Bumper Cars

When you teach eleventh grade English, you end up reading Thoreau. “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” he tells us. He tugs at me every time I read him, just as Rilke does when he says, “You must change your life.” If I remember my Rilke right, there is a line break between change and your, so in that tiny breath between lines, while your eyes scan down the page, you rest. You don’t see Rilke’s imperative coming at you until it’s too late to hit the brakes.  The oracle has spoken.

It’s July, 2016, and everything is hard. I’m here and not here. I’m thinking about Thoreau and Rilke and one great day at an amusement park in the summer of 2014.

Cliff’s Amusement Park in Albuquerque, which used to be called Uncle Cliff’s before it grew up, defines a responsible person (an RP if you will) as anyone who is “over 54 inches.”

That simplifies things nicely, don’t you think? If the top of your head stretches four and one half feet above the planet, you have reached the age of reason. (It turns out that this is precisely the same methodology the New Mexico DMV uses to issue drivers licenses, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

54 inches is an important number at Cliff’s. If you are 54 inches tall, not only are you responsible, but you can also ride The Cliff-Hanger, the Rattler, the Sidewinder, and every other ride in the park, all by your sensible self.

48 inches is another important milestone in the amusement park business. If you are 48 inches tall, you are what I might call an FP, or a Forgetful Person. At four feet even, you might remember to hold your little brother’s hand in line, but forget to wait for him as you get off the Galaxy, leaving him behind like just another lost lunchbox or library book or jacket or jump rope or another jacket on the playground. If you were just six inches taller, you would never make that mistake.

42 inches matters at Cliff’s, too. If the distance between the bottom of your feet and the top of your hair is three feet and a half, and you were just responsible enough to bring an RP with you to the park, together you can ride a few of the rides otherwise reserved for the more elevated, like the Mega Water Monkeys and the Rocky Mountain Rapids. If you did not bring one of those RPs, or if the RP you brought would rather ride with an FP, you are out of luck. (Sorry, Dude.) Hence your designation as a YP, or Yearning Person. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll lump everyone else into a final category. We’ll call them SPs, for Short People, or Sad People, as the case may be.

As the summer of 2014 rollercoastered to an end, my husband and I, 132 inches (or a total of 2.444 RPs), took 1 RP, 1 FP, and 1 YP to Cliff’s.  When we’re not at Cliff’s, height measurements become less critical, and we tend to call these children Cali, Aurora, and Luke (from tallest to shortest).

Years ago, when Luke was still an SP, we took the kids and their parents to Six Flags in Dallas. The main thing I remember about that day is driving with Luke in one of those real-ish cars on real-ish roads with real-ish signs and traffic signals. I remember this moment because the tiny, meek, reserved little boy who couldn’t reach the pedals grabbed the steering wheel from my hands and started yelling “Wahoo!” as soon as I stepped on the gas. I’m pretty sure this is exactly what Walt Whitman meant when he said, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” Luke yawped and wahooed until we got out of the car.

I remembered Luke’s wild wahoo that August when the two of us finally ditched the RP and the FP and headed toward Kiddieland. Luke spotted the bumper cars and accelerated toward them like an Albuquerque driver at a yellow.

It was a quiet morning in the park, so Luke was able to ride, exit, run to the end of the line, and get right back on. All of the SPs and YPs were doing it, going round and round on the bumper cars like one of those bands of rubber ducks rotating around a wheel in a shooting gallery.

This morning, there isn’t a whole lot of driving going on in the bumper car arena, unless you count the parents. They are going wild on the side of the road. “Gun it, Priscilla!” one woman (I am certain she is a Girl Scout troop leader) yells at her daughter, who looks at her mother and waves as she drives into the wall. “Drive, ‘jito, drive!” another man hollers to his son in the bright red car.  Soon so many shouts of drive, turn, use the gas, watch where you are going, look out are filling the air like a traffic jam that I’m beginning to feel that I’m trapped in the square of a comic strip bursting with word bubbles. I decide to move away from the scout leader.

To be fair to the parents, these children are terrible drivers. Little YP1 in the Grateful Dead t-shirt can’t tell the brake from the gas. Redhead YP2 lurches into the wall the moment the ride begins and never gets free.  SP1 in the Dodgers cap crashes into SPs 3, 4, and 5. SP5 starts crying, at which point his mother (not the Girl Scout leader) starts trying to convince the RP in charge to stop the ride. She’s a bored fourteen-year-old (1.4 RPs, I’d estimate) listening to invisible earbuds and pretending she can’t hear the parent. YP3 in the princess t-shirt is stuck alone in the corner, waiting to be rammed back into action by another uncoordinated child who might accidentally bump her free. I am watching Luke with no intent whatsoever of coaching him on an amusement park ride. (Really, I’m the outlier here?) He is sitting in his car, all forty or fifty pounds of him, leaning gently against the driver’s side door. His left arm rests on the open window while he steers with one hand. James Dean cool.

I can’t tell what he’s doing at first. He’s not driving into the piles of cars hung up all over the arena, and he’s not taking aim and deliberately ramming into people, which, to be fair to these future bad drivers of Albuquerque, is actually the point of bumper cars.

No, Luke is following one of those old driver’s ed mantras that still pops into my head from time to time: “Aim high in steering.” He’s looking down the road, picking his path, maneuvering between cars. He is making decisions on the fly—can I get between that clump of cars ahead left before that nearsighted boy in the green car breaks free and hits me? Can I pass this girl who keeps forgetting to press on the pedal before she closes the gap on my right? Can I do it without taking my foot off the gas? Can I do it with one hand? This little boy is teaching himself how to drive. His whole body yawps wahoo!

Luke gets off and gets back on, still beaming, and I’m watching him and thinking about Albuquerque drivers. When I moved here from Chicago in 1988, my car insurance skyrocketed.  People here don’t slow down at stop signs and accelerate through red lights. The only time you can count on Albuquerque drivers to stop is right after they have entered a roundabout. A few years ago a man who was eating a bowl of cereal rear-ended me after I’d been stopped for almost a full cycle at a red light. I can still see the bowl on the dashboard and the cheerios splattered inside his windshield. I’m reminded of Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby. When Nick Carraway tells her she’s a bad driver, she says that’s ok, other people are careful. She wouldn’t last a day in Albuquerque.

Luke waves as he makes another loop off the ride and back onto the ride. I wave back, and pretend I don’t see the Girl Scout leader, who thinks I was waving at her.

I know some of you probably think your city has the worst drivers, but trust me, you are wrong. Put on a helmet and come visit. KRQE, one of our local news channels, reported that “According to Wallethub.com, New Mexico is ranked dead last in the nation when it comes to driving safety.” I have no idea who Wallethub.com is, but I know they are right.  “All State,” my husband says when I tell him what I’m writing about. “It was All State who called us the worst drivers in the country.” There. How’s that for evidence? All State knows crashes.

Around and around Luke goes, never so much as brushing another car. I’m slipping into his rhythm, giving myself to the railing I’m leaning on, to the sun in my eyes, to the feel of my damp shorts still drying from the water slide. I’m trying to figure out, RP and then some that I am, why this moment matters.

I remember one night at Kennywood. I was riding on the Umbrellas. I was swooping up into the air alone, looking out over the Caterpillar and the paddleboats, listening to the wooden roar of the Racers. It was dark and something happened. I realized that I wasn’t just experiencing the moment; I was writing it. I was talking it through in my head, recording it in words as the stars swung around each time. I was living it and watching myself live it.

Luke doesn’t look like he’s watching anything as he slides between two cars. Joy shoots off him like a sparkler. He’s closing the circuit, powering his own car.  He’s a waxing moon scooting around on a magnetic floor, sculpting his own orbit.

Sometimes I write and write and have no idea why these particular words are in such a hurry, elbowing their way up into my throat, only to mill around while I try to figure out why I want to say them.  Then something happens in my life, and I realize I’ve been writing about it for weeks.

That didn’t happen with this essay. I left it buried in my “essays” file and moved on to some other idea. I tried tacking on a quote from a Ruth Stone poem I like (“In the next galaxy” she writes, “things will be different”), and brought Thoreau (“eternity remains”) back in, but all the strands kept hanging there separately, try as I might to weave them together.

Then today I remembered that one time I wrote a poem that won a prize. “The word is Americana” I said in the poem. I was thinking about sticky cotton candy on a boardwalk, holding hands in the mall, my brother working on an old Pontiac in the driveway, a man running his fingers across a name at the Vietnam Memorial in DC.

I wasn’t thinking about all those people who died in that war. I wasn’t thinking about the people who weren’t allowed to walk on that boardwalk. I was thinking about those moments of presumed innocence; those moments when a baby cries or a person falls in love and that awful human hope propels us into believing that we’re all living out some beautiful, tragic mystery together.

Back in 2014 the bumper cars go silent again, and Luke waves at me tentatively. The sun is still in my eyes and I’m wondering what the hell I could have meant by Americana. All Luke wants to know is “Can I go again?” I nod.  I could watch him drive all day.


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