Running on Empty

A newspaper column on the Internet.

Month: August, 2012

Coaster Day

A few weeks ago my friend had a birthday and decided to spend it riding roller coasters. She arranged a day outing to Thorpe Park, a Six Flags-style amusement park outside of London. I bought a ticket, made childcare arrangements, waited for the appointed day, got on the train to Thorpe Park, looked out the window and thought to myself Holy fuck, I do not want to do this.

I loved amusement parks as a child. Loved them. I planned my entire year around the annual appearance of a skeezy traveling carnival in our church parking lot and still remember how my friend and I wept after we waited an hour for the Zipper and were told we were too short. I once asked my cousin “Would you rather have a million dollars, or go to Disneyland?” He wearily pointed out that with a million dollars you could easily afford a Disneyland ticket, but I brushed him off because I did not really believe that mere money could purchase an experience as wonderful as Disneyland. I imagined an adulthood of endless weekend trips to carnivals, an annual Disneyland pass and unrestricted access to a Dionysian world of loops, corkscrews, death drops and funnel cakes.

What changed? Age, I guess – you start to notice the relentless materialism of the Disney machine and the film on the water in the flume rides and Jesus Christ, does that Monkey Cages operator only have one hand?? Maturity stole some of the joy, and the rest fell hostage to a case of motion sickness that started sometime in my twenties and has come to manage my traveling life with a roadie’s leering aggression. I stopped going on roller coasters, and as a result they stopped being fun and just got scary.

So I don’t know why I said yes to this little adventure. I don’t want to go on these roller coasters and I don’t want to be the wimp who stands to the side and I don’t want to be the person the coaster-cam captures mid-vomit, and there’s no way to avoid all three of these things. On the shuttle bus from Staines train station to the park, I twist around in my seat to talk to the person behind me, and when I turn back around a wave of nausea washes over me. We aren’t even in the parking lot yet. This is bad. This is so very, very bad.

We wait in line at the entrance turnstiles with cautious-looking parents, amped-up kids and a group of drunk girls in slutty superhero costumes. A member of our party gets held up while security searches his enormous backpack. I’m hoping that maybe he has drugs in there and we’re all going to get thrown out but he doesn’t, and we’re set free in a popcorn-scented hellscape. I see the roller coasters looming over the park, and it’s fair to say that I don’t want to go on a single one of them. They are huge and roaring and scary and make me feel like one of those kids in the Jurassic Park Jeep. I don’t need this.

It’s decided that we should start our day with something called the Vortex, a giant ring of seats that rises into the air and then swooshes around like a club being swung by an invisible giant. A glance at the kid behind the controls confirms that it’s actually controlled by a 16-year-old tweaker, and that’s not any less upsetting.

We take our seats and pull down the heavy harnesses that fit a lot more snugly than they did when I was twelve. I know that these are safety inspected and that nothing can actually hurt me; I know that this ride lasts for barely 90 seconds. Still, I am tingling with fear. I look over at the birthday girl, who is clapping with excitement and so plainly happy to be spending this day with friends. Do I need people like this in my life? Aren’t we supposed to giving up on new experiences and settling into our ruts? I don’t want to be strapped into this death trap. I don’t want thrills. I want my rut.

The machine grinds into gear and the ride begins, swaying at first, then swooping across the metal platform, then swinging up into weightlessness before plunging back down. It’s terrifying, but deliciously so. I see this feeling of gleeful abandon on my daughter’s face every day when I push her on the swings, but I can’t recall the last time I felt it myself. When the ride resettles itself onto the platform, I am laughing. And not sick.

After that, Thorpe Park is fine. It’s even fun. I don’t throw up once. I learn a lot. Skeeball horseracing requires utter concentration. The English call cotton candy “candy floss.” They also serve fried cod as a refreshment to people who are about to ride the corkscrew, and it’s decisions like that that ensure the Empire will never rise again. And while at first it’s so much worse to look, after a while it’s so much better if you do.

Remembrances of Buttocks Past: Watching Magic Mike

There are two doors at the top of the cinema stairs. One goes to the theater showing “Magic Mike,” and the other goes to a sensitive film fresh off the festival circuit. I don’t have tickets for that movie.

“This the way to ‘Magic Mike’?” I ask a woman walking up the stairs with a glass of wine in each hand (because how, why, would you see “Magic Mike” in a movie theater that doesn’t allow alcohol?) She says, “Uhh, yeah,” all furtive and uncomfortable, like I just reached over the back of the seat at an adult theater and offered to shake her hand. We’re living in a post-shame age, lady. People read Fifty Shades of Grey on the subway. You’re at the stripper movie. Own it.

There are a lot of reasons I’m at “Magic Mike” but there’s no point in naming any of them, lest it sound like the beefcake-movie-ticket-holding lady doth protest too much. I can take the high road and say it’s for work, but – really? All the journalists in Homs right now just couldn’t snag the “Magic Mike” beat? Let’s not overthink this. It’s Saturday night, I have a box of stale popcorn and a large glass of Chardonnay, and I’m seated in a very energetic theater of women and exactly two men who appear to have been conscripted as dates.

“I don’t even want to think about the things I’d have to do to my boyfriend to get him to come see this with me,” my friend whispers, which is ironic, because in about 50 minutes Channing Tatum is going to tell his love interest that she doesn’t want to know what he has to do for a $20 bill.

“Magic Mike” is about a 30-year-old part-time Tampa roofer who does not look like anyone who has ever fixed your roof. By night, he leads a muscled all-male revue that grinds and thrusts before a shrieking crowd of female revelers. Every stripper has an “act,” a dance constructed around the somewhat flimsy premise that he is a fireman who needs to take his clothes off, or a policeman who needs to take his clothes off, or variations of that theme. Women like a story. I once went with friends to a strip club aimed at gay men, and those dancers dispensed with such character studies entirely. All the acts followed a single narrative, that narrative being that everyone in the room would like to see some penis as soon as humanly possible.

We learn early in the film that Magic Mike’s talents are not limited to the stage. His real passion, he explains to a young woman who has just woken up nude in his apartment, is making furniture out of crap that has washed ashore on the beach. The camera lingers on a photo album of his creations, and it is not spoiling much to say that this is not a movie about a talented furniture maker reduced to stripping to make ends meet. Mike takes a protégé under his wing, one 19-year-old Adam, and the rest of the film plays Adam’s burgeoning infatuation with the glamorous world of male stripping against Mike’s increasing disillusionment. Matthew McConaughey is their dirty, half-crazed, bare-chested, bongo-drum-playing employer. It is possible that Matthew McConaughey’s entire career up to this point has been a drawn-out teaser campaign for this role. He is kind of a genius in it, and if it transpires next year that somebody like Ben Kingsley loses an Oscar to Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike, I will not contest that decision.

All of these plot points are really just filler between scenes of be-G-stringed men writhing against some very willing audience volunteers, and here is where “Magic Mike” performs a public service. Strip clubs are not for everyone. If you have never been before, you will know within minutes of the “It’s Raining Men” routine if this kind of thing’s your scene. I only wish that kind of informed consent had been available to me.

A few years ago I visited a Las Vegas strip club in the company of a bachelorette party. I had never seen a show aimed at women – my only previous experience was with the gay boys, and that was very much an observer mission – so I don’t know what I was expecting. Something saucy, but ultimately PG-13, like the male answer to Gypsy Rose Lee. I guess I also thought we were traveling back in time.

This is not what happens. The Marine uniform or cowboy vest or whatever comes off, of course, and that’s nice, but there is a whole interactive element that can be really challenging for someone whose personal boundaries preclude publicly dry-humping a stranger in a sailor’s cap. There’s a lot of dancer-patron touching. And grinding. And fake-sex having. It’s the type of stuff that would maybe make an unprepared prude like me disappear to the bar when an emcee starts asking if anyone needs a spanking.

Fortunately for the dancers, uptight killjoys were in the minority that night. The other patrons expressed their appreciation loudly, proudly and with dollar bills between their breasts. While I was shrinking behind my drink,  other members of our party pooled their money and – surprise! – bought me a lap dance. Suddenly there was before me a gentleman in an electric blue thong, curly hair greased into a ponytail, and the determined, half-crazed smile of a Disneyland parade dancer.

I remember it in the way you remember something to tell the police about later. There was jiggling, and shimmying, and buttocks so uncomfortably close to my face. Someone grabbed my hand and placed it on his butt cheek, where the stubble of a not-so-recent ass shave sprouted through a slick layer of oil and sweat. I felt marginally less alarmed than if a stranger on the subway had leapt from his seat and treated me to the same performance.

I recognize that there are people who don’t feel this way, and who embrace the strip club experience in the playful sense that Matthew McConaughey’s ass-less pants suggest it was meant to be taken. I don’t remember the denomination of the bill I gingerly tucked into his waist strap, but I can’t imagine it was as robust a tip as he might have received from a more enthusiastic lady. And that’s just not fair to a clearly hard-working freelance professional.

“Magic Mike” accurately portrays the onstage world of male stripping. The offstage one? That I can’t say. Perhaps the most fantastical element of this film – and this is a bit of a spoiler – is how remarkably well everything works out for everyone. The novice who screws up a drug deal gets mercifully bailed out, the skeezy club owner gets his promotion, even the golden boy bows out before the herpes or male-pattern baldness hits to make his ugly furniture. Maybe the world of male stripping really is just a rocking good time with no greater downsides than the pain of a good back wax. But I don’t know. From my single interaction with a member of the profession, I felt – as much as you can feel from a single touch of a sweaty, stubbly ass cheek – that perhaps not all of his choices in life had worked as well as he’d hoped. But what do I know? For his sake, I hope that “Magic Mike” is an accurate portrayal of life behind the tear-away pants, and that it helps its viewers self-identify who might enjoy a night of pecs and padded jock straps, and who should stay home and stop ruining it for everyone else.

It’s already helping. The next day I spoke to my mother, a nice Catholic lady who doesn’t watch “How I Met Your Mother” because Doogie Howser’s jokes are too racy. She had also gone to see it. She has never been to a strip club. She was appalled.

“That was not dancing,” she said in a voice full of shock and awe. “That was not dancing.”