Not Really a Basketball Story

The last time I really had anything to do with basketball was 1973. My Parks & Rec team went undefeated and won the regional championship. This was due, in part, to the fact that my neighbor, Mark, was on the team, a natural athlete and a foot taller than almost everyone in the league.

We were also good. And by “we,” I mean the starters. I scored 6 points all season and I might be exaggerating. I was good at getting fouled and passing the ball like a hot potato. The coach gave me the nickname “Gabby,” because I was quiet, at first. But once I got comfortable, I didn’t shut up. If you know me, maybe you have had this experience. Coach Pebbly was one of the adults who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said, “writer.” He said, “good.”

Coach Pebbly worked at Disneyland and when we won the championship he took the entire team to the Magic Kingdom. Growing up just a few miles from Disneyland, a visit was not unusual, but it was still a huge treat. Later I would work at Disneyland and even later I would hold a season pass. But I have to say, I think this trip, with my championship basketball team, was maybe the best visit outside some visits with my kids.

Coach Pebbly had the inside scoop on everything about Disneyland. He knew which rides to visit when and the best spot for watching the fireworks at the end of the night. He remembered I liked magic and made sure we stopped at both magic shops (yes, there used to be two and they were decent shops). What I remember for sure is that all coach Pebbly’s guy friends at Disneyland called him “Rocky” and what I think I remember is all his women friends called him “Pebbles.” He didn’t seem to mind being called Rocky but he seemed embarrassed by Pebbles but only, it seemed, because we were around. I bought a rubber snake in the gift shop across from the Jungle Cruise.

It’s so odd to think of it now but Disneyland was just 18 years old then.

Seventeen years later I was working at Disneyland when the park celebrated its 35 anniversary. In the way that life happens it was one of the most difficult times of my life but I was also having a great deal of fun. The only thing I want to say about that is that female employees outnumbered male employees three to one and a significant portion of the male employees were gay. There you go.

I don’t know how it works now but back then you started as a part-time employee and you were assigned to an area. I worked inside retail stores in New Orleans Square and Critter Country, formerly Bear Country. After a year or so I was made full-time and that meant I could be assigned to work retail anywhere in the park. I had no idea where I was working for the week until I pulled my time card from its slot in the time card shack. Imagine, real time cards that we had to push into a punch clock. My time card would have a slip attached to it that I would take to the wardrobe department and they would give me my uniform/costume.

I always hoped for New Orleans Square because that was where all my friends were, or Critter Country. Frontierland or Fantasyland were fine as far as the work and guests went. I also didn’t mind working Main Street and I actually enjoyed working the stroller shack. I almost always worked night shifts and there are few places as chaotic in Disneyland at night as the place where all the strollers are being returned. There was no time to think, you just had to act. There was a system, tried and true over many years and virtually flawless. There was simply no thinking allowed. Be nice to the guests and follow the system.

I don’t know what type of strollers they have now but no doubt they are different and the system has evolved along with the strollers.  Back then they were the metal framed folding beasts and the measure of a person in the stroller shack was how fast he or she could collapse and stack a stroller.

I had a mad crush on the manager of the South side stroller shack, a woman with the most perfectly articulated mullet I have ever seen, and she made it work. To my great regret I cannot remember her name. I asked her out but she turned me down. She asked me why I was working at Disneyland. I told her I enjoyed it. She asked me what I would be doing if I could do anything I wanted to earn a living. I said, “writing.” She nodded and told me to stack the strollers faster.

The one place I didn’t want to work, the land I would avoid at all costs and actively lobby, cajole, and bribe schedulers to escape, was Tomorrowland. Cursed beast.

Every single retail location in Tomorrowland was unceasingly busy and bombed and full of crazed guests seeking revenge on the future by trying to purchase it out of existence. I always ended up in the gift shop at the exit of Star Tours. I sold so many light sabers.

A few years ago, when a commercial for the movie Tomorrowland would come on TV, I started to twitch.

Fantasyland was much more my speed. I have always thought it would be interesting to evaluate consumer behavior in different lands within Disneyland (I’m sure it’s been done) because I could never shake the impression that the “land” influenced how the guests behaved. Tomorowland guests were frenetic and impatient while Fantasyland guests, just a short distance away, were relaxed and deliberative. Who is in a hurry in Sleeping Beauty’s castle? You? Not me.

One day, I climbed the stairway to the administrative office for Fantasyland retail to check in and get my assignment from whoever was the boss for that shift. I was basically a utility player just passing through. I knew the drill. They would give me the crappy jobs, whatever that meant to them, and then ignore me because I was not a permanent Fantasyland employee. I was like a substitute teacher.

When I got to the top of the stairs I see the area manager is holding court with his team, the folks permanently assigned to Fantasyland. And who do you think this boss is? Yup. Coach Pebbly.

I was shocked into silence by what may have been my first experience of overwhelming nostalgia and memory and sense of time. I recognized him because he was already an adult when I knew him before. He was older and heavier and more wrinkled, like I am now, though he was not yet 40 at the time. He didn’t recognize me because I was a child when he had seen me last. I didn’t say anything. I would be assigned to Fantasyland for a week, so the opportunity would come.

I can’t remember how many days passed and I don’t remember many details but I know we were in the administrative office, the “leads” office when I talked to him. I remember the conversation as awkward. I remember the feeling that he did not recollect me specifically, though he remembered the team and the starters. He asked me about some of them. I told him what I could, but they had all been out of my life for over 10 years.  When I told him he had nicknamed me “Gabby” he seemed, for a moment, to glimpse something. He had coached several Parks & Rec basketball teams, though we had been his only championship team. I could tell it made him uncomfortable that he could not remember me exactly.

I think I said a few things about our trip to Disneyland and maybe my rubber snake.

He stopped to talk to me a few times during the week I worked in Fantasyland.   Usually he had some question about Mark or John or Darren, the guys who had really won us the championship. He never really gave me any reason to believe I was more than a vague impression to him and I could never manage to expect more than that.

Not long after that I left Disneyland to work full time with people who were homeless and mentally ill, and take a pay cut in the process. For a long time I was enamored with the contrast between these two jobs, working at Disneyland and working with the homeless. One day I opened a box of donations from Disneyland and it was hundreds of 35th Anniversary t-shirts from when I had worked there. For months and months there were  homeless people walking around Santa Ana, California wearing t-shirts celebrating a Disneyland anniversary and more than a few of them were talking to themselves.

Like I said, this isn’t really much of a basketball story.