Closing my eyes I took deep cleansing breaths, inhaling semifresh recycled air and exhaling anxiety and dread.
“C’mon Mom!” Sam urged.
I stood at the top of the escalator and tried to gather my courage. “Just a minute,” I said, as I slowly rotated my neck and did a few shoulder rolls.
After another deep breath I joined Sam and his friend Karsten, and together we descended to Bumpers Fun Center at NorthTown Mall. Or as I call it: The Bumpers Basement of Despair.
It was the last day of spring break, and I’d promised to treat Sam and his friend to lunch and an afternoon at the arcade. As the mother of four sons I have survived innumerable tours of duty at places like Bumpers and Chuck E. Cheese.
However, now that my youngest is 11, the end is in sight. Soon he’ll outgrow his hankering for these bastions of noise and overstimulation – or at least he’ll outgrow his tolerance for being seen with his mother in public. Determined not to whine about his choice of activity, I smiled bravely and purchased two cups of tokens and a bunch of tickets.
Clutching their riches, the boys quickly ran off, leaving me adrift in the center of the room. A friend once compared Bumpers to Pleasure Island, the cursed amusement park in “Pinocchio,” so I scanned the area for telltale donkey ears. Disoriented by the flashing lights and deafening din, I didn’t spot any burros, but I did see a tiny train transporting a pair of apathetic toddlers in an endless circle. The dispirited clanging of the bell didn’t elicit grins, nor did the manic tooting of the horn. The world-weary preschoolers looked like they were doing time, just like me.
Across the room, preteens gleefully rammed bumper cars into each other. One poor girl sat trapped in a corner, apparently unable to move her car in any direction. An employee finally freed her.
On benches near the escalators, the bottom tier of high school geekdom gathered to practice glaring. Most wore slouchy stocking caps and sported interesting facial piercings.
They slumped. They sauntered. They sneered. Their studied “outsiders” image was ruined when a toddler escaped from the nearby Jumping Castle and barged into their sullen circle. She grinned up at the teens, waved her chubby fingers, and bellowed, “Hi!”
Immediately, the teens transformed. Their faces softened with smiles. “Hi there,” they cooed. When her father plucked her from their midst, she waved again, and the teens trilled, “Bye-bye, baby!”
I wandered back into the game room and watched glassy-eyed kids drop an endless stream of tokens into the video games. Like senior citizens playing the slots at a casino, they grimly fed the machines.
Finally, I spotted Sam and Karsten in a roller coaster simulator. They each clutched stuffed animals that Karsten had plucked from the Claw Game. As the ride rattled and shook, a small boy stood behind them, watching the action.
“Whoa!” they yelled as the machine simulated a steep drop-off.
“You can just get off it if you get scared,” the boy behind them advised.
“Ahhh!” they hollered as the ride jostled them.
“There is a stop button, you know,” their worried watcher counseled.
The boys ignored him. Finally, they staggered away from the ride, looking groggy. “We’re ready to go,” Sam said.
As we emerged into the sunlight, Sam asked if we could make a stop on the way home. This time his agenda didn’t include quarters, tokens or flashing lights.
I pulled up at our neighborhood park and the boys raced from the car, arms extended like airplane wings. For the next hour they ran, they rolled down the steep hill and they clambered across the monkey bars. They played a game they’d invented called “Frodo and Sam,” which involved a lot of pushing, shoving and falling down.
They returned pink-cheeked and out of breath, sporting grass and leaves in their hair. “That was awesome!” said Sam.
I’m glad he hasn’t forgotten that the best kind of fun doesn’t include batteries. All it requires is a little imagination, a bit of sunshine and room to run.