Ghost of the Midway

When you walk the line, sometimes it's hard to keep the faith. While there's nothing harder sometimes than fidelity to another person, there's the even more onerous matter of fidelity to oneself. In that integrity of the soul thing, there may be no more dangerous line to walk than the one between cynicism and innocence -- maintaining that tricky balance high above the unaware human condition of knowing how it is while clinging to the sparkle and the aw shucks. If you fall from the precipice, topple off that narrow wire, the hard knowledge of the way it works will plunge a dagger straight into the heart of wonder -- leaving it cold, rigor mortised, legs akimbo in the air on the side of what ought not to be. Riding the double ribbons of tar that is life on the buses, girl companion to the pirates and the gypsies and the dreamers and cowboy singers, your life becomes a series of towns where you are painfully aware of real life as lived by folks who work hard for their money. People come for the music, for the moment where they can share a communion with the makers of song and feel for a bit a little transformed. There's a connection to someone golden, someone who sings a song about life or love or pain that reflects how they feel -- and if that person can feel that way, too, then they're not so alone, so isolated from the human condition; they're elevated by the overlap with one of the shiny people. And that feels good. Comforting. Reassuring. Better. Those people go back to their lives, burnished by the recognition of themselves in someone they think is a star. They have the gentle solace of real life. And when you make the music, you also often have the time to make a life to hold you when you're not living the dream. It's those of us who stowaway in the hold of these ships who get caught in the jaws of the midnight ride, trying to balance the line: highwire chasing and feeling the music and servicing the dream. Because when everybody goes home to what they have, you merely roll over in the cold burned out ashes of what just happened -- like the Little Matchgirl striking her matches to maintain the vision of the Blessed Virgin -- only to realize that the husk is all that holds you. Those are the moments where the faith can get tricky; the realization that the stakes are high and the price you pay may be even higher. And so it was that the bus rolled into Marietta, Georgia for the North Georgia Fair. Hard packed dirt rolling away from where we parked, a double wide trailer the only air conditioned refuge beyond the rolling dorm that was this act's home on the road. Beyond the folding chairs and outlying bleachers that were set-up under a sprawling roof -- a shelter for several thousand no doubt -- the food stands, the rides and the wash of humanity lost in their Saturday afternoon rhythms lay. It is easy to forget that, to miss the way things like this -- things that're faded, even a little tacky -- are a touchpoint for many. You stay huddled with your band of merry men, laughing about things these people will never know or see or understand, insulated from real life with the smug illusions of someone who's been removed from the how it is. You just show no interest and roll over Or you can dive in. It had been a rough night. A matter of an opinion known by many, voiced by me, drawn and quartered by another. All with a smile and laughter and intellectual deconstruction… But enough tension pulled the air that somehow an escape for three days of swimming pools, chocolate cake, coconut oil, shiny haired women talking about art and commerce and politics and shoes was being jettisoned in the name "where do we go from here?" Pulled away from what was supposed to be relaxation to look at the pieces of somebody's dream. To take them down, wipe them off, turn the over, think about what they really mean with another in the name of making them be everything they can. It is focused work, very exacting to do it right… Exhausting really, with a conversation lasting til 6 in the morning, the streaks of sun threatening to pull the night from the sky. Resuscitated a few hours later in the name of getting out of the way of a voice that is truth and real life and bigger want and deeper commitments, not to mention a solid witness to how it is, the not-shiny, the ties that bind and the ways of the world. I needed a break. And in their zeal to take care of me, my bags had gone missing. Later chiding. "The lengths some people will go to to keep me from running off…" They just forgot: there's nowhere I won't go barefoot. So pants legs rolled, eyes cast down to get the feel for the packed earth that was in places muddy from what I didn't want to think about, I started picking my footing and making my way into the flow of humanity. The families spending an afternoon, the baby adolescents somewhere safe enough their parents figured they could have a little freedom and not be in too much danger, the food wagons, the games for cheap prizes, the gravity-defying rides that leave the weakest stomached ones nauseous, the rest exhilarated from goosing their own adrenalin levels. Later still, post-cat-bath in a dress with pink elephants on it, wandering in search of a merry-go-round for big kids, it is one big skip and hop and laugh. These are people who are more than happy with making this their afternoon. People who will go to church tomorrow, hate their job on Monday, try to find ways to be happy in between -- tugged between the selfish side of what they want and the love they get from what they have. Some win that tug of war, others get torn apart by it, but right now, they're in the moment of delicious escape between the cotton candy and the bumper cars where all that matters is now. Some will come for the country music. To hear the songs of love and life, listen to what the singer has to say. They want to exult in emotions of a life more examined than their own, checking the gate and surfing the insight that lets them comprehend their own tides and currents which lift them up and pull them down without ever being more considered than sad or glad or mad. And this singer is good. Abandoned. Adopted. Addicted. Jailed. Redeemed. Grateful. Thrilled. A captive of the human heart, a believer and bleeder for love. He offers them everything that they'd like their life to be… and the ones who show up, breath held, believing like you can only believe in another person, never yourself - especially someone who seems to be touched with magic. It worked, by the way. The show. The people got what they wanted. They saw themselves not only in someone who glows, but found recognition of things they feel without thinking, hopes they carry without even knowing, struggles they engage in never understanding why -- just that they (amongst the most evolved ones, anyway) were raised that way. After the show, the singer signs. It's his chance to see and touch and listen to the people who've seen themselves in him. He wants to look into their eyes and see the relief, the elevation, whatever else they got -- and to remember how much the same everybody is as his star rises. You can watch the arms flung around the next big thing, the bigger smiles when being seen by the one who sang the songs, the flash of cameras, the flourish of the Sharpie marker making its mark on something brought along. You can try to remember that in what could be an assembly line of transformation, each person's moment is uniquely their own -- but that the singer will hear most of what's said as many times as there are people, and get emotional vertigo or even worse, go numb to it. Knowing that, it's usually a good time to creep away. Get your shower, your book, in your bunk and slip into Morpheus' arms long before the movement even begins. Or you can consider your options. Options, baby, options are what it's about. It had been so long since I'd been on a midway at night. You could hear the pumped in music on the bad speakers, the laughter and squeals of people on the rides, see the winking neon stripes against what was a clear sky. Adventurer that I am, I wanted to see the other side of the fair: after the darkness falls. By now, I had shoes -- less of a bad country music cliché for sure, but still with a heart that's open as wide as I can keep it, ready to see this thing for the fullness of the experience. Beyond the makeshift arena, the neon rises up -- blinking in emerald green, lemon chiffon yellow, fire engine red, tangerine, even some perfectly pink poodle fuchsia, making this a whirl of plugged in Technicolor set against the vastness of the night. And it turns on and off, rises and falls, moves with the motion of the rides. Even the snack stands and the carny games take on a different glow -- one that offers some veneer of glamour, of true love or big hope. You look for a moment upon this walk across the hard packed dirt and what before had been merely benign American tradition now glistens with the quick beam of immaculate seduction. This is the intersection of want-to and ought-not… the place where hormones are safe to frolic, fantasies indulged, moments merged without any sense of the seedy. Until you look closer… For the carnys, who looked mostly sad and tired during the day, take on a waft of danger at night. The backdrop of past-sunfall offers just the teeniest bit of sinister to transform their looking at you from hunger for your money to an invitation to things prurient, things you shouldn't want to know -- fires in oil drums, passing a bottle, deeds behind semis that no one believes. These are people who live lives beyond the limit, freed from the rules by the rootlessness of their lives, delivered from the mundanery by the ease of their exit and released from obligation by the very nature of their lives. The carnys. They will be gone. They know it. You know it. It is a void that speaks volumes. So the young boys and girls -- teenagers beginning to explore the blossoming of their deeper feelings, crossing a bridge from naive child to unfurling adulthood -- move a little closer. The arm around the shoulder, the hand held in hand is as much Hansel and Gretel in the forest as it is player on the prowl. What better way to push the sexes together than a harmless menace that would never cross that line -- let alone walk the line. For places like this have lynching mobs as well as teenagers coming into their own. Young people dying to believe, to feel those throbbing things, the rush of the pulse when the pretty girl smiles at them, the moistening below from the proximity of THAT boy. Not that the stakes aren't high, that everyone gets a happy ending at the fair. There are the ones who shall be ignored, not noticed, as alone when they leave as when they arrive; maybe even moreso. Or the ones who get forsaken for something better… But it's worth the risk. It -- like the games of skee ball and shooting out the target -- offers something ephemeral, but in the moment. Indeed, in the moment, heck, for that moment is tantamount to winning the biggest prize of one's life. For that first moment of connection, when the thrill surges through you like 40,000 watts of pure current, you will never feel more alive. Ever. When the eyes close, the lips meet, maybe even part. That first tentative push of a tongue that sends you back, makes you jump, then realizing that rush is delicious, leaning forward for more. A needle threaded with the notion of l-u-v, a place where you can run headlong into the abyss, safe in the knowledge that the other person is feeling it too. One of the last moments of parity and sweetness, before the ground acquisition games begin… the they-want, we-shall-not-surrender turf war of the little girl's body and the burgeoning teenage boy's libido. Though the days of good girl definitions are in many quarters gone. The erosion of the sanctification of moving through the phases of discovery swept away on a tidal wave of sexualized marketing, Britney Spears' navel and a devaluing of a tongue on the clavicle or a hand on the small of the back that truly is the secret handshake that affords access to deeper gardens of pleasure and response. Tromping amongst the laughing people, as the streaks of buzzing colors whirl and swirl and blur around me, eyes open to the possibilities, the innocence is more blinding than the flashing lights. Here for a night, people either check their knowing or else it's the last stop before cashing out in the name of a nameless kinda nihilism that steals the joy and leaves the empty morning after on the nightstand faster than the actual reason for being there. A faded romantic with a heart that's a little worn around the edges, I still believe in the power of wonder. So I go looking for first kisses. It can't be hard to find in this place… and I set my bright eyes searching right by the pony rides -- junior Black Beauties eating moldy hay while waiting for their turn to be hitched to a lazy susan of little kid delight -- under the shadow of some of the more towering rides.. Just above me, the ferris wheel rises into the night. Lifts up, with the trajectory of promise and comes over with the certainty of the night falling at one's feet. Gently descends from a peak that shows these riders everything that the night, the fair, this town holds. Only to rise again. It's a metaphor for life, if you'll see it as such. Or else, it's a moment near the top where you are as alone as you'll ever be, as pure as you can be in the life you've chosen. You can lean over and find a face, pointed to your's, waiting -- and have that moment of lips upon lips, searching for something in the other person, feeling the current of emotional recognition, the thrill of they-like-me-back. You can cap it with reaching for the hand beside your's and squeezing, holding onto innocence and promise and things beyond words. Or you can be consumed in the beaming wonder of a face consumed by the possibilities of the world beneath them. To see one's place in the world from up above can create a whole different kind of fire -- one most moths hurl themselves at. In that moment, the gazer upon the viewer of potential can only softly, gently brush their lips across the cheek of the one seated next to them -- taste the velvet of young skin and notice the pooling of energy in their own skin. If their fellow rider is in the moment, they may or may not wake from their reverie. But either way, the communion is the same. For dreamers and drivers can't help themselves… Show them a window and they have to jump through it, a horizon and they'll need to cross it. The comfort comes from knowing you are the one who showed them the possibilities. Standing by a low, gnarled tree, arms folded, it's a slow night on the Ferris wheel. Only five first kisses registered, three of the tentative lip-to-lip kind that you hope will erupt into the full-on brushfires that are young love seeking to bring about a transformation that can only come in the hands of another. There was one cheek kiss that was rewarded with a turn and wider eyes and the kind of merger that says this is something deeper even than a crush or a phase that won't outlast the coming frost of early fall. And one where the boy will no doubt chase the night, already moving beyond the fingers of the girl who'd spent the whole summer waiting for this moment only to realize that her kiss on his cheek would be all there was that would have any there there. A brave girl, tucking her hair behind her ears as they stood there on the platform after. Disoriented some, not sure what it all meant -- except that empty place inside would remain so. Around her, the carnys barked their games of chance, the ponies slowly plodded around that well-worn circle, the elephant ears were boiled in fat and behind the makeshift arena, a bus idled. Smiling, I remembered the warm breath of a young boy in my ear. I thought about a moist hand barely holding mine the summer I was 13. The way slow dancing was far more intimate than any number of pleasures experienced as an adult woman. The looking into the sky and seeing the stars and having dreams that had nothing to do with the other person's, except the ferocity with which we held them. Those are the moments that ground us when the night gets cold. Turning away from the platform, I laugh. The promise still holds. The dream remains. You just start to know what you know -- and that takes the wonder in its purest forms. But as long as you want to believe in the moment of sparkle, as long as you're willing to see it as something that offers much softness and gentleness and remain devoted to that, the wonder transforms. Just as those young people are getting their first taste of the thrill of connection and finding themselves craving more, transformed by their want, so are those of us who know better transformed when we recognize the sweetness of innocent pleasure. Knowing too much is worse than knowing nothing at all. Under the tin roof, the country singer is still smiling, still signing, still wrapping his arms around those fans. And they're walking away, chattering happily about how this one's real, this one's not just a good singer, but a good friend. Those folks came to believe, too, and they came to believe in someone who believes in them. In life, there are things that can't be faked. Knowing the difference between paste and the real is tricky business. Except in Marietta, Georgia, deep in the heart of Saturday night. There all it takes is an open heart, a big love for all that is before you and the willingness to not drown in one's sense of what matters… It is a lesson more valuable than all the trinkets and oversized bears of the midway. It is a song and a moment and a midnight ride home… All you have to do is remember.
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