During summers when I was a kid, my friends would often disappear with their families to the Jersey shore or the mountains to paddle in the lakes and I would ask my dad when we would go on vacation. He said, 'You're a kid. You're always on vacation.' and the conversation was OVER. I didn't know that it was a matter of having (or rather, never having) the money and the hours at work for him to take time off; I just accepted it as my reality that I was to eke out my own recreational endeavors, because my other choices were limited to babysitting my siblings, playing handball against our concrete stoop (while babysitting my siblings), making kites in the garage out of construction paper, Elmer's glue and Tinker Toys a la da Vinci, or submitting myself to the mercies of my grandmother who regarded me as a mini serf available to scrub every step in the house, to gut the garage and basement and to clean cobwebs from the attic and closets, to name a few. She was pretty creative with torturous household chores. If I was good, I got an applesauce and butter sandwich. I said fuck that shit and looked for a way to disappear.
Every Saturday morning, my grandmother would make a sumptuous breakfast for anyone who woke up early (and put their slippers on; bare feet was an offense worse than profanity) and then she and my mother would go out and shop. For the record, I rarely made it to her breakfasts. I was an inveterate insomniac and didn't finally fall asleep (if I did at all) until dawn. This routine of mine was always met with disdain and a prediction I would amount to nothing. I figured I could fry my own damned bacon in peace and BAREFOOT once they left.
First they'd hit every yard and garage sale on the entire eastern seaboard. Then the thrift and consignment shops, then they'd end the day with the weekly grocery shopping. Often, they would stop at the house to have the available serfs (us kids) unload the full tailgate, so they could continue shopping, and woe if one was in the house but did not answer the cruise ship horn of the Mercury Grand Marquis station wagon, which evoked as much terror in me as the sound effects of the martian space crafts in The War of the Worlds. I had been requested to join them, assimilate, be one with them, but they already had my toddler sister and I knew these were not joyful women-bonding events because they enjoyed these weekends with the grim and determined faces of ruthless consumerism. They just wanted me to run up and down aisles grabbing stuff they'd forgotten or tend to my sniveling, bored and hot sister or carry bags to and from the car and one day when I could not escape them, I stood at a bulletin board near the exit doors of Shop-Rite and saw a piece of paper that changed my life. FREE DAY CAMP.
I ripped it off the board and folded it up and shoved it in my pocket as my mother hollered for me to grab my sister's sandal as she kicked it off while sitting in that seat in the carriage, that seat I wish I could sit in and swing my little legs but I was always too big, too big but now I figured, too big for that but not too big for this so on the day noted I arrived at the day camp with the required dollar (couch cushions are veritable bank vaults) with all the other rag-tag kids in my neighborhood. I discovered quickly that there was one of these camps in every neighborhood and the city paid for everything, except a dollar, so as long as I had that covered, theoretically, I could spend every day on the bus going somewhere awesome.
I learned to sing On Top of Spaghetti, Hello Mutha Hello Fatha, Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall plus every top-forty song because when the bus' radio wasn't working, I had my trusty Radio Shack Realistic lime green transistor radio and I absolutely without any remorse whatsoever would cannibalize every single appliance in the house that used the batteries required to make my radio sing. Oh I may not have yet become an intrepid shopper, but it appeared the ruthlessness known to the women in my family was innate in me and was in fact, sharply honed by self-preservation and a little bit of bloodthirsty desperation to never ever EVER be at that house when that fucking car showed up blaring, COME OUTSIDE, COME OUTSIDE, LET'S GO, LET'S GO. I was already long gone.
I didn't make any friendships during those trips. It wasn't a conscious decision. I guess I considered my friends on vacation were still my friends and I had no desire to play little girl games which might distract me from the claw games and carnival rides at shore towns and boardwalks up and down the Jersey shore or hiking up a mountain at a state park in Pennsylvania. My biggest concern was conning my parents into signing the permission slips until I mastered their signatures. At that age, I had not yet learned to cave to their pressure and disdain for my independence and still had disdain for their disdain for me. I put on my sandals and Snoopy shorts and walked three and a half blocks and through a park to meet the bus everyday.
If it rained, we made crafts in a municipal building on site. I learned how to sew and made a bunny rabbit hand puppet. I also learned through another intrepid explorer, how to make a noose. I would later be thrown out of my first Girl Scouts meeting for showing another girl how to make one to hang her Barbie dolls too, because no one had the forethought to tell me it was illegal in New Jersey to teach someone how to make a noose, no matter how tiny or ornate (some of mine were delicately woven with satin rosettes and pom-poms stolen from my grandmother's sewing room) but then, I was learning how to survive and if that included eating ants or hanging upside down from the highest monkey bars in the playground to prove how tough I was, I was willing to take the risk of incarceration or my ass beat with my father's belt.
We often went to the same places which was fine with me. I got to know them inside-out and enjoyed the little corners never discovered by the usual tourists. I spent a lot of time at the Newark Museum for Children, Suntan Lake, Turtle Back Zoo, Keansburg Amusement Park (too rich for my blood, never went inside but played the games on the boardwalk) and Bertrand Island, an amusement park where it seemed all dangerous carnival rides went to fall into further disrepair and die in rusty murky obscurity. I loved Bertrand Island because it was indeed a small island worthy of Peter Pan and his Lost Boys and I'd wander the park listening to the Magic by Pilot and Afternoon Delight by Starland Vocal Band on the loudspeakers, hoping to find magical sprites and exotic birds and animals. Instead I found the Whip-It.
Four round cars rolled around on a giant X that whirled around and around until you were sure you'd dry heave and then it would snap and throw your car into a long cool tunnel bumping along while you screamed in the dark. The workers there were bored as hell and hardly ever took our tickets and often kept the ride running for ten minutes and it was the most exhilarating thing in the world. I have no idea how I never got whiplash and I never saw that ride at any local summer carnival but it was the one thing that my heart thumped for all summer long for at least three years.
Every now and then, if the Whip-It was down (actually, it frequently was probably due to lawsuits) I'd have to find another ride to try out. I was a pretty loyal tenacious little kid and stuck with what I liked but I had a taste for the unknown and exotic too so I found something called the Torpedo of Death. Okay, that was probably my name for it and I can't find any record of it in the history of the park (Woody Allen filmed some scenes from Purple Rose of Cairo in '83 there, which seems to be its biggest claim to fame) but it taught me one of the most profound lessons about my own character.
I was lonely. I was ten, eleven and I felt unwanted and unloved and invisible to my parents except as a servant. My father had the habit of telling me my ideas were stupid and I didn't want what I wanted, that I wanted what he thought I wanted and I was no longer allowed to sit on his lap and watch monster movies with him, and my mother was always too busy or would give me weekly Silent Treatments over some mystical infraction and I was spending a lot of time avoiding two uncles whom my parents never seemed to notice were paying way too much attention to me, so my feeling of belonging anywhere was at an all time low. My insomnia increased with everything going on at home, and I was sleepwalking when I did drift off but still I'd wander, wander, looking for something I didn't think I had but wanted really bad.
So I stood there contemplating this ride which was pretty simple in appearance. It was a circle somewhat on its side and in the tracks were rockets that a body would lie in, while the circle would speed around and around until centrifugal force would make one flatten against the seat but nobody told me that that would indeed happen. I stepped inside my rocket, which had seen better days and probably had been part of the early Soviet space program so I imagined myself a cosmonaut. If a dog and a couple of monkeys could do it, so could I, I reasoned, although I worried that they had helmets and I'm pretty sure, seat-belts and I did not. However, it was too late to turn back. The ride began and I held on to the sides of the car.
I remember it was a really sticky hot day in August and one of the worst because it had rained in the morning and the sun was merciless. These were the days before sunblock so although I had my dad's dark Italian eyes and hair, I had my mother's Polish snow-white skin and even that day, I recall looking at my pink swollen arms and legs, knowing that I would pay for it later that night, tossing and turning and never having a cold enough side of the pillow. That was the price for being a voyager into the unknown and I took my lumps as I always had. This trek, however, would be different.
The ride began to speed up and I began to have difficulty sitting up so I attempted to lean back but that meant I would lose my grip on the sides of the car. There were no real handles, so I was literally white-knuckling bare metal in one hundred degree weather and the palms of my hands and my fingers were burning and I felt as if my muscles were tearing as I held on screaming not in joy but in terror because I was certain that at some point, like the Whip-It, my rocket would be released and I would be flung straight into the sun without a helmet, without a seat-belt, without any damned sunblock and still I hung on screaming, screaming, screaming, the tears flowing up my forehead rather than down because of the force of direction. I didn't think. I just held on. I held on and I held on and finally the ride began to slow and then stop. We all staggered off and I felt as if my arms were a foot longer than they were when I got on. The pain would last for over a week but I survived and not only that, I had beaten the ride. I did not lie back and I did not let go. I didn't question my ability to hold on, nor did I analyze the odds or my options. I held on because something inside me said I wasn't invisible, I wasn't unwanted, and I wasn't going to die. At least, not on that day.
I have done things and made decisions in my life that I'm not entirely proud of, in fact, things that shame and disgust me. I have experienced, endured and in some ways been the architect of my own wreckage but there has always, as long as I've been conscious of it, a theme in my life of rebuilding, starting over and recreating what was thought to be lost and even now, I'm rebuilding against seemingly insurmountable odds but I don't intend to just survive. I remember those carnival rides and both feared and loved them and faced them anyway and still found delight in my humble couch-cushion discoveries. I intend to be like that little girl who nobody told what was supposed to happen, and pretty much nobody cared, and fly off into the sun, on my own terms, in my own time, with my own indomitable spirit. Hopefully with sunscreen. And maybe a helmet.