Disney On Ice

Sleeping Beauty’s Castle

Twelve years ago I had a job that took me from my home in San Francisco to Los Angeles on a regular basis. The magazine I worked for was headquartered in LA and my partner David and I represented the satellite office in SF, supposedly covering the northern half of the state. Every now and then, an editorial meeting would require actual face time — though “faced time,” might be more accurate, since I spent most of my allotted nights in LA emptying the minibar at whatever posh hotel I was staying in, drinking the miniatures in what seemed to me a sensible order: clear to amber to dark, with pauses along the way for what beer or wine might be chilled. And that was just at the hotel: restaurants, bars and nightclubs took my corporate card as well.

     The rest of the editors in LA were a pretty sober bunch (most of them didn’t drink at all) and David was an intermittent drinker: When he did drink he just drank wine. On this trip we had company, though: my son Adam, who was four at the time. I shared custody of Adam with his mother (we had divorced a few years previous) and had promised him a trip to Disneyland the following day, had even scammed admission by promising the travel editor a story on taking him to the Magic Kingdom. I had been four the first time I went to Disneyland, years before my own parents split up, and I thought visiting the amusement mecca with him in tow would stir the kind of feelings and memories that would make for a poignant piece of writing. Something personal. Something revealing. Details to come.

     I don’t remember what Adam actually did while we had our editorial conference — probably sat in someone’s office, eating raisins and playing with his toys. The meeting itself was pro forma, anyway; the real reasons for my visit lay without, and at days end, David and Adam and I headed for our hotel.

     The magazine we worked for had trade accounts with a number of pretty spiffy hotels in the West LA area. Tonight’s lodgings were at a new place just opened by the owners of the Bel Age (an inn with such Old World pretensions, it seemed like a theme park itself). The new hotel, too, featured more oil paintings than the Getty Museum but less European, more West Coast. The overall effect was sunnier but subtly ghastly: pastels and overstuffed cushions abounded. More frightening still was the realization that awaited David and I as we checked into our adjoining suites: The minibars were free of any alcoholic beverages. Having not yet obtained its liquor license, the entire joint was booze free.

     After recovering from the initial shock of finding myself five minutes into check-in without a vodka tonic in my hand, I was further enlivened by David, who volunteered to go on a liquor run. Nothing fancy: just a few bottles of wine and a half-pint of Stoli to wash down our room service meal. Adam ate first and was in bed by eight, OD’d on cartoons. He slept as David and I talked late into the evening, me drinking more than my share of the wine and all of the vodka, as was my wont.

     The hangover I awoke with had a personality, and a brackish one at that. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gone to bed sober and this certainly wasn’t the time to try. Adam, of course, was up with the dawn; I prayed for death while he watched Sesame Street and ate his oatmeal. Coffee could not make a dent in my condition and a simple Bloody Mary was, tragically, not to be had.

     We started later than I had wanted, dropped David back at the office –  and were immediately engulfed in rush hour traffic. The drive from West LA to Anaheim was an interminable one in the best of circumstances; on this day it felt like a forced death drive, with every man and woman doomed to ride alone: Car pooling was simply not done. I, at least, had Adam for company, but he was strapped in his car seat in the back, lost in a reverie of his own. My reality was a smog swamped desert freeway with no oasis in sight.

     When the spires of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle finally hove into view, I all but shouted with glee. “Look, Adam: Disneyland!” He squinted into the glare of the windshield (he was born with cataracts and didn’t make the height requirement to see out of his child-safety bucket anyway) and took my word for it. We parked my rental somewhere within bazooka-firing range of the main entrance (the lot, I later learned, covered 100 acres and could hold 15,167 automobiles), made it past the first checkpoint and onto Main Street USA, a part of the park I hated as child. There was no action, it was all anticipation: The real rides lay within. I might be able to cadge a drink though; it was nearly eleven and a cold beer seemed like a reasonable, if slightly continental, request. All I saw were Pepsi signs. When I finally asked one of the straw-boater wearing cast members (as the staff at Disneyland is known), in so many words, who I had to fuck to get a drink in this joint, he broke the bad news with a smile.

     “I’m sorry, sir, but there are no alcoholic beverages in the Magic Kingdom.”

     Disneyland was dry.

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

As the full blow of the young fellow’s words fell, I think I staggered a bit. Adam had me by the hand and was pulling me toward Sleeping Beauty’s Castle; I had to remember I was there for him. But my shock was accompanied by something like outrage. Who the hell were the folks at Disneyland to keep me from having a drink? Isn’t it obvious that some parents *need* a drink to go to an amusement park with their kids?

     In the sepulchral chambers of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, my mood shifted again. The castle doesn’t even qualify as a ride — you walk up and down stairs, and look in through windows at tableaux from the film. Adam was fascinated, as I had been when I was at his age: At four, the whole thing was magical, womb-like and frightening at the same time, and the figures of the witch and the fairies seemed as real to me as if they’d been alive. Walking through there with my son now, holding him up so he could see, I was desperate to share that sense of wonder again. Who the hell needed a drink?

     Well, me. That much was made desperately clear as we re-emerged into Fantasyland and the hazy light of the day. The park now seemed ten times as crowded, and though concert promoters could learn some lessons from Disneyland in the line-control department, the rule for the more popular rides is still hurry up and wait. For what seemed an hour we stood in line for Peter Pan’s Ride, in switch-back after switch-back, surrounded by people of all ages from all over the world as the voice of Peter repeated itself from within: “Here we go!”

     How had I fallen so far, I wondered morosely, as I stood in line with my hand on my son’s head. The joy that radiated from him — the anticipation, the ability to marvel at it all — seemed irrevocably lost to me. As we finally boarded one of the cars and flew out over the bank of lights meant to represent London (with our flight came a welcome wave of air conditioning), I was looking down into that phony world with the displaced air of the newly dead. My youthful wonder had been cut short by my parents’ divorce, but I regained some of it when I discovered LSD. On acid, every outing was a trip to Disneyland, every day was (like Wednesday on the old Mickey Mouse Club) Anything Can Happen Day.

     Hard to develop social skills on acid though, hard to talk to anyone who wasn’t tripping as well and even then each utterance was fraught with meaning, every gesture seemed as codified as a Japanese tea ritual. When it came to mixing and mating, meeting girls and their parents, booze was the lubricant of choice as it had been for generations before me. And it quickly became apparent that I liked my liquor a little more even than the drunks I hung out with.

     After another soul-smothering wait for my favorite attraction, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, I found myself being strapped into a Toadmobile with Adam beside me and a growing sense of trepidation. Mr. Toad, at least, was behind the wheel; he might be careening into catastrophe but the guiding hand was that of his outsized ego (who had said that Toad could drive?). Suddenly we were at the mercy of the Imagineers , as the park’s creators and engineers were called, locked inside a runaway train as we drove into barns, livestock, and over a brakeman madly waving his lantern to divert us from the entrance of a tunnel.

     I often had driving dreams in those days, dreams in which the car I was in would lose control and crash through a railing over a cliff and fall for some ridiculously long time before it smashed and I emerged, shaken but essentially all right. Such was my life.

      At 22 I had driven a stretch of the Great Highway — from my mother’s home in Ferndale, high up the California coast, to San Francisco — in an old Rambler station wagon, the back filled with boxes of books. My first marriage had ended sadly and rather unspectacularly and I drove that car around the northern part of the state, trying to imagine where I belonged. When my ex-wife saw me and my wreck, at her grandfather’s funeral, she said, “It looks like a car with a broken heart,” and it was true: I felt my life was over; my imagination had failed me. I sold that car when I settled in San Francisco.

     But you don’t need to drive to get into trouble drinking, and as I wandered wasted through the seventies I made several unplanned (and occasionally spectacular) swerves myself: paddy wagon tours, free trips to jail, invitations to leave bars in North Beach and never come back. So many bad scenes, crazy adventures fueled by booze and whatever drugs were going that each escapade seemed somewhat the same, and ended just inches away from disaster.

     Adam and I rolled into the tunnel; the train whistle blew, the headlight was coming right at us — and then we dipped, precipitously, into a lower tunnel. Animatronic devils leered about us as we rode out the ride beneath red light and the smell of sulfur.

     Toad went to hell.

The Haunted Mansion

Things got better for me in my thirties. There were no more trips to the drunk tank, no more fast-talking before the magistrate. After a series of menial jobs — bicycle messenger, sandwich maker, book seller, cab driver — I began to publish and made a living of it. I married again and fancied myself a good father, even after the divorce. Having a child made hard work reasonable to me for the first time ever: Life had a purpose and, hence, so did sacrifice.

     But sacrifice was not enough to pay my piper. As my income level rose, so did the cost of the booze I imbibed. My pleasures across the board grew more precious. In between whatever successes I enjoyed there was a gnawing sense that I was living a lie: Fatherhood, writing, romance, the whole shooting match was a sideline. Alcohol was running my show. It had only been a year since I’d gone north to Gualala to interview the novelist Denis Johnson, a former drinker himself and a convert to Catholicism. Did he believe in heaven and hell? Heaven he wasn’t too sure of, but “there is a hell and we can go there all the time,” he’d told me. “I’ve been there by total selfishness.”

     I spent the night after our interview in the Gualala Hotel, drinking Jack Daniels into oblivion. Driving back to the city the next day, the winding path of 101 seemed lethal, I was torn and frayed and Johnson’s words burned into me. Only the purchase of a few Bud tall boys near Bodega Bay made the journey home endurable.

     There was no such succor in Disneyland, of course. Queued up outside the Haunted Mansion, the midday sun was smothering. Adam was holding up nicely and I had resigned myself to death, the ultimate sacrifice. Once inside, the still-spectacular ride mirrored my spiritual state. Gliding past ghosts waltzing in a ballroom below, I felt I was looking out over the failures of my life: the women and friends I had betrayed, the promises I had broken, the satisfaction I had sought at the price of everything. It occurred to me also that I might be losing my mind, but that was wishful thinking.

     As we rolled out of the Haunted Mansion, the car turned to face mirrored wall. “Beware of hitchhikers!” a recording warned us, and sure enough, between Adam and I in the reflection was the image of an animated ghost, smug and deathless, a friend to be afraid of.

It’s a Small World

The day was half over. With a cheap lunch (chased with Pepsi), my anxiety diminished and I was starting to feel spent. We were catching a plane at seven out of Orange County; did Adam have any last requests?

     “I wanna go to Small World,” he said.

     Even as a child, It’s a Small World was my idea of hell. Returning to the ride (we took the monorail over, a cool blast of Kennedy-era retro chic before the kitsch fest) only confirmed my memory. Strapped in a very slow boat, we sailed past countless animatronic children (clad in an array of serapes, wooden shoes and parkas), all singing, in a variety of languages, the mindless, infernal Small World theme (“It’s a world of laughter/A world of tears…”). And sailed. And sailed. Just when I thought I could endure it no more, as I prepared to jump into the dark drink that surrounded us, I caught a glimpse of Adam. He was entranced. Flat-out wonder struck, each kitschy note clearly playing to him like heaven’s harps, and I was stung: I was there for him, for his pleasure. Not for a story, not for a drink, not to feel nostalgia or bitterness or self-loathing or regret, but to bring some pleasure to his life, to make some magic. He had been absent in my thoughts too often that day: It *was* a small world, and I alone inhabited it, like the Little Prince lording it over his asteroid. When our boat sailed out, I said we could ride one more.

     His choice, again, would not have been mine: the submarine of Underwater World in Tomorrowland looked silly from a distance (from the monorail you could see the ocean it sailed in was no deeper than the sub), but it drew Adam like a magnet. Perhaps he liked his rides dark and enclosed because of his cataracts, perhaps it was just the scale. Either way, our trip “underwater” (with the daylight visible through the sub’s hatch) was about as frightening as trawling the bottom of an elaborate goldfish bowl. My own sense of fear was bubbling and escaping to the surface and as the ship moved past beds of rubber coral and mechanical mermaids, I thought of all I yearned for — money and prestige; my neighbor’s wife; a certain death; fame unearned; Hollywood hookers in fishnet stockings; and cold Stoli, morning, noon or night — and for an instant it seemed all that I wanted was an illusion. And then as the sub seemed to actually dip and we rounded the ruins of some ship I thought something I’d never thought: That the desires themselves were illusions.

     And that was the end of that ride.

Frontierland

Back on land, it was as though Adam and I had slipped through some worm hole. Where earlier the day had stretched out endlessly before us, suddenly it was approaching six and we had to run.

     My first shock was in the parking lot: Thousands of rental cars were in the area — designated Goofy — where we had parked hours ago, all of them just like mine. I dragged Adam up and down each aisle, desperately looking for a match to the numbers on my key chain, sickness and fear washing over me again. We needed to make that plane back to the city; I felt my life depended on it. I finally found our rental and we sped, hell-bent for John Wayne International Airport. We arrived with only moments to spare, I badgered and berated the rent-a-car flunky to drive us to the front gate, I pulled Adam out, sweaty, surly, nearly hysterical and there I saw it.

     The statue of John Wayne.

     Now by my way of thinking, John Wayne needs an airport like Shiva needs a skyscraper, but there it is and, in tribute, there he is too: A large, Remington-like image of the Duke in full John Ford regalia towers over the entrance of the airport. With a rifle over his shoulder, he seemed to be looking right at me — hustling, disheveled, hungover me — and in his squint he seemed to say, like Rilke’s Apollo, “You must change your life.”

     I knew that I had to quit drinking.

                              ***

But that resolve went out the window the minute we were on board the plane that was taking us back to SF, the minute (in fact) that we were at a high enough altitude that the stewardess could roll out the drink tray. The happy sound of those metal wheels caused the concerns of the day to vanish like the lights of Orange County below, and as the lady paused to smile and take our request I said without hesitation, “A couple of Stolis, a can of tonic and a Coke for the kid.”

     “Rilke was a jerk,” John Berryman wrote (and look how Berryman ended up); changing your life was for squares. And while I was on the subject (pouring the contents of my second miniature over ice), fuck John Wayne. I always hated that old Republican. Reminded me of my old man, a former Marine himself and as approachable as a loaded gun. A pox on them both. Later I learned that you could drink in Disneyland: There was a restaurant in the Old New Orleans section that served members only. That was the ticket, I figured. Got to get into that club.

     It would be years before my deal went down; I still had so much to drink before I could finish. But the awareness of my problem — the knowledge that deep down I was afflicted and would remain so until I acted — began to drain the fun out. John Wayne was stalking me across my own personal desert. “For here,” as Rilke could have told the Duke, “there is no place that does not see you.”

(1998)

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