We got it in pieces and during the summer. It came from Pensacola. We thought it would be spinning or whirling by the Fourth of July. Then, it wasn’t. I had already been on a Ferris wheel like it in Seattle. I was sure I’d ride it when they put it together and had it ready for all of us and then all of the people who aren’t us, who would come here to see it, our kudzu, our underground, our famous church, our slow mouths in a faster city.
I grew up in a tourist city. I grew up in a place that was known for a train that was now forever stuck on its tracks. It was also a place known for dripping caves and an attraction where you can see many states from one spot on one mountain. I grew up in Chattanooga before there were fish swimming downtown in the aquarium, their tanks and water drowning all the other older, less glittering attractions. But my family visited Chattanooga before we moved there.
On our way to Chattanooga, we went to Gatlinburg. I remember the car stopping in Cherokee, North Carolina. We got out and saw a sign that said LIVE BEARS. I know we paid to see the bears, and I know it felt weird because it wasn’t a zoo. I remember the bears staring back. I wanted, of course, to set them free from there.
I wondered if the bears could stand it—so many people staring at them through poorly made fences that weren’t safe for them or for us. I don’t even remember what season it was. It must have been summer but every time I think of them and the Chief I think it’s winter.
The Chief was just around the corner from the real and live bears. He sat in a chair outside and near the road. You could stand next to Chief Henry and have your picture taken. I think it was two dollars but I don’t remember seasons right, so I’m probably getting it wrong. He wore a headdress and his face looked tired. I wanted to become the biggest surge of water and wash him away from there.
It doesn’t matter that I went back to find the bears and the Chief this past summer. The last time I was there was the first time I was there. Twenty-eight years later and the bear park had been shut down only one year earlier. Twenty-eight years later and Chief Henry had passed away. I went into a souvenir shop near the park. So many souvenirs had bears walking on all fours, a train of them, or bears standing on their hind legs. I bought two postcards of the Chief in “full” Native American dress. The back of the card tells me that he was “one of the most photographed Indians in the world and truly a visitor’s delight.” I don’t send the postcards to anyone. I keep them in my desk drawer.
When we’re visitors, we go to a place where we don’t live, and we become mediators. We size up a place, define it by its people, and then tell our people what we saw. Some of us do, at least. When I lived in the train city I sold German footwear in a downtown boutique. Most of the people who came into the store were tourists. They had just seen the fish or the train or the caves or the mountain. I felt studied. I felt a little like the bears. Like I was part of how they would define this city, where I would pull shoes off shelves and strap them onto their feet. This wouldn’t be so bad if I liked being looked at or judged. But I’ve never been in a pageant.
When we first visited Chattanooga we went to the famous caverns and the park on top of one of the mountains. I had a penny flattened and stamped there and kept it for a long time, showing my friends at school. We rode a trolley on a steep incline for one mile and ate homemade fudge. We bought and wore cheap shirts with CHATTANOOGA across the front. We did everything that looked like it was made for us to do. What I remember most is seeing seven states at once from that one point on the mountain. I knew I would never see that many states. I spent a long time standing there.
Once the pieces were put together, the Ferris wheel stands at 200 feet. It will have stood this tall already in Paris, Bern, and Pensacola. It will stay in our city, though, indefinitely. I rode it on New Year’s Eve with my boyfriend. We didn’t buy sodas, beers, or candy to take up in the gondola with us even though you can do this.
Before standing in line to wait for our turn up, a person who works there asks us if we want our picture taken. It’s rushed and happens before I can adjust my purse slung across my chest like a sash. When we’re inside the gondola and over the city, I hand him a pair of flimsy and plastic 2014 glasses. I wear a silver and gold headband with HAPPY NEW YEAR on it. We take pictures. When we look out at Atlanta, we try to guess where my apartment must be, where his office is, where our favorite Mexican restaurant is. After four rotations, we come back down. We’re shown our pictures, already printed in multiples, to buy if we want. They aren’t that good, but we buy them anyway. The date of the picture is there and the wheel’s logo. There are illustrations of snowflakes and blue wind. Atlanta from high up is behind us even though it’s not really real. I’m sure people in charge of the city hope that we will have tourists indefinitely, that everyone will want to say I rode this wheel in this one city. Tourists are necessary intruders. They are rivers in our streets, your streets, they stream in and we look at them and see ourselves, see how others see us.
Jenny Sadre-Orafai lives and writes in Atlanta and enjoys wearing satin shoes in the rain. More of her writing can be found here.