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443: Amusement Park

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Prologue

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Ira Glass

OK. So we're going through the gate here into the park?

Cole Lindbergh

Yeah, we're going-- this is our morning-- this is the morning walk into the park. See, everybody will split up into their different sections and get the park open. And we'll start putting out prizes and--

Ira Glass

We're at an amusement park in Kansas City, Missouri called Worlds of Fun. We're going to be spending the entire hour today at amusement parks. It's five minutes before opening, and I'm walking with Cole Lindbergh, who's 25 with permanently-mussed hair and the cheerful vibe of the Bosom Buddies-era Tom Hanks. He's been coming to this park since he was a little kid, started working here as a summer job at 14, and then basically just never left. It became his real job. 11 years later, he is a full-time, year-round employee.

Cole Lindbergh

I love amusement parks. Any time my family would go on vacation, we'd schedule it around an amusement park, because I love roller coasters. I loved amusement parks. I mean, I've walked-- this pathway that we're taking right now-- I've walked it thousands and thousands and thousands of times.

Ira Glass

When he was little, his family had season passes here, and they would come a lot. He'd travel to any new roller coaster to try it out, daydreamed about a job where he would design parks and build roller coasters. And when his dad drove him here at the age of 14 for a job interview-- he wore a suit to that interview-- just sitting inside the park's offices, which are utilitarian-- picture the principal's office at a public high school-- even that was exciting.

Cole Lindbergh

I remember being like, oh, wow. This is the inner sanctum. This is the inner workings. This is where all the cool stuff happens. And then the first time actually getting in the uniform, actually working at the park-- I remember, to me, it was like, wow. This is surreal. I'm actually working in an amusement park now. And to me, that was kind of, like, awesome. That was awesome. I'm so excited about this.

Ira Glass

You might think that enthusiasm would diminish over time. But what's incredible about Cole is that, even after a decade here, even after becoming an adult and working 60-, 70-hour weeks, every week, all summer, even with the pressure in his current job of running a whole department and hitting financial targets and buying all the supplies and hiring and supervising over 100 young people, he is still pretty psyched about working at an amusement park.

And it is not a glamour job. The department Cole runs is the games department at Worlds of Fun. This is 32 games, the kind that you would see at any carnival or midway, where you get three softballs to try to throw them into a milk can, or you throw beanbags at targets, or you shoot darts to knock over a stack of cups.

Nobody comes to an amusement park for the games. Cole himself never went to an amusement park for the games. But he's an extrovert, and he has filled the department with extroverts, like Mallory. The park is barely open-- hardly any customers here at all-- when Cole stops by her game on his morning rounds.

Cole Lindbergh

Yeah, Mallory loves talking on the mic. Mallory does a good job on the mic.

Mallory

(WHISPERING) Thank you! I appreciate it.

Cole Lindbergh

Let's hear it. Go for it. Try to get people to play.

Mallory

All righty. We're over here at three-point challenge today looking for out first winner! You come on over here. You have 40 seconds on the clock, 12 shots up, and you could be walking away with some awesome prizes! We have--

Ira Glass

This is exactly how Cole trains the kids to talk on the mic. Don't stop. Get a flow. Have fun. If you have fun, that's what's going to sell the game. Watching Cole run the games department at Worlds of Fun is watching somebody who was raised here and who completely, thoroughly mastered everything. It's rare to witness somebody so happily great at any job.

Cole Lindbergh

All right. Let's gather around, guys. Is there still people in cash patrol? Anybody know?

Ira Glass

It's the first shift meeting of the day. About 30 teenagers and college kids mill around a big tree before their shifts start.

Cole Lindbergh

All right, guys. Listen up. Gather round. Let's do this. Here we go. Shh. Quiet, please. Real quick. Real quick. Here we go. Today is Saturday.

Man

Oh, yeah!

Cole Lindbergh

Today is a busy day. Today is the day that we have a very good day, because there are going to be a lot of people playing games. And today, of course, is one of my favorite days of the season. It is the second round of the Sweet 16 Tournament. Let's take a look. Sam, do you want to hold this up a little higher? OK. We've got--

Ira Glass

One of the guys, Sam, holds up a poster board with tournament brackets on it, like for any sports tournament. The Sweet 16 Tournament pits the kids in all 32 games in the park against each other, in pairs, in a four-week competition to make the most money. Last week, half the games were eliminated. Cole is here letting the remaining games know who they're competing with today.

Cole Lindbergh

We have Pigs of Fury, Bullpen versus Goblet Toss, Lion's Den. Now-- can you hold that for me real quick? Now-- wait, hold on! Before we go any further, could this possibly be a precursor for today? Yesterday, the number-one game in the park was Scale Africa.

[CHEERING]

Ira Glass

OK. Scale Africa is a scale-- a game where they guess your weight or age. And it's in the Africa part of the park, hence Scale Africa. And it's no surprise that it's number one. It always makes tons of money. All the games in the park are grouped together into four different teams, which they call Games I, Games II, Games III, and Games IV. And these four teams-- Games I through IV-- compete against each other all summer long, like teams at summer camp, in a three-month-long color war.

Most other amusement parks don't go this far to make things interesting for the workers. This park, Worlds of Fun, is owned by a company called Cedar Fair that owns 11 amusement parks and six water parks. And Cole knows the guys who run the games departments at the other parks. And some of them do competitions like this between the employees.

Cole Lindbergh

But I don't think they do it to the extent of what we do. Yeah, we-- every year, I talk about-- we had the Death Match Tournament. We have the Sweet 16 Tournament.

A couple years ago, we did a thing called Toss the Boss. And basically what happened was is that, every single day, I'd pull a game out of the hat. And if that game was the number-one game in the park for that day, then that section would get to throw me in the pond. The pond is not a good-looking pond. It's gross, and it smells. And the deal was is that, if you are the number-one game in the park, you get to throw me in the pond.

Ira Glass

So finally, one day, the game that he picked from the hat that day tried their hardest and actually became the number-one game in the park for the day. And--

Man

Ready?

Crowd

1, 2, 3!

[SPLASH]

[CHEERING]

Cole Lindbergh

D'oh!

Ira Glass

Of course, they made a video about this because it's present-day America. And Cole went and told his peers, his colleagues-- the guys who run the games departments at the other parks-- all about what happened.

Cole Lindbergh

I go and I tell the other parks about this. And I showed a picture. Like, oh, there's me all soaking wet. And I got laughed at. Like, why would you ever do that? And to me, in my mind, I was just like, why would you not do that? Why would you not want to get people excited about working in the game that they're in? At least they may try. They may do a little bit more. And if I can get a little bit more out of them, we're good, even if the game only makes a little bit more money.

Ira Glass

Also, it's more fun for the kids.

Cole Lindbergh

Exactly. It's all about more fun.

All right. So there's a lot of people in the park today. Now, I have composed a song about today, which I now want to sing for you.

Man

Everybody close--

Cole Lindbergh

And you can all sing along. [STRUMS GUITAR] OK. (SINGING) Saturday. It's Saturday, Saturday, Saturday, Saturday.

Man

So wait, what day is it? I forgot.

Cole Lindbergh

It's Saturday.

Man

Oh, OK.

Cole Lindbergh

(SINGING) Today, I don't feel like riding any rides.

Man

Whistle, whistle.

Cole Lindbergh

(SINGING) I just want to play all the games. And I really like playing Mamba Ball-- win a giant top frog or a big basketball. Yes, today, I don't feel like riding any rides, just playing games.

Crowd

(SINGING) Whoo-hoo! Whoo! Whoo-hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo!

Cole Lindbergh

All right. Let's have a good day, guys. Everybody in, all right?

[CHEERING]

All right. Games on three! 1, 2, 3!

Crowd

Games!

Cole Lindbergh

All right. Let's have a good day.

Ira Glass

Well, today, on our radio show, we go to amusement parks all over the country. We see stuff backstage that we had no idea was going on, like that song. We hear Jonathan Goldstein's story about moving to the Jersey Shore for a summer when he was 16, and we hear your stories. We asked you to call in with your amusement park stories, and you told some great ones.

Today's show was recorded and first broadcast a few years ago when you could attend amusement parks without wearing a face mask or taking precautions to avoid a deadly and deeply-contagious coronavirus. Let us return to those happy days, shall we? It's summer. It's hot. Let's spend an hour at a really fun place at a safe social distance-- in fact, the safest imaginable-- that is, over the radio. Let's ride the rides. Let's gorge out on terrible great food together for an hour. Cue the roller coaster sound now!

[ROLLER COASTER SOUND]

Stay with us.

Act One: Gameboy Grows Up

Ira Glass

Act One. Gameboy Grows Up. Following Cole Lindbergh around on his early-morning tour of Words of Fun park, I learned a couple things. First of all, people play the games because they want to win the prizes. And so an important part of his job is actually guessing what prizes are going to excite people.

Cole Lindbergh

We kind of just go, it is what it is. Oh, I've got to show you the lemur. Do you want to see what a lemur is?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Cole Lindbergh

People love these. This is a lemur. People play for this all the time. This is one of our number-one prizes.

Ira Glass

Really?

Cole Lindbergh

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Who'd have thought? It's a fluorescent-colored monkey, the size of a teddy bear, with huge eyes and a super-long tail. When they put it into the dart game, the dart game became one of the most popular games in the park-- doubled its business. I also learned that Cole invents games.

Cole Lindbergh

You like Angry Birds, right?

Ira Glass

We round a corner and I see why he asked.

Cole Lindbergh

What we're looking at right now is a giant slingshot with a launcher that you launch, basically, beanbags at pigs. And we built this.

Ira Glass

So you got permission from the Angry Birds people--

Cole Lindbergh

Well--

Ira Glass

This turns out to be an awkward question. Cole points out that this slingshot game is not actually called Angry Birds.

Cole Lindbergh

It's called Pigs of Fury-- Pigs of Fury. So now this is one of our number-one games. People love shooting a giant slingshot.

Ira Glass

Before I flew out to Kansas City to meet Cole, I watched his YouTube videos online. Yes, he has YouTube videos, and I heartily recommend them. They are shot, directed, and starring Cole. They are low-tech. They're low-budget. In this one, he wears a Viking helmet, and a fake mustache, and wire-rimmed glasses. And he's walking through a video arcade. Those are his echoey footsteps that you're hearing.

Next, he's inside what looks like-- you know those old arcade machines with the mechanical claw that picks up prizes? This one is big enough for a person to stand inside, and Cole is inside it, surrounded by huge stuffed animals. And he raps.

Cole Lindbergh

(RAPPING) I give out prizes when you come play my games. If you see me with a mic, I guess it's your birthday. I'm a really cool guy because I make winners every day. Win a bear, a dog, and a giant mon-kay.

Ira Glass

OK, I'm going to stop the video right there. When he says "a bear, a dog, and a giant mon-kay," then we have three quick shots of stuffed animal prizes-- a bear, a dog, and a giant mon-kay.

Cole Lindbergh

(RAPPING) Sometimes people just don't play games. I'm asking how they're doing, and they say, "No way!"

Ira Glass

As the video continues, the teenagers on his staff join him. And they're all dancing around, and they're hitting whack-a-mole moles on the beat. And everything that they do in this video is so deeply uncool that you know that they must really like and trust each other. And their total commitment to what they're doing actually flips the dorkiness and makes it cool.

Cole Lindbergh

(RAPPING) Get it in the can. Get this ball right in that can. You can do it, man. Just get this ball right in that can, because all I want to do is--

[GUNSHOTS]

[MUSIC - "PAPER PLANES" BY MIA]

(RAPPING) And--

[CLICK]

[CHA-CHING]

(SINGING) Come play my games.

[MUSIC - "PAPER PLANES" BY MIA]

(RAPPING) All I wanna do is--

[GUNSHOTS]

--and--

[CLICK]

[CHA-CHING]

Cole Lindbergh

(RAPPING) Come play my games.

[MUSIC - "PAPER PLANES" BY MIA]

(RAPPING) All I wanna--

Ira Glass

There are over a dozen videos, all set in the amusement park, with the stuffed animal prizes always playing surprisingly central roles, like the sci-fi special effects movie they made where a mysterious ray from outer space hits, and the stuffed animal prizes all come to life, seeking vengeance. Key line?

Woman

The prizes attacked me. I was in my game. The earth shook. And next thing I knew, I was being pummelled by bears!

Ira Glass

The only semi-normal video of the bunch is a training video. This one opens on Cole. He's in a suit and tie in front of a bookcase, reading a book.

[FORMAL ORCHESTRAL MUSIC PLAYING]

He looks up, startled, as if the camera surprised him.

Cole Lindbergh

Hello. How are you? I was just reading. Welcome to the World of Fun Games Training Video. My name is Cole. I'll be taking you on this wonderful journey. Here.

Ira Glass

When he says "wonderful journey," he mugs at the camera with this gesture that communicates the idea "I know this is completely ridiculous." In fact, the entire video seems to be making fun of the idea of training videos while, at the same time, it is a training video, explaining how to sign in, how to use the till card, how to stock prizes. I saw these videos, and all I could think of was, these people really love their jobs. And I thought about Michael Scott, the fictional boss on The Office.

Cole Lindbergh

I'd say that there's a lot of Michael Scott in this job. I'd say there's a lot of Michael Scott in me, probably. I do silly things that everybody looks at me later and go, why did he do that? Why was it deemed necessary for Cole to dress up wearing a big beard and a raincoat, and tell everyone he lived downtown under the bridge and he was there to motivational speaker them today? (GRAVELLY VOICE) "Hi, everybody. I'm Phil Bridges"-- and go out and talk to people. What went through his thought process?

And I've run out with a squirt gun all the time. I got my big Super Soaker. And on busy days, I'll take the Super Soaker, and I'll fill it up with ice water, and I'll sneak around the corner and just-- they're all standing there, and I'll just go, "light them up!" and just spray across the whole group.

That's what makes it fun! They're going to remember Phil Bridges more than anything else throughout the day. And so if they're talking about, "Did you guys see what Cole did at the shift meeting?" even if they say "that was stupid" or "that was not funny," they're still going to be talking about it. And that's still going to get them happy about this job.

Ira Glass

So does that work in practice? After all, if you think about it, amusement park jobs are not, on their face, very fun, you know? Taking tickets, strapping people into rides, convincing passersby to throw three balls into a can.

Well, the Saturday that I visited turned out to be one of the busiest, hottest days of the summer. There was a concert at the park, which brought in thousands of extra people. And of course, this was Sweet 16 round two, which did seem to matter to the kids. Before the shift, Haley and a couple of the other kids from Games III pulled Cole aside and crowded close so kids from other teams couldn't see.

Cole Lindbergh

So this is-- you have a secret weapon that is going--

Haley

A secret weapon.

Cole Lindbergh

They're going--

Woman

Secret weapon.

Cole Lindbergh

--to show you the secret weapon and what--

Man

It's a--

Cole Lindbergh

And don't let anybody see it.

Man

--guaranteed victory.

Cole Lindbergh

Guaranteed victory.

Woman

It's a banana costume.

[LAUGHTER]

Cole Lindbergh

So--

Man

A banana.

Cole Lindbergh

--is that--

Ira Glass

You made the costume?

Haley

I made the costume, yeah.

Woman

Because she's awesome. Because we have a game with bananas that's in Sweet 16.

Haley

That's right.

Woman

So we're going to have somebody running around in this costume to try to sell it.

Haley

It's kind of big and it's kind of rough, because I didn't--

Cole Lindbergh

OK, I see.

Haley

--use a pattern.

Woman

Wait, David's coming. Put it away. Put it away.

Cole Lindbergh

Did you just go buy fabric?

Haley

No, I've had this fabric. So this is the head hole, the arms hole. And it's going to look like the bananas in Lion's Den.

Cole Lindbergh

I like it.

Woman

We're pumped.

Haley

Is that exciting?

Cole Lindbergh

I like it. That is more than exciting.

Haley

People are going to be stopping, taking pictures. Oh, maybe I'll win one, too.

Ira Glass

Meanwhile, the guys in Games IV were doing great in Sweet 16. All their games had survived the first round. Games I was eliminated completely in the first round of Sweet 16. As for Games II, Max and Okson are pulling a double shift, hoping to break the record for how much has ever been made-- ever-- in their two games. Their not-so-secret strategy?

Dominic

All right. So strobe light, strobe light. You want two blacklights out there.

Ira Glass

Max and his team leader Dominic are setting up at a game called Roll-A-Ball, which is one of the older games in the park. Basically, it's just skee ball. But as you get points, it moves a little wooden pig, which is in a race with all the other riders.

This doesn't make any sense. It actually doesn't matter. Here's what you need to know. Games II is hoping to turn this creaky, 16-year-old game Roll-A-Ball, which never does well, into a crazy dance party they call Techno Ball. Max and Dominic have brought in a disco ball. They brought in lighting gear. And Dominic is explaining to Max how he wants to set it all up.

Dominic

You're going to put a light on that toy chest. You're going to put a light on that box. They're shining at the disco ball. The disco ball is going to be moving. If it's all dark in here, people will want to walk on it. They'll be like, "Whoa, what am I stepping on? Whoa, lights!" [LAUGHS]

Man

I know. Maybe it'll be too much for people to handle.

Ira Glass

Half an hour before the park opened, Haley and Claire had gotten to work early and were down in Games III by Scale Africa.

Haley

We wanted to set out the most prizes that we could, make the piles extravagant, do a lot of flash. And that takes a lot of time. So we came out here early.

Ira Glass

So just describe what we're looking at. There's a pyramid here of--

Haley

Turtles. And there's pandas, lions. There's going to be one of tigers. There's going to be one--

Ira Glass

Each pyramid has over 100 stuffed animals in it, which is bigger than I think you're probably imagining it. It's nearly waist high. And so there are four big, pastel-colored piles of plush toys right in the middle of the walkway looking so, so easy to win. Basically--

Claire

Every prize we've got.

Haley

Every prize we've got, yeah.

Claire

We're throwing it out here.

Haley

We're going big or go home. We really want to win.

Claire

We brought in streamers, balloons, energy drinks. We got a whole bunch of energy drinks. We got a whole bunch of Gatorade. We brought in food for everyone.

Haley

--everyone stays energized, get pumped up for the whole day. We really want to win. We lost Death Match in a very painful battle.

Cole Lindbergh

Years ago, I was the lead of Games III. This was my section.

Ira Glass

Cole gets just as excited as the kids do when you get him talking about all the fun things that he did back when he was Haley and Claire's age, working here, running Games III. His team would dress as pirates for the guessing game.

Cole Lindbergh

And they'd be out at the scale, and they'd do guessing pirates. "Gaar, your age be-- gaar!" Stuff like that. 2004 came around-- we dominated. We beat everyone. It was awesome. [LAUGHS] And I-- so I'm--

Ira Glass

It is still so alive for him. They dominated in 2004 by tricking out one of the games with music, and all kinds of commotion, and turning it into a party, doubling its take for the day.

Cole Lindbergh

We brought my fog machine in from home, because at the time, I was in high school and I had a band. And people flocked to it. And we destroyed Games II. We destroyed them that year. It was the happiest I'd been, because in 2003, we had gotten so close to winning. And I just kept on saying, 2004's the year. Games III. We're bringing the Sweet 16 back. 2004. And we did. We won. And I was really happy.

Woman

What am I going to guess for you? I can guess your age, weight, or birthday month.

Ira Glass

Late morning, when I checked back at Games III, the pyramids of plush toys looked pretty much exactly as big as they had earlier that morning. Things were slow. And to goose the business, one of the supervisors, Sarah, was standing on the roof of this little hut.

Sarah

88 more guesses--

Man

Beautiful.

Sarah

--until I'm coming--

Woman

Thank you.

Sarah

--off the roof.

Woman

She's staying on the roof until--

Sarah

I'm staying here for 100.

Woman

--she gets 100 guesses.

Sarah

I'm here until I get 88 more guesses. And then I'm going to allow myself to take a bathroom break. So any of you guys walking by, if you guys want to come play my game, help me out, get me off this roof-- it's only $5 to play. I can guess your age, weight, or birthday month.

Ira Glass

This is a technique that I recognize from 1,000 Public Radio pledge drives, and it was working about as slowly for her as it works for us. Strangers just don't care if some girl on the roof gets to take a bathroom break.

Sarah

I'm stuck here until I can get 88 more people to play. Seriously? And all you people don't want to help me out. Thanks. Peace. Thanks for the luck. You should come-- I dare you guys to come feel these turtles. It sounds like a weird thing, but we really have the softest turtles in town. You should feel one. They're really soft.

Ira Glass

After a while, Sarah switched technique and finally managed to rustle up a crowd through the simple tactic of making a series of insanely-terrible guesses. First, there is a dad who looks like he's 42 and, in fact, is 42. Sarah guesses 25. Then a grandmother, who is standing there with kids and grandkids-- Sarah writes her guess for this woman's age on a whiteboard.

Sarah

This could be really wrong. I get the feeling it's really wrong, but that's OK. We'll see. You guys like this guess? Maybe? All right. Turn around. How old are you?

Woman

I'm 52!

Sarah

I guessed you're 37. It's sunglasses. Sunglasses really throw me off. But congratulations! You get to pick out any prize you want.

Ira Glass

Later, Sarah privately confirmed for me that she did intentionally take a dive, which is fine with Cole, because it turns out it doesn't matter if the kids guess right. The game costs $5 to play. The prizes cost less than $5. Sarah can be wrong with every single guess, and they'd still make a nice profit. In fact, it's good to lose, because people carrying prizes around the park are a walking advertisement for all the games.

Cole's journey from summertime employee, like Sarah, to full-time, year-round boss happened in a couple of steps. He said, as a nerdy kid in high school in a small town, it was nice to come to a place where his personality was rewarded.

Cole Lindbergh

I couldn't wait until the summer, because when it was summertime, I get to come to World of Fun and work with people that are just like me, and enjoy our whole summer together.

Ira Glass

So after years of that, in his senior year at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, he got a phone call offering him the job of games manager. And he dropped out of school to take it.

Cole Lindbergh

It's probably one of the hardest decisions I've ever had to make. But I said, OK, this opportunity is probably only going to come along once in a lifetime.

Ira Glass

As you'd imagine, it hasn't been such a popular decision with the family.

Cole Lindbergh

So I have a full year left. I'm one full year of college left. It comes up when you least expect it. It comes up when they-- like, "Oh, I know you're working real hard, but when are you getting back to school?" Or my grandmother-- "Now, before I pass on, you need to make sure that you've completed college"-- my grandma all the time. And I get it a lot from the girlfriend, too. "When are you going to finish?" Because she just graduated college.

Ira Glass

This girlfriend and Cole are pretty serious. They just moved in together. They met in Games back in 2006, though she moved on from Games.

Cole Lindbergh

I get that all the time. She's like, "We're not going to be together forever if you don't finish college." I get it a lot.

Ira Glass

And how often will it come up?

Cole Lindbergh

[SIGHS] Once a week-- maybe once every two weeks, depending on the week. I don't know. I don't know.

Ira Glass

Lots of very accomplished people don't have college degrees.

Cole Lindbergh

I know.

Ira Glass

Steve Jobs.

Cole Lindbergh

Yeah. But Steve Jobs-- he changed the world. I'm just a lowly little games manager in a small mid-size park in Kansas City.

Dustin

[BLOWS PAPER HORN] Who wants to play some games? Whoo!

Ira Glass

By midday, down in Games III, that is Dustin, who's wearing the full-body banana suit that Haley handmade for him, which looks amazing. But it is 94 degrees, which is sapping everybody's energy. And business is slow.

Dustin

Oh, all right. Well, hey, you guys have a great day.

Ira Glass

Though, as the day wears on, people slowly migrate from the rides to the games. And by nightfall, when it cools off, the guys in Games II finally get Techno Ball working. Max and Okson are covered from head to toe in glow lights. Cole and I round a corner together, and we see them in the distance. And there's a crowd of three dozen people surrounding the game. It's fantastic.

Cole Lindbergh

Oh my goodness. Oh, let's go look at Techno Ball. Look at this!

[TECHNO MUSIC PLAYING]

[CHEERING AND SHOUTING]

Ira Glass

No, it's six of your staff and--

Cole Lindbergh

And two-- three other guys all dancing.

Ira Glass

In a big circle-- four other guys.

Cole Lindbergh

In a big cir-- yeah, four other guys all dancing in a big circle to techno music.

Ira Glass

And how many people are actually playing?

Cole Lindbergh

Zero. [LAUGHS] Hey, Dominic! Hey, Dom!

Ira Glass

That's Dominic, the team leader here at Games II.

Cole Lindbergh

Oh, look. Dom's all embarrassed. Hi, Dom.

Dominic

What's up?

Cole Lindbergh

How many people are playing the game, Dom?

Dominic

We're attracting a lot of attention.

Cole Lindbergh

Yeah. But why aren't we turning that into game play?

Ira Glass

Cole suggests, maybe they should dance inside the game instead of on the walkway in front of the game so people would be pulled in to play. Dom does not want to do this. And listen to what a good boss Cole is. He's firm, but he's very nice about it.

Cole Lindbergh

You're so close.

Dominic

I know.

Cole Lindbergh

You're so close.

Dominic

Do you see how much attention I just attracted?

Cole Lindbergh

It did! But then you didn't have anybody out here talking to them, saying, "Hey, why aren't you playing the game?"

Dominic

I know. But I was hoping that they would realize that.

Cole Lindbergh

No, no, no. They're not going to realize that. You know that. And better than anyone, you should know that. They're not going to just be like, "Oh." It looks fine. All the lights-- I'm not going to deny the awesomeness, but I am going to say that--

Dominic

No more dance parties.

Cole Lindbergh

I really think the dance parties are not going to help you win.

Ira Glass

I walked down to check on Games III. It is 10:30 at night. Claire has been here for 13 hours since I saw her setting up pyramids of plush before the gates opened to the park. Those pyramids were now raggedy piles maybe half their original size, which means that they did great. They got lots of people to play. They've probably given away 500 prizes for wrong guesses. And Claire has had exactly the kind of day that Cole wants for all the kids.

Ira Glass

Did you have fun today?

Claire

Yes, I had a lot of fun. I had no idea what time it was until about 20 minutes ago when I checked. It just didn't occur to me that I needed to check the time.

Ira Glass

Because it was going by so fast?

Claire

Yeah.

Ira Glass

When did you take your first break today?

Claire

I haven't taken a break.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Claire

Yeah, I guess I'm used to it.

Ira Glass

This is Claire's third year here. She's 18, going to Missouri State in the fall to study nursing. And she tells me what a lot of kids here tell me. She wouldn't keep coming back to work at Worlds of Fun if not for Cole.

Claire

Definitely not. I don't think any other boss would do the Rally Days, the Death Match, the Sweet 16, the Toss the Boss-- just all the fun stuff that we do that keeps us going through the season and just keeps this job exciting every day.

Ira Glass

Sam, one of the leaders for Games IV, has been here for three summers. And he also says that Cole is the reason that he keeps coming back.

Sam

Honestly, no one else could do a better job. He was made to do this.

Ira Glass

It's funny watching him do something like sing a goofy song for you guys in the morning. You can imagine high school students and college students rolling their eyes at somebody doing that. But nobody does.

Sam

No, it's weird. It's almost like, that's the thing to do. Whatever Cole does is the thing to be doing at that moment. And we just all feel like that was the right move.

Ira Glass

Do you remember what it was like the first time you saw one of his videos?

Sam

I do. I remember seeing it, and I was like, that's my boss. And he just made that video. And it was so cool, because I went and even showed some of my friends. They were all like, who's this guy? It's like, that's my boss.

Cole Lindbergh

That's so weird, because a lot of people would say, well, it's an amusement park. You're great at working at an amusement park.

Ira Glass

That doesn't mean, by the way, that he is seen by his bosses as some kind of superstar. He gets respect, sure. Everybody likes him. His immediate boss, Matt, thinks that there's nobody better at games in any of the 11 amusement parks owned by their parent company, Cedar Fair. But Cole is working at one of the smallest of the 11 parks. So other games managers at bigger parks bring in way more money than Cole does.

And games, in the grand scheme of things, is actually the smallest revenue producer at most amusement parks. The biggest money at an amusement park comes from ticket sales. Then there's food-- everybody buys food-- then merch. And then, bringing up the rear, is games. What Cole does has less effect on the company's bottom line than lots of people in the company. And as much as Cole loves this job, he can't help but wonder, how long can a person do this job?

Cole Lindbergh

So the one thing that I always say is, I'm 25 now. I started here when I was 14. And the weird thing is, is that I'm getting older, but everybody else in the department-- staying the same age.

Ira Glass

All right. I'm going to stop the tape right there. Yes, I know. Matthew McConaughey, Dazed and Confused. Cole has seen the film, too.

Ira Glass

But the thing I'm wondering for you is, do you feel like somehow, accidentally, in this job, you got stuck in high school, you got stuck at 15? Like, there's a part of you where you're still back there?

Cole Lindbergh

I like working out in the park with the kids, absolutely. 100%.

Ira Glass

The goofball part.

Cole Lindbergh

The goofball part.

Ira Glass

The part where you get to act their age instead of your age.

Cole Lindbergh

Yes. Does that make me sound bad? I'm still a manager. I'm still overseeing 100 people that work for me. But at the same time, 10 years from now, I don't think I could still be a goofball. I think that'd just get creepy, [LAUGHS] you know? You're 35, and you work with a bunch of high schoolers in a-- is that creepy? Maybe. Maybe not. I don't know.

Ira Glass

Do you worry that you'll never be happier in any job than you are in this one?

Cole Lindbergh

Yes, absolutely.

Ira Glass

That's a weird fate-- to know that you're in the best job you may ever have at 25, especially when it's a job that you know in your heart-- it can't last.

We first broadcast this story in 2011. Cole is now solidly in his 30s. He left his job at Worlds of Fun years ago, worked for a while in sales at a toy company, traveled a little, giving motivational talks about being a boss at an amusement park. Now he works in sales at a tech company. And he's a dad, which he loves-- really, really loves.

Cole's still crazy about amusement parks. He actually helped set up an alumni association for his old staff at the games department, worked out a deal with Worlds of Fun to allow old games kids to go back to the park and work a shift in games, relive the glory. His latest project is figuring out how he can build a roller coaster in his backyard.

Well, coming up, carnies float in the air, scary things happen on rides, and bold steps forward for paintball targets everywhere. Our hour of amusement parks continues in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Great Adventures

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show-- amusement parks. It's July. It's hot. We wanted to go someplace fun here on the radio, someplace that lots of us, me included, would never visit today because of coronavirus. Today's show is a rerun, recorded before all that.

We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two-- Great Adventures. Well, we asked you, our listeners, to call in with your amusement park stories. Nearly 300 of you did. And one of our producers, Jane Marie, listened to all of those voicemail messages. She joins me now. Hey, Jane.

Jane Marie

Hey.

Ira Glass

So Jane, trends, patterns? What can you tell me?

Jane Marie

Carnies.

Ira Glass

Oh.

Jane Marie

Yeah. There's creepy carnies, and hot carnies, and carnies that people married. And a bunch of people called and told stories about carnies making the ride go too fast or keeping them on the ride too long.

Ira Glass

Demonic carnies.

Jane Marie

Yeah.

Ira Glass

OK, yeah.

Jane Marie

These two calls that I'm going to play are from Barry Silver and Penny Delaney Cothran. And they had the same exact crazy carnie story, only they happened years apart and in different cities. But it's fun to imagine they're talking about the same guy.

Penny Delaney Cothran

My amusement park story involves the Gravitron.

Jane Marie

Yeah. Oh, let me interrupt real quick, because the Gravitron-- that was the most popular ride people talked about in the phone calls.

Ira Glass

Huh.

Jane Marie

That's the one where it's a cylinder, and you climb in it, and you put your back up against the inside wall of the cylinder--

Ira Glass

Oh, right. And it spins around, and the floor drops out.

Jane Marie

Yep. And you're stuck to the wall.

Penny Delaney Cothran

There was a carnie there, and he was waving us all in. And we had purchased tickets. And I guess our first sign that this is going to be an interesting ride was when he said no to the tickets we offered him and just waved us in.

Barry Silver

I was working for the World of Wonder sideshow last month. I had made friends with the carnie who was running the Gravitron.

Penny Delaney Cothran

He started up the ride, and the music was blaring. And I remember it was Motley Crue's "Dr. Feelgood."

Barry Silver

Anyway, he gave me a private showing where I'm riding inside this thing. Music's blasting.

Penny Delaney Cothran

And the lights were going. And we were spinning around, and this centrifugal force was pushing us up against the wall. And the next thing I know, this carnie steps out from behind his operating box and comes out into the centrifuge, and proceeds to pull himself up and place his feet on the spinning wall and walk over the riders, step by step, with his body completely horizontal to the earth.

Barry Silver

He's standing on the wall next to me, surfing inside of the Gravitron. That's right, the ride operator left the control panel to start surfing the inside, parallel to the ground.

Penny Delaney Cothran

The force was holding his feet against the wall, and it was just the most amazing thing I'd ever seen.

Barry Silver

Best experience of my life.

Ira Glass

So I know, because you told me right before we sat down, that a lot of the stories that people called in to tell were love stories.

Jane Marie

Tons of love stories, or like-like stories.

[LAUGHTER]

Like, summer flings, summer romances, first kisses. There were people that lost their virginity on rides.

Ira Glass

Ew.

Jane Marie

Yeah. Don't do that. But then there were the proposals. There were a lot of people proposing at amusement parks, some more successfully than others.

Natasha

My name is Natasha. And in May, my boyfriend proposed to me on a roller coaster. We were on a Viper. He said, "Will you marry me?" And he popped open the ring box. And the ring fell out of the box and down into the pits of Viper. It was pretty awful.

I started trying to get the ride operator to stop the car. The director of operations at the park assembled a team of about 20 people, and they searched for the ring for hours. And that happened in May. So the kicker here is that that ring was actually my grandmother's ring, and they're actually still searching for it. We have yet to find it.

Jane Marie

So I called Natasha, actually, to see if they'd found it yet. And she said that the park had called her recently and said they found a ring. But it wasn't hers. There was another engagement ring.

Ira Glass

Oh, really?

Jane Marie

Yeah.

[LAUGHTER]

Yep.

Ira Glass

Well, it's good to know that her fiancé wasn't the only dummy.

Jane Marie

Right. And then we got a bunch of scary calls. So this is a scary one. Wendy in Austin, Texas-- she and her friend went to the fair. And they were getting on a roller coaster. It was one of those medium-sized fair roller coasters where there's one big drop and then a loop-de-loop. But as she was getting on, she was futzing around with her purse.

Wendy

I reached up to pull the harness down over me, and it locked above my head. And I have nothing holding me into the roller coaster. So I look over in horror as the carnie guy that was running the ride looks at me, and he pushes the button to go, and the thing starts to go. And I'm telling him, wait, wait, wait! Stop, stop! I don't have my seat belt on!

Jane Marie

But he doesn't stop. So--

Ira Glass

Oy.

Jane Marie

I know. So now she's going up the hill. So she said she turned to her friend, and she just decided to wrap her arms and legs around her friend.

Ira Glass

Euh.

Jane Marie

I know. And so they go down the hill, and then they go through the loop-de-loop.

Ira Glass

So she's upside down?

Jane Marie

I know, just hanging onto her friend.

Wendy

As tight as I can, to stay inside the ride. And what really got scary is we whipped around the corners. I almost got thrown out, but I didn't.

Jane Marie

She said that she had whiplash for a week and that she was too young to realize that she probably could have sued them.

Ira Glass

Hm.

Jane Marie

So there's another story from this woman, Susan. Her 3-year-old wanted to go to the fair, but it was super late at night. And so they humored him, and they were like, sure, we'll take you. But they figured he would fall asleep on the way there. But he didn't. He stayed awake.

Susan

So I said, OK, I'll take you in for one ride on the Ferris wheel, and then we'll go back to the car. My husband didn't even put his shoes on, because he didn't think he'd make it there. So we took him to the Ferris wheel, and he kept pointing to the Scrambler saying that he wanted to go on the Scrambler. And I said, no, no, no. And we got off the ride. I held the chain for the person behind me to come out. And when I turned back around, he was gone. We could not find him anywhere.

And as we're looking around-- and we have a whole group looking for this little three-year-old boy-- I looked up, and he was inside the gate of the Scrambler. And the Scrambler was going. His head was just at the car level. And the carnie woman stopped the ride, and she stopped it in time. She walked over, picked him up, handed him to me. She didn't say a word. And I took him. And he said, "She was really scary." And I said, "That woman was an angel." And so I will never bad-mouth a carnie again.

Ira Glass

I'm glad we finally have some unequivocally pro-carnie material in this story.

Jane Marie

Me too.

Woman

Hi. My amusement park story takes place in Disneyland. And I was really excited to go on the haunted house ride. I forget what it's called. Anyways, the door opens, and you are let into a room. And the door opens into a dark, empty room. And there is a person, a little-- little person. He was in the room already.

And I thought it was part of the haunted house, so I started screaming. And he was looking at me because I was screaming. And he was screaming at me. We were both screaming at each other. And then we both realized that it was not part of the haunted house and that we were just waiting in line with each other. And we pretended like nothing happened.

Jane Marie

And finally, there were the puke stories.

Ira Glass

Oh, a lot of people called about puke?

Jane Marie

Mm-hmm.

Ira Glass

And is the story more than just, I was on a ride, and I puked?

Jane Marie

Yeah. It's "I was on a ride and I puked," or "I was on a ride and I got puked on."

Ira Glass

Well, I don't want to hear that. Wait, was there any that had a twist? Was it a surprise plot twist?

Jane Marie

The one that stands out for me is, this lady was on that Ocean Motion ride that's like a big boat that swings back and forth.

Ira Glass

It basically just goes up and down--

Jane Marie

Yeah, just swings.

Ira Glass

--and up and down, yeah.

Jane Marie

It's like a pendulum. And so she was up at the highest part of the boat, and she saw the guy on the other end of the boat start puking. And so then she was swinging down at the puke.

Ira Glass

Oh, no. And did she see the puke in midair--

Jane Marie

Yeah, like slow motion, coming--

Ira Glass

--coming towards--

[LAUGHTER]

Woman

I could see, in slow motion, this line of vomit coming towards me.

Ira Glass

And it hit her?

Jane Marie

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Ew!

Woman

About two seconds later, it splatters the entire right side of my body.

Jane Marie

There's nowhere to go! You can't get off the boat!

Act Three: What I Didn't Do on My Summer Vacation

Ira Glass

Jane Marie-- she used to be a producer here. These days, she is the host of the podcast The Dream, a show we really like. It's about multi-level marketing schemes and the people who get caught up in them. Act Three-- What I Didn't Do On My Summer Vacation. Sometimes, somebody ends up in an amusement park who really has no business there at all, who was not built to thrill at the thrills that the amusement park offers.

As a teenager, Jonathan Goldstein spent a summer working at an amusement park-- one that was situated right on the beach-- in Wildwood, New Jersey. It is your typical amusement park on the beach. There's a boardwalk, three wooden piers with roller coasters and a Ferris wheel, and lots of dropped popcorn and hot dog buns for the seagulls to eat. It's been 29 years since Jonathan went to work at Wildwood, and he always wanted to go back. And so we sent him, along with one of our producers, Jonathan Menjivar.

A quick note to listeners. This story has nothing explicit in it, but it does make reference to the existence of sex, as does this warning.

Jonathan Goldstein

The smell of garbage is really bringing it all back in a rush. Maybe I could bring back a bag with some saltwater taffy.

After a whole religious rebirth that I won't go into here, the summer of my 16th year found me seriously considering yeshiva, rabbinical school, for the fall. My rabbi suggested I spend the summer at this religious camp just to give me a better idea of what was to come.

But my best friend Evan said that summer camp was for suckers, and religious camp was even worse, and that if I came with him to Wildwood, he'd personally make sure I had a good time. "I'll get you L'ed really good," he wrote, like a blood oath in my 1986 high school yearbook. That's L'ed as in the letter L. And getting L'ed seemed important, especially if I was going to be giving my life over to the Torah, a text that placed greater emphasis on getting C'ed, as in circumcised. And so I went to Wildwood. And now, I was back.

Jonathan Menjivar

How close did you live to the pier?

Jonathan Goldstein

As you've seen getting here, my sense of direction isn't my forte. Man, it's like the whole summer I was just floating around in a jar of formaldehyde.

The plan was to go down and get jobs. It was what a lot of teenagers in my town did. Evan's older brother had done it years earlier and had arranged a job for Evan handing out darts to patsies eager to pop balloons on the boardwalk. And I was supposed to get a job, too.

But on our fourth night there, still without work, I sat on the edge of my bed and felt that sense of being a failure. This feeling would eventually become a staple in my life, something I'd grow comfortable with in bars, gyms, offices, and bedrooms. But just then, the feeling was strange and new, and I didn't quite know what to do with it.

We lived in a co-ed boarding house run by a woman with a face like a clenched fist named Mrs. D. I spent my days hanging out at Evan's balloon stand, where his boss finally became so tired of having me around that he pulled some strings to get me a job working as a change boy at an arcade. If you walk down the boardwalk, there was a point where it looked like the fun had come to an end. My arcade was just a few yards past that.

Jonathan Menjivar

Do you remember where on the pier--

Jonathan Goldstein

Yeah--

Jonathan Menjivar

--you were?

Jonathan Goldstein

--that's what I'm thinking. I'm-- I think-- if anything, maybe that little shack right over there was the arcade, where there's a roller coaster going over it now. It's like the little house that Alvy Singer grew up in in Annie Hall.

You've still got pizza parlors, games with unwinnable prizes, and the vague threat of violence about to erupt. In other words, Wildwood hadn't changed much. Back then, everything looked like 1986. Now? 1987. Though, as it turns out, the arcade I worked at is long gone.

Even at the time, all the other arcades were carpeted and air-conditioned. But mine was like an outhouse with all the oldest, swankiest games, all their joysticks having had the joy jerked right out of them years earlier. On the 4th of July, I remember watching the fireworks through a little crack in the wall right above the Donkey Kong machine. I felt like a young Tony Montana just having come to America, except the only person I wanted to kill was myself.

Being a human change machine is just one of the jobs that seems only to exist on the boardwalk, like the guy who's paid to dance in front of the T-shirt shop to draw customers or the girl who blows bubbles all day outside a souvenir store.

Woman

Yes, that's my job. I take money from them.

Jonathan Goldstein

That's your whole job, is just blowing bubbles?

Woman

That's only. And shine with laser.

Jonathan Goldstein

Shine a laser in people's eyes?

Woman

No. No, of course.

Jonathan Goldstein

The bubble girl tells me she is from Bulgaria. The Bulgarian bubble girl is very young-looking-- like, "first time away from home" young. And as she explains to me her work responsibilities, she is approached by a man who turns out to be her boss. He plants a big kiss on her cheek, as though marking his territory.

Jonathan Goldstein

Is it a good summer?

Man

Yeah, it's all right. It's all right. This boardwalk's getting bad. At nighttime, this boardwalk is bad.

Jonathan Goldstein

What do you mean? Like--

Man

Like, bad fights and people stabbing people and shooting people. Yeah. You go two blocks off the boardwalk, there was a shooting and stabbing the other day.

Jonathan Goldstein

Holy cow.

Man

It's worse under the boardwalk. [LAUGHS]

Jonathan Goldstein

What goes on under the boardwalk?

Man

Oh, sex and drugs. I park underneath my store, and you can see underneath it here. And you catch them all the time down under there. They go right down them steps, and right underneath the boardwalk.

Woman

What?

Jonathan Goldstein

Wow.

Man

Sex under the boardwalk.

Woman

Cool.

Man

Me and you.

Woman

Oh.

Man

Yeah. You want to do it?

Woman

No.

Man

[LAUGHS]

Jonathan Goldstein

Yep. All right. See you later. Oh, boy. That was creepy.

My old boss, Mike, was creepy, too. Mike always wore sunglasses and a red, skintight bathing suit that, for some reason I could never quite fathom, always appeared to be wet. My friend Evan said that it was unwholesome how Mike's arms were so short. "He's like a T-Rex," Evan said. The first time Mike paid me, he had to get all crooked to get his wallet out.

Most of the time, I was in the arcade all by myself, and hardly anyone ever came in-- just little kids who sat on the ancient skee ball machines asking for free games. Those old skee ball machines haven't really changed.

[ARCADE MACHINE MUSIC PLAYING]

Jonathan Goldstein

Now, my technique used to be, I'd do a sort of bank shot. There was this sweet spot that I would hit on the right bank.

[BALL ROLLING]

That was really close, wasn't it?

Jonathan Menjivar

You got the lowest amount of points you can get.

Jonathan Goldstein

You're like my son that I'm taking out trying to-- "You got the lowest one, dad." That little beer cozy is going to be mine. No longer will my hand have to be so frigid when I'm drinking a Budweiser.

[BALL ROLLING]

Mike was an alcoholic, and he left me to open and close the place most of the time. Sometimes he would stagger in in the middle of the afternoon and lay down on the lopsided pool table. Once comfortably spread out, he'd ask me to cover him from head to toe with the stuffed animals for skee ball so he could sleep without getting caught by the old woman who ran the pier. Every time I put Mike to bed, I became more and more convinced that yeshiva was the place for me.

When he wasn't goofing off drunk, Mike was furthering Evan's work of trying to get me L'ed. He would invite Nancy, the 19-year-old redhead who ran the water squirt game next door, over so he could tell her about how she should "devirginalize" me. Nancy was a Jersey girl who wore low-backed shirts that showed off a large, complicated dragon tattoo. She told me it was a Chinese wind god and that an old biker boyfriend had given it to her. It started at her neck and slithered all the way down into her pants to blow across the tundra.

In the afternoon, when business was slow, Nancy would come by and tell me about how Mike had just been over pleading on my behalf, and how she tried to explain to him that "We was just friends, right?" "Oh, yeah," I'd say, swallowing back the hard lump of foul-tasting virgin tears congealing in my throat. "The best."

Woman

Watch the tram car, please.

Jonathan Goldstein

When you listen to this music, don't you feel like you're going to round the corner and you're going to see, like, Joe Pesci beating someone to death with a baseball bat? That's all I could think about. It's a song called "Wildwood Days." Do you hear it? "Wildwood Days and Wildwood Nights."

Jonathan Menjivar

Yeah.

[MUSIC - "WILDWOOD DAYS" BY BOBBY RYDELL]

(SINGING) Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, those Wildwood days.

Jonathan Goldstein

My producer Jonathan and I walk down the boardwalk, where we discover what's got to be the very worst job in Wildwood.

Dutz Bonus

Most of the stuff I do is just off the top of my head. It's whatever I can pick up on the spot.

[POPPING]

Jonathan Goldstein

This is Dutz Bonus, Jr. The sounds you hear are people shooting at him with guns. Dutz Bonus, Jr. is a human paintball target. He shuffles back and forth and eggs on the crowd while being splattered like a Jackson Pollock canvas.

Dutz Bonus

[CHUCKLES] I'll put it as blunt as I can, because this is how it is on my tax forms, too. I'm an entertainer-- not the dancer kind. But basically, I get suited up in hockey gear, and I get shot at all night.

Jonathan Goldstein

And it doesn't start to get to you a little bit? Do you dream about it?

Dutz Bonus

No, I love it. It's entertaining to me, because this is one of the jobs that I can be as creative as I want to be. And it's just like web page design. When you go in, you can do whatever you want.

Jonathan Goldstein

Before Dutz, human paintball targets simply shuffled from side to side, holding a shield. Then, one day, Dutz dropped his shield and began to moonwalk. Soulja Boy was to follow. He also invented shadowboxing at the paintballs and running towards the shooters. Dutz is protected by a suit that looks like what you'd come up with if you tried to build a Michelin Man costume out of moist newspaper and epoxy glue.

Jonathan Goldstein

So people are armed with paintball guns?

Dutz Bonus

Yeah, that we provide, because a lot of people try to-- they want to bring their own, but we don't allow that. It's just not going to happen.

Jonathan Goldstein

So the suit that you wear protects you from any pain?

Dutz Bonus

For the most part, yeah. There's some weak spots. But I can't say where the weak spots are, because then a lot of people will find out. And then it becomes a little dangerous.

Jonathan Goldstein

Before agreeing to talk with me, Dutz wanted to finish his break with the woman who works next door at the old-timey photo place. As it turns out, she's his wife, who he met on this very boardwalk. Dutz might spend his day getting fired at in a cage. But at least, on his time off, he has someone to talk to, someone with whom to share the secret weak spots in his armor.

Back when I lived there, Wildwood had this reputation for being a big party town. People were supposed to be scoring like nuts on the boardwalk every night. And actually, they were. The only real action I got that summer, though, was in the form of a single kiss. I later referred to it as the kiss that ruined my summer.

It happened while I was out walking on the boardwalk late one night. I saw a group of older girls, maybe in their early 20s, coming toward me. One of them, a little ahead of the others, was spinning with her arms stuck out and her long, blonde hair all over the place. Just as she got right up close to me, she grabbed the back of my neck and put her lips right on mine.

I remember, as she pulled back, I spastically grabbed onto her wrist. I didn't want her to leave. Her friends had to pry my fingers off, one at a time, as she stood there smiling at me all stoned and airy. That night, back at the boarding house in our room, I spent the rest of the evening obsessing, as it might have been the last one I'd receive until I got married. That kiss pretty much felt like my swinging bachelorhood. In yeshiva, I'd be the mysterious one with a past.

For the rest of the summer, I couldn't pass a woman on the boardwalk without thinking that we should somehow be meeting in a kiss, that that's how life should really be. It turned walking along the boardwalk into a relentless drizzle of small but horrible disappointments.

I didn't know it then, but that summer would prove the best one I'd have as a teenager. Even though I was worked like an indentured servant, giving every penny of my earnings to Mrs. D, even though I made no friends, and even though I only made it to the beach but once, where I sat on a mildewy boarding house washcloth, exhausted and pale, that whole summer felt like some big, fat vacation, just because I was 16 and away from my parents for the first time.

When I got back home, I didn't end up going to yeshiva. I didn't bring home any pen pals, money, or happy, romantic memories. But I did bring back a pair of black pants covered in small, white skulls. They were really baggy, and I had to wear them with 10-inch cuffs at the bottom. But when I showed up for my first day back at school, I thought I looked really punk rock. I thought, like anyone who'd never been L'ed, that they were the pants of someone who got L'ed all summer long.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Goldstein is the host of the podcast Heavyweight. Check it out on Spotify or whatever you get your podcasts. There's a list of their best, favorite episodes. Just search "Heavyweight Starter Kit" on Spotify.

Jonathan Goldstein

A lot of winners today?

Man

Everybody wins.

Jonathan Goldstein

Do you have, like, a patter? What would you say to get a guy like me to come over?

Man

I don't know if I would call you in. You don't look like the type of guy that would spend money here, you know? You get three shots for five--

Jonathan Goldstein

Was he saying that I'm too cool a customer, or was he saying, "You're too cheap a Jew?"

[MUSIC - "ROLLER COASTER BY THE SEA" BY JONATHAN RICHMAN AND THE MODERN LOVERS]

(SINGING) You see, I went on the roller coaster last night when I was feeling bad, down by the sea in Santa Cruz, and I was feeling sad. But we went down and around, and it knocked me out of my head.

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Jane Marie and me, with Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Robin Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Senior producer for today's show is Julie Snyder. Production help on this rerun from Nora Gill, Catherine Raimondo, Stowe Nelson, and Matt Tierney.

Special thanks today to Bill Childs, Dave Althoff, Kim Martin, Jeff Potts, Dave Dickerson, Amy Silverman, Lindsey Young at Morey's Pier in Wildwood, New Jersey. Original music scoring in Act One of our show by Dave Hill, featuring Dave Hill on guitar. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, whose turtle breeding experiments are finally paying off.

Sarah

I dare you guys to come feel these turtles. It sounds like a weird thing, but we really have the softest turtles in town. You should feel one. They're really soft.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "ROLLER COASTER BY THE SEA" BY JONATHAN RICHMAN AND THE MODERN LOVERS]

(SINGING) Roller coaster by the water, you made me feel more as I ought to, whoa, whoa. Yes, you knocked me out of my head.