I used to think nostalgia was something you have because you loved something once. Nostalgia is something you have because you survived something once.
First you survived your childhood, and even if it was a great one, it still tried to kill you over and over. Ask your parents. You toddled toward electrical sockets, loomed over the precipice of the staircase, and slow-motion put choking-hazards toward your mouth, attempting to polish off those Little People figures like they were a delicious delicacy.
You survived playing on the high voltage electrical transformer in your front yard. That thing. Jesus. You could write a love letter to that thing. It was like a jungle gym with a warm comforting electrical voltage. That thing had a siren song you could not resist. It played a mournful funeral dirge but it gave you life, or maybe that was just the grounding hum.
You survived second-hand smoke. The smell of cool menthol and ashtrays is as sentimental to you as the smell of waffle cones from the ice cream stand. You were the weird kid who liked pistachio ice cream. You survived the mean kid at the bus stop, screw that kid, you didn’t wear the same jeans everyday, you just happened to like light wash colors and owned several pairs.
And you thought the lunch ladies, jowls and hair nets and serving spoons, were scary. But Christ, what about the woman who took your money at the end of the line? She would seize the dollar bill out of your trembling hand like a snapping turtle goes after a small fish in the pond. You survived her.
And then you survived the scoop of mystery meat smiling up from your lunch tray. And it’s true: mystery meat smiles. It also shimmies.
You survived video games not turning you into a delinquent, MTV not turning you into a Satanic Cultist, McDonald’s not turning you into a victim of childhood obesity. You were raised on bologna, whole milk, and Kool-Aid. Childhood obesity wasn’t an epidemic — it was only the result of eating too much of your Halloween candy. You survived that too, eating all of your Halloween candy, even though some psycho handed out hypodermic needles mixed in with the Snickers bars.
Hidden drug needles everywhere. Secondhand smoke. Bullies, lunch ladies, Ronald Reagan. It was the 1980s.
Though none of my childhood pets made it, and I survived that, too. I miss that Spritzy. Good dog.
I wasn’t allowed to play in ball pits as a kid. My mom heard a rumor that there was a hypodermic needle found at the bottom of one. Then again, she heard a new hypodermic needle rumor every week.
Tourists were finding them on beaches. Innocent children were finding them on playgrounds. Old ladies who just had freshened up their perms at the salon and were treating themselves to a little lunch afterwards at Wendy’s, were ordering the chicken sandwich — no dear, not the spicy one, just the regular one, light mayonnaise please — and BOOM there it is, neatly tucked under the lettuce. Or maybe it was vehemently baked in. Who knows who cares.
But if you do care, and you wanted the latest hot tips on where they find used drug needles, my mother could have written the travel guide.
Fancy fun flirty fab destination number one: Chuck-E-Cheese, somewhere in Pennsylvania probably, in the shopping center that looks post-apocalyptic — yeah the one with the Fashion Bug store and the generic buffet restaurant where Carol with the feathered hair works.
Who’s Carol with the feathered hair? I don’t know, but you just know she’s there.
Picture this: four days, five nights, where luxury meets broken arcade games and the desperation you felt to get the kids out of the house and bring them to this forsaken place. In the air wafts the faint smell of dirty diapers and burning plastic.
Where A Kid Can Be A Kid! And Where an Adult Can Stare Straight Into the Bottomless Void of Their Deepest Dread!
Dine on only the finest pizza. It doesn’t taste like cardboard. Cardboard would be a mercy. This stuff tastes like clay. Sits in the stomach all day, doesn’t digest, just sort of psychrotrophically absorbs into your psyche, and some days you’ll swear it affects every feeling you’ve ever felt.
Catch some rays from the window covered in a mystery sheen that’s got to be grease, but it also sort of reminds you of the blue smoke that lingers in the Smoky Mountains, when you rented the cabin with the view. Or maybe you’re just daydreaming again and depressed. That pizza.
Sprawl out and relax on the purple carpet, which you’ll find is part-polyester, part-spilled Orange Crush, and part vomit — but don’t worry they cleaned the vomit with a damp rag from the kitchen.
Book today! Just fifty dollars for a never-digest pizza, twenty tokens your kids will blow through like a coke stash in Hollywood, and a norovirus souvenir the whole family can take home!
I’ve got two kids of my own now. Of course I’ve taken them to Chuck E. Cheese. We’ve all experienced the rainy day, the misplaced nostalgia, the desperation. And I’ve been there. No — I mean the ball pit.
Travel Destination Number Two: the ball pit.
Mom, I’m so sorry. I went in. I’ve been to the bottom of the ball pit. The deepest recesses. The ends of the earth. The hole in the ground that leads all the way to Hell. And then I clawed and gnashed my way back out. I survived.
My mom didn’t. Diabetic, age fifty-six.
I survived that. A stint with depression, only a couple years, anxiety antidepressants, stopped writing stopped caring, only a couple years. Throw in a crisis or two where you join a church even though you’re not religious, why not. Can’t hurt. I like the pastor, he’s a nice guy.
I’ve been to the bottom of the ball pit. And now I’m going to tell you just what was down there. It was the rest of us. We’re all down there, sometimes.
There’s also forty-seven cents in spare change, twenty-three jellybeans, yes I counted each one, and goldfish. I don’t mean the crackers. There’s a whole pond down there. You can swim in the pond. You don’t have to worry about brain-eating amoeba bacteria, unless you’re my mother, it’s freaking her the hell out.
There’s a bag of baby carrots and a bag of parent carrots. There’s William Taft down here, yes the actual twenty-seventh president of the United States.
Oh look, here’s a sealed VHS copy of the movie Free Willy. It’s a movie about the tender relationship between a young boy and a killer whale. While it feels like some obscure random thing that no one remembers now, I assure you that movie was ridiculously, massively popular in 1993.
Also on the movie shelf is a copy of Jurassic Park and look, the rest of the convoluted, low-budget dinosaur movies the 1990s unleashed upon our generation. I’m looking specifically at you, Theodore Rex, the buddy cop film about a street smart female police officer paired with a talking dinosaur.
Sometimes nostalgia is something you once hated.
Hey, there’s the remote control! Been looking for that thing under all the couch cushions. How the hell did it end up down here?
There’s fake dog poop and real dog poop, and something that resembles dog poop but isn’t. There’s brie cheese, one moist Kleenex, fun-sized candy bars, a bottle rocket, someone’s missing finger, and some aged gouda. Whoa dude, there’s like a whole cheese platter down here.
There’s an old person version of yourself. You’re talking about being old to your grandchildren. Now you’re showing them the shirt and pants you want to be buried in. Again. You do this every time they come to visit you at the bottom of the ball pit.
Oh there you go, struggling to pull open the closet door, just to admire the outfit in a matter-of-fact way. It’s the same shirt and pants you wore to your cousin’s second wedding, which is a really random outfit to want to wear for eternity, but you’re freaking old and there’s no arguing with you.
There’s Easter grass. You buy this stuff for one basket, and you still find pieces of it everywhere, forever.
toe nails, nails, the Trix rabbit, and one snickerdoodle cookie that has a spider on it. No wonder my mom didn’t want me to come down here.
By the way mom, there weren’t any hypodermic needles. You worried way too much.