Ferris-Wheel Rides for the Youthful in Spirit

ONE night several years ago, just moments before a rerun of ``Gunsmoke'' was supposed to come on, the TV in the lobby of the old hotel where I was staying overnight went totally dark. Sitting up and leaning forward in their chairs, some longtime guests of the hotel, five elderly men, gaped at the dead screen, seeing for first time there not a make-believe but a real-life disaster.

Perhaps thinking that because I was young I'd somehow be able to cope with this, they all looked hopefully at me sitting on the sofa.

I got up and went over to the TV. Crouching, I checked to see if the plug had popped out of its socket. It hadn't. Then I peered into the part where the tubes were. None glowed or even hummed.

I stood and looked at the others, shrugging. But something endearing about the way some of them rubbed their hands, as if to let their hands give each other sympathy, and the way others swallowed dryly, as if they were too dismayed to speak, reminded me of a sign I'd seen on the wall of a community center for old folks where I'd once worked: ``Just because we are old, do not forget us, do not neglect us.'' And I felt moved to try a tactic that had sometimes worked on conked-out radios.

Clenching my toes tight inside my shoe, I hauled off and gave the TV a good kick. But - ouch! I succeeded only in banging my toes so badly I had to hop around on one foot, smiling and chagrined.

Sighing, some of the men went over to rouse the hotel manager from his snores behind the check in desk. But those little z's pouring from his nose must have looked as if they could easily swell into zaps of bellowing rage if the owner of the nose were awakened, because no one even lightly tapped his shoulder. Instead they returned to their chairs and looked again at me. No longer hopping, but limping, I shook my head apologetically.

This was a run-down hotel where many pensioners lived. Their rooms had iron-framed beds that must have hardened sleep; stale air; peeling wallpaper that seemed to wag reproachful fingers; windows that looked out on brick walls and cheerless rooftops. The TV in the lobby made the difference between bleakness and substance, perhaps even between pessimism and optimism.

How I wished I could have redeemed myself, undone the disaster. In a strange way I felt responsible for these old people. I didn't want to let them down.

I remembered a man I'd met once in an apartment building where I lived. The elevator had gone out, and he was standing at the foot of steep stairs, looking up as if at a mountain that had come out of nowhere. At his feet were two big bags of groceries. I volunteered to carry his groceries up for him, and together we climbed the mountain. When we reached his door I set the bags down and started to leave. Touching my arm, he detained me a moment, looking at me with a kind of wistful gratitude, as if at someone rare in his life. ``Thank you,'' he said. ``You're a good person.''

Others had called me that, too, over the years, but almost always with commiseration, as if I was just asking for trouble in this tricky world. Some had even looked at me as if I might be a little weak in the head. I'd never really understood what ``a good person'' was until that night in the lobby of the old hotel. He was someone who did what made his heart happy, and his step light - especially if he had just done his foot an injury.

I went over to the front window and beckoned to everybody to come look. Not two blocks down the street, in a park, the lights of a little carnival, with its games, shows, and rides, twinkled. Just because the light had gone out of the TV didn't mean the light had gone out of the world too. All was not dark and lost. I proposed we treat ourselves to the carnival. I would buy us rides on the lighted Ferris wheel. And they could buy us cotton candy. Was it a deal?

Well, and what answer would you expect from dear ones infused with the indomitable spirit of youth? Down we went, all of us, leaving disaster behind, welcoming deliverance ahead. And oh, riding on that circle of light, how we breathed the sweet night air, how we marveled that the whole spinning world - below, above, and all around - was not so happy and so free.

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