Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Ferris Wheel

Christmas in New Orleans is a special, many-splendid thing, all lights and poorly regulated explosions along the levees. This holiday season, some friends and I engaged in one of the city's most beloved Christmas traditions: the Celebration in the Oaks, at City Park, when you pay $8 to wander through a place that's free to access at literally any other time of year than this one and stare at a million million lights, strung through the oak trees in exciting shapes and also not-shapes. 

It's a very pretty affair, and appeals to that deep part of me that is like a magpie and is attracted to things that are shiny and bright. It's also an affront to every energy conservation effort you could conceive, and you can probably see it from space. 

In an attempt to cater to younger attendees and maybe also adults who, like me, are incredibly happy doing things generally directed at younger demographics, the Celebration in the Oaks also has some small, brightly-lit rides. Because we're all secretly five years old, our gang procured passage on these rides. 

We first rode the train, a rickety, spindly epilepsy machine which screeched and just generally failed to be fully upright during its circumnavigation of the park. One member of our posse, Anna, had spent a hot minute working at City Park, and explained that she only knew of one recent train derailment, though it had been known to happen. This did not comfort me. The carts we rode in were meant for people of much smaller stature, so my legs were up around my ears and Harry, who sat beside me, was mostly forced out of the cart by my womanly hips. But the train ride itself was pretty neat; there were pirate ships and mermaids and dinosaurs and flamingos and jazz musicians, all formed from rope lights, stationed around the track's circuit. 

High on our successful, non-fatal, if cramped, train adventure, we decided to ride the ferris wheel next. As relatively competent, employed, tax-return-accomplishing adults, we stood in line chatting happily, thinking we were perfectly capable of enjoying a simple ferris wheel ride. 

We were so horribly, horribly wrong. 

Anna informed us that she'd never ridden it before, because she hadn't really trusted the operators to know what to do, since ensuring the wheel is appropriately balanced during loading and unloading is complicated, but now she was willing to brave it. So she and I boarded this little cart bafflingly labelled "Big Eli" and, as the ferris wheel jerked a partial turn forward to allow Harry and Lauren to board, we immediately regretted our decision. 

We weren't brave enough for this ferris wheel. No one was. 

With each stunted, seizing revolution, a terrible sound ensued. It was mechanized torment, the screams of brakes and iron and the dashed hopes of children who had just wanted to ride an effing ferris wheel without learning to fear their own mortality. And every spasm set the cart rocking madly, like it was held to the wheel with nothing but rusted nails and the terror of its patrons. Probably, some ferris wheel designer had thought it would be fun to have the carts mostly free to swing with the motion of the wheel as it turned. It is not fun. Every cycle around the wheel was laced with adrenaline and the growing realization of our imminent and sneering deaths. 

We were not the only ones to feel this way about the ride: a young couple boarded beneath us, and the man, clearly in the throes of a schoolboy crush, rocked their cart back and forth deliberately, to the discomfort of his companion, who was begging him to stop. By the end of the ride, he was yelling at the conductor, demanding to be let off. A retired army gentleman boarded a cart, waited about twenty seconds, and climbed out, citing his pacemaker as his reason, but I think it was more likely the cold, sharp sanity and critical judgement skills honed by a life on a battlefield – that sinking sixth sense of knowing that death is coming for you, and also that death is pissed

But Anna and I did not have a chance to flee. We were barred into the cart and frozen in place by terror. The whole ride was peppered with conversation like this: 

"Oh holy crap what is going on."
"Oh, okay, okay, it stopped, it stopped, we're okay. Oh, God. Maybe it'll only do that once."
"Where did Harry and Lauren board?"
"I think they're right below us."
"I'll look."
"Oh Christ it's moving again!" 
"Anna I don't like this ride!"
"Now I know why I never rode it when I worked here!"
"At least *pant* the view *low fearful screech* is lovely. Look, you can see the SuperdOHMYGODIHATETHIS."
"I don't like it when it goes backwards. Maybe it will change direction soon and we can go forwards. That'll be better."
"Jesus, I'm so dizzy. I am going to projectile vomit on all those little people in line."
"We need to tell those people how awful this is."
"And how cold."

When we finally debarked and stumbled away in a panicked, nauseous haze, I managed to slur, "That was without contest the worst ferris wheel ride, ever." 

But the nightmare wasn't over for Harry and Lauren. Even though they had boarded immediately after we did, for some horrible reason, the operator skipped them in his unloading process. They went around the wheel a dozen more times, and every time they got close to the point where unloading could occur, the wheel changed directions, meaning that they never actually crossed the point where they could have gotten off. Anna and I watched from below, helpless, while they cycled by again and again, waving at us forlornly, growing paler and paler with nausea and what I can only assume was a burgeoning and helpless resignation to a life now spent in perpetuity upon that hellish ferris wheel.

And then the lights went out, and the ferris wheel went dark. It's screaming motion halted and Harry and Lauren were left swinging wildly at the top. Mechanics who looked young enough to still be in high school scurried to the scene, and began climbing the ferris wheel, tapping on gears and shrugging at one another. Anna and I were in line for hot chocolate, and we were going to get some for Harry and Lauren as well, but we had no idea how long they were going to be up there, or, indeed, if they'd ever get down at all. 

Anna went to investigate. She approached the operator and began, "Our friends are up there –" and the operator interrupted, "They'll be fine, we'll get them down." To which Anna replied, "No, I'm not worried about their safety. I just want to know if I should buy them hot chocolate now or later." The operator looked at the ferris wheel, dark and menacing and still, and said, "Uh..I would wait." 

So wait we did. 

After about forty minutes of immobility and darkness from the wheel, my phone rang. It was Harry, and he wasn't amused. He first asked if they were ever going to get down, and then told me he had begun looking for a ladder down. There wasn't one. Then he deadpanned, "Those mechanics better get their shit together because I need off this goddamn ferris wheel."

When the wheel finally screeched and stuttered to life again, we thought they were safe, that they could get off now. But again, we were so terribly, terribly wrong. The operator disembarked every other cart, skipping them not once, not twice, but three times, as they leaned over and begged to be freed from their icy iron sky prison. When they at last reunited with the solid earth, the conductor unsmilingly handed them their tickets back to use on a different ride, and we all drank hot chocolate and ate salty carnival nachos and attempted to intercept the nervous ticks that were developing in our ingrained responses to ferris wheels. 

Then we all went and rode the carousel, because if that breaks down, we can just get off and walk away. 

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