I have embarrassed myself so often in life that one could accuse me of being an accomplished Performance Artist in the trade. For humiliation to work there must be witnesses. Doing something humiliating in the privacy of one’s personal space doesn’t count. The whole “dance like nobody’s watching” thing is a bit self-inflated. Unless, of course, you are Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes. But the trouble with the Ms. Benes’ character was that she was quite pleased with her “moves,” never seeing the disgrace.
The humiliation only works when both the audience and the humiliated see the humiliation in action and together recognize it for what it is…abject debasement from which there is no recovery and leaves the indelible mark on the memory.
Back in my middle-school days – peak years for prize-winning humiliations – a group of us decided we would go to the State Fair. While we had to depend on the parents for transportation, I did not have to ask them for the money to pay the admission fee and for incidentals. I was a paperboy at that time, and made my own money. I did not depend on the parents for an allowance. With four kids to feed and clothe on one income, the topic of an allowance was a non-starter. There was no such item in the Arnold household budget. Besides, I wished to impress my girlfriend at the time with my economic independence; quite proud to pay for our tickets with money earned by the sweat of my brow.
As we strolled along the Midway, our senses were bombarded with enticing sights and sounds and smells. My girlfriend and I indulged in a Cumulus cloud of pink cotton-candy on a paper cone, followed by the deep-fried goodness of a funnel cake. Our spirits were high after such fair fare.
I saw an opportunity to continue this good feeling by winning a stuffed animal for the girlfriend at the shooting gallery. While I was no Frank Butler – male counterpart to Annie Oakley – I had shot my neighbor’s air rifle many times at targets set up in his backyard. So I slapped down my quarter for three shots and missed every one. I slapped another quarter down, not for the chance to save face, but to examine the trajectories flying out of a crooked barrel. My aim didn’t matter. The pellets veered away from the targets no matter where I sighted. My complaints to management were met with a surly, “Face it, kid. You can’t shoot. Now get outta here.” The girlfriend had to walk the Midway empty-handed. Humiliation number one.
When the group spied the Rocko Ride, the girlfriend’s excitement was tangible. Maybe the first humiliation would be short lived. I approached the monster bravely concealing my trepidation. The steel cages were shaped like the old manual pencil sharpeners, and attached to a metal frame similar to that of a Ferris Wheel, but the seats were enclosed and designed to rock and roll as the ride circulated. With sufficient momentum, the seats would flip upside-down and end-over-end. The seats could be locked so that during the revolutions the seats could flip and spin erratically. A wheel-within-the-wheel effect.
My brave face began to melt when the Carney locked us into our seat and closed the cage top over our heads with a sinister chuckle. Did he do this with everyone, or was my fear so palpable that he was anticipating a sadistic pleasure at my response to the first free fall?
The first few circles were slow paced and I was lulled into thinking that I might be able to survive this experience. But the Carney kicked the machine into a higher gear and the speed of the rotations increased. When the cage suddenly flipped on its head, my world fell apart. For a second or two I watched the screaming girlfriend, her face in an ecstasy of the thrill of it all. If I had been smart I could have masked my terror by matching her scream-for-scream, but no. This out-of-control motion had to be what it would feel like should gravity fail and the axis on which our planet spins snapped in two.
My screams turned into appeals for the Carney to stop the ride and let me get out: “Please stop! Please stop! Let me get off! Please!” But with each lap the Carney’s wide grin widened further revealing a handful of stained teeth lodged inside the black hole of his mouth. Just imagine the torturer’s glee during the Inquisition.
When the ride did come to an end, the girlfriend and I were the last to be let out of the cage. The Carney kept us inside the chamber for as long as possible. During the long wait to be set free, I might have been able to conceal the tremors in my body or the tears streaming from my eyes, but I could not take back the screeching pleas for the Carney to stop the torture. The words “had proceeded from my mouth and would not return void.” Humiliation number two.
And speaking of “void,” once released from the death cage, I staggered passed the line of people waiting their turn on the ride of medieval torment and lurched into the Midway just as the pink-colored and deep-fired tasting barf spewed out of my mouth. Humiliation number three. If there was a fourth, it was the long, quiet ride home in the car.
The dissolution of the girlfriend/boyfriend relationship came within the week. Who could blame her?
Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” This from a guy whose life was short and miserable. We are wired to find meaning in the narratives of our lives. While my Rocko Ride was a low-profile mortification, it left an enduring, what…emotional scar? My soul must be covered then top to bottom. Humiliations are a recurring theme in my life. Just ask Kay. She has witnessed forty-year’s worth. But as I have collected the short stories of my humiliations over the decades, I have discovered a meaningful link between living a well-rounded joyful life and the absurdity found in all humanity. If nothing else, I can provide interesting stories at parties.