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Boston Society of Architects

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As if by magic

Conjuring the vernacular of summertime

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Photo by Daniel Roe on Unsplash

The summer is a wizard. He waves his wand and turns dark into light. He awakens humanity from its deep winter sleep and replenishes the primal need for warmth, light, and Vitamin D. With magic dust and sleight of hand, he beckons people out of the woodwork and prompts them to activate spaces that have been bleak and vacant for the past nine months.

The wizard waves his wand and turns an abandoned parking lot into a carnival.

An entrance gate looms over a crowd that’s shoving and squeezing its way through a half-dozen turnstiles. The mob surrenders its $20 and passes, one by one, through the creaking metal gates. Entrance clusters eventually disseminate into a grand avenue, and the sweaty horde is made beautiful by the glitz of the strip. Skin radiates from a mixture of golden hour and neon light. Eyes gleam with overstimulation. Thin channels branch from the strip, leading to porta potties, palm readings, miniature ponies, and bingo halls. But the real action is on the strip: concessions selling fried anything, rigged game stands, and rides in every flavor. There are dizzy rides for those with loose wires in their brains, mellow rides for families and handsy couples, and thrill rides for the truly adventurous.

Of the thrill rides, the drop tower stands tall, calling to the daredevil in the sea of yellow-bellies. As a piece of architecture, the ride is a structural spire of loose connections and shoddy welds that is wrapped by a cab of seats. Riders plop down in their padded chairs and pull harnesses over their shoulders, buckling the harness to the chair with a seatbelt that looks to be hocked from an Oldsmobile. Once secured, the cab begins to ratchet up the track. Up to the level of little girls’ balloons to the arc of basketballs that are trying to win oversized teddy bears to the bulbs of blinking Fried Dough signs. Up to the level of a rollercoaster car, also creeping up the track, to teenagers making out in a Ferris wheel gondola.

The cab climbs up and over the wall of the football stadium, whose parking lot now stages this pop-up Disneyland. It climbs higher, taller than a skyscraper, a mountain, a beanstalk. Upward and upward until, at the drop of a dime, it halts. The cab hangs in space for a few exaggerated seconds, surveying the natural and man-made landscape. Until snap. The cab free-falls to the ground. Whizzing past the upward landmarks in reverse order. Stomachs in throats. Strains of obscenities. Prayers to God. The riders brace for impact, but the impact doesn’t occur. Just before busting through the tower’s diamond-plated base, the cab screeches to a sudden stillness. The riders are jolted with euphoria. They have put their lives in the hands of a rickety carnival ride, stared at their mortality straight in its face, and have come out unscathed on the other side. Harnesses fly off and sneakers smack the deck of the platform as riders race down the stairs, off to tempt their fate on another instrument of terror.

The wizard waves his wand and turns a hole in the ground into a swimming pool.

The perfume of chlorine attacks the nostrils, but somehow, it still smells good. The pool water, pressed between a fence of clinical white tiles, is unnaturally blue, a cosmic turquoise that best resembles a vat of blue Gatorade. And its surface is in constant motion, broken and rebroken by the fervor of children who are wringing every last drop out of summer.

The pool begins as the outer edge band morphs into a stair that descends three feet below the water’s surface. Parents and young children sit partially submerged on the treads, splashing their hands and feet in the water at the bank of the pool. The shallow end is elongated by black racing stripes that are adhered to the bottom. A resolute old man makes it his mission to swim between these lines but is more often dodging brothers spitting water at each other, girls practicing handstands, and a father who’s been blinded by the hands of the daughter on his back. A cloud of screams and shouts of “Marco,” “Polo” hang in the air over the shallow end. As the pool descends down to the deep end, a group of girls dive for the shimmering quarters that are slithering down the decline, competing like domesticated fish for their pellets of food.

Between the slope and the wake of splash from the diving boards is a zone of relative calm—occasionally broken by a boy in a white T-shirt pinching his nose, gulping for breath, and penciling into the pool. And then, there are the jumpers: springing high off the glistening plank, posing in the air, and bursting into the water. Jumping like they have something to prove. Gainers, jack knifes, cannonballs, swan dives, belly flops. These boys are jumping with the pipe dream that the lifeguard will someday notice them. The lifeguard, posted up in her stilted lawn chair, does not notice any of their charming tricks. She is too busy playing with her ponytail and faintly blowing through her whistle. Occasionally, she drags her eyes across the scenery, lazily observing the adolescent social stratification that is expressed in the zones of the pool.

The wizard waves his wand and turns a white van into an ice cream truck.

The ice cream man has the best job in the world. Driving from neighborhood to neighborhood, he’s a figure more universally beloved than Mr. Rogers and Bob Ross put together. Through the speakers of his repurposed maintenance van, he blares the happiest song in the world—a bubbly, incorruptible tune that’s a dog whistle for the young and old alike. But the children, unlike their parents, make no effort to contain their enthusiasm. Barefoot and penniless, they bust out of screen doors like sprinters from their marks. Their parents, a little more poised, follow behind with flip-flops and wallets to study the menu on the side of the truck: Nestlé Push-Up pops and Drumsticks, snow cones, and every other frozen delicacy ever concocted. The neighborhood forms a single-file line, weighing their options and waiting their turn.

When all orders are complete, the truck pulls away, leaving an impromptu block party in its dust. Families and friends are sitting on freshly mowed lawns, standing in quiet cul-de-sacs, or sitting on concrete stoops. Everyone is lost in the moment, savoring the sweetness of his or her purchase. There’s something so pure about the notion of an ice cream truck, sounding a siren not for an emergency but as an excuse to stop, gather, and eat some ice cream. It’s both iconically American and completely adverse to the breakneck pace of everyday life. But it feels like the exact dose of medicine that America needs. I, for one, would rather have the ice cream man conducting the affairs of our nation than the guy we’ve got now. The ice cream man has made his living on unity, not division. And he’s found the deeper wisdom in the old adage, “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.” He’s right. We all scream for ice cream. Even the most bitter, broken sap on the planet is starved for and screaming out for ice cream.