Editor's note: This story was originally published on Oct. 13, 2017. We are bringing it back for this year's State Fair of Texas.
They file toward the exit gates with half-eaten bags of cotton candy, with sleeping kids tucked in strollers and giant stuffed pandas locked under their arms.
It’s time to buy the last funnel cake. To take the final selfie with Big Tex. For one more carousel spin, one more stroll down the midway. Only 15 minutes remain before the State Fair of Texas shuts her eyes, yet behind the glass windows of a coupon booth, Brandy Mosley gets a head start, nodding off at the end of her 12-hour shift.
Soon enough, the flickering lights above her booth will stop, a signal to every stand like a bartender announcing last call.
Plastic curtains will wrap the concession stands, while Big Tex will say his final welcome. And for those who remain at the State Fair through the night — the workers, the animals, the police officers — an unfamiliar sound creeps through Fair Park.
It washes over Michael Jenkins as he grips a plastic bag of oversized unicorns. At this hour, just before returning to an RV park or motel, carnival workers at the midway restock their games with plush unicorns, giraffes, Pikachus and pandas.
But for the 53-year-old, the true signal of a workday’s end is when the garage doors of the carousel shut, taking with them the looping melody.
By then, the damage is done. “You can’t get that song out of your stinking head,” Jenkins says.
For the animals, silence means it’s time to rest. Boris, the champion boar weighing in at 1,155 pounds, twitches in his sleep, uninterrupted in a heap of sawdust. Across the way, after being touched all day by tiny hands, the petting zoo animals decompress, mingling in a large arena.
By 11:30, a zebra settles next to a cow. A donkey, searching for his own kind, walks around a camel, then weaves between a group of ostriches, moments away from sleep.
Yet for some at the fair, the workday is only beginning. There’s Francisco Gallardo, 29, power-washing the area around Big Tex, the steps and concrete littered with a day’s worth of gum, melted ice cream and mustard.
Nearby is William Fletcher, the third generation of the Fletcher’s Corny Dogs dynasty, delivering 8,000 pounds of corny dog mix to one of their stands, which, he says, will “probably need to be restocked in a few days.”
At 2 a.m., Jerome Roberts and Jean Ficken sit alone on the midway, surrounded by stuffed animals, flickering lights and the creaking joints of rides. Together, the two carnival workers cap off their 16-hour shifts by cleaning out the water pools of the Duck Pond game, the one where you reach into a pool and grab a rubber ducky.
“But every once in awhile, you’ll get somebody who wants to stick their head in the tank,” says Roberts, 57. “I’ve seen it happen already at this fair.”
The most consistent presence navigating the empty walkways are police officers. Sgt. Tracy Smith patrols from a golf cart, while others use squad cars. At times, they find drunks and homeless people, but more often, they see stray cats and dogs.
Smith has worked the night shift the last five years. He enjoys the quiet. The fair is a peaceful, sometimes creepy place when the crowds are gone. Just the other night, a fire alarm in the tropical-themed funhouse went off. He and another trooper went inside — navigating through the dark, surrounded by curved mirrors, spinning objects and moving floors.
“It was strange,” he says.
His crew is also responsible for corralling loose livestock. Last year, a few cattle broke free, so one officer used his lariat from home.
Their shift ends at 7 a.m., just as the gates open again. By then, Big Tex has awoken, already saying his first welcome. Jearlean Coleman is on her feet scanning tickets, a 78-year-old ready with greetings of “Good morning” and “Have a great day.”
The petting zoo animals are back in place. Concession workers remove their curtains. The fryers at Fletcher’s are bubbling, heated to 365 degrees.
And once again, the State Fair starts where it ends: the coupon booth. Lights flicker back to life at 8:45 a.m., where Eldon Williams, 62, is sitting behind a glass window with a stack of tickets worth $1,500.
This is his fifth year working the fair. Just last week, he met a family from Russia, and another from Sudan. That’s his favorite part. But the workdays are long. Today, his shift will last more than 12 hours.
“I cherish the quiet,” Williams says, well before the Big Tex selfies, carousel’s song and mustard spills return.
“Because I know it won’t last.”