I witnessed a wet and near naked version of “Occupy Wall Street” this past weekend. It was civil disobedience by middle class Americans at a water park, people in bathing suits who fought for fairness in a small but direct way, and their protest went viral and swept through the water park faster than toenail fungus in a shallow pool of warm water.
My daughter Lily, who just turned eight, loves water parks, and we’ve been going to Raging Waters in San Dimas, California for the past four years. Raging Waters is the largest water park in California, with over 36 thrill rides spread over 50 acres.
I’ve never screamed or laughed louder than on those thrill rides I’ve ridden with her at that park, and she feels the same. All day long we talk about the drop into darkness on “Neptune’s Fury,” the bounce you get on the second waterfall of “Speed Slide,” the minute long ride of “High Extreme,” and the velocity of “Raging Racer.”
I also love it for another reason. Raging Waters is America stripped bare, literally, and within the microcosm of the park the issues that separate our country disappear.
Class disappears. Out in the parking lot there are Hyundais next to Hummers, and BMWs and Range Rovers next to Corollas, but once inside, there’s no way to tell who earns $200,000 a year and who earns eight bucks an hour. You can be a professor or a millionaire or a busboy or a high school student, it doesn’t matter. We all look the same in our swim trunks, rash guards and dorky sun hats.
Race disappears. Caucasian, Asian, African, Latin, are all mixing. You hear people speaking Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, English, Korean, and we all laugh and scream and giggle and yell at our kids “don’t run!” in the same way.
Most importantly, all pretense disappears. At a water park, there is no roller coaster car to protect you; you either ride on a mat, or you sit in an inner tube, or it’s just your flailing body hurtling down a rushing wall of water that rockets you through dark tunnels and then spits you out over the falls. You feel scared, thrilled and embarrassed all at the same time, and after you splash down and climb out, the adrenalin still courses through you. That’s when I turn to my daughter and we laugh out loud, our faces beaming, and we dash to the next line and join the other giggling riders anxious to do it all over again.
The last time I saw a line of such happy people was at my daughter’s primary school, watching the 1st and 2nd graders line up at recess. Adult lines are never this happy. People don’t grin when they line up at the DMV.
There’s a natural sense of fairness that happens when kids line up. In grade school, front cuts are never allowed, and back cuts are barely tolerated. Screaming “that’s not fair!” is common at that age, and only when we’re older do we tolerate the response that “no one said that life was fair.” Adulthood is where we learn how the world really works.
But although we tolerate it, that sense of fairness never disappears, it just falls dormant within us, until something happens that makes it reappear.
And that’s where the damp protest comes in.
Raging Waters has instituted a “fast pass” line this summer. If you pay double the regular admission fee, you get a plastic wristband and you don’t have to wait in line on certain rides.
When my daughter Lily asked why those people got to go ahead of us, I explained that they paid twice as much money, so they get to cut the line. I then asked her how she felt about that. Her gut reaction was the same as on the playground -- “that’s not fair.” Her grade school belief that “cutting the line” was wrong turned out to be shared by a lot of adults at the park as well.
When we got to the front of the next line for Raging Racer, we had to wait for the people exiting the ride to hand us their mats, so we could have our turn. Two people wearing “fast pass” bands came up alongside, and they put their hands out, expecting to be handed mats ahead of everyone in line. After all, they had paid extra.
The first person coming off the ride refused to hand the mat over, and pushed his mat into the hands of the person at the head of the regular line. The second person coming off the ride saw that, and immediately copied him...and then so did the third through the eighth person coming off the ride...and the trend took off. This spontaneous protest happened without a word. No one shouted “no cuts,” or “that’s not fair.” No one slapped “high fives” or pointed. Everyone continued to be polite. The people in second class simply refused to cater to the people in first class.
An employee from Raging Waters was standing there to enforce the new rule, but it quickly became clear that she could not. Eventually, the people who paid more did get their mats, but I could tell they were uncomfortable. They felt...shame.
The protest went viral and spread to other rides, and for the rest of the day I saw many “fast pass” purchasers awkwardly waiting to get mats and rafts from the second class people, who refused to participate.
I am not against exclusivity. Country clubs have their place, and so does first class on an airplane. But with country clubs and other places of privilege, your money buys “separateness” from the masses, where you can enjoy greater creature comforts with other wealthier people like yourselves, behind walls or curtains, and avoid encountering average folk. The masses are not in your face, and your wealth is not being shoved in theirs.
The people who bought the fast passes had done nothing wrong either; if we had been out in the real world, where class, race, and pretense insulate and separate us, the masses would have accepted this two-tiered system without complaint.
But because class, race and pretense had disappeared, that dormant sense of grade school fairness had spontaneously reappeared. The equality of the playground trumped all rules, and it became impossible for the employees to enforce the new policy.
It felt a bit like grade school as well; after all, everyone is wearing damp shorts, rash guards and dorky sun hats. When the “fast pass” purchaser thrusts out his wrist to show that he’s wearing a band that proves he should get the mat first, it’s hard to take him seriously.
However, as our society divides further into the haves and the have-nots, it seems that “fast pass” and “first class” lines will pop up in more places where the general public gathers. Wealth won’t be used to just buy an exclusive place or an exclusive product that the masses can’t have. Wealth will be used to first “dibs” on what everyone else must wait for.
I can imagine it starting with beach parking lots, the line at the pharmacy and the banks, and checkout lines at the mall stores at Christmas time.
In the past, this would never have been imagined -- we all wanted to appear to be part of the middle class. This used to NOT be the standard; if we were poor, we wanted to appear wealthier, and if we were wealthier we wanted to blend in with those who had less. We shared a bias to join the middle class, and to stray from that was crass and invited public shame.
Keep your eyes out for this new twist on class division, and see how the public reacts to it. If Raging Waters really is a microcosm of America, however, people will find a way to protest it, and cries of, “THAT’S NOT FAIR,” will no longer be reserved just for children.