How I almost ruined a black family reunion

Innocent vandalism takes and unexpected turn

The year was 2002, an awkward transition phase in American history where most of the country was like me at 15, confused, angry, and slightly more racist than usual. Airport security checkpoints turned into sexual assault checkpoints in the name of freedom, Creed had a #1 album, and people looked to George W. Bush for guidance, it was a weird time. As for me, I was all hopped up on testosterone and teenage angst, I hated everything and everybody around me, and I was only interested in trying to look cool and getting girls to touch my penis. Like most 15-year-olds, I was a nightmare to be around.

Despite the weird political and cultural mood, there was (and still is) one place you can go where none of it mattered: Disneyworld. My Dad loves Disneyworld. Even into his 60s, he can’t get enough of the place. I mean, I get it, it’s a city designed to make people have fun by some of the brightest engineers in America. But I think it goes deeper than pure entertainment. From my point of view, it’s a place where his constant anxieties melt away, he doesn’t have to think about work or bills or a potential terrorist attack on Washington, DC. He’s free from worry, if only for a few days. I also think it reminds him of when I was much younger and we’d spend a lot more time together. Now that we’re both adults, I have the same anxieties and worries that he does, but Disneyworld lets us relive those simpler times regardless of how old we are.

Also, don’t get this confused with Disneyland, the overcrowded nightmare in Southern California. That’s just a theme park, Disneyworld is a lifestyle.

When I was turning 16, he decided to surprise me and one of my friends with a trip to Disneyworld. It was a misguided present because at 16, even though I still loved Disneyworld, I wouldn’t admit it at the risk of seeming “gay” to my friends. I was at an age where I thought everything was “gay” that didn’t involve cars, girls, or trying to look cool. On the outside, I pretended to be too old for Disney, but deep down, of course I was excited because it’s Disneyworld. I invited my best friend, we’ll call him Drew, and we set off to Orlando with my parents.

At this time in our lives, Drew and I wanted nothing more than to inflict as much chaos and destruction upon the world as possible. We enabled each others’ worst tendencies and most of the things we did at this age broke at least one if not several local laws and statutes. Alone, we were normal kids, together, for some reason, things always got out of hand. At 14-15 years of age, one of our favorite activities involved placing quarters in between the escalator platforms at the mall so that when they hit the teeth it would grind the machine to a halt, make a LOUD noise, and mildly annoy everybody that was riding it at the time. It would also regularly break the escalator which, at the time, was the funniest thing in the world to us.

After having a fun but vandalism free few days at Disneyworld, my parents took us to check out the Islands of Adventure at Universal Studios. It was a typical Florida day (100 degrees with 100% humidity, why people live in this hellish swamp I will never know) and as we traveled from the parking lot to the park, we were greeted by something far more entertaining to us than any roller coaster: a moving sidewalk almost half a mile long and wide enough to fit 2 mobility scooters across(God bless Florida). This behemoth had platforms so big that you could fit a small child in the cavernous gaps separating them.


A photo of the crime scene. Google images can find anything.

We looked at each other and nodded in unison. We didn’t even have to say it. Our destiny had been laid out before us. This was fate, and we knew what we had to do. Well, we didn’t have to do, most of the park staff would’ve preferred if we didn’t do it, but in our minds we did.

We bought our tickets, rode the Incredible Hulk coaster as to not seem suspicious, then bought sodas and got as much change as we could from the concessions stand. Armed with $5 in quarters and a hand stamp for re-entry, we were ready to wage jihad on this defenseless people mover.

So we got on the escalator and loaded up a section of these gaps from left to right with almost $5 in quarters. It was the most we’d ever attempted.  There were so many quarters jammed into this thing that I got slightly nervous, we’d never attempted something this audacious. Would the sidewalk explode? Was this considered an act of terrorism by the Department of Homeland Security?

Right as we set up our experiment, a group of maybe 20 black people immediately got on the moving platform. It was clear from their matching airbrushed tee shirts that this was a family reunion. It literally said “Johnson Family Reunion” on the front with some tagline like “Ain’t no stopping us now”. If you’ve ever been to a theme park or a funeral in the hood you know exactly what kind of shirts I’m talking about.

In order to appreciate what happens next, I must explain that this indoor area had amazing acoustics. It has these dome-shaped corrugated tin roofs that echoed for what seemed like miles. You could fart and the entire place would hear it. There were no walls on either side so the sound ricocheted from the concrete floor to the ceiling and blew out of the sides of the structure. The only people in this 500-yard moving sidewalk area were me, Drew, and the entire Johnson family.

Despite the acoustics,  it was so silent at the time that I could hear the tiny intercom speakers playing “Hooch” by the band Everything in the background. I remember that because I couldn’t have picked a better soundtrack if I tried. As the moment of truth approached I heard “who got the only sweetest thang in the woooooorld” followed by a thunderous boom as the quarters met with the moving sidewalk teeth. It was probably the loudest sound I’d ever heard. It sounded like 5 shotguns shooting simultaneously.

While I knew what a quarter hitting escalator teeth sounded like, it didn’t occur to me that most people had never heard that sound in their lives. And when I say it sounded like gunfire, it really sounded like gunfire. I don’t want to make assumptions, but I have a feeling the Johnson family was from an area where gunfire was a real threat, and when the blast went off, all of them fell to the ground at once. Some from the force of the moving sidewalk stopping abruptly, most of them because they thought it was a drive-by shooting. There was a pile of extra long airbrushed white tees and members of the Johnson family peering over the handrail for a shooter that didn’t exist. Everybody was yelling, laughing, or shrieking which combined with “Hooch” to produce a hellish orchestra that I will never forget. The rest of the fanny pack wearing, sunburned, mustachioed Floridians were staring this chaotic scene with confused, blank stares. All of this combined to produce the funniest thing I had seen in my life up to that point.

I want to say their reaction made me feel regret at the time, but back then this was the closest I’d ever been to death. I legitimately couldn’t breathe for a solid 5 minutes. The sounds echoing through this cavernous space, the utter befuddlement of the other park goers, the unexpectedness of the drive-by shooting scare, it was too much. I collapsed near a trashcan and wheezed until my ribs hurt.

The Johnson family, with the help of my friend Drew, eventually figured out they were not being shot at, and the moving sidewalk had been sabotaged. Their terror turned to laughter, and they walked past the pile of quarters ripped in half at the end of the walkway cursing at what they thought was poor maintenance and engineering instead of two bored white kids from Virginia.

Sure it was a dick move but I like to think we gave the entire Johnson family a funny story to tell at their next reunion. The laughter assuaged my fears that this would leave a blemish on an otherwise perfect day. Also, judging by their immediate assumption that the loud bang was gunfire, I’m pretty sure they’ve seen much worse.

Once I had calmed down we went over to survey the damage and immediately saw we had gone too far. Most of the time, escalators would shoot the quarter out and keep on chugging along. Not this time. The platforms had torn most of the quarters completely in half. As we were admiring our crime like a couple of serial killers, I realized that there are probably security cameras all over the place and that the people in charge of these moving walkways wouldn’t find this nearly as funny as we did. We sprinted back to the park re-energized and in much better moods after pointlessly destroying something most people enjoyed. Most of the park patrons were on mobility scooters anyway, so we didn’t feel too bad

After we were done at the park, we were both excited to return to ground zero and admire our work. As we approached we realized that the damage we did required much more than a “quick fix”. There were 5 workers standing in the deconstructed remains of the sidewalk, scratching their heads and examining a bunch torn-in-half quarters. The engineers that put this impressive machine together hadn’t accounted for quarters and that was their fatal mistake. We had found the exhaust port in their death star and exploited it to equally effective results.

I wanted to end this story like a fable and leave you with an important life lesson I learned that day but “don’t put quarters in moving sidewalk teeth” is already understood by most people. I guess you could say perspective is about where you are from. Some people think a moving sidewalk broke, some think gunshots are being fired. Either way, that was the end of that activity because we would never, ever be able to top it. Also, every member of the Johnson family has an interesting story to tell for the rest of their lives.

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