This was beginning to seem like a bad idea. To drag your mother out of a warm bed on a cold winter’s morning—and on a false pretext—was childish and silly. Sweetness grimaced. She had told her mother that she wanted to get some background for her film from someone who had been to Coney Island back in the day of its heyday. Sweetness said a god must have whispered in her ear when she realized her mother fit the job description to a tee. This was too good an omen to be wasted—and this was true so far as it went—but Sweetness had other fish to fry. What she didn’t tell her mother was that she, Mrs. Molasses, was the true subject of her film, not Coney Island. This was why she had brought the film crew with her, the Charlie Chaplin Camera Company (the CCCC) who Sweetness had first met at Yale. Despite their name, the CCCC was from Japan and they were supposed to be the best in the business. Their job was to record everything they could without being seen by Mrs. Molasses: the visible comes from the invisible.
Sweetness found her mother standing in front of one of those fun house mirrors, that was still in place long after Steeplechase Park had been torn down. You know the kind. It had bends and curves built right into the mirror so when you looked at it, it reflected a false image of the world. If, for example, you were to see yourself by looking in one of those mirrors, one minute you would look short and fat, the next long and narrow. You might have an exceedingly long nose and no ears. Mrs. Molasses was completely captivated, oblivious of her surroundings. She was making tiny movements with her body, little flourishes, shifting her chin or flexing her eyebrows, screwing her face up like a contortionist. Sweetness hoped her camera crew had been able get some good shots of her face. Mrs. Molasses, Sweetness knew, was playing the game Abattoir. It involved a strange and disproportionate creature that Mrs. Molasses had invented when Sweetness was still a little girl. Her mother had made up the abattoir name as a kind of joke (an abattoir is a fancy name for a slaughterhouse). It was a scary creature and invented so that Sweetness could study and learn to tame it by looking in the mirror. But Mrs. Molasses’ whimsey had quickly become a game that all the neighborhood kids played. The name got changed to ‘Alice in Chains’ which Mrs. Molasses thought referred to either (1) the grunge band, or (2) to Lewis Carol, or (3)it was an unusual way of referring to Plato’s Analogy of the Cave, where, you’ll remember, the inhabitance of the cave were all chained in place so they could not get free easily. They emerged only rarely to look at the sun, which would burn their eyes and blind them. The rules of the Abattoir game required that you turn yourself into a troglodyte-like person by using a mirror only found in circuses and amusement parks. The Abattoir started out a monster, but it quickly became a secret angel, a means to see who you really were. Sweetness smiled. At least it worked that way for six-year-olds. You see, to win at Abattoir you had to make up a name for the creature you invented in the mirror—a name that ordinary people would call it, if they could see it, like Dracula. What (almost) no one realized was that the secret name was always ‘abattoir’.
Sweetness knew there was a Nathans Famous on the next block, so she steered her mother in that direction—though it was clear Mrs. Molasses would rather finish her game of Abattoir. When they entered Nathans Famous they were assaulted by the reek of sauerkraut. Nathans Famous was famous for its hot dogs, and you always put sauerkraut and mustard on your dog, did you not? Sweetness, though it was contrary to her nature (after all she was called Sweetness, not Sauerkraut) bought a couple of dogs, piled the kraut on, and lead her mother to a booth where they could see what remained of the old Steeplechase Park. Not much. Yet it loomed darkly amidst urban shadows.
It wasn’t until Sweetness had sat down that she noticed the camera secreted into the curtains. Oh, they were good, the CCCC, they were really good. They were able to figure out where Sweetness and her mother would sit and plant a camera in the booth. No wonder they had drawn such big crowds when performing at Yale.
Sweetness started her formal interview by asking a question she thought, while it was an obvious question, might present difficulties for her mother to come up with a good answer. Sweetness thought she probably did not know the real answer—but Sweetness did—and it would have been a good index of her mother’s veracity. The question was, What was a steeplechase? It sounded like an easy fact, but really it was a strange story of history and architecture. But a little thought would bring all the relevant saliences to the fore, Sweetness thought.
First of all, you can’t chase a steeple; a steeple does not move; it sits on the top of the church and stays there. Even the two most prominent steeples in all literature, in Marcel Proust’s The Search for Lost time, the steeples that young Marcel uses as a kind of built-in slide rule when he took the train down to Combray, did not move. In fact, their very stability is what made them useful. They appear to change places, but they do not. It all comes down to perspective, and Marcel knows this.
So, what about that ‘chase’? What is being chased here? Hold on, I know what you’re thinking, it’s a misprint born of history, a spelling error that was carried down through the centuries. It wasn’t the steeple that was chased, it was a fair maiden in the steeple who was ‘chaste’. But don’t go there; there is nothing ‘chaste’ about an amusement park or a steeple. You have to be a little more prosaic here. Think about building an apartment building or even a church. When you design it you have to leave a direct path from the basement to the top floor, a path that will allow all the floors to have something they all need, hot and cold water. You need a path through the building and that path is called a ‘chase’. Voilà. So, when in the good old days they needed some point to end a race that everyone could see they tended to use the most prominent, tallest marker they could find. A steeple. And they cut a chase through the country side for the horses to race and run.
Mrs. Molasses plainly did not know this archaic fact, who would? She hated it when Sweetness developed that little smirk in her voice. Mrs. Molasses was about to be dumped on, and she knew it.
Sweetness asked her simply (always a bad sign). What has a race got to do with a church steeple? like it was a riddle. Mrs. Molasses felt like she was being asked to explain, one more time, why it’s possible for molasses to go uphill—even in January. What is a steeplechase? Well, she was sure it was a horse race, and she was pretty sure they jumped over obstacles like fences and hedges. Mrs. Molasses thought it was probably derived from fox hunting. The obstacles were called steeples, indicating that they were pretty steep. Sweetness smiled an inner smile. She knew it didn’t really make sense.
So did Mrs. Molasses. Why should they name an amusement park in Brooklyn after a horse race in Ireland? There was no place inside the park for horse races right? Or chases?
Mrs. Molasses suddenly felt free. As is she was seeking higher ground. She would take. Sweetness across the street and into the park and show her the chase for the horses to run through, never mind that the great portion of the mostly wooden structure had burnt to the ground.
Sweetness didn’t know everything. It was time to tackle the main event. She peremptorily got up from the table. Nathans Famous faded in history. Sweetness knew that look on her mother’s face. She had a coupe brewing. A coupe of tea. As they went across the street and into the darkness, they began to see the old dowager herself, Steeplechase Park appear. Just a few paces… and fifty years… and they would be there. For though in truth Steeplechase Park was long gone, the mystery and the magic remained. The space involved was a wind blown parking lot, now transformed, rebuilt, and so present that no appeal to everyday reality would convince them. Let’s follow Mrs. Molasses across the street. She has an important discovery to make.
They went into the park. It was closed and empty. But the rides were all ready and waiting for generations of kids (yes, of all ages) to arrive. The spun cotton candy was spinning. There were boxes of Cracker Jacks, with the prize inside, stacked and ready to go. And up on the roof Mrs. Molasses could see, and she pointed them out to Sweetness was a row of brightly painted wooden merry-go-round horses polished and ready for as yet another generation of would be jockeys ready to ride on tracks around on the roof—a real chase. How’s that for a chase, sweetness? Mrs. Molasses wandered off. She went up the stairs (in January!) and soon was on a large platform, looking down on a large wooden slide. Sweetness suddenly noticed there was a young boy up there with her. A little stocky, he had flat top haircut, and wore a sweatshirt that had a logo from Texas A&M in front. He was cute. He and Mrs. Molasses were having quite an intense conversation. Until Mrs. Molasses turned and—did she jump or was she pushed?—came sliding down the slide. The boy apparently followed, but he seemed to disappear into the folds of wood, as if it was one of those mirrors Mrs. Molasses had been playing with earlier this morning. The visible comes from the invisible. She looked like she’d seen a ghost. Sweetness hoped the CCCC had gotten this on film. Mrs. Molasses was laughing and crying both; pretty soon Sweetness was too.