One of the worst things that can happen to a teenager is fame.
When I was in high school, I got a job as a lifeguard at Spiffy Slides Amusement Park. This is not its real name, but today I woke up on the Let’s-Avoid-A-Lawsuit side of the bed. I loathed this job for many reasons (the near drownings, the sloppy schedules, the dorky hats), but at the top of the list was Part D of the Slide Embark Procedure. The SEP consisted of several steps:
A) Tell riders to step up to the bars or climb into rafts.
B) Watch the mirror for the previous riders to pass around the curve.
C) Count to three.
D) Give riders a smile and cry with excitement, “Have a Spiffy Slide!”
E) Release raft, or nod to indicate the riders can go.
I lost my dignity at Part D of the Slide Embark Procedure thousands of times every shift. But, as I was to learn over and over again through the years, work is about relinquishing dignity for a paycheck. Humiliation for $4.25 an hour was a hard lesson. I wanted at least $6. You could not shirk your duty on Part D with Secret Sliders ever creeping about the park to gauge your job performance, and a lackluster Have a Spiffy Slide would earn a write-up. I said it so many times over the course of the day that one morning I woke with one of my brothers staring in from the doorway. In no good humor to have to go to work, I snapped, “What?”
“You kept saying Have a Spiffy Slide in your sleep,” he said.
Management could not tell the lifeguards apart, we were just that season’s batch of fresh-faced-
Fresh-faced: /freSH-faasd/ adj. pimply.
-teenagers saving for college and there were plenty more where we came from. I hadn’t expected hugs and pats and hand-holding from my boss, but it had not occurred to me that he would not even know my name after months of working there. After a horrifying near drowning right in front of me (we were understaffed and a four-year-old was sucked underwater) I couldn’t wait for the season to end. I hated school, but it beat Spiffy Slides. At least I could sneak out for doughnut runs without anyone drowning in my absence.
One morning as we readied to take our positions on the rides, management announced that a celebrity would be filming in the amusement park that day. No, I will not name him. Yes, you have heard of him. Let’s just call him Jack Kass. Although acting for years, fame came in his teens with a lead part on a hit show. His face was pinned up inside high school lockers from coast to coast. I had watched his show on and off but preferred Star Trek: The Next Generation or Baywatch, because just when you thought a Baywatch episode couldn’t get any more ridiculous, it would bring in a pirate. Having been assigned to Neck Snap Circuit, a group of three sharp-turned rides where I’d be rotating positions for the next eight hours, I headed out and hoped no four-year-olds would get sucked under that day.
Gossip filtered through the park as time passed. While the filming crew set up, Jack Kass enjoyed the rides. He broke in the morning by getting kicked off The Penultimate Wedgie. (The Ultimate Wedgie ride did not open until later.) Finding that the ride wasn’t going fast enough, he stopped himself, stood up in the racing water, and strolled to the next drop. Then he was kicked out of Kiddie Paradise, known to the lifeguards as Kiddie Hell. Designed for the 0-4 set with short, primary color slides and steering wheels on a platform between rocking bridges, nineteen-year-old Jack Kass had been playing up there like a toddler. Running back and forth along the bridges, knocking kids over, he was yelling at the top of his lungs. Then he got stuck on one of the slides, which was not designed with grown-up bottoms in mind, and the lifeguards pointed him out. After that, he was kicked off Medusa for what crime I never knew.
When I came back from lunch, almost in tears from the stories of a lifeguard working Kiddie Hell, I took position at the top of It’s Just A Damn Raft. Inexplicably, people loved this ride, marveling at a big raft that could hold up to eight for a short, winding trip to the bottom pool. It was a forty-minute wait for a twenty-second ride, and it had some exciting name like Raft Rampage or Raft-A-Tron or Catch That D-RAFT! Really it should have been It’s Just A Damn Raft, but nobody ever asks Caulay Hunter to name things, and probably for a very good reason. Hearing a commotion in line as I held a raft steady against the current while people boarded, I looked up to see Jack Kass forcing his way up the crowded stairs. Behind him was a camera crew. I wished those in my raft to have a Spiffy Slide and sent them down the flume. The machine discharged the next empty raft to bump against my legs. I braced it against the current and saw that Jack Kass and two cameramen were now in the front of the line.
The cameramen got in carefully, keeping their equipment high to avoid the flying drops. Then they trained their cameras on Jack Kass, who took a running leap from the platform and threw himself bodily into the raft. It almost knocked me over backwards and down the flume. My fingers white on the handles, I fought for balance. Jack Kass gave an adorable smile to the cameras and spoke his lines with glee, “Wow! Are you ready? Let’s go!” The cameras turned to the flume and Jack Kass looked over to me, gave me that same smile, and leaned over the side of the raft to fling water in my face. My wishes for them to Have A Spiffy Slide died in my throat as it filled with chlorinated water. I pushed the raft down the flume as I hacked, Jack Kass yelling out whatever his next line was to the cameras.
After drying off, I caught the next discharged raft. Two minutes later, the voice of Jack Kass rang up the stairs as he pushed through the line with his cameramen. My glare was hidden by my sunglasses. Seriously? We had to do this again? The cameramen got gingerly into the raft and then Jack Kass launched himself into it. Expecting this, I’d braced myself harder. Then he gave a dazzling smile to the cameras and said, “Wow! Are you ready? Let’s go!”
What I hadn’t expected was for him to lean over the raft and fling water into my face a second time. I choked and he burst into laughter, and continued laughing down the flume until it was time for him to yell out his next line to the camera. I dried off again, thinking fame and fortune and magazine covers and TV shows and I wished people knew this celebrity had gotten his ass stuck in a slide meant for three-year-olds and had to be pried out by a lifeguard. I was working this awful job to build up the lousy $4.25 an hour into my upcoming college tuition. I’d tell people to have a Spiffy Slide and save drowning four-year-olds and fish turds out of pools and let my boss check my nametag before talking to me to get to college, but I was not going to let some spoiled brat who already had everything keep throwing water in my face.
Royally pissed off, I prayed that the cameramen had what they needed and they would move on to another ride. But minutes later, I heard Jack Kass coming up the It’s Just A Damn Raft stairs once more. The machine discharged a raft and I held it there for the cameramen to climb in, and then Jack Kass threw himself in bodily and smiled to the cameras. “Wow! Are you ready? Let’s go!”
He smiled at me, and leaned over the side of the raft. Ready for him this time, I kicked a wave of water squarely into his face. With more gaiety than I had ever said it before, I cried, “Have a Spiffy Slide!” and shoved that raft as hard as I could down the ride. His mouth dropped as he soared away, needing to wipe off his face but unable since he had to cling to the handles as the raft whipped up the side of the flume, and he missed his next line because he was coughing.
Five minutes later, I was relieved of my position.
Since then, I’ve kept up now and then with the career of Jack Kass. He’s still flashing that smile on your TV screen and on Broadway stages, promoting his clothing brands and signing deals to be the spokesman of diet products. He parties and jet sets and writes one successful book after another. But one of the cruelties of Hollywood is that your shelf life is short, and Jack Kass is no exception. He’s starting to get passed over while everyone chases after The Next Hot Young Thing, and the humility he never learned as a teenager may be a harder pill to swallow now. But I’ll never know. I’m just glad that I met him, because my Celebrity Worship stopped that day. They’re just people. Some are nice, some are Jack Kass, and I will always have the memory of how he flew down It’s Just A Damn Raft at Spiffy Slides in the violent coughing fit I caused.
Welcome to the real world, Jack. It’s a bitch.