Thursday, November 13, 2008

Playing Ditch at Playland-at-the-Beach

It's too bright. The sky is lit with bits of frost and brilliant blue. Turning away, my mind goes to street scenes in grayscales, rain and the slick, sleek green and red of traffic lights blazing on water-darkened asphalt. Wet concrete, diesel and coffee blend in an pungent aroma taking me back years...

The beach was closed. It was a weekday and I had transferred onto the No. 18 Sloat, passing my junior high. I rode it out to La Playa and was the only passenger stepping off at the end of the line. The black bus driver stared at the girl in the lilac suede boots and crushed velvet maxi coat stepping off the bus. He had to wonder what I was doing at a closed amusement park, knowing I had ditched school. The driver got off the bus behind me, lit a cigerette and headed across the street to the cafe. I was alone.

Slinging my big purse over my shoulder, I walked toward the Merry-Go-Round. It was shuttered up and quiet. The loud caliopy music and organ tunes, silent. The strings of lights that hung between the Merry-Go-Round building and the funhouse swung forlornly in the clots of fog and wind. In the gathering gloominess, I walked down the alley towards Limbo. Thickening fog made corners soft and shadows deepen. The whole lane ahead of me was blanketed in moving mists and shadows, tricking my eyes into thinking I'd seen someone moving stealthily among the buildings and abandoned rides. White skeletal arms lay crossed under the giant grinning skull of the dark ride, while skeletal angels flew over a dreary picture window landscape behind. Doll heads and fake campy tombstones..."He Stood UP!"... took on an ominous feel. The place was different and I wondered why I was here.

...suede boots darkening on the edges of the soles where the puddles I so carefully avoided were seeping in...seeping in thick and sticky, sliding down into the chinks and crevices inside my mind. It moved so slowly below the icy feeling in my toes that I was unaware of the progress that it was making; shifting and changing me in ways I didn't realize. The salt air mixed with wind and fog and crystalized with tiny grains of sand. It clung to everything it touched...grimming the windows in an almost hopeless coat of grit that would need to be scrapped away before even trying to wash it. My finger traced patterns in it on the funhouse window...mocking Laughing Sal...daring her to make me stop. She just stood there... silent, freckle faced and gap toothed, head cracked at the neck as if she had been mugged. Stood there next to the odd, bug-eyed, beany capped creepy dwarf that was her window companion. The balancing clown around the corner, looked away. The walking charlies, frozen andriveted on their geared windmill posts...moved ever so slightly in the freezing salt winds blowing across the Great Highway.

My finger circled larger, clearing the window of the greasy sand. It was dark behind Sal. Moving up the sloping walkway and under the eaves, I climbed rather clumsily over the turnstile, pressed my hands to the glass on the door and peeked. The door creaked as I leaned on it. Looking down, I found the chains hadn't been secured and I was fighting the urge to transpass and see if I could get inside. Looking behind me toward the bus stop, I saw that the bus and it's driver had gone. No one in any direction.

Like an idiot, I found myself knocking on the glass. No foot falls. No noises from within. The wind was howling and it began to rain. What the hell! I grasped the red painted door and pulled. Slowly it opened. It was heavier than I had imagined it to be. I slipped quietly inside on tiptoe so my heels wouldn't alarm anyone inside to my presence. The wind had shifted, slanting the rain and making it tap on the windows. It poured off the old roof in streams. The sound of wind and rain roared and rushed, sending a shiver racing down my spine that I had never gotten in the place before. Then again, I had never been in there alone and in the dark.

Edging past the entrance to the gingerbread dowling of the mirror maze, I realized I would have to move quickly in case someone spotted me from the outside. Could I remember my way through it in the dark? Everything looked so different. I fought a momentary grip of panic in my stomach. Closing my eyes I felt the rush of exhileration at having the place to myself, to explore as I liked without detection...hopefully. I dashed through, right-left-right-right, and then left. I found myself before the huge rollers. Normally, they were rotating in colorful swirls, polka dots and zig zag's on their over-stuffed bodies. I had to fight my way through them, more difficult now because they weren't moving. Struggling over the last of the three layers of rollers, I finally freed my purse and myself and walked, boot heels clicking, into the darkened main hall. My footsteps echoed on the old wooden floors. Nothing moved. The Funhouse operator's booth was unmanned. No one was here.

I wondered if I shouldn't have barred the front door somehow to make sure I would be safe....but then, if somone had been here...?

Don't think about it. You'll freak out.

The thought of being locked in this of all buildings...with someone else I didn't know... inside...with me...don't think about it.

But...what if I do get locked in?

The stepplechase horses looked sad and forlorn. Looking to my right, I could see the two, tall, skinny, crazy staircases that normally slid either to and fro or side to side. The red one was tilted sideways at an insane angle, disappearing into the darkened gallery above. I didn't like that one even on the days the place was running. I used to have nightmares of falling from it. Best to save the climb for later when I was through exploring down here.

Instead, I walked the wavy boards of the uneven floors, for once not getting hit with the random shots of air coming up through the deliberate holes in the floor. They shifted under my weight crashing and creaking. I stood looking out the window now, behind Sal and saw the the rain was coming down in torrents. Headlights from a couple of passing cars bounced crazily through the old fashioned glass windows...accenting the bubbles and swirls in the glass on the floor in a weird witch's brew. The reflection made Sal look like she was crying, but no tears dripped from her face onto her faded blue coat. I moved away.

Walking over to the operator's booth, I peeked in at all the levers and lights on the control board. The mystery was gone of all the shooting air, noises, bells and whistles was gone. Hmmmph.

I skipped through the barrel, which had always made me sort of sick when I had been in it. The giant spiral-painted inside walls made me think of a huge, striped soda straw lying on it's side. I remember my friend, Tammy standing with her hands plastered against its walls as it turned her upside down in a stationary cartwheel. Across from the barrel was the disc, we had called it the record player. It sat still and empty of riders.

Suddenly, I felt sort of weird...watched. Looking out ahead of me and turning behind me, I saw no one, but the feeling of being watched was still there. Quickly, I dashed to the side of the large wooden slide and pressed myself up against a corner wall, peeking out. Quiet, listen. Nothing out sounds but the wind and creaking of the building. Could someone be in the shadows upstairs? Surely, I would have heard them!

Moving back out from my hidey-hole, I cautiously looked up to the second floor, almost directly above me was one of the huge hanging blocks, part of the funhouse decor. There were three total, suspended by a corner edge of the block from the ceiling. On each side was a clown face. The clown faces were mechanical so they could move their mouths, blink, and roll their eyes. They were creepy when the place was lit up and you were surrounded by people. Now, they were hideous in the gloomy light, the disembodied white face leering down at me in a silent, open mounthed scream. I was both relieved and now frightened. What the hell was I thinking? No one knew where I was. Grandma had surely gotten a phone call by now from Mrs. Smullens in the Principal's office.

Hey, you're here now...look around. You are probably not going to get in anymore trouble than you're already in. I grabbed a potato sack, pulled off my boots and climbed the stairway to the top of the slide. It got darker as I climbed...the top in total darkness. I could here the rain beating on the wall beside me...and something else...a scratching coming from the wall as well. No, in front of me...the top of the stairs. God! Rats! Gotta be a rat, right?! Jesus! A huge, big freakin' rat from the sound of the scratching.

I turned and ran as quickly as I could down the stairway, flinging the potato sack, I grabbed my boots and sat on the bottom step of one of the crazy stairs. One boot clutched by the top in my fist, I could bash whatever it was with my boot and then, hopefully, get the hell out of there. I waited. Nothing. No rat. No boogie man. God, I am feeling so stupid!

Ok, my imagination was getting the best of me. I put my boots back on and decided to climb the staircase up to the gallery. I flung my purse around my neck and with both hands on the railings, I decended. I hated heights and still do. I had to force myself not to panic halfway up and look down. Making it to the top, I stepped over to the long bank of windows. Above the funhouse mirrors and rows of box illusions, were windows. Oddly, the second floor gave the illusion of being darker when you looked up from downstairs. It wasn't. I could see the runnels of window grime mixing with bits of gravel and debris floating with the rain from the roof down to the pavement below. It was after all, November.

Moving to the walking charlie's, past a frozen Maggie, a rolling pin raised in her left hand, ready to strike her smart-assed, macho-mouthed husband, Gigs, in their mechanical display kitchen. I pushed the button and waited for them to move. They didn't. I guess I hadn't really been expecting it.

I stood beind the Walking Charlie's now. I couldn't clearly see the Cliffhouse. Dimly, the outline of Seal Rocks could be made out, shrouded in fog and ocean waves. The waves were really high, crashing against the sea wall, where we had hung in the summer. The foam and spray flew up at least five feet in the air above the wall. I was hypntosed by the weather outside. The rain slanting down against the large blue, yellow, and red stacked-box looking decor of the cafe and penny arcade across the street. I could see the Mad Mine beyond and the weird op-art painted "Tilt" next to it. The dark, diving bell stood on it's perch above its water tank. The only lights I could see were from the street lamps, the cafe where I bought soft-serve cones, and the distant Cliffhouse. Somewhere beyond Lincoln Park, the sound of the fog horns by the Golden Gate Bridge blaired their warning to the ships entering the bay. I couldn't image being out there on a ship in this weather. I remembered suddenly where I was and that I wasn't supposed to be here, either.

I turned and came face to face with a figure, tall and hideously out of proportion. It loomed up, intimately close to me and I shrieked. It was another funhouse mirror...a couple of them, actually. I hadn't remembered them being here in this spot the last time I had come. I guess thay moved them since then. Either way, I had almost peed my pants, I was so scared. My heart was racing and pounding. No, I had to leave. Exploration time was over. I needed to face the music.

I made my way to the front door and noticed the padlock for the chains lying on a ledge next to the exit door. Perhaps the operator had forgotten it there in his haste to get home the night before. I grabbed the open lock and pushed my way through the revolving bars. I was outside and getting completely drenched. Running up the ramp to the front door, I pulled the chain together and clicked the old Master lock shut. No one would be the wiser. Turning around, I ran into a chubby, middle-aged guy wearing a water-darkened, grey raincoat. His cigar was feebly trying to stay lit in all the wind and rain. His pork pie hat was drenched and flopped down, water-logged, on both sides of his balding head. he looked like a reject version of Rocky's brother, paulie.

"Hey kid, what the hell ya doin' up there?"

Smiling to myself. Hey! He hadn't seen me! "Just looking, mister" I said.

"Yeah, well shouldn't you be in school? It's fuckin' rainin! You crazy? Get outta here."

He was fishing in his pocket. I could her keys rattling and jingling.

I ran down the ramp and across the alley to the cafe. Bustling through the door and plopping myself down on the bar stool, I got stared at, wide-eyed, by the waitress with orange lipstick and matching hair. I was the only customer there. The waitress asked if I wanted anything. I said I wanted the fish and chips plate and a coffee.

I hadn't eaten school food in months and saved my money for such excursions... when I could get them. I loved the fish and chips here. I never remembered the name of the place, but it was right next door to the Merry-Go-Round, facing the Great Highway. It had a wonderful dining bar with red, marblized upholstered stools that were bolted down to the floor. A bank of windows lined the west wall so you could watch peple and cars go by. On the outside around the roof line, the cafe was decorated by a facade of little, tiny cottages, each one different from the other.

The wiatress brought my coffee and a small little pot of real cream. Honest! Real, thick sweet cream! I emptied it and dumped two teaspoons of suger in my coffee. The steam felt wonderful in my face as did the heat of the mug on my hands. I love coffee, but days like this made it extra special. I laughed, again attracting another stare from the waitress. She came over, leaned on the counter....

"Ok, what's your story?" she blew a small, cracking bubble from between her orange lips.

I told her I'd skipped school and that I had thought it was really funny to eat my last meal here before going home and getting killed by my grandmother. She grinned and said she's done about the same a few times. I didn't mention my escapade in the funhouse. She turned to the fry cook station behind her and grabbed the plate holding my lunch. I remember the taste of that meal to this day, the odor of the fries and the crispy-light, buttery flavor of the breading on the fish. The tartar sauce was thick with pickles and absolutely perfect. From that time since, I have loved a squeeze of fresh lemon on my fish.

I could go on about the trip home on the No. 18 Sloat bus, transferring to the No. 28 at 19th and Sloat, with the final transfer to the No. 14 at Mission and Geneva to the top of the hill. There isn't really any point, except to say that it was dark and rained the whole way, dulling my former excitement with dread of what I would find awaiting me at home.

When I finally walked down the hill on San Barbara Avenue and up the stairs to our cottage in the back of the Knight's House, I noticed that it was dark inside. Grandma commented that I was home a little late, then said the power had been out all day.


She said Mrs. Knight had come home from West Portal Lutheran (coincidentally the same school I attended) about 11:30. She had picked up her son, Chris. She had told my Grandma that the power had been out at the school for hours. They finally let the kids out at 11. It was now 1:30 in the afternoon. The bus trip usually took about an hour from school to the top of the hill.

It dawned on me then..... Grandma didn't know. They had never called her for some reason. Back then, a blackout still left you with telephone service. I guess they had their hands full with keeping the kids in line...all Kindergarten through 9th Grades!

That year, 1969, we had watched from our cottage, houses slide down the hills in Broadmore due to the extensive rain. The rain had undermined all sorts of places within and outside of the Bay area. The City was a mess.

It turned out that I had played hookey the first day of series of big Holiday storms we were going to have that year. Cars and buses had gotten stranded. Flooded streets backed up with debris and choked with rainwater. In some spots the sewers had backed up. Parents were warned not to let their little darlings stomp around in their galloshes out in the gutters and puddles. In the worst cases, like Broadmore, people watched their cliffside houses slip into the ocean.

I had been really lucky. I never gotten caught either playing hookey or trespassing that day. I have to admit that I felt bad about trespassing. I didn't vandalize or steal anything, other than some really great memories I took away with me. I had just wanted to look, unmolested at a place that even at that time, I knew was a museum piece...a fading part of Americana.

The old funhouse is gone, torn down with the rest of Playland-at-the-Beach in September of 1972, but I will never forget my couple of hours alone in the funhouse and the ghosts of Walking Charlies and Laughing Sal.