabin, Toronto's oldest house, operated by volunteers of the York Pioneer Society, is open only during the Ex. If you're lucky, you try tiny muffins from the recipe in a booklet that includes instructions for syllabub and rum shrub ($1).
I spot more than one very old lady touring the grounds alone. It's a pity the very old buildings are closed to the CNE public. The magnificent Ontario Government Building, known most recently as the Carlsberg Building, is now the Liberty Grand Entertainment Complex, advertised on TV as the ideal spot for your money-is-no-object "functions."
The attractive Press Building houses the CNE offices. There was a fundraising campaign to save the Music Building after a fire. It was rebuilt and is now the locked-up home of Immersion Studios. Medieval Times Chicken and Jousting occupies a large crystal-cupolaed structure.
The unromantic building named for Queen Elizabeth has, under the sign "Arts, Crafts and Hobbies," not quilting and crochet samples but vendors of rubber stamps, magic pens, gourmet lollipops and used comic books. Also Joanne Dale, an antique dealer who still finds the Ex rewarding after more than 20 years.
The Better Living Centre features the only all-night activity allowed on the grounds. The CNE Casino, a grim high-security operation, doesn't close until 6 am, and then for only four hours. The midway stall rented solely to publicize Woodbine Track and Slots, the countless games of chance and time-warp bingo tables underline the Ex's enduring appeal to gamblers. The only game where the odds seem stacked against the house is Fool The Guesser. Guessing somebody's age is one thing, but he's trying for the birth month.
There's a brisk trade in black henna body art ($5-$40), but a dearth of those curious enough to hire a fortune teller. Several entrepreneurs are convinced that people come to the midway to get a deal on six pairs of socks. Really, people come to the Ex to buy rugs and miracle jewellery cleaner.
Socks of the world, Iranian brasseries and too-cheap Kenyan carving and beadwork are on sale in the International Pavilion. A Jordanian pours coloured sands inside homemade bottles to create detailed desert scenes. African drums fill the air. The largest limbo dancer proves that a big belly can be a showbiz asset if you know how to work it.
Pork and beef producers have brought live meat samples to the Automotive Building, where a video recounts past agricultural glories. The Horse Palace is currently empty and sad. A certain Dan Salter has taken quite a few prize ribbons for his vegetable hidden behind the land mine exhibit.
"Single riders will be placed with a partner" almost tempts me to buy tickets for the iron-skirted witch's Ghost Mansion.
But vicarious pleasure is enough. Now it's night, and the lights on the rides are pretty. I don't need to pay to be upended, or spend $30 on a three-and-a-half-to-four-minute helicopter ride. I'm content to watch the continuous sideshow provided by the passing pleasure seekers. Sure, it was stupid to destroy the Grandstand, but the Ex has not been sterilized to death.