August 24, 2008

Torture by the Seashore


“That was the most tragic thing I’ve ever seen,” Morgan said.

            We were on the train headed to Coney, but were talking about an event at the South Street Seaport we’d attended some twelve or thirteen years earlier. It still stuck with us.

            Governor Pataki was there to say a few words, as was Cousin Brucie (who seemed to be at everything those days). It was quite an event, because when they were finished, in came the Flying Elvises. But just as the half dozen Elvis impersonators were parasailing into view up the East River, a slab of impenetrably black clouds rolled in fast and low over the Lower Manhattan skyline like the wrath of God. As it slid over us blotting out the sun, the cloud slab unleashed an electrical storm like nothing I’d ever experience in New York, and those Elvises were still a hundred feet in the air, tethered to the back of a speedboat.

            Morgan and I took shelter in a nearby tavern to ride out the storm, but we never did learn what happened to those poor Elvises.

            What awaited us at Coney that Sunday was tragic, too, but in a very different way.

            We’ve been going down to Coney a lot this summer, just in case this really is the final summer for the last thing in New York that matters. Specifically, though, that Sunday we wanted to check out the latest addition to Sideshows by the Seashore—artist Steve Powers’ installation, “The Waterboarding Thrill Ride,” in which he uses robots to recreate America’s favorite new interrogation technique. It was only going to be up for two weeks, so this would be our last chance to see it before it moved to some gallery uptown.

            It had been getting a lot of hysterical press coverage over the previous week: Fox News declared it “offensive,” and the Associated Press decried the fact that such a thing could be found in a family friendly environment like Coney, using its presence to argue for Coney’s demolition and redevelopment. Those two stories alone made a visit to show our support for offensive, family-unfriendly entertainment absolutely mandatory, even though we knew it would mean insane crowds.

            The one-off wasn’t hard to find, right next door to the sideshow as it was. The big “Waterboarding Thrill Ride” sign helped too, as did the illustration of SpongeBob saying “It don’t GITMO better!” It was just a painted wall, really, with a small barred window about ten feet off the ground.

            It seems our fears about crowds were a bit unfounded, though, as only a small handful of people were milling about, apparently unsure what they were supposed to do.

            Given that nobody else seemed to be doing anything about it, I walked up the three steps to the tiny platform beneath the window, inserted a dollar into the slot, and peered inside. A moment later, a dim light snapped on illuminating a small room, and a tape loop kicked in.

            Inside, the hooded robot (well, animatronic mannequin) interrogator poured a bucket of water over the face of the robot prisoner strapped to a table. Then the robot prisoner went into convulsions as the growling voice on the tape loop chanted “DIE! DIE! DIE!”

            That’s what I was told anyway, but, well, I couldn’t see a goddamn thing. I heard the tape loop grinding away as my eyes darted around trying to pinpoint the action—then it was all over. In true sideshow fashion, it wasn’t exactly all it was built up to be, but I appreciated and accepted that, and left happy. In retrospect, I guess I would’ve helped the show out more if I’d grabbed my head and started screaming, “No! No! Oh, God, make it stop!” instead of merely half-turning and giving Morgan a confounded look, but it’s too late for that now.

            She went up next, and could actually see what was going on. As a result, she came back down the stairs more impressed than I did. Still, I began to wonder if those “outraged” stories were all part of the marketing campaign.

            When we were finished (even without any histrionics on my part), a few other people decided to take the plunge, and formed a short line.

            We walked a few yards away, where we paused to compare notes. As we stood there chatting, a young woman approached.

            “Excuse me,” she asked, pointing at the exhibit. “but did you just see this?”

            We nodded, given as we had.

            “I was wondering if I could ask you what you thought about it?” Only then did I notice the reporter’s notebook and pen in her hands.

            It’s a strange situation for a one-time journalist to be in, but I guess it makes sense. Knowing how hard it can be to find people willing to go on the record sometimes, I nodded.

            “Okay, great . . . Um, now first, can I ask you where you’re visiting from?”

            I cut my eyes to the left. Did I look that much like a tourist? “Umm . . . ” I said, “up the street a ways. “ She jotted it down.

            “So what was your reaction?”

            For some reason, I opened my mouth and started talking, even though I hadn’t been able to actually see what she was asking me about. In my typically mumbling, bumbling, stuttering manner, I tried to explain that Coney has always, at one level, been a reflection of the best and worst this country has to offer.

            I’m not really sure what I said after that. I wanted to point out that historically, the sideshow has always been a home to demons—a place for us to confront our deepest fears. Fire, electrocution, pain, human deformity—and, in this case, torture. I don’t think I said that, though. I may have pointed out that those outraged citizens (both liberal and conservative) who were calling the exhibit “offensive” and saying it shouldn’t be allowed seemed to be forgetting that while the exhibit involved animated mannequins, it was illustrating a real practice that was being inflicted on real people. And since the media isn’t allowed to film the real thing and show it on television, this was probably as close as we were going to get to actually seeing a demonstration of what all the talk was about.

            Oh, I went on and on, waxing pretentious, as the young reporter scribbled away in her notepad.

            Meanwhile as I blathered on, a bunch of teenagers were inserting their dollar bills, then whooping and laughing at the twitching mannequin strapped to the table.

            “Most of the people I’ve talked to so far just think it’s funny,” the reporter said, and I knew once again that we were utterly, utterly doomed. I also knew that everything I’d said had just been declared null and void.

            I asked her who she was writing this for.

            “It’s an art magazine,” she said. But it didn’t have a name yet, didn’t have a website, and hadn’t actually launched.

            “Oh,” I said. “Well . . . good luck to you, then.”

            As we walked away a few minutes later, Morgan noted that it was at least good to see a youngster who was still willing to do a little legwork to get a story instead of just looking it up online. It was true—it was a good and rare thing to see these days. But I did have to worry about that classic “notebook and pen” approach. Lord knows I worked that way for many, many years—and learned that it’s impossible to get quotes exactly right after they’ve been scribbled in shorthand and not transcribed until several hours after the fact.

            “When the story runs,” I said, “Just watch—it’s going to quote me as saying that the exhibit was offensive and shouldn’t be shown . . . and that I’m from Galveston.”

            Then something else struck me as very odd about that interview. What kind of twenty year old would still use pen and paper these days, for anything? Where was the digital recorder and the voice activated transcribing device? I mean, a twenty year old with pen and paper? It’s more than a little suspicious. Add to that the fact that this “magazine” doesn’t seem to exist, and I was getting the impression that I’d just been had, wasting a mountain of profound insights on some first-year journalism student. If she was even that much.

            Ah well. I guess I’ve run into worse. In the end, it was a mighty fine day at Coney, and so far as we’re aware, no Elvii were hurt.


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