I had a vision of Hell yesterday.
Okay, I’m exaggerating. Maybe it wasn’t actually Hell — maybe it was more like Hell’s Antechamber, or Hell’s Satellite Office, or Hell’s Fifty Percent Off Sales Annex. But while I was there, I was certain that if Dante had been with me, he would have left the Inferno section of The Divine Comedy unfinished out of despair at the inability of words to convey such horror. And if he had written it anyway, Gustave Dore would have exclaimed, “I can’t draw this!” and immediately retired from art.
Actually, I was accompanying The Divine Miss T to a classmate’s birthday party, which was held at a commercial venue the name of which, for legal reasons, will go unmentioned here. Though I will say that for an exasperated parent who spent way too much time reading Mad magazine during his formative years, the name of the joint lent itself perfectly to satirical recastings like Chunk E. Heaves or Skunk E. Sleaze.
I will also note that the chain has been around long enough to have been ridiculed in the second or third season of The Simpsons, when Bart is given a birthday party at Wall E. Weasel (“Where we cram fun down your throat!”) and is regaled with a special birthday song by the orchestra of mechanical animals: “You’re the birthday/ You’re the birthday/ You’re the birthday/ Boy or girl!”Are you situated now? Good.
Maybe I was just in a cranky mood. I’m sure that on some other day, I would have been delighted to be jammed into an overheated room loaded with full-sized adults moving too slowly and knee-high children moving too quickly; where there was no room to sit and whenever you stepped back to let someone go past you blundered into some crappy ride that moved too slowly and was over too quickly, demanding a fresh infusion of tokens; where the various rides, coin games and loudspeaker announcements kept the decibels jacked to a level just below that of a Harley-Davidson road rally, or a line of 747s gunning their jet engines for takeoff; where the human help have to maintain the kind of face-stretching smiles normally seen only on women who have undergone too many face-lifts, or victims of a poison-gas attack from The Joker. Our table was attended was a young woman whose smile reminded me of an old B-movie, Mr. Sardonicus, about a man who is so traumatized by something that his mouth becomes wrenched into a permanent, ghastly, gum-baring leer. That movie scared the snot out of me when I was a kid. Just the kind of thing I want be reminded of at a birthday party.
The Divine Miss T didn’t like it much, either. As we walked, her grip threatened to stretch my fingers an extra few inches. The presentation of the birthday cake was interrupted by the appearance of the chain’s corporate mascot, who inspired an immediate lemming-like rush to pose for pictures. I found myself standing next to a woman who was berating her child for being too frightened to join the rush.
“I’m scared of him, too,” I told her. “He’s a giant rat that rides a skateboard. What’s not to be scared of?” She said nothing. Maybe it was the expression on my face. I saw that expression mirrored on the faces of most of the adults in the place. It was the same expression Charles Whitman must have worn on August 1, 1966, when he climbed to the top of the Texas Tower and started picking off pedestrians. It was the expression Chevy Chase bore when, at the climax of National Lampoon’s Vacation, he said: “We’re on a quest! A quest for fun!” Parents on such a quest will move mountains, ford rushing rivers — do anything just to get a giggle from their kids.
The prospect of rescue came when I realized that the owners, eager to jam people in and clear them out for the next wave of parties, would chase us all out within the hour. That’s when The Divine Miss T found her pleasure zone.
It was the big kiddie Habitrail that rose in one corner of the room. Kids swarming up the steps and crawled through the tubes mounted along the ceiling. I walked beneath it, straining to catch a glimpse of her, trying not to step on anybody or knock anybody down, certain she was lost in the plastic coils and would forever be traumatized. After an eternity (or maybe it was fifteen minutes) she appeared at the bottom of the slide, squealing in delight, ready to go up again.
So, if you’re a parent, I suggest you do everything you can to avoid visiting Hell. But if you go anyway, have your little sprouts check out the kiddie habitrail. It was a little bit of Heaven that didn’t require any tokens.