It’s a little dreary for Memorial Day, but the overcast sky above Durham Central Park is brightened by the reds and blues of a two-lane inflatable slide pumping out a seemingly endless stream of children through its chutes. The slide, part of the city’s Art on the Fridge Festival, seems to work some magic on the kids who pass through it, giving them an insatiable craving to cycle through it again and again.
Curious, I make my way around the slide’s thick belly to see where the kids go between stumbling off the bottom and popping out at the top again. Behind the slide, I discover, is where its magic brews.
The path to the top is arduous. Two grand yellow arches mark the entrance, followed by a walled-in hallway of inflatable pillars and obstacles one must navigate to reach the slide. It’s impossible to see more than a few feet in, where the first set of blockades protect the secrecy of whatever happens inside — but the constant pulsing of the nylon walls assures that there’s plenty going on.
The mess of shoes littered around the entrance serves as an informal foyer, where parents watch their kids get swallowed into the slide’s impenetrable chambers. The nervous ones pick up their child’s shoes before circling around to the front, perhaps as a way to cope with the uncertainty of when they’d come out the other side – or, so the shoes don’t get lost.
Taio Pilapil, a sturdy 17-year-old with a mess of ginger hair, is the gatekeeper to the inflatable kingdom. Eager to join the action (but not bold enough to actually slide), I approach him and ask for the lay of the land. He tells me all I need to know in two words: “No shoes.”
Is there a weight limit? Not a relevant one. Could kids bring toys on board with them? Eh, it depends. Why can’t you wear shoes? You just can’t.
Still, Pilapil runs a tight ship. He implemented his own two-at-a-time rule and is unafraid to enforce it with a, “Just create two single… two sing… okay, yeah… whatever.” When a toddler in a striped blue shirt brings a beach ball in with him, Pilapil confiscates it after three trips. (The toddler replaces his companion with a plastic orange tube coiled around his neck, which doesn’t prompt objections.)
As the sun retreats further into the clouds, Jaylen Segers, a brawny 21-year-old with a wide grin, comes to relieve Pilapil as gatekeeper. Pilapil gives him the necessary briefing — No shoes! — before trudging over to the food trucks for his well-deserved lunch break.
Suddenly, I am the most experienced gatekeeper on the premises.
My hour plus of involvement proves essential when a mom wonders if she could go in with her child, or if she exceeds the weight limit. “The weight limit isn’t relevant,” I recite. She stares back at me, puzzled.
The kids smell weakness and begin storming through the golden arches in packs. Segers calmly takes a seat in the gatekeeper’s throne (a plastic folding chair), and the slide’s rhythmic pulsing quickens as the number of kids inside triples.
A coworker approaches Segers, offering to lend a hand. He coolly declines with his back to the slide, explaining that it’s a one-person job.
And then chaos erupts. Behind him, disembodied hands (and feet!) dip in and out of sight above the slide’s walls. He laughs, “Everybody getting hype, bro!”
Parents wait in the foyer with crossed arms and furrowed brows as whispers of disappearing kids circulate. The steady stream of children emerging from the slide dwindles. There is a clog in the system. A tiny girl, straddling a wobbly internal arch, rises above the wall as she patrols what is clearly her kingdom now. The kids have taken over.
Segers, sensing something amiss, stands up. Refusing to surrender the slide within the first 10 minutes of his shift, he dives through the arches into the conquered territory. His shoes, still on, signal dominance (or, perhaps, that he’s in a hurry).
Parents clutch tiny sneakers as the slide falls still. Minutes pass as we wait to see who will emerge victorious.
After a small eternity, Segers climbs out of the entrance. The tiny girl slides down from the arch, relinquishing her domain. Segers flashes a relieved grin as the slide returns to its resting bounce. The flow of children resumes. The kingdom is his once again.
Segers returns to his station, standing this time. “I think I’m going to try two at a time,” he says.
Photo at top of story, the slide returns to normal after the coup. Photo by Sofie Buckminster – The 9th Street Journal