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Disneyland and Vegas, haunted by a saffron-faced mook

A sharp pop cracked inside the main cabin and the Boeing 737 tilted left—bump-thump—but quickly swung back into its path, and dozing heads bounced gently along. I happened to be looking right at that perfect zigzag of a bolt as it shot out from the rainy dark and zapped the wing just outside my window. Suddenly I was William Shatner in that old Twilight Zone episode, witnessing shit go down out on the wing.

The kid with short blond hair in a UA sweatshirt seated beside me had that weird energy of an EDM kid who'd been up for three straight days, and he was wide-eyed after witnessing the lightning strike, too. I guess I wasn't seeing things. He shook his head and yanked his earbuds out.

"Let it go down, man," I said to him. "I'm fuckin' ready."

"God, bring it on," he said, his voice lifting. "Bring it down!" Dude was ready too.

We don't know each other, but I sensed an understanding between us that the fright of dying was often less than the fright of living, and in that fright there was no present tense because maybe we were both haunted by the past, and the future's pretty ugly. The present tense tainted by that saffron-faced mook taking office. Some of us are the first to cave, ready to go down. To not be grateful to be here is no way to live, man.

We got struck by lightning outside of Vegas but landed fine. Our Southwest airliner (flight 4451, Tucson to Burbank), which appeared to be in fine working order, was pulled from circulation. We were corralled off the plane into the terminal at McCarren International Airport and told by the flight purser that we may or may not get on another flight out that night. The bewitching whir and beeps of slot machines and smell of cooked flesh made me ill. There were no revelers here, and it felt like a hangover.

In context, I saw it as an allegorical joke: Struck by lightning and grounded in Vegas. Yes, the new American experience, stranded in a terrifying new era.

This isn't old self-effacing Dino-era Vegas, but new new Vegas. A dystopian bubble of artifice and avarice where there is no bond between the old and the new.

My Vegas friends don't even know why they live here. If you're poor there is no place for you, and you're made to feel shitty and shameful about yourself because the mass white consumerism is inescapable—the ersatz tropical paradises, Prada and Chanel, and bloated hotels and mansions with their own lakes and golf courses. Forget parks or the arts or anything truly free and beautiful because the 24-hour cycle of gluttonous desires for quick unearned wealth is practiced religion. There is no heart and there is no soul and there is no depth so it's a place where a guy like Trump and his ambitions thrive.

Folks are pulled in by the same dismal trance of celebrity and desire of easy riches that drew Trumpsters to voting booths, and it worked them over at first like a deep tissue massager but now they feel cheated and shallow. You don't feel the earth and the elements in Vegas. Everything's enclosed and secured, its entertainment deeply motivated by fear and suspicion. Just feels so right wing. There's nowhere to walk. It's easy for your heart to go completely dead if you're stranded here.

Even a cursory observation reveals the town's hideous flipside—it's a suicide run filled with aging Republican porn stars turned desperate escorts and disgraced alcoholic surgeons and beat pawnshops subsisting on casino tragedies. The city is cruelly hedonistic and intellectually stunted, with no real principle beliefs, a front for billionaires, and it's overtly masculine and militant. (Ever been broke in Vegas? Jesus.) Its ugliness demands attention. Las Vegas reminds me of Donald Trump.

Thankfully, after an hour or so, Southwest found a plane and we were told to head to a neighboring gate to catch a flight to Burbank. Needless to say I was overjoyed that I wasn't forced to spend the night. It was still Friday the 13th and the high winds and cold rain persisted but the storm clouds parted slightly and a full moon shone down and somehow lessened the weight of the present tense.

The following evening I was baptized in the waters of Disney. Splash Mountain is a wild flume ride that sees white-knuckled passengers lifted, dropped and splashed in fake six-seater logs. It's loosely based on the '46 Disney movie, the decidedly un-PC Song of the South, and great old folk tales starring Uncle Remus. Set in the Reconstruction Era, the ride plays off southern stereotypes using animatronic figures.

Splash Mountain played tricks on my head, took me to some fuzzy, two-dimensional place where bigoted billionaires and Trumpites run the land from 30-story hotel pyramids. That's how this presidency can get to me. Maybe I'm fearful that I'll adopt their ways and consider their motives with empathy, or lower my tolerance unknowingly. Maybe I'll turn into an anthropomorphized animal depicted as hillfolk—a mindless gator or pig or frog or one of the chickens doing the can-can—and shout out "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," to mock the misery of others, like they mocked us as we rode through in our fake log and water-filled shoes. They sang, "My oh my, what a wonderful day/Plenty of sunshine heading my way," as we exited, as the sun descended and the January night grew frigid—even for Southern California—and rainy.

Splash Mountain encapsulated all the glory and romance of Disneyland, as well as its punishment. The flume ride was surreal but I felt blasphemous for even making a Trump association in my head, however stretched. This is Disneyland, after all, a kingdom forever filled with sugary optimism and the tender warmth of recognition—it hasn't changed much since that Christmastime vacation with my father and siblings years ago, a day so beautiful to me as a kid that Disneyland became mythological, a place almost too painful to revisit, every time.

But I'd never seen Disneyland exist in a world of such outward and obvious kindness, in terms of patrons and employees—from fatigued moms pushing strollers though heavy crowds to security folks who didn't gaze at us suspiciously and allowed us to reenter after we exited at the wrong end of the park. We saw no unruly children or frenetic teens or stodgy drunks. There was a stillness that hung over all of it, a laid-backness to the thousands of people visiting. Kindness replaced distrust. I wasn't used to that, not from previous visits, or anywhere crowds gather with children to spend lots of money.

Maybe because of Trump, people of all sizes and ethnicities were treating each other with newfound courtesy, as if he'd inadvertently, miraculously, brought people together out of a mutual fear of the future. A sort of visual translation of It's a Small World, if you will. Sounds gushy and quixotic, but Disneyland, a commercial concern if ever there was one, is still filled with possibilities, an air of anticipation and hope, and as far as American pop culture goes, it's downright old world, a sort of anti-Vegas. It's no wonder Disneyland exists—when it opened back in '55 it was a refuge from McCarthyism, a front against fear.

The line lasted for 25 minutes before we climbed into the Matterhorn bobsleds. This rollercoaster rip through the famed Swiss alps mountain peak has been a personal fave since childhood, and I was happy to learn it hadn't lost any of its thrill. It pulled and jerked, cut left, cut right, and pushed my stomach to my throat. The ride, of course, stars that abominable snowman, the gluttonous beast with no conscience who comes off all scary and mean. We moved slowly at first and as the ride picked up speed the beast appeared, a shadow behind ice, with a horrific growl loud as Metallica guitars. The second time he appeared it shocked because he was full form—tall and white and baring teeth, arms outstretched, claws ready. The third time ... man, we were flying on that track ... we had his number. Just an ugly old dirty white dumbass with a one-note way of communication, and we laughed at him.

Several days later I watched on streets and screens millions of women protest Donald Trump, and peacefully uphold a forgotten dignity of what it's like to live in America, and remind us all how the universe is female. Anyone with balls should be grateful to be here at all..

More by Brian Smith

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