Be Conscientious When Using Superlatives | Scott Stealey

For one summer when I was sixteen years old, I worked at Great America, in a game booth called “The Amazing Alfredo.”

You’d give me one dollar and I’d guess your age or weight within three years or three pounds.

You’d write one of these numbers down on a slip of paper and hand it back to the Six Flags employee to your right, who is stoned. His name is Chip. Think of Chip as your arbitration counselor and this paper as our Amazing Alfredo contract.

I then will look at you like I am really concentrating, because I am. I am working. I am trying not to judge you. This is the work. The struggle to ignore the internal lies we constantly feed ourselves about other people. This is all work really is.

So instead, the Amazing Alfredo allows all awareness of his automatic emotions and judgments to fall away from his brain, into his feet, into his extremities, and he takes a deliberate posture, one keenly attuned to the objective limits of sensation, of acceptance to the possibility of truth. And he delivers the truth—in this case, his guess—into his microphone.

But there is discipline required of the work. In order to guess, you must fall deep into that tiny space of awareness centered somewhere within your guts, where all of these emotional reactions first begin, and then you must work to impose limits on them. You must limit the attention happening in your head and place it into your body to sense any real truth.

Because the only limits naturally imposed on us, ladies and gentleman, are time and these bodies we operate. Our ages and our weights.

This is an ongoing theme at Great America.

For example, when heavier people sit in the front of the log ride canoe, and you in the back, and during the long flume drop for a few seconds it can lift up ever so slightly, inches off its track, and you’re floating, feeling wonderful yet legitimately terrified because you sense Great America has totally released you from whatever physical rules had held the universe together. Or, when you see a parent and a grade-school aged child waiting at the exit of a roller coaster, and you know it’s because the kid is under 54 inches tall, and has thus been denied the right to ride, and you know those same excuses those parents will give for their little bugger: He’s just short for his age. He’s really mature, he can handle this ride at his age.” Why did these parents think that mattered?

So human constraints, it turns out, govern Great America. The Amazing Alfredo simply chronicled them, for profit.

During my work I tried to will that feeling, that energy, that opposing spiritual velocity felt by everyone animated by the same source we cannot understand, and yet somehow sense the bounds of. I took my deliberate posture of sensation, willing myself to consent to this force. And I’d guess.

35. 180. 22. 125. 17. 115.

I started going on these amazing streaks of guessing right. I’d guess ten in a row. Fifteen. By the end of June, I was running streaks of up to twenty straight, all within three years or three pounds.

Whispers were going around the park that I was some sort of telepath wearing a blue Great America button-down.

Crowds gathered around my booth. I saw guys I knew who worked at the nearby rides, the Orbit, the Whizzer, the Hometown Fun Machine. Who was operating these rides as they cheered in astonishment at me?

Chip asked me about my methods. I could just shrug, like I was Michael Jordan after he hit that sixth straight three-pointer against Portland in the finals that same summer. I guessed, like MJ had guessed, that I was in a zone. The work had allowed me a glimpse at mastery because I had opened myself up and searched for something miraculous within that scope of human constraints.

“Amazing, Stealey, totally amazing,” Chip said, beaming at me with his cashed red eyes. And he meant this.

He wasn’t using that word in the watered-down sense that it’s trotted out so unconsciously today. Ladies and gentleman, if you’ve ever grossly misused that superlative to qualify something like the French toast you are eating: please, stop it. It’s not really amazing. So let’s stop with this. Please. I understand your weekend trip to Door County was fun and meaningful to you, but “amazing” never describes anything less than the miraculous.

I knew potheads were always exaggerating things, but maybe, I thought, maybe Chip was accurate on this one. Maybe the precedent had been set, maybe this work was how I could touch greatness in my life. As I overheard at many of their staff meetings, Great America took the word “great” very seriously.

On the 4th of July, our busiest day of the summer, Chip had me convinced that twenty-three straight Amazing Alfredo correct guesses would enshrine me into some Great America record book.

I remember the drive there that morning – in my mother’s car, north up the long stretch of two-lane, a no-man’s land between suburbs. The spaces before time had gotten ahold of them, before the subdivisions, before the retention ponds. There were the wide meadows off the sides of the road, a few acres deep, and the shrubs way down by the tree line.

And me, driving past these fields, running my hand out the window in trigonometry waves, me trying to grasp what I would become in time, now that I had a job, now that I had a use, now that I had a way to make money, to be responsible for myself and my presence as a fully-realized human being, not just the punk high school kid I currently inhabited.

Then, in the distance, my soul would warm with the sight of the giant, rickety, crisscrossed beams of the American Eagle, a roller coaster poking its way over the horizon, blazing red, white, and blue against the waves of heat in the summer sky.

What if you’re not simply given a soul, what if you had to make it? And what if you had to make that soul at Great America? This is the work.

Later on that day, as the crowds dwindled down to go eat dinner, Chip said I was tallying up a real streak. People were noticing. As I watched the sun begin to set gloriously behind the black loop-d-loops of the Demon, a trashy bleach-blond woman approached the Amazing Alfredo game booth.

Smoking her Parliament Light like she was, she could have been anywhere from age twenty-five to forty-five.

Luckily, she asked me to guess her weight. Most contestants did, thinking that guess to be more difficult for me. But weights are easy, the majority of people clock theirs in at multiples of five. So the odds actually are in my favor, needing to be within three pounds, give or take.

I got into it. I took my deliberate posture and dropped all my emotional reactions and I went to that space where I imposed limits on all sensation I am feeling and attention on what remained. I went to that space to feel something so conscious and so intuitively true.

I guessed her on the nose at 130 pounds. Chip told me I just reached 22 straight. He hollered “22!” in delight. He wanted to see some history.

And honestly, twenty-three in a row was most likely arbitrary, he probably just said that because he was high, and because it was Michael Jordan’s number. Nonetheless, Chip had imposed a limit on his attention.

“One more to twenty-three!” Chip hooted. “His Airness!”

After I defeated the next person, I’d be enshrined into what Chip constantly referred to that day as, “the record books.”

The man who stood between me and my truth-guessing apotheosis then stepped up to the booth.

I shouldn’t say “stepped” up to the booth; it was more like “tottered.” He was old. Like, rocking chair old. He slowly scribbled down his age on the piece of paper, and I got to it.

Now if you had been at Great America that 4th of July, and chances are maybe some of you actually were, and you walked through Hometown Square, past the karaoke booth, across from the airbrushed t-shirt display, you might have felt something in the hazy summer air. And you may have been led by this feeling to the Amazing Alfredo booth, where a small crowd had gathered, waving their dollar bills, wanting to be guessed next. Wanting to be understood, if only by their limitations. And a teenage boy standing there, rooted into his posture, looking wide-awake, inhabiting this feeling of constant, total amazement present all around him. Speaking his truth-guess into a microphone like a pronouncement after coming down from a mountain.

I took my time. The old man seemed to sense that after all of his years, another man would need to put in the time to guess his age.

“Eighty-three,” I said to the old man.

He smiled. “You missed it by eleven, Sonny Boy,” he said.

He was ninety-four. Ninety-four years of age. He even showed Chip and I his driver’s license. He drove a fucking car!

I gave the old man his prize, a crappy little green Looney Tunes visor emblazoned with the words, I beat the Amazing Alfredo.

But really, and think about this, did he?

Does anyone really beat us when we zone in on our work, and discover the miraculous in ourselves?

Because I still think about those fields on the way to Great America. I still think about those deliberately empty spaces, those gaps in time that seem to be attempting to prepare you for something. Something greater, so much greater, if only you’d just keep going, keep working, keep staying somewhere out ahead of them.

Scott Stealey has worked as an editor for both Playboy and Poetry magazines, which should tell you all you need to know about his contradictory nature. He has published short stories in journals and on websites, and Featherproof Books even has one in PDF format, occupying that space between print and digital. Here he is in a photobooth getting punched in the balls.
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