"Kids don't know how men suffer for them." -- Henry Chinaski, Barfly
Today it's Strawberry Shortcake. Tomorrow it'll most likely be a Disney princess. Any cartoon character or princess -- doesn't matter. The kids love the princesses.
"Heck, we already got Madagascar in here," says Barnie Race, owner of Bay Area Jump, a Hayward-based company that rents "jumpers" -- those inflatable castle-shaped things people put in their driveways for kids' birthday parties. Kids like to customize their jumpers, so Race keeps a variety of vinyl cover panels in stock. Toy Story hasn't been rented in months; Batman, thanks to a new movie, is all the rage again. The Incredibles ain't so much anymore.
Bay Area Jump's warehouse holds about eighty inflatable jumpers, along with air pumps and small rubber balls that fill some of the larger, more extravagant, units. On any given weekend, Race and his drivers deliver all across the Bay Area, providing bouncy fun for kids, sweet relief for their parents, and the occasional headache or two for Race and his crew.
Race, who is originally from Michigan, is as good-natured and affable as his products. He got into the industry at the front end in the early '90s, helping to build the business that eventually became the nation's largest jumper cartel, Jump for Fun. But two years ago, he decided to go it alone. Starting with just ten units, he is now among the Bay Area's top four providers, he says, competing with the likes of Jump for Fun, Moonwalk, and San Francisco's Astro Jump.
"I love seeing the kids' eyes light up when you get there," Race says with a smile as he drives toward a party with the Strawberry Shortcake jumper in the back of his Ford pickup. "It makes you feel good inside, like you're doing something for someone. It's a good feeling.
"I'll tell you this much," he adds as he nears the drop zone. "When you show up with a jumper, you're the greatest person who ever lived. And when you come to pick it up, you're the biggest bastard on earth."
Race has caught people screwing in a jumper; that was probably a given. He also had one kid in San Francisco take a knife to an inflatable. When Race showed up, the jumper was leaning on its side, exhausted from the attack. Apparently, the kid was banished by the others and had returned for his revenge. One other time, Race drove up to retrieve a unit and saw kids leaping onto it from the roof of the house -- while the parents cheered them on from below.
Then there's the story of the little girl who sprained her ankle black and blue. When Race arrived, the father was enraged, yelling words like "lawsuit" and "damages" and "settlement." Race took a knee in front of the little girl and asked, "What happened?"
"My daddy jumped on me," the girl said.
"I told him I oughta sue him," Race recalls. "The contract says, 'No adults inside the jumper.'"
Silly String sticks to a jumper like chewing gum sticks in hair. Since the gooey product showed up on the kids' party scene five years ago, Race has had to include a cleaning clause in his rental agreement that reads "ABSOLUTELY NO SILLY STRING." Regardless, just last week, he says with a shake of his head, "I drove up, and the thing was filled with Silly String. I asked the parents for $250 and they said, 'Whaaaat?' They didn't read the contract."
Race prides himself that his business plays by the rules. He says he is insured to the gills, washes his products regularly, and uses only trademarked panels. In the last year or so, the cut-rate jumper trade has undercut his prices severely. Race charges $100 for the typical bouncy, but the low-end guys will rent for $70.
But jeez, Race asks, have you seen those things? One-winged Batman logos and cheap vinyl make for crappy entertainment. Not to mention that their last good cleaning may have occurred in the summer of 1992.
"We're still doing alright," Race allows. "I can't blame them for going out there and trying to make a buck. It's not their fault there's no regulation on our business. It's just like, if no cops were out here, wouldn't anyone run a stoplight?"
The first time Race saw a jumper -- Purple Barney, October 10, 1992 -- he thought, "This is a gold mine." He was stationed at Moffett Field and looking for weekend work before his discharge. His wife was pestering him to sell the beat-up red Toyota truck, but Race saw an ad looking for someone to deliver "jumpers." He might have to keep the truck. Turned out the jumpers gig was something a Southern California businessman named Richard London was giving a shot.
Until then, the bouncy castles existed primarily at carnivals and amusement parks. The jumper is a descendant of the mattress and distant cousin to the trampoline, but they all answer to the same mama: Kids love to bounce. Maybe it's the defying-gravity part, but regardless, there's money in the game. Big money.
London rented a dozen jumpers in the Los Angeles area. Race ran the Bay Area hub out of Mountain View, starting with just two units. Then he got it up to a dozen. He hired some drivers. Then it went to a hundred. He hired more drivers.
Then he opened branches in Tracy, Menlo Park, Pittsburg, Gilroy, and Hayward. At the peak, Race managed eight hundred units a weekend for Jump for Fun. His biggest Saturday ever, in the spring of 1998, saw 323 jumpers populate the Bay Area. Estimate a dozen kids in each unit, and that's 3,879 more-than-content children fully entertained all at one time.
"I made Richard a lot of money," Race says. "But we had a falling out. And so that's how it goes."
When Race left Jump for Fun, he took a job selling alarm systems. But he only lasted a few months. Jumpers -- rolling them out, airing them up, seeing the kids go crazy -- that was what he knew best. "This is what I know," he says. "It's all I know. I love it. It's all I'll ever do."
Sure enough, as Race steers his pickup toward a patch of front lawn, five kids come running down the front steps to greet the man who might as well be Santa Claus in cargo shorts and a Hawaiian print shirt. One kid is bouncing along on one foot and yanking at the shoe on his other foot.
"Hey, guys!" Race says as he unloads a dolly from the back.
A cheer goes up. "Need some help?" one kid asks as he climbs onto the Ford's tailgate.
"Oh, I got it, little man," Race says. "Be careful there."
As Race unfolds the tarp on the lawn, one of the kids sneakily unloads the air pump from his truck. By now, all shoes are long gone and the children are already in socks, despite their parents' calls to remain shod. As Mom signs the contract, the kids prepare their legs by bouncing on the cement.
Race is great at chatting up parents. He asks for names, birthdays, hobbies. He even offers to wipe furniture polish on the jumper's slide to speed it up for the kids.
Within minutes, the Strawberry Shortcake jumper is inflated to its full glory. The children pile in.
Before he departs, Race gives the older kids some advice: "Now you guys make sure the little ones don't get hurt, okay? You keep an eye out for them."
Soon, seven kids are bouncing, flipping, sliding, while Mom hands the contract back to Race. "I'll be back," he says.
"We'll save you a piece of cake," Mom offers.
Race thanks her kindly, aware that the kids will not be nearly so happy to see him return.
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