The Balloon Park was the place you went in those days if you really liked balloons. If you had a balloon of your own you would take it along to show off, especially if it was a really nice one. If you didn't have a balloon of your own to take along, it was still really fun to go and admire the balloons that other people had brought.
You could also rent a balloon if you wanted to. There was a guy named Old Jake who ran a balloon rental stand, where you could rent a balloon by the hour. Old Jake wasn't really old, and his name wasn't even Jake, it was Herman Joseph; he just liked everyone to call him "Old Jake". He was kind of short and skinny, but we all had respect for Old Jake, because it was common knowledge that he had done hard time, once for impersonating a fire hydrant and another time for multiple counts of hair fraud. He had a tattoo from prison too, one of those homemade jobs that looked from one angle like a steam locomotive and from a different angle like a straw basket full of fluffy kittens.
Old Jake didn't charge that much for his rental balloons, but he did expect you to treat them as if they were your own—keep them away from sharp objects and never insult or humiliate them. To make sure that you took proper care of them, you had to leave a deposit, or "hostage", as he called it, which was usually my little brother Sam. I always sort of wondered what would happen to Sam if I brought the balloon back damaged in some way, or went over the mileage limit, but I didn't really care that much, because I liked balloons more than Sam anyway. But since Mom and Dad brought us up to respect and honor balloons whatever the circumstances, it was pretty unlikely that we ever would have even had a chance to find out.
The Balloon Park didn't actually start out as a balloon park. It was originally just another city park, with the usual trees and benches and porcelain and meat. Then some guys started hanging out there with their balloons, and more and more balloon enthusiasts started showing up, and then the next thing you know there's a big fancy sign put up by the city and the mayor showing up in an antique fire engine to show everyone what a regular guy he is, and one day you wake up to find out that the Balloon Park is now an officially sanctioned, taxpayer-supported city recreation facility.
In its heyday the Balloon Park attracted balloon lovers from all over the country and even overseas. It was one of the nicest facilities in America dedicated to the enjoyment of balloons and balloon culture. Occasionally you might even run into a celebrity, like that guy who was in that commercial for some stuff. It made me proud to know that this was all happening in my own hometown.
I don't recall exactly when it was, but the trouble started the time some people showed up with a kite. I can't possibly imagine what they were thinking, but there they were, all the same. They took that thing out, and one of them held it up facing the wind while another one held the string taught, and up it went. They really should have known better. People stood and stared in disbelief. I was still kind of young and naive back then, so at first I didn't really understand what was going on, but then I remembered how my father had once explained to me about how kites cause halitosis and divorce and despair, and I started to feel a little scandalized too. It wasn't long before the police came and put a stop to it, but the damage was done. We had lost our way, and there was no mistaking it.
From there it was just a slow downward spiral. There was a brief craze for balloon animals, but it made a lot of people really uncomfortable. Some people thought it was the kind of innovation that promised to revive interest in the Balloon Park. But a lot of people thought it was just abuse. Dad said, "If they'd do that to a balloon, where does it stop? Are they going to start twisting up their own kids like that and call it art?" Most of us felt confused and weren't sure where we really stood on the question. It was all so perplexing.
|Balloon Animal Cruelty|
Later some guys started showing up with those new mylar balloons, and that's when people started feeling like they really had to choose sides. Most of us felt that if it's not natural latex, it's not a proper balloon (although I will confess that I too briefly felt the lure of the forbidden), but there was a pretty vocal minority that said this is the future of balloons, so get used to it. Fights broke out periodically and the cops were coming all the time, and Dad said it really wasn't safe to go down there anymore. When the guys with the puppets and the tubas started hanging out in one corner of the park, nobody even did anything about it. It was like people were beyond caring at that point. I think I was the only one in the family who was still even interested by then, since the rest of the family had discovered that they preferred spending their leisure time taking turns sitting on a damp washcloth.
|A Crime Against Nature|
Today all that stuff is gone. After the big balloon manufacturers pulled their sponsorships, the mayor said the city really couldn't afford to maintain it as a Balloon Park any more. Now that plot of land is just another ToadMart, like the ones you can see in practically any other town in America. It's too bad, but I guess that's progress. Still, I can't help but feel a little touch of teary-eyed nostalgia whenever I come across one of those old reruns of "Balloons, Ho!" while I'm aimlessly channel-surfing late on a Friday night.