Saturday in the (Theme) Park

There’s a reason Ryan and I have a rule about going to Six Flags Great America on Shabbat. The rule is we don’t do it. At least, not anymore. It’s not that I’m shomer Shabbos (Jewish Sabbath observant)–and it’s not that I’m not. I don’t work on the Sabbath–that’s absolutely non-negotiable for me. I also usually avoid writing lists, doing chores, running errands, and anything else that smacks of or can potentially lead to drudge work.

On the other hand, I don’t find any merit in avoiding spending money, reading the news, using the Internet (anymore), or “starting a fire”–and the myriad other restrictions that flow from the no-fire restriction (like cooking and turning on lights.) These restrictions speak to some fellow Jews, but I find them meaningless in a religious sense.

More important for Six Flags purposes, the Torah doesn’t say where God rested on the seventh day. Tongue-in-cheek though that sentence may be, it guides my choices about where I want to find myself on Shabbat. Friday night services are another non-negotiable mainstay of Shabbat for me, and almost always Ryan, as well. Often, I also find myself in synagogue on Shabbat morning. (Especially now that I live down the block from my shul–though Ryan prefers to sleep in after Friday evening services.) Equally often, though, we like to spend the day enjoying our city and each other’s company. That may mean a museum, a park, a zoo, or an aimless walk through our neighborhood. The bottom line is if Saturday involves an expedition, we want it to increase our sense of joy and peace, in keeping with the theme of Shabbos rest.

But, season passholders though we are, try as we might, we just can’t seem to transcend the big, giant, adrenaline-pumping stress machine that is Great America on a hot, crowded summer day into an experience of peace and tranquil awareness. God (I’m sure literally) knows we’ve tried. I love the place; it pushes all my classic-amusement-park buttons. Ryan likes it too–but less. I have a long history of being a coaster junkie, militantly marching through amusement parks from rope drop to last call, dragging loved ones in tow. Ryan is content people-watching on a bench for 45 minutes while I ride Raging Bull.

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve broken up in the middle of Southwest Territory over this difference.

Sunburn always seems to be a regular factor of Saturdays in the park, too. Not just regular sunburn, either. Think: lobster-red Lucy Ricardo wearing the Don Loper tweed at the fashion show. And then there’s the heartburn. It could be from Great America’s persistently awful food, or the fact that we were unwise enough to buy a season dining pass this year. But I blame it on the inappropriateness of the highlight of Shabbat turning out to be not feeling nauseous by Havdalah. (Example: It’s never a virtue for the kernels still attached to the cob to be the consistency of creamed corn.)

Most of last year, we tried and tried to make Six Flags work on Shabbat. Not the least reason for doing so: being able to spend all day in the park without having to get up for work the next morning. But after the punishing crowds of Fright Fest last Autumn–one day we spent a grand total of five minutes in Great America, walking in and right back out, so stunned were we by the crowding–we made the rule: no Six Flags on Shabbat. Great America became a marginally less crowded Sunday pursuit, and that’s where we let it stay.

It always takes falling off the wagon to remind you why you were on the wagon in the first place.

This summer, after several weekends of no Six Flags due to life in general, with Ryan away on a business trip this week–making Sunday his prep day and out of bounds for the pursuit of air time–over the weekend we decided to break our seemingly sensible rule and spend Saturday at the park. Although it was 90 degrees when we got there, Great America wasn’t as crowded as we had feared, with many towel-clutching visitors heading straight to the water park instead of the theme park. There were also sun-blocking clouds, a breeze, and manageable lines. For the first couple of hours, we wondered why we had made our no-Six Flags rule in the first place.

When we discovered the A/C actually on for once at Aunt Martha’s Boarding House Restaurant in Hometown Square, we let our guard down and decided to see if the miracle-of-the-Shabbat-theme-park extended to the edibility food, too. But after standing in line for 20 minutes only to find most of the food options had already run out (“Would you like the fried chicken or the chicken strips?”), we began to realize the error of our ways.

When the line came to a complete halt for another five minutes while people waited, sheeplike, for the aforementioned cobs to finish sogging in their boil water, we told the counter staff we didn’t want the corn. Helpfully (so they thought), they moved our tray to the head of the line so we could pay and be on our way.

If only we had waited for the corn.

“What are they doing? Did you see what they just did? Why did they do that? I don’t think that’s right. Who do they think they are?” We turned around to see a zaftig flower-print clad mother, ambulatory daughter and stroller-attached infant in tow, ticking like a deranged SNL-skit time bomb, pigeon-bobbing her head in incredulity from server to server to infant to daughter and back again, clucking away in a distinctly north-of-the-Illinois-border accent, going from calm to enraged in zero seconds as if we had just peed on her shoes.

“I can’t believe they did that. Do they think they can just get away with that? Some people are just like that.”

What I found really interesting was that at no point did this woman’s high-speed come-apart actually address, you know, us. I tried to ignore her as we continued to be delayed by a broken soda machine stopping the line anew between the corn station and the cash register, restaurant staff fidgeting to get the machine working again all the while in obvious, full view.

“Look, honey. These rude people cut in front of us and now they’re just standing there and they’re going to delay us even more because they’re not going to move out of the way to let us get by.” This was directed at her daughter, eight-years-old at most, though as with the previous passive-aggressive comments, in a voice loud enough for everyone standing nearby to hear. She could see where our tray was. She could see why we–and everyone else ahead of her–couldn’t move forward. It didn’t matter. In her head, she was a woman wronged.

“This isn’t right. This isn’t right.”

Finally, I had had enough. I turned around and told her why we were in font of her, and asked her why she was complaining to every one else around her but not actually addressing us, standing at most five feet away. It was then that I noticed her thin, deathly silent husband standing stock still next to her, frozen in place as if to say, “I’ve been through this all before and I’m not getting caught in the crossfire.” The rest of the confrontation was a rapid-fire blur of she said/he said.

“Who do you think you are? You must think you’re better than everyone else for making us wait so you could go ahead of us.”

Lady, are you completely crazy or did you just forget to take your meds today?

“Did you hear what he said to mommy, honey? How rude. I teach my children manners. I teach my children manners. Who raised you?”

Go back to Wisconsin, you nutcase.

“Crawl back under the rock you crawled out from, you rude person. How dare you expose my children to such rudeness.”

I was sincerely waiting for her to call me a poopy-head and say she was going to take her toys and go home. And then it happened…

Fuuuuuck you!

Yelled by kippah-clad me on Shabbat to a mother in front of her children. In response to which she was finally silent for a moment. And then her head exploded. “Nice language. I teach my children manners!”

By this point, the line had finally moved past the soda machine and we paid–and complained about the woman behind us. She returned the favor by complaining about us and my language and asked for the manager to call for security. As we headed to an empty table, Ryan kept muttering, “We’re gonna get thrown out. We’re gonna get thrown out.

For my language, we very well could have been ejected from the park. So when Wisconsin Dell finally sat down, I walked over to the manager. As it turned out, she had witnessed the whole exchange and told us not to worry. It was a long, hot day for everyone, and she wasn’t about to call security because of it–but she wanted to let Wis. Dell think she was going to call security so that she would calm down, pay, and leave.

There are days when we live up to the people we want to be, and there are days we don’t, no matter how much we intend to make every effort. That’s not an excuse for dropping an F-Bomb in front of a family, and I’m sure my verbal sparring partner was as annoyed as we were that the line had been so long at Aunt Martha’s in the first place. There are so many other ways I could have responded. I could have ignored her. I could have let her go on and on. I could have let her go by us.

Instead, both of us, Wisonsin Dell and I, were clearly more interested in coming out on top than modeling good behavior for anyone, whether that meant her attacking, passive-aggressive diatribe and my F-bomb, both unleashed front of her daughter, or my participation in the entire scene–on Shabbos or at all.

There’s really not a moral in this post. Sometimes life is messy and sometimes on the best of days we display the worst of our natures. And maybe there’s a good reason for some of those behavioral fences around the Torah.

On the other hand, the fried chicken was really good that day.

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