Gary Almeter remembers the summer he discovered the Smiths, got a Swatch, and learned more from a White Water Raft Ride than just where everybody flips.
From our vantage point, people looked like swim-suited Fisher Price people; and had the same permanent gleeful expressions and vulnerable immobility as them too. The water was strong in places and currents formed; certain areas were dangerous; the concrete was slippery; the water was fast. The black kids called them doughnuts. And it was funny to see the label catch on with those who over heard them refer to them as such. Most people just called them tubes; or rafts; and a few particularly adroit riders called them inner tubes. The ride was just a large ditch carved into the side of Rainbow Mountain. It was lined with concrete painted something between Tiffany blue and turquoise and sectioned into a series of waterfalls, several small, two medium and one large, that riders went over on tubes and into little tidal pools. The riders sat atop their doughnuts and went down the ride; we supervised the smooth functioning of the whole thing at stations along the ride.
We learned later that one of these doughnut riders was named Joyce. The name connotes a simpler time – along with Linda, Brenda, Shirley and Debbie – an era of soda fountains and Jan and Dean and the Mickey Mouse Club and cars with fins. Joyce – it’s bright and fun, phonetically reminiscent of an amalgam of “juice” and “toy” or “joy” intermingled with “choice.” But its terseness, its monosyllabicism, its brevity, is also somehow sad to me.
So why think about it 27 years later? Perhaps it was the perfect storm of factors, her name, the White Water Raft Ride setting, my age, the sadness I associated with her son, the perceived love triangle, the way 007 pointed at Joyce’s hoo-hoo, the costumes these characters wore. I do remember feeling sympathy at the sight of her. And a sort of sadness; a genuine sort of sadness but one tethered by the fact that it was all happening to someone else. I regret not being nicer to Joyce. Maybe it was turning 40 and asking myself what sort of person I wanted to be and weighing that with what kind of person I was. Then taking stock of childhood transgressions – determining what was developmentally appropriate and what was perhaps symptomatic of sociopathy. Looking back, I think it was the first time I formulated an inkling of the essence of the axiom expressed in the now-ubiquitous idea that everyone you meet is fighting a battle about which we know nothing.
Until we do know it.
Growing up, there are times everyone feels invincible and times everyone feels vulnerable and times where one is tinged with the other; like the first time you kill an ant or throw a frog against a barn or see your parents get old or watch your Grandpa rub arthritis cream on his hands. There are times we are positive that we are nice and times we are positive that we are mean; times we feel pristine and times we feel like the biggest pile of mess to whom God ever gave breath. Times we feel ugly and times we feel handsome. The summer of Joyce was such a time. On the cusp of college and with renewed self-confidence, all of a sudden I had a reminder that amidst the mirth, and amidst the promise, there would always be a little bit of sadness. So I felt shame and sadness and yet, I was also proud of the way I was able to feel – not for the feeling itself but proud of myself for the ability to feel and to recognize when I was in the midst of an epiphany.
I had just started my first job that summer – on the White Water Raft Ride at an amusement park in upstate New York. The park employed thousands and I worked and frolicked with people who didn’t live near me or go to my high school and who thought differently, wore different clothes, listened to different music, had different goals. I loved learning how new systems worked and new people felt. I worked with college students and other high school students from surrounding school districts. It was positively earth shattering for me to learn that, in other schools, not everyone listens to RUN DMC or Def Leppard and that there was a band called the Smiths, and the Cure and R.E.M. that played music that sounded different and somehow contained more import. That was also the summer of Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” and the Hooters’ “Johnny B,” cautionary songs which, implicit in their caution, also introduced us to the notion that we were on the cusp of a new era in music and subsequently on the cusp of the end of 80s excess. It was the summer I bought my first Swatch with Aunt Karen. It was the summer that my co-workers and I had no choice but to talk to each other about what college was like; about what cliques in other schools were like; about what people in other towns did for fun. It was comforting to know I wasn’t an anomaly in thinking that high school just seemed to foster conformity.
I think one of the first things I learned – astonishing at the time – was that I loved meeting people. People thought I was funny and appreciated my sensitivity and not everyone was repulsed by my frail frame. I also loved the feeling of being able to reinvent myself, I was just GARY on my name tag. I wasn’t smart or nice or bad at football or predisposed to anything – I was just a guy in the striped uniform shirt and navy shorts with a whistle around my neck. Being afforded anonymity was positively liberating.
The tubes the riders used were not the inner tubes from tractor tires with which we had played when we were little. These were multi-hued, Technicolor special tubes with handles; specially equipped for the throngs of people who rode them every day. The patrons waited in line in the queue, which on hot days would smell like skin and mildew and coconut oil, this before the days of SPF. Regardless of what they were called or who was carrying them, the tubes promised a trip down the white water raft ride filled with refreshing mirth.
Everything churned. The water, the people, the workers. As hours turned into shifts and shifts turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, we developed friendships and noticed patterns and people. That was the summer everyone had a Swatch watch or two; Jams were big; as were bikinis. Packs of guys would inevitably get out of their tubes and cause mischief. Adolescent girls held hands and screamed. Adolescent guys carried their girlfriends’ doughnuts up the hill for them. We saw repeat riders. We knew in which of the whirlpools loose change and watches and necklaces and wallets would eventually end up. We knew where and when kids would get scared. We knew where and when fat people flipped.
One of the regulars was Joyce. I can’t recall the first time I saw her or even if there was a first time. It was colleague named Monroe (aptly nicknamed by me due to her resemblance to Jim J. Bullock of “Too Close for Comfort”) who first identified her as a person of interest and identified her as Wig Woman. Wig Woman was tiny. Wig Woman wore a gigantic wig with billions of tightly wound brown curls that started at her forehead and cascaded all the way down her back. She was tan to the point of being swarthy and her skin was leathery. Wig Woman wore a bright red coral-hued bikini with a gold hoop in the top piece where the straps came together. Grizzled would be a good way to describe her.
There were two things about Wig Woman which made us notice her in addition to her ubiquity. First, she tried desperately not to get her wig wet, which was no small feat on a ride designed to get riders soaked. We also noticed Wig Woman’s retinue of companions, of which there were three. There was a son about 10 or 12 years old, young enough to be reliant on her but old enough to be embarrassed at times. He was pale, freckled, with long dirty blonde hair. There was an older man, who resembled the son. He was also pale, resembled an albino Kimodo dragon, wore a white Speedo and generally lacked enthusiasm for both Wig Woman and the whole endeavor. Lastly, there was a taller, tan man who also wore a Speedo. He looked like a red neck James Bond – sinewy with the sort of walk that belied the fact he fancied himself a refined sort of fellow. But he also had a sort of primal grit to him. When he rode the Raft Ride with Wig Woman, he did so with gusto and shrieked and howled along with Wig Woman. He pointed naughtily at Wig Woman’s vagina when she would swing her legs up in the air descending a slide. They giggled and winked at each other and stuck their tongues out at each other. Naughtily. Redneck James Bond and Albino Komodo never accompanied Wig Woman at the same time which made us think that some malfeasance was afoot.
We developed a flirtatious rapport with Wig Woman, routinely engaging in waves hello and nods of the head and “How you doing today?” just by virtue of the fact that we saw her so frequently and could spot her raspberry bikini so easily. She was the only one in her retinue with whom we engaged. The son kept to himself; the older reptilian man we identified as her husband seemed catatonic; and the redneck James Bond fellow seemed to want to fly under the radar and not engage us. Part of our flirtation involved trying to get Wig Woman’s hair wet. There were several sprinklers and sprays along the ride that we could manipulate with our bare feet to squirt people so inevitably we did our best to water Wig Woman. Nothing cataclysmic happened when Wig Woman’s wig got wet. And she laughed with us – reveling in the extra attention. It was clear Wig Woman liked attention. And sometimes we laughed with her; sometimes we laughed at her. I don’t think she knew the difference. Neither her laugh nor her voice sounded like I thought it would. I thought it would be husky and grizzled. It was smooth and buttery. And oddly comforting.
It was also Monroe who discovered her name was Joyce. And it was less an epiphany than it was a sort of nonchalant awareness. She never told us that she discovered Wig Woman’s real name, she just sort of said “Hey Joyce” during one of Wig Woman’s routine trips down the white water raft ride.
Wig Woman was with red neck 007 that day, a day like any other. Despite her adeptness at the White Water Raft Ride, Wig Woman flipped her tube at a particularly treacherous portion of the ride and was submerged for about five seconds. I held riders at the top of the hill while she extracted her tiny leather derriere from the tube and stood up. When she did, her wig was soaked and sat lifelessly atop her head. Her bikini top had also fallen to reveal not two breasts but two tiny scars where her breasts would’ve been. I do not know if my face looked how I felt – if my mouth was agape and my eyes wide; I do know that all the other amusement park stimuli slowed down and became muffled while my brain simmered and stomach slumped. I helped her out, helped her put her prosthesis enhanced bikini top back on and sat with her while she caught her breath. Her skin did not feel how it looked. It yielded in a way I had never felt before. She told me through gasps that she bumped her head on the concrete floor but didn’t want us to call a paramedic or anything. I helped her up and walked her down the hill where the man with whom we assumed she was cheating was waiting. It made me sad that he hadn’t made any effort to abbreviate his ride and see how she was doing.
Prior to that day, I had never asked myself why Wig Woman wore a wig. I don’t think I was even aware of chemo’s effect on a body. Since then I’ve had occasion to reacquaint myself with the tenets of mortality. Life is short. I’ve lost loved ones and pets and opportunities and developed a whole new series of regrets. A life is peppered with reminders of our mortality. Ironic and necessary.
I’m not even sure of the right tone to strike here. As evidenced by my chronic use of the terms Wig Woman and redneck James Bond, I’m clearly not that contrite. She affected me somehow yes, but am I more of an observer? Or, am I remembering, to paraphrase Updike’s story about a boy who also has a bathing suit related epiphany, just the way my stomach fell as I felt how hard the world could be.
Photo: Owen Byrne/Flickr