Friday, August 29, 2014

How Awesome Are Collisions? (An Appreciation of Bumper Cars)

Humans love collisions, and the world constantly feeds into that fascination. Our prevailing theory of the beginning of the universe involves a "big bang" in which an impossibly tiny, hot, dense...thing expanded to form our world. Presumably, that event involved some collisions.

At the atomic level, shit* is constantly bumping into other shit* to cause all the world's natural phenomena. How does ice melt? Something causes the water molecules to bump into each other faster and faster until the water returns to liquid form. Why do telephone wires sag during the summer? Because heat causes the atoms in the wire to vibrate more quickly, causing volumetric expansion.

*Apologies to Ms. Stevens, my high school science teacher.

And here are some examples of collisions that might be of more interest to How Blank's readers:
  • The most popular sport in the United States revolves around muscular athletes using themselves as torpedoes to crash into their opponents.
  • Some of our favorite fictional drinkers make us laugh by drunkenly crashing into things and people.
  • The terrific movie Crash depicts the lives of diverse Los Angeles citizens colliding in all sorts of amazing ways. 
  • Many of the best video games ever (Donkey Kong, Crash Bandicoot, Mario Kart, etc.) rely on collisions between characters and obstacles. Sports games like NFL Blitz involve the same type of chaotic interactions.
Of course, there are many times when we see collisions in a negative light. Nobody likes paying for collision insurance. One of Robin Williams' worst movies involves a green ball of goo bouncing around haphazardly. In 1999, Powerman 5000 released "When Worlds Collide," a song that a lot of people liked for some reason. And on a personal note, I broke my foot a few weeks ago by colliding with another outfielder in a softball game.

The fact is, collisions are a huge part of our lives. In her book Chicken Pox for the Soul, Jessica Safra writes, "Life is a series of random collisions."

Which brings us to bumper cars. Last week a group of us went to Six Flags, surpassing the median age of park-goers by about 15 years. We primarily rode the roller coasters, but the best part of our day might have been the bumper cars.

Photo via
Or, to be precise, The Fender Benders. We waited in line on two separate occasions for about 40 minutes each just to ride them. The first time, we reached the front of the line and Murphy's Law dictated that the Fender Benders should break down at that point. We went off to a different part of the park for a few hours before finding ourselves back at the Fender Benders at the end of the day.

There was no good reason for a dozen 20-somethings to wait almost an hour to ride in cars that travel less than 10 miles per hour. In the 94-degree heat, though, we waited. As we stood on line,* we made fun of the ride's operator, we discussed our favorite roller coasters, and we complained a little. But most of all, we talked smack about who was going to give who whiplash. And who was going to have the least amount of mercy on little kids. And whose car would travel slowest as a result of the driver's weight.

*Is it "on line" or "in line"? 

When it was our turn to ride, we ran into the enclosed space like professional gladiators entering the Colosseum. I grabbed the yellow No. 24 car, which was positioned next to my buddy Dan and a few yards from a kid who was directly facing us. Dan and I started laughing and telling the kid that he was a goner.

After the aforementioned operator diddled around for what seemed like an eternity, the ride finally started. My car hummed into action, and Dan immediately double-crossed me. As I targeted the kid in front of me, Dan side-swiped me for the first of many collisions. But these collisions would not be random. In the three-minute blur that followed, I recall maneuvering to bump a mom with her child, my buddy Pete viciously slamming my blindside, and various other carnage.

As we exited the ride, we were like triumphant gladiators exiting the Colosseum, except maybe a little less bloody and enslaved. Everyone agreed: What a ride!

Afterwards, I found myself asking the same question. How could a ride that was invented almost 100 years ago, that is called "dodgem" in some parts of the world, that is built for young could that ride give us so much joy? After all, sports like skiing and surfing should provide much more of a rush than bumper cars. Still, the Fender Benders at Six Flags provided more excitement than a bunch of the roller coasters.

I guess bumper cars give us a chance to control our collisions. It's much better to dole out a crash than to have one imposed on you. Or, maybe it's even simpler than that. Maybe we just love bumper cars so much because they allow us to experience a pure, undeniable thrill. The pure, undeniable thrill of shit bumping into other shit.

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