“I want a world without gravity.”
-Jim Carroll, 1980
My first time happened in Boston. It was in a double on the 12th floor of the Hotel Essex across a sprawling boulevard from South Station. It was a shitty room in a shitty hotel in an even shittier neighborhood, but the Columbia Marching Band was picking up the tab for this, my first and last football game. I played the kazoo in the game against Harvard. Anyway, directly next door a party out of a Steve Guttenberg movie raged on for hours. I knocked on the door, hoping against all of humanity’s accumulated reason and logic for an invitation. A disheveled cheerleader appeared. Behind her I could see the early planning stages of a standing-room-only orgy.
“What?” she squawked, looking through my head at the water fountain in the hall.
Back in room 1214, Mike was waiting for me. “Good news,” he said. “The people next door ordered beers by credit card, but they delivered them here!” After we polished off the first case, I staggered over to the window and leaned out into the night. “I can’t believe I’m drinking stolen beer with another guy,” I said. “Maybe we should check out the party next door,” Mike suggested. The 12-inch dance mix of the Go-Gos’ “We Got the Beat” was thumping through the wallpapering along with occasional squeals and grunts. “Forget it,” I said.
I watched idly as a car passed twelve stories below. A random thought flitted through my muddled brain – what if I just let go? – and I opened my hand. The bottle fell away and plunged towards the street. Ka-whap! Then I got an empty and waited for a car to come into range. My aim was perfect – just a slight flick of the wrist outward to clear the sidewalk – but the car sped up at the last second. My glass bomb missed by two car lengths.
Finally, a black sedan rolled slowly down the block. Crash! Direct hit on the roof!
Flashers came on and the car took off, did a U-turn and pulled in front of the hotel. Two more cruisers raced towards us from the opposite direction. I yanked the shade down.
I told Mike that the cops were coming. We tore our clothes, stashed the beer in the closet, killed the lights and jumped into our respective beds. A few minutes later, we heard the cops knocking down the hall. “Boston Police! Open up!” We didn’t answer, but our neighbors did. Mike and I listened at the door as the revelers proclaimed their innocence. We felt sorry for them as the cops called them liars. We chuckled as they were led away in handcuffs.
Despite my auspicious start, I didn’t really come into my own as a defenestrator until my sophomore year. It was 1982, and Columbia was still male-only. Thanks to a corrupt work-study student in the housing office, I became one of the eight guys admitted into a new experimental housing exchange with all-female Barnard College. The trouble was, the women all thought we were just there to get laid – which was not untrue – so for the most part we were ignored.
Fortunately, I soon found a friend in Chris, a fellow engineering student whose fifth-floor room in the Brooks-Hewitt-Reid complex overlooked Claremont Avenue.
One night over Chris’ expensive pot and my cheap vodka, I told Chris about Boston. I quickly convinced him that his room would prove ideal for nocturnal gravitational experiments; the foot-wide ledge running along his floor would provide excellent cover from victims attempting to pinpoint our location. Unfortunately, Woolworth’s only carried regular balloons, the kind people pin to walls at parties, so I got those instead of proper water balloons. I returned to the dorm, went to Chris’ room and tried filling up the first balloon in his sink. We were so drunk and stoned and horny and dumb, we never noticed how fucking huge they were, or that each one held a full gallon of water.
We were both physics students, so naturally we relied on a stopwatch to evaluate average walking speeds. We applied the standard s=1/2 at2 formula (where s is distance, a is the 32 feet/per second-squared rate of acceleration of gravity and t is elapsed time) for the time required for an object dropped six floors (street level was two floors below campus level) to hit the street. Soon we determined the exact crack on the sidewalk where a target should be at the point of release to ensure a direct-hit.
Hitting something as small as a human cross-section from so high up isn’t that easy, particularly when it’s subject to unpredictable variations in velocity and vector direction. The successful defenestrator must be able to identify a target, extrapolate future positioning, compensate for wind resistance and direction, execute the launch and return to visual cover in less than a few seconds. Moreover, the most rewarding aspect of the experience is in the face of the victim; much like the George C. Scott character in Firestarter who examines his victim’s eyes just as they’re about to die, there’s nothing quite like the mix of surprise and discomfort of someone getting creamed with a huge water balloon. Sticking around to watch that reaction increases the possibility of apprehension, of course, but pleasure always entails risk.
It doesn’t take long for even the most inept exploiter of gravity to become proficient, but we became so incredibly accurate that we would often shock ourselves. At first we contented ourselves with scaring the shit out of our pedestrian victims by hitting the sidewalk directly in front of them. The ritual backsplash and the walkers’ ensuing yells at no one in particular soon became dull, however, so we eventually developed an elaborate system of social evaluation to justify hitting actual human beings with objects weighing more than five pounds from absurdly high altitudes. This system was: we hit jocks. We hit jocks walking alone, we hit groups of jocks and we hit jocks walking with their girlfriends (collateral damage was unfortunate, but rare).
It’s impossible for the uninitiated to fully comprehend the idiotic destructive glee derived from a successful launch. The jock in question walks blissfully down the street, planning to pick up a slice at Pizzatown or fill out his syllabus at Bookforum and head out for an evening of beer or sex or whatever. But before he can even get to the corner of 116th Street, his night is ruined. He’s soaked to the bone, humiliated, broken. There’s nothing to do but scream at an invisible nemesis like a wounded wildebeest and go home, wet and alone. For the perp, on the other hand, the situation is all win. Snug and warm at home, surrounded by candles and Pink Floyd and booze, a sink full of loaded water balloons promises an evening of effortless fun at the expense of loathsome athletes.
Inevitably the search for cheap thrills caused Chris and I to develop more intricate schemes. We developed a one-two punch approach, wherein Chris would stay in his room and I would commandeer a window in a communal restroom 20 feet down the hall. I would deliberately drop a tiny balloon directly in front of our prey. He’d instinctively back up and smile to himself, confident that his lightening reflexes and catlike motor skills had saved him from disaster. That’s when Chris would drop his mondo monster balloon smack on the top of his head while I observed the whole thing with binoculars. The thick jockile head would drop forward as the first splash appeared, then snap back up as the rest of the balloon’s contents fell back upon his face. The body trembled with the impact. It was great.
There were many splendid achievements in our year-long bombing campaign – the guy reading the newspaper as he walked, only to have it flattened into wet pulp by a perfectly aimed balloon, the Hispanic guy in a white suit we drowned in leftover spaghetti sauce, the orgasmic victory of a medium-sized water missile dropped through the open sunroof of a Porsche – but we loved rainy days best of all. When the streets filled with black umbrellas, we set aside our traditional respect for womanhood and nerddom. We indiscriminately bombed the young and the old, the slight and the athletic – and it was awesome! A properly-placed one-gallon balloon would collapse the umbrella on its owner, breaking it but providing sufficient protection to keep their owners safe from harm. Best of all, they never suspected a thing. They never looked up or yelled – they simply assumed that the world’s largest raindrop had fucked up their day.
We ballooned in this manner for roughly 6 hours a day over a period of 9 months, but amazingly, we were never caught. Sometimes to break up the monotony, we’d lurk on the roofs of the School of International and Public Affairs and the Law School, but in New York, location is everything. No one ever walks around Amsterdam Avenue at night. Varying our venues transformed us into legends. Graffiti in the Columbia restrooms asked: “Who ARE the mad ballooners?” The Columbia Daily Spectator carried an editorial deriding the “vicious sociopaths” whose campaign of aerial terror had forced an entire campus to look up as they walked.
As time passed, it became more and more difficult to find stores that we hadn’t cleaned out of balloons. Woolworth’s sold out, the bodega on 107th Street sold out, the kid’s section at Sloan’s sold out. That’s what led us to the Atomic Balloon.
I found the A-balloon at the old May’s on 14th Street. It was one of those round red bastards, about two feet in diameter when filled, with a long elastic band tied to the nipple. Kids hold the rubber band and pound away to train them for kicking asses once they become teenagers.
In any event, I didn’t realize what it was, or how fucking massive it was, until I got back to Hewitt Hall. Chris’ sink was too small for the thing, so we filled it up in the bathtub and tied it. It weighed perhaps 50 pounds and it was wiggly as shit. The two of us didn’t have a prayer of extracting the beast from the tub.
“It’s too big,” Chris said. “We’ll have to kill it.” He took out his knife and stabbed it repeatedly, but it didn’t work. The rubber was too thick and flexible and wet.
“We can’t leave the damn thing here,” I pointed out. “If someone finds it, they’ll know we’re the Mad Ballooners. It has to go.”
There was only one solution. Chris went to get our mutual friend Ken. “Ken,” he confided, “Ted and I have a problem. We need your help.”
Ken and Chris and I struggled with the monster balloon and worked it towards the open window. Outside, the night was cold and crisp; the nearest pedestrian was five blocks north on Seminary Row. “Just clear the building and drop it on the sidewalk,” I instructed, “we don’t want this thing taking out someone’s open window.”
We made a running start and let go. A second later the loudest noise I’d ever heard reverberated down Claremont. The guy uptown stopped and looked. Professors living across the street came to their windows. Below us, the roof of a red Cadillac had been flattened into its seats. Shards of red rubber floated in a pool of water in the crater in the roof. The Caddy rested a foot too low; evidently the car’s axle had been broken. A small tree had been totally defoliated by the atomic balloon’s lethal trajectory into the car, leaving leaves everywhere.
The next morning I watched my statistics professor exit a building across 116th Street. He walked across the street in a daze, tried his keys in the door lock and gave up. He stood there for a minute. He took one of the maple leaves plastered to the hood, carefully folded it in half and put it into his back pocket. Then he walked away.
The next year I moved into East Campus, a 20-story high stack of second-rate drywall built on a solid foundation of rats and building code violations overlooking Morningside Park and Central Harlem. Chris lived on 4; I lived on 10. Soon we were back in business.
Chastened by our experience with the Atomic Balloon and aware of the exponential effect of five extra flights of stairs on the stuff we dropped out the window, we scaled down to actual water balloons – I found a mail-order outfit that never suffered from stocking problems – and ice cubes. East Campus was a whole different ballgame: Few pedestrians, but a lot of taxis. Also, the winds were fearsome, making it impossible to target accurately. Our crowning glory was knocking a poodle unconscious as it was being walked by its owner, a balding man wearing a pink biking shirt; other than that, we didn’t hit shit. Naturally, that’s when we got apprehended.
I came home one afternoon to find my suite crawling with pear-shaped university security guards. “Someone reported hearing paramilitary jargon coming from this suite,” the chief security guy, a wiry fortysomething said. Whenever Chris and I prepared to drop something, we’d spat out a melange of Star Trekisms and NASA shit like “engage cloaking device” (pull back the curtain) and “confidence is high – fire! fire!” “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” I said.
“What about all the water on the sill?” he asked. “It’s raining. The window’s open,” I noted.
“We know about you dropping that typewriter on the motorcyclist,” he said, grinning inanely. “He had to have a couple dozen stitches. Hope you’re happy.” We hadn’t done any typewriters – but, come to think of it, why not?
The next day, Chris and I were expelled from the university housing system in perpetuity.
My ballooning days were far from over, though. I moved in with my girlfriend into a four-story walk-up in the middle of the barrio at Amsterdam and 101st Street. It had to at least tie for the noisiest place in New York City; there were a police station, fire house and public junior high school, playground and public pool across the street, not to mention a bus stop and a couple of loose steel plates in the middle of the intersection. Amsterdam was a truck route, but the worst thing was the light synchronization – traffic hit greens all the way from 72nd Street only to screech to a collective halt for an inexplicable red at 101st. The Frederick Douglas housing projects provided a steady supply of truants and guys screaming “hey yo” at all hours of the night just because they could. But all of that shit paled in comparison to the chaos surrounding the bodega on the first floor of our building.
The place barely even bothered to stock food; its main business was over-the-counter drug sales. If you walked in to get milk, the cashier would shake his head over your cluelessness. A hive of young men loitered ominously , transacting business with intensity rivaling the commodities exchange, their brethren double- and triple-parked on both corners to watch for cops. Subtlety was not the byword of the operation; these guys were up until 5 every morning howling at the top of their collective lungs, fighting and blasting the same rap song over and over. Every night passed in a fog of annoyance and revenge fantasies.
I called the police repeatedly, but nothing ever happened. Then, one Saturday morning, I happened to be at Woolworth’s to buy potting soil when I walked past the freshly rejuvenated party balloon section. They had something I’d never seen before: black balloons, perfect for nighttime bombings.
That evening I filled up a washbasin with black balloons, each filled with scalding hot water (it was the middle of winter at the time) and waited in the bedroom with all the lights off. The field of battle was tilted heavily in my favor; my targets were stationary and dimwitted, thus eliminating the need for that old standby s=1/2 at2. The thugs were like fish in a barrel; all you had to do was point and drop. A convertible pulled up with its speakers pulsating the then-ubiquitous (s)hit “It Takes Two.” I targeted the one guy in the back seat with a choice shot slightly behind the center of the head, straight down the back of the shirt.
“Shit!” the guy yelped. But amazingly, he didn’t move, or even look up. I assume it was considered bad form to abandon one’s manly stoic stance. The guys in front ignored him. I dropped two more; one hit his lap and the other missed. There’s no way it didn’t hurt like a bastard.
“Fuck! Shit!” the hapless drug dealer said.
“What the fuck?” the driver said, never turning around.
“It’s wet back here!” said the guy, who was, in fact, very wet.
“What do you mean, wet?”
“I said, it’s wet here!”
“Shut up, wank,” the man in the front passenger seat commented casually. I let loose with a barrage on all three. Boom-boom-boom!
“Motherfuck! It is wet here!” the driver concluded. “Let’s go!” The car pulled off. Nobody looked up.
I had a corner apartment, so I went to the living room. Sure enough, the same assholes pulled up a minute or two later and parked in front of the hydrant. I let them relax a few minutes while I went to reload. The fire escape blocked the view from the street; anyway, my window was already closed by the time the first balloon hit the ground. I hit the loser in the back seat with a balloon the size of a grapefruit. Boosh! “Shit, man! This whole place is wet!”
“What! Here too?” the driver asked, stupefied.
I chucked the remaining dozen balloons so hard that the guys in the car clipped some hood’s foot as they pulled away. “I kill you, man!” the foot guy yelled as I dropped a big one on his left shoulder. He promptly turned around and slugged another guy in the jaw.
My one-man campaign to clean up the Upper West Side continued for about six weeks. The more stubborn villains required something effective; for this I relied upon Rolling Rock bottles wiped clean to remove my fingerprints. Finally, the dealers were gone. Bruised and scalded, they relocated their operation to 104th Street, where they became someone else’s problem. The trucks hit the metal plate and the sirens shrieked as they passed beneath, but I finally enjoyed the semblance of actual sleep for the first time in what seemed like forever. My mood favorably changed, I vowed to hang up my career as a mad ballooner once and for all.
Then, one night during the summer of ‘95, I awoke to the sounds of someone puking outside my window. I was living in Berkeley, California, where the right to act like an utter asshole supersedes everyone else’s rights not to be subjected to such aforementioned assholism. I got up and peered out the window of my third-floor apartment. There, directly below, a car had pulled over. The driver’s side door was open, and a DUI’s head was busy spewing chunks all over the front of my building. Between our indolent super and the fact that it never ever rains in California, I knew that I’d be smelling puke forever.
I got a Sierra Nevada bottle from the recycling bin and woke up my wife. “Think I still have the knack?” I asked her. It was a little tricky – my quarry was wedged in a tight spot. I’d need a slight upward flick of the wrist to clear the lemon tree to the right. Butthead was still hurling upon my return. I triangulated carefully, compensated for the slight ocean breeze coming off the bay, flicked upwards and hoped for the best. It was terrible. Instead of the drunk’s gourd, I took out his rear windshield. He floored it and took off, clipping the rear bumper of a parked car on the way out.
“I can’t believe this!” I told my wife. “I did everything perfectly!”
“Don’t worry about it, honey,” she murmured. “You’ll always be my mad ballooner.”
(C) 1995 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved