Today I came to the realization that all of my grandparents are dead.
People who I thought would be with me my entire life, people who I loved, but people whose presence I took for granted, even when I did my best to fight that instinct. It didn’t happen all at once, but it felt like I blinked my eyes, and the people who held me as a baby, raised me as a child and reached out to me as an adult were all gone.
My Mama died when I was a child, at least seven or eight years old. I cried because my parents were crying, but it was too much to comprehend at that time. It was the first real encounter with death I ever had. My Granddad died a couple of years after I graduated from college. He was a veteran of the Vietnam War. What I know about his time over there is pieced together from what other family members have talked about. I never worked up the courage to talk to him directly about it. I cried for a moment after receiving the phone call but then went straight to work. My Papa passed away during the early stages of COVID-19 quarantining. His ashes were spread over FaceTime. I kept my phone camera angled at the ceiling while I quietly fought back angry tears. I visited my Grandma in the hospital a few months later, clothed head to foot in protective gear, with the feeling that it would be the last time I would ever see her. One week later, that worry was confirmed. I didn’t cry at all on the way home, but the moment I got home I locked myself in my bathroom and sobbed.
Even though I grew up with these people in my life, the older I got, the harder it became for me to carve out time for them. These were people who loved me dearly. I loved them too, but as an adult, I’ve become increasingly introverted with less and less to say. That’s what I try to tell myself, but there’s still a nagging doubt in the back of my mind that I could have done more.
I thought about this while watching George A. Romero’s recently recovered early film, The Amusement Park.
In 1973, a young up-and-coming filmmaker by the name of George Romero was commissioned by the Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania to make an hour-long PSA about ageism and elder abuse. What they got was The Amusement Park. It was never released. It was shelved away and nearly forgotten, but miraculously recovered, restored, and is now available to stream online through Shudder.
In The Amusement Park, a pleasant elderly man (Lincoln Maazel) in a white suit enters a blank, white room. He’s not alone. There’s another man who looks an awful lot like him, slumped against a chair in the corner, bruised, battered, and beaten. The cheerful man hardly seems to notice. He asks the beaten man if he’ll be going outside the white room anytime soon, ignoring the victim’s cries of protest when he tells him he’ll be venturing outside anyway. When he steps outside, he finds himself inside the middle of a bright, exciting cacophony of exciting chaos. He’s in the Amusement Park, filled with rides, games, and laughing patrons. There are a few elderly men and women hobbling around with bandages on their heads, but the cheerful old man in the chipper white suit is caught up in his own excitement. He purchases a handful of tickets and proceeds to make his way through the park.
The further he goes, the more nightmarish the park becomes. He encounters and witnesses a variety of situations involving ageism, classism, racism, and horrifying mixtures of the three. Like Herk Harvey’s Carnival Of Souls, The Amusement Park is shot with a shoestring budget, with a grainy, tinny, threadbare charm. It’s a haunted industrial film with a literal specter of death hovering through the cheap celluloid frames. As the old man braves the rest of the park, his encounters become increasingly violent. He’s tossed into a ride strictly meant for the elderly and infirm, but it’s less of a funhouse and more of a retirement home from hell. A young man who had just been shown his own lonely elderly death by a fortune-teller takes out his aggressive fear on the old man simply trying to catch his breath, alone on a bench. He’s attacked by a biker gang, and given a band-aid by Park nurses, assuring him that’s all he’ll need. A frothing crowd of jeering hecklers chases him out of a freak show.
But of all the indignities, horrors, and attackers he endures during his stay, what finally forces him back into the white room, battered and bruised, becoming the poor soul we met at the beginning of the film, is the quietest and most tragic injury of them all. A young girl and her mother sit on a picnic blanket in the middle of the park, eating chicken out of a basket. The girl is reading a picture book of The Three Little Pigs. The old man is hanging on by a thread, collapsed against a stone wall. He and the girl make eye contact. Silently, she invites him to join the family. Hesitant, like a wounded animal, the old man approaches and with great difficulty, sits next to the little girl. She invites him to read to her. Thankful and tired, on the verge of joyful tears, he accepts the book and begins reading, gladly taking the drumstick of chicken she offers him as well. The old man has finally found peace. Until only a few fleeting moments later when the mother and child lose interest in the man. They pack up their belongings as he continues to read, trying not to let himself be bothered by what’s happening. But soon, even the book is taken from him and he’s left alone again. Surrounded by people, abandoned, and discarded, the other patrons of the park have finally deemed him a useless burden. He returns to the empty room, a shell of what he once was, where no one will bother him and he will bother no one in return.
That is the moment that haunted me the most. I saw my grandparents in Lincoln Maazel’s hurt eyes, excited by a moment of human connection with a younger generation. I wondered if I was any better than the dismissive family who packs up and leaves him stranded after he’s served his purpose. Am I no better than the ghostly patrons of The Amusement Park, discarding every person who stops serving some kind of personal capitalistic purpose? I don’t know, and I hope not, but I can’t help but feel sometimes that I was without even trying. Romero’s lost confrontational masterpiece certainly doesn’t give any answers in that regard, but it has lodged the thought in my brain like a spectral splinter, making me reevaluate everything and hope that I can be as good as I possibly can to those still with me while I can, in every sense possible. Romero himself, ironically, became a similar figure to the film industry. He became known as The Zombie Guy, but after he outlived his “usefulness,” Hollywood dismissed him, making it as difficult as possible for him to make anything in his later years. His critical reevaluation comes a little too late as he passed in 2017, but his legacy remains, waiting to be discovered by new cinephiles every day.
No matter what, we have to treat the people moving through our lives with as much love as we can give them because we don’t know what ride they’re going through, but what we do know, is one thing that the film eerily hammers home. We’re all going to get old one day, and regardless of who we are, we all visit the park someday. Maybe I’ll see you there someday. We never know.