The Dumpster: Into Thin Air

by Michael Campbell | February 1, 2014 10:52 am

Me at the Buffalo County Fair, 1972: “Please can I have some cotton candy?”


“Pleeeeeze? Pleeeaaaauuuuzzzhhh? As if adding syllables would help.


“I’ll never ask for any…”

“Fine—just to shut you up. Here’s fifty cents. Get outta here.”

“It costs seventy-five, Dad.”

“What? Seventy-five cents?! For air? For sugar air?

I shrug. Dad flips me another quarter.

The best part of getting cotton candy is watching them make it. It can’t be concocted in advance because it spoils so fast. They have to summon it before your very eyes.

First, they heat sugar in the middle of a device that looks like an empty washing machine basin. A needle valve spins, flinging thin strands of sugar-glue into the open drum, whipping it senseless until its natural crystalline structure is beat loose. Troll-doll pink hairs start appearing ghost-like along the edges, growing like a fast-motion spiderweb from a Water Willie. With a few deft twists of the wrist, the vendor whisks a long cardboard toilet paper tube through the air, gathering and cultivating strands on the baton like an orchestral conductor, building to a tippling crescendo to the grand finale: he hands me a teetering pile of Barbie-colored fluff as swirling and marvelous as grandma’s beehive hairdo.

The cotton candy machine debuted to raves at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. It’s inventor, William Morrison, was a dentist. He gave his creation the unappetizing name “fairy floss.”

Cotton candy is 100% sugar. Sugar is hydroscopic: get cotton candy wet and it shrinks immediately back into crystals like the devil from holy water. I spit onto my cotton candy to watch it retreat in craters, fairy-floss pink collapsing into blood red drops, stuck like flies in its web.

I couldn’t bite into my cotton candy because the cloud was bigger than my head. I’d tear furry strips loose and stuff them in my mouth.

Nothing there.

I saw it go in. I felt it. Yet my mouth is empty.

Another wad of a bite. The cotton candy disappears before I can chew it even once, dissolving into wee drops of sugar spit. My teeth turn red. They sting. August flies abandon blobs of ice cream spilled on the fairway dirt in favor of my sticky face. The giant cloud of pink sugar-air is soon gone, leaving no trace but a sticky cardboard tube, fuzzy-bald as an old man’s head.

There are a thousand ways to disappoint a small boy. This is one.

Perhaps it wasn’t quite nothing. I begin to feel a ringing in my ears amid an acute mental clarity. Then hyper-alertness. I’m extremely focused and energized. In a rush of renewed hyperactivity I head straight for the Zipper.

The Zipper is my favorite amusement park ride. It’s a combination of Ferris Wheel, bulldozer track, blender and shark cage. It is an assault on all your senses as you somersault from 200 feet in the air toward the littered ground, an end-over-end spin that rips loose coins from your pockets and pelts you with them like the inside of a popcorn popper.

Although I’ve eaten seemingly nothing, I barf. Pinwheels of pink gastrointestinal lacquer fling through the cage grate and across the midway. The clanging of loose coins quiets as they begin sticking to the gluey gum that lines the ceiling and floor of my torture chamber. I look on, heavy-lidded, noting that some of the coins are not mine. I’m now dimly aware of a collage of matchbook covers and ticket stubs stuck to the periphery of my cage, a time-honored tradition to be hosed away at closing time.

The ride stops with a yank. The carny unlocks the cage door. My seatbelt raises automatically. My bare white legs make a velcro sound as I rise from the black vinyl seat. A dollar’s worth of pennies, nickels and dimes are stuck on me like buttons. Halfheartedly I stoop to pry a few coins from the floor, but the barker yells for me to move along. I clear out, making room for the pale pink, pimple-faced boy at the front of the line, dutiful as a soldier awaiting D-Day. He is tearing at a giant cloud of cotton candy on a stick.


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