“Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, step right up and experience a wonder never before experienced by man, woman or child!”
Those were the old days, the once upon a times. Nowadays it was all done by social media. There was no calliope music, no barkers, there weren’t even any crowds. A quick scan of a QR code and your waiting time estimates would be uploaded to your tablet. All you had to do was show up fifteen minutes prior to the experience.
To bemoan such developments marked one as a desperate Luddite so Martina didn’t speak her mind on the subject, but the relative quiet of New Coney had always disturbed her. Of course, she would remember the old days. She was the last one of her kind.
Martina was a ride operator. After the last great purge of gentrification, most of the vendors and ride operators left Coney Island for smaller markets in the Midwest. Martina had hesitated, though. After all, she couldn’t be sure life would be better out there. So she stayed in New York and waited. For what she wasn’t sure, but she waited.
The days began to stretch, as timeless as the ocean. There was little to do, and few places to go. From time to time she’d splurge and take the B train and stroll around Brighton Beach and “THE NEW CONEY!”, mainly out of curiosity to see what the developers were doing to it this time. The boulevard was all new; so was the boardwalk. The realty trust had finally evicted the last of the old time freak shows and low-end burger joints; all concessionary was run by the conglomerate.
The ghetto on Ocean Avenue had been bought out and converted into market-rate condos. “Live on the Edge.” “Left coast lifestyle on the right coast.” Martina stared at these new wonders and strolled by the debris-strewn sea.
The weeks rolled into months. The months became a year, then two years. Martina became depressed for lack of work.
And then one day she came across that most rare and precious parchment from days gone by: a HELP WANTED sign. It had been so long since she’d seen one she just stared at it for a minute, stunned, before she actually absorbed what it said: RIDE OPERATOR NEEDED FOR NEW MIDWAY ATTRACTION MUST HAVE EXPERIENCE
Well, she got the job. There wasn’t anyone else left who could do it.
What’s more, the conglomerate had an excellent way to ensure she’d never slack off during work and try to ride the attraction.
“The technology,” the head engineer explained on the first day of training, “is equipped with a wiping feature to ensure none of a rider’s actions in the past can have any effect on the future. This deters the profiteers and idealists, as you can imagine.”
“Mm-hm,” agreed Martina, eyeing the controls. She couldn’t wait to get her hands on them and start working again.
“Now, this feature has led to, well, disappointment for some people. You know, they return to their own pasts to re-live certain moments differently, only to come back to the present and discover the old ball and chain still there waiting for them. The machine can’t change your fate.”
“I can see how that would be disappointing.”
“Well, that’s why the release forms all state the ride is for entertainment purposes only.”
Indeed they did. The release forms also reminded users that the manufacturer was not responsible for any injury or death incurred while riding the attraction. Furthermore, the corporation would not be held responsible for people who failed to return, because it could not be determined whether such failure was due to negligence on their part or the rider’s personal choice.
Certainly, many users elected not to return. Great allure lies in the gentler, greener past, and the nostalgia-heads have been known to stay in ye olde medieval village for good. The ride’s demographic was dominated by people who favored renaissance faire garb, flapper dresses, and Civil War uniforms. (The preponderance of men in these blue and gray uniforms sometimes generated unease in the waiting area.) Some users were seen clutching century-old records by the Beatles and Zeppelin; others, in robes, spotted fingering the crosses around their necks and whispering to themselves fervently, though the church had officially denounced time travel. When users emerged from the ride, they were often mutely weeping.
The ride’s popularity exploded and millions of people from all over the world made the trek to New Coney. There was only one segment of the population excluded from the zeitgeist: epileptics. The attraction’s optical pulses and waves resulted in immediate, often fatal, seizures in 98.5% of cases. This demographic was indefinitely prohibited from riding the attraction as, in the words on one lawyer, it would become a virtual “suicide machine.”
And thus Martina could never ride the attraction, for, as her gleaming silver Medic-Alert bracelet proclaimed, she suffered from epilepsy.
At first it didn’t bother her. She was just happy to be working again, and the job itself was easy. She collected release forms, strapped people in and helped them exit, corralled them in the waiting area. Sometimes the job felt a little too easy, and she found herself clock-watching and thinking about her next paycheck. She tried to mentally urge the workweek forward to get to payday.
But before long, she began to feel a little pang of longing when she watched the riders exit the experience. They were always so euphoric. They often thanked her, saying they were overjoyed, their lifelong dreams fulfilled, fantasies made reality. Martina saw a look in their overbrimming eyes that she could only dream of understanding.
And so she waited. And a hollow sort of feeling grew inside her.
Now, our Martina was not altogether unattractive. She was still on the “right” side of thirty-five, and she had a decent figure. Though she often captured the attention of men in the waiting area, she generally rebuffed such advances in a firm but professional manner. “I’m sorry, sir,” she would say, “But I must keep my full attention on ride operations. I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time at Appomattox.”
But love being what it is, and proximity being what it is (Dr. Maspeth’s famous study, “Love and Proximity in Gamma-Nucleaic Acids” having proven definitively that familiarity breeds attraction), Martina found herself becoming interested in a frequent rider with short black hair and a slight underbite. She never asked him where he was going and he never offered to tell her. She found his silence attractive in a sea of oversharers; he was fond of her legs. One Tuesday, at the end of Martina’s shift, she ran into the black-haired man in the near-empty parking lot. “I have to ask,” she said, turning to face him and smiling, “Where do you go?”
He laughed. “All different places. I’m not obsessive. But I always try to take in a show wherever I go. It’s the best musical education in the world. I’ve seen Mozart and Gene Krupa. I’ve seen –”
“You’re a musician?” She interrupted him.
Because she genuinely was hungry, and because he was very good-looking, she accepted his offer of dinner. She listened to his stories and told him all about her condition.
“So, what does it feel like?” she asked.
“It’s, like, super weird. Like when I went back to 1783 – that was a trip. All these dudes in powdered wigs and tights, you wouldn’t believe it. I mean, we’ve all seen pictures of it and stuff but it’s such a rush to be there. You’re just hoping nobody talks to you, or like, asks you who you are and where you’re from. I mean, I’m in an imperial court. These people don’t know me. I’m just sitting there holding my breath, hoping nobody will call me out, and then he starts to play. I cried. I mean, I guess that’s a cliché, everybody cries, but still…”
That was true. There had recently been a furor in the blogosphere over whether traditional concepts of masculinity were still valid in a world where well over fifty percent of men who used the ride admitted to crying openly in the last month.
“It must have been nice.”
“Yeah. And one time I went out west to see Morrison and that was wild. The ocean was like, clean. With all kinds of fish, not just jellyfish.”
The thought of it made her want to cry. That was the one thing she would have really liked to see.
Later that day, when she climbed into the musician’s bed, she found herself thinking of it.
They dated for two months before she realized he was kind of pretentious, and sort of a moron. He kept trying to bring things back from the past with him, even though she’d repeatedly explained the principle of the wiping mechanism. “You can’t bring a ‘Rolling Stones Live at Altamont’ poster back with you,” she reminded him. “It would throw off the S-T continuum.” After his fourth attempt to bring back vintage concert flyers, she broke up with him.
And so she went back to her routine. One by one she helped her customers into the pods, programmed the code, flipped the switch, all the while watching with envy as her little riders staggered out of their pods, changed and enlightened, while she remained unchanged. Even though she didn’t miss the moron-musician, she felt lonely. In fact, the older she got the lonelier she felt.
On the weekend of her fortieth birthday, the company happened to be throwing their annual employee picnic. She felt obligated to go and in fact was rather relieved that this nerve-wracking milestone was being conveniently subsumed. The company cleaned off a section of beach; middle managers fired up barbecues, the marketing departments played a volleyball tournament. Martina wandered down to the water’s edge and contemplated wading in a little bit. But there were so many jellyfish they clogged the gentle surf with their spineless, colorless bodies.
“I hate those things,” a voice behind her said.
“I think everyone does.” She held out her hand. “My name’s Martina.”
“Of course. The ride operator. I’m Gail.”
“Which marketing department are you in?”
“Brand image and outreach.”
“How’s that working out for you?”
“Good. Oprah’s estate is trying to commission a customized machine for Winfrey College.”
“They want a future-ride option but we’re not sure we’re willing to do that.”
“We don’t have the tech, do we?”
“Are you kidding? If you can go one way you can go the other.”
“Then how come –“
“Because we don’t want it to be available to the public. The consequences would be far too volatile to sustain our business model. We want to minimize potential hazards and maximize marketability.”
Martina stared down at a tide pool that had formed at her feet. Two jellyfish were wriggling near her toes. “Want to get out of here and go to the beer tent?”
Three hours and several beers later Gail and Martina sat on a bench watching the last of the evening light fade from the sky. “Today’s my fortieth birthday,” she said.
“Wow,” said Gail. “Forty. You’re probably too old to have children, you know.”
One night, years later, Martina was closing down the ride when she spotted a strange figure on the horizon. It was someone she thought she recognized, but she couldn’t put her finger on just when or where she knew him from. “Hello, Martina,” he said as he came closer.
“Hello,” she replied.
“Don’t mind me, I just thought I’d try and sneak in a ride before you shut her down for the night.”
“Well, I don’t know, we’re technically closed.”
“Don’t you remember me?” He seemed genuinely anguished.
She was too embarrassed to admit she didn’t.
“There aren’t any carney circuits anymore, even in the Midwest,” he said as she strapped him in. “And you’ve got the only job there is. You know, you ought to be careful. Someone might try to steal it.”
Was he from the old Coney? Is that where she knew him from?
“Of course,” he continued, “That probably won’t happen. They’ll probably automate you out before that happens.”
“Gee, thanks,” she said, and swiped her key card. The machine hummed into life.
“How’d you even get this gig? Isn’t there something about this ride and epileptics…?”
“I can still operate it, I just can’t ride it.”
“Does it frustrate you? Never being able to enjoy thousands of others may do freely?”
Martina laughed a little. “Of course it does. Wouldn’t it bother you?”
“I don’t know if I’d work so closely with something I couldn’t ever really be a part of.”
Martina was silent. She wished this person would go away.
But he just stared at her more intently, and said, “There are two kinds of loss, you know. A sense of loss loss, which is when you have experienced something and then it is taken away from you, and the ache of absence, which is when you want something you have never had, and there is a resulting psychological void.”
“That’s very interesting.” She flipped the lever to standby.
“By the way…” he looked at her. “I’m not coming back. Here’s my consent form.”
The strange man was whisked away.
She’d thought about it, of course, being automated out. She knew it was a possibility. But did he have to be so blunt about it? The man’s consent form felt dry in her hands. Sol Levowitz, it said. She didn’t recognize the name and yet he seemed to remember her from the old Coney. Was her memory really getting that bad? Was she really getting that old? It had been over fifteen years since she’d started working at the attraction. You can’t blame me for not remembering a guy I only worked with one summer, probably, over a decade ago. Still, it bothered her, her hazy memory.
She sat there for the allotted five minutes, holding the consent form. And the pod came back – empty. So long, Sol. Her mind raced as she steered the pod to the holding bay. Automated out. What if she did do it? What would it matter? Who would care?
Martina closed and locked the gates at the entrance and exit of the ride. She settled herself into the sleek white pod and dutifully strapped on her seatbelt. She sat there for a little while, hands poised at the controls, and realized she had absolutely no idea when or where she wanted to go. The ocean, she thought. I’ll go back to a time when you could swim in the ocean. She sat there, trying to settle on a year. Her hands began to tremble, actually tremble, and she was slippery with sweat. There was a 1.5% chance she would soon find herself swimming in cool blue water. 1.5% with a margin of error.
She clambered out of the machine, replaced it in the holding bay, and walked away. One point five percent.
She staggered stiffly down the boardwalk like an automaton. The wind whipped up bits of paper and rubbish whirled around in tiny cyclones. She walked halfway down the boardwalk before she was stopped by an imposing-looking scaffolding. DO NOT ENTER: SUPERSHORE UNDER CONSTRUCTION. She could go no further. She leaned her head on the rough plywood. The ache of absence.
In the years to come she would think often about that night. She had many opportunities to try it again, so many chances to just sit there and risk it and do it — she so easily could have, but she never did.
Martina got older. Her looks faded, she lost her figure (the legs were the last to go). Things seemed to take longer. (Or perhaps time was moving more quickly?) All she knew was that a simple task like filling a prescription at the drugstore could take all morning. Did things always take that long?
And one day, before she knew it, a twenty-six-year-old marketing assistant was leading her down to headquarters to sign a ream of papers essentially authorizing her own dismissal. The engineering trainee who’d been shadowing her for the past six months was set to take over. Oh, it wasn’t a surprise by any means. She’d even grown to like the boy. He was fresh out of college, if you could imagine. They gave her a genuinely touching going-away party, and Moses, that was his name, Moses Roberts, gave her a card and a generous gift barcode. And so she left the job she’d held for thirty-four years. She was sixty-five years old.
Martina gathered up her things and walked toward the parking lot. Along the way, something down by the pier caught her eye. The SUPERSHORE scaffolding was finally down. She couldn’t remember a time when it hadn’t been there; it felt like it had been up for years. Overcome with curiosity, she diverted her route.
She pressed against the crowd. Here, at the edge of the metropolis, the water glittered, wild and clear and blue, cleaner and more vibrant than it had been in decades. The debris was gone. The sand was white. Fish, not jellyfish but actual fish were visible swimming in the shallow water near the shore. Far off in the distance, she thought she saw something jump and splash. An illustrated placard read: “This is only one of dozens of regional supershore sites along the eastern seaboard and throughout the Gulf, rescuing the ocean from the edge of ruin and taking the first delicate step toward renewal.” A breaker splashed against the piling and the spray felt fresh and good. Martina smiled.
Andrea Janes is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She is aware that this is a cliché. She lives with her husband across the street from a cemetery and a high-voltage ConEd substation, and hopes that one day, maybe during a thunderstorm, this combination will result in some really cool zombie action.
© 2011, Andrea Janes