The 24,000th Saddest Thing I’ve Ever Seen

This past weekend, our neighborhood had a street fair. The Wife and I usually refer to street fairs as Tube Sock Festivals, because unless they have a specific purpose/theme, they consist of booth after booth of people selling tube socks. Or little fridge magnets shaped like food. Or badly woven wall tapestries dedicated to Tupac. Nothing but dumb, cheap junk.

Still, The Baby hadn’t been out of the house all day. Two-year-olds are a lot like dogs–you need to bring them outside every few hours or they will make you pay for it. (Although with a kid, peeing on the carpet is the least of your worries.) So we decided to take a stroll to the street fair and check out the latest in roasted corn technology.

Another thing street fairs have a lot of: cheap, dumb rides. Usually the inflatable kind, where little kids can jump up and down on plastic mattresses manned by 14 year olds who don’t look like the best guardians of children’s safety.

I brought The Baby to one of the Inflatable Ball Pits of Doom, and asked the kid in charge where to buy the tickets that granted her admission. I swear this kid didn’t speak English. I don’t mean he was foreign; I mean I don’t think he was smart enough to ‘get’ speech. Like he crawled out of the woods, the member of some obscure tribe as yet undiscovered by anthropologists, who only communicate in grunts, gestures, and punching.

But before we got to the Inflatable Death Traps, I saw another quote-unquote ride that immediately filled me with sadness. I have a hard time recalling the scene now. I remember each individual detail, but all together they don’t add up to a sane picture. Still, here it is.

The ride was literally on the back of a truck. Not a flatbed truck, but a pickup truck, painted fire engine red. The paint lacked any sort of sheen, and its dullness added to this scene’s pathetic feeling. Contained in the truck’s bed was a pirate ship-type ride

pirateship.jpgI’m sure you’ve seen rides like this at fairs or in a carnival or down the shore (like this example to your right). They’re boat-shaped or large semicircles with rows of seats on each side of a pivot that rocks the ride from one side to the other. Basically, it’s a really big swing. But in the version you normally see, the ride is big enough to pitch you 20-30 feet in the air and pin you to your seat with G forces.

The mini-version I saw was not big enough to do this. Not even close. At best, the riders got six to seven feet above the truck bed. Even that estimate might be generous. With so little room to work with, the ride could only manage tiny little arcs, like it was trying back into a very tight parking spot.

Even crazier: this ride was manned by three people. One older gentleman stood the back of the bed, arms folded, not doing much of anything. Another attendant, who looked all of 15 years old, stood in the exact middle of the ride, providing some much needed ballast. A third attendant stood opposite him, just outside the ride.

At first, it looked as if this third attendant was grasping a few crucial beams that held the swing to the pivot. Like he was literally holding the ride together. Or worse, as if he was the guy moving the ride back and forth. I noted this to The Wife and we chuckled, because of course that was absurd.

But as we got closer, we saw to our horror that this third man was, in fact, the power behind the ride. He was swinging it back and forth, all for the entertainment of five or six bored-looking kids (the ride couldn’t possibly hold any more). We stifled our laughs right away and moved past the ride as fast we could, ashamed.

What struck me about this scene was that no one in it looked happy. In my own mental backstory, the three attendants represented three generations of a carnival ride business. The oldest man wanted to retire, but the economy and his pride wouldn’t let him. The youngest just wanted to hang out with his friends and resented working with his family for the summer. And the man in the middle never wanted to be in this business in the first place, but the time to quit came and went a long time ago.

And the kids on the ride looked just as unhappy. It reminded me of when I was a kid, and my dad would bring home some knockoff toy he bought from a table in the Hoboken train station. Like a Transfirmer, or a handheld video game called Pacri-Man (seriously). I would feel bad for dad, for not knowing the difference between the real thing and a cheap knockoff. I would feel bad for the poor slobs in Nowhereistan putting this garbage together. But I would mostly feel bad for me, for having to pretend like I liked this thing and play with it.

Mind you, I looked at this scene for about 20 seconds tops. And in those 20 seconds, I absorbed a Chekhov play’s amount of sadness.