New York City
October 16, 2000
Here is all that need be said about my experience gambling in Atlantic City. At the Trump Taj Mahal I played $1-$3 seven-card stud for four hours, sipping free whiskey and making jokes with strangers, and I lost all of seven dollars. Then I played slots and lost seven times that in a quick, mean, and lonely forty minutes.
As they say: easy come, easy go. Gambling makes for good aphorisms and invites one to meditate on risk, determinism, addiction, and faith. It's tempting to use gambling as a metaphor when writing about the Jersey Shore. But I would rather discuss the metaphoric power of the Slingshot, which stands at 8th and Boardwalk, a handful of miles south of the Taj Mahal, in Ocean City, New Jersey.
Like all good metaphors, the Slingshot is versatile and may be seen from many different angles. Walking along the boardwalk, a smiling line of taffy, water-ice, fried dough (or, more specifically, "funnel cake"), and mini-golf establishments on the right, the dark ocean on the left, the Slingshot is seen first and from afar as two enormous towers lit with neon, 100 feet high. As one grows closer, one sees that between them is suspended a spherical cage that rotates freely around its horizontal axis, where cables stretch from either side to the tips of the two towers. There are two seats inside the sphere which, after an hydraulic mechanism tightens the cables, carry two occupants 200 feet into the air at 100 miles per hour, while spinning. It is the sort of thing that its creators bill as a "ride." It is the sort of thing that, when seen from the ground at the very base of the towers, inspires one fourteen-year-old girl with very large teeth to somberly explain to her shorter, uglier girlfriend: "I'm not saying that you're going to die. I'm just saying if you do die, it was meant to be."
* * *
The summer before last, we were fearless. In 1999, Katherine and I came to Ocean City for an engagement party that my mother and her five sisters threw for us on the deck of my Aunt Susan's summer home on Ocean City's Gold Coast. The Gold Coast is the southerly end of the town, the new money mansions as opposed to the thirties-era salt-boxes up north. We opened presents until dusk fell. Then Katherine and I hiked down to the main drag of the boardwalk and took on everything the amusement parks had to offer: the Giant Ferris Wheel, The Inverter, The City Jet, The Spanish Galleon (Katherine's favorite). We were thrown and twisted and twirled, and Katherine almost got sick but didn't. My grandmother was alive then, and so was my mother.
Several weeks after we left, this happened: a new roller coaster at Wonderland Pier, the Wild Wonder, apparently malfunctioned. Apparently the car nearly reached the apex of its first major ascent when some mechanism failed. It began to roll backwards, gathering speed. When it slammed into the car behind it, which was being loaded with passengers, another mechanical failure apparently occurred, allowing two occupants, a young woman from New York and her very young child, to be thrown from their restraints. They flew out of the car, through the air, and into a steel support beam. They died instantly, apparently.
As well, as you may recall from my last letter, my grandmother died the following Christmas, and my mother died the following June, six days after my birthday, both quickly, both with little warning. And then in August we returned to Ocean City again. People asked: will it be hard going back to Ocean City without your mother? And I had no answer, the same non-answer I had and have to any question about how hard it is or will be now that all these things have happened: Jesus, I don't know. Where's the funnel cake?
So that is what we sought as we mounted the boardwalk our first evening in Ocean City this summer, and we found it. There is always funnel cake, and there are always lovely Irish or Czech teenagers imported for the summer ready to serve it up. Katherine and I went to Atlantic Books with their great piles of publisher's remainders. We visited the mall that used to host individual booths of antique dealers. Ten years earlier I had gone there to find a vintage postcard to send to Katherine, who did not know then that I loved her. Now it mainly sells rock t-shirts, cheap jewelry, surf gear, electric flashing navel studs. Katherine and I watched an eleven-year-old girl as a forty-year-old man applied a temporary rhinestone tattoo of a butterfly to her very tan belly.
Then we reached the rides. At Wonderland Pier, no one seemed to feel the chill haunt of the Wild Wonder incident but us. I watched the children in the little cars fly into the air, the teenagers necking on the giant ferris with its rust spots and strange creakings. There was a time when the prospect of taking on a new ride would fill my gut with nervous excitement. Now at Playland there is the Double Dip, which raises and drops its happy riders along a seventy-five-foot pole. Just watching it made my neck hurt.
But it was the Slingshot that sent us packing. The Slingshot is not affiliated with either Wonderland or Playland. The Slingshot stands alone. Couple after couple are sent screaming into the black summer night, becoming a tiny star-like spark against the sky, cables heaving, towers wobbling, sphere becoming invisible. It was the Slingshot that made us feel too old, too scared, and suddenly vulnerable. Katherine says that when she was a child she loved all rides because she knew that they were made by grown-ups, which meant to her endless safety, boundless security. Naturally we have outgrown that delusion.
As we trudged back from the boardwalk in defeat, we saw the moon over the beach. Or at least we believed it to be the moon: it was a giant, ragged crescent, larger than the sun at dawn. It hovered just above the inky horizon, blood red, engorged, too bloated to hoist itself any further in the sky, and more likely about to fall. A small crowd had actually gathered by the boardwalk's rail to gawk at it, as though it were a plane descending in flames, a fleet of invading spaceships. Katherine and I joined them. "Either that's the moon," someone said, "or something has gone horribly, horribly wrong."
* * *
The next night, Katherine and I return to the Slingshot. The large-toothed girl behind us in line says her piece about death and destiny, and we clutch our non-refundable tickets with panic and regret. We watch that spherical cage ascend and descend for nearly forty-five minutes. We watch children no older than ten be happily loaded into what we come to call the ascending sphere of death, their fathers giving a thumbs-up before they fly into the air: "Have fun," says dad, chuckling. Katherine and I discuss doubtfully the merits of this style of parenting. As we do, another pair is sacrificed to the sky, and we are next.
It is difficult to explain what has drawn us here, after our cowardly and probably wise retreat last night. We have every excuse not to be here, from the metaphysical to the financial (it costs twenty bucks a head to fly; forty if you want a T-shirt and a video taken of your screaming self in the cage as you rocket upwards). This last part alone should chase off a cheapskate like me. But we are here at Katherine's impulsive suggestion, and my impulsive agreement, and neither one of us wants to back down. We are here to face our fear and transcend it, to remind ourselves that we are still alive and young and capable of risk. We want to be able to say that we will not be cowed by death.
But we also see very clearly the weak links in the Slingshot chain, the points where the cable may break, the tower may buckle. The whole rig is set back from the boardwalk, in the semi-dark of 8th Street. Though enormous, it has the look of something that really shouldn't be there, of something that can be broken down and carted away very quickly should the sheriff show up wanting to know: "What's all this about a Slingshot, then?" There is a palpable air of unease around us, as though all of us in line can perhaps too easily envision something snapping this time, the ball flying up and disappearing into the night, only to crash miles away, in the ocean perhaps, or a parking lot. And if not this time, the next time. I do not tell Katherine this, and really haven't considered it until now, but we are there too, I think, not just to defy death, but to welcome it. It has been a hard year. It has been an unfair year in which we have been taught to think of the unthinkable, that we are not exempt from tragedy, but in fact can be its strange attractors. It's not quite a suicide pact, but I think we share an agreement, unspoken even to ourselves, that if this thing kills us, we could live with that. So to speak.
When our turn comes, there is a strange ritual to it. We empty our pockets into a plastic bin: wallets, change, keys, saltwater taffy, K's flip-flops. I take my glasses off and give them to the man who will prepare us for the ride (I swear he has a handlebar moustache). He tells us we can take nothing with us. We sit in the cage. The mustachioed man arranges the nylon straps and restraining bars that hold us in place. One of them goes directly across my groin, but I am not embarrassed to have him help me there. I am beyond such modesties. "Tighter," I say.
He closes the cage and gives it a friendly tap. "It will be over before you know it," he says.
The cage tilts back and is locked into a release switch below. We are facing directly upwards now. There are no stars: they are blotted out by the lights of the boardwalk. The towers hum as the cables tighten. I take Katherine's hand. "Pretend we are going into space," I say.
"That is not a comfort," she says.
The hum grows very loud. The cables grow very tight. Katherine takes her hand back: she wants to hold the restraint. A switch somewhere is thrown, and we go up.
* * *
As metaphors for life and death on the boardwalk go, gambling in Atlantic City is pretty promising. But the Slingshot is better, for two reasons. One: though it is unlikely, it may actually kill you. Two, it reminds you that when you are close to death and intimate with it, when you are spinning fast and high in the dark night with nothing around you, it is difficult to tell what is happening. It is difficult to be afraid. Far less difficult than it is on the ground.
PS: We did buy the video of Katherine and me flying upward in the slingshot. We watched it once before hiding it away, never to be seen again.