Sunday, July 03, 2005


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #5: Movie Monitor Part Deux

Steve, my fellow usher, was this very high-strung fellow, a graduating senior like me. I don't remember where Steve was going to college, but it was probably someplace with a strong military tradition because Steve was like nothing so much as a soldier in training. He always wore his blond hair in a crew-cut and had a tendency to refer to the stained blue blazers and black slacks we all wore as "the uniform." When he walked down the hallways of the theater, he would turn corners at right angles, as though he were on parade. When he asked patrons to stop smoking, he would talk to them like a state trooper who's just pulled someone over, telling them to "be advised that your actions are not permitted in this facility" and so on.

Oddly enough, Steve tended to have the worst compliance rate of all the ushers, and the highest abuse rate from patrons. I personally watched at least two moviegoers blow smoke in his face after he'd finish his little step-away-from-the-cigarette speech. Mike, the head usher and an easygoing guy, was always counseling him to take a more laid-back approach, but Steve wasn't having it. One time, after a repeat offender had ignored both his and the Shat-man's warnings, Steve actually went out into the mall and dragged a security guard in to make the guy stop. It made quite a scene and the whole theater was pissed off because it right at the part where Biff and his cronies are chasing Marty around the town square and he invents the skateboard as a way of escaping the bullies while Lorraine, not realizing Marty is her own son from the future, keeps saying things like "He's an absolute dream!" and...well, anyway, trust me when I say I could have told them what happened.

Overall, the job at the theater was fun, then it was really boring, and then it was job. I learned some really interesting things, such as the fact that it's more lucrative to work the 10 o'clock and midnight shows, not because the Shat-man would ever pay you over-time, but because the late shows were the ones when patrons were most likely to lose pocket money and not notice. During matinees and early evening shows, it was an event if you found so much as a quarter on the floor of the theater, but come 10 o'clock and people were either too tired or too drunk to notice coins and sometimes even whole rolls of bills falling to the floor. Official theater policy was that any money we found should be turned over to the manager (yeah, that would happen) and while we did find a couple wallets that we would turn over, any unmarked money was finders-keepers. I personally would average about ten bucks in sticky change a week, peanuts compared to Mike, who loved to tell the story of how he found a roll of twenties under a seat once after a showing of E.T., during his first years at the theater.

Another interesting fact I learned was that popcorn was not popped fresh at the concession stand, but was made in bulk using a giant, fiery industrial popper in a small, barely ventilated room--known inventively as the Popcorn Room--at the top of the theater. Aside from the popper (which looked like a car engine up on blocks), the room's other distinguishing feature were the rows of shelves lining every wall, each shelf filled with giant bags of popcorn. Each bag carried the date of when it was popped. When the concession stand ran out of popcorn, you'd have to run up to the popper room and grab the bag with the oldest date on it. Most popcorn we sold at the stand was as much two weeks old. But with enough butter and salt on it, who would notice?

I learned other things too--how to unlock the emergency exits from the outside, without the aid of a key (a trick that served me well in college, whenever I lacked funds and wanted to sneak into a movie), how to remove world-class wads of gum from seat cushions and the bottoms of one's shoes, and how to apply the mysterious substance we ushers knew as Vomit-X. Vomit-X was an unlabeled bag filled with what appeared to be a combination of wood shavings and confetti. It had a faint, chemical smell, somewhere between cucumbers and mothballs. In all, it seemed very innocuous and non-descript. But if a little kid barfed up his two-week-old popcorn in the theater, Vomit-X was absolutely miraculous in its ability. Shake two scoops of the stuff on the offending pile, and it not only absorbed the mass in a way that made it easy to shovel up and throw away, it would also neutralize the sour smell. Mind you, it wasn't anything you ever looked forward to using but, like rabies vaccine or a tracheotomy kit, you were sure glad to have it in time of need.

I was also learning just what a shit Mr. Shattan, our boss, truly was. The first person to confirm my suspicions for me was Mike, the head usher, who burst my bubble about getting paid a bonus for working a full three months, or basically through the entire summer.

"You'll never see a dime beyond your hourly rate," he said once, during our morning break, as we were walking down the mall concourse to the bookstore. "Ol' Number Two is always promising that to guys, but he never pays off." Here, Mike started scowling and chewing his lower lip, doing a near-perfect impression of the theater manager. "Did you get it in writing, MM? Well, did you? Hmm?" I laughed, but it wasn't all that funny. I didn't like being tricked.

I also didn't like working every third Wednesday. Every third Wednesday was my shift in the Popcorn Room. Hmm, writing it that way makes it sound like I worked this detail a lot, when in fact over the course of the summer, I only did it twice. But it was the kind of job that made you feel like you were doing it forever, even after you'd only done it once. It was just about the hottest, greasiest, messiest job, certainly at the theater, probably in the entire mall, and quite possibly...ever.

You started the shift by going into this 10-foot square room and flicking the ventilation-fan switch on and off until finally you heard the ancient turbine above you whir to life. After much clanging and battering of the kind that brings to mind images of a nickel caught in a dryer, the fan would finally start spinning enough to draw hot air out of the room, but not much. If you were running, say, a hair dryer, the fan would have sufficient to keep the room cool. But since your next step was to turn the ignition switch on the industrial popper, you were pretty much screwed. That popper was like a small furnace. It put out more heat than the pot-bellied stove we had in the kitchen when I was growing up (and my dad kept that thing stoked with ash and rock maple). Plus, what with bales of pre-popped corn stacked to the ceiling all around you, the room was pretty close and definitely well-insulated. Within about 45 seconds, my body was one great sheen of sweat and my hair was plastered on my head as though I'd just fallen head-first into a toilet.

Once the popper reached a certain temperature, you were supposed to pour a certain quantity of cooking oil into a specific slot. This had the net effect of causing strange smoke to emerge from the top of the popper, filling the room in a way that made you want to drop to floor and start crawling for the exit. After a moment, a frying-pan like hissing and spitting would start. I hated this part because there was obviously a leak somewhere, or perhaps it was simply that so much excess oil had built up on the surface of the popper from years of use. Either way, the thing would start crackling and if you got too close, you'd get burned by the spit of hot oil. And of course you had to get close, because the popcorn wasn't going to pour itself into the dumper, nor was it going to bag itself at the other end. So you spent a lot of your shift in the manner of one who is trying to stoke a fire or flip bacon on a skillet: lots of wincing and yowtching and trying to load and unload things from the popper as quickly as possible, using only the very tippiest tips of your fingers. The first time I worked this shift, I came home and took two showers before I felt clean (and my hair was still somewhat flat and stringy) and had to spray Solarcaine on my hands, they stung so badly from the grease burns.

So when my second shift in the Popper Room came around in early August, I was looking forward to it about as much as you think I was. After an hour in the room, I had to work with the door propped open, just to be able to breathe. I always hated working in the heat, but this was terrible by anyone's standards, except perhaps Satan. I remember just slogging along, stacking bags of popcorn on the shelves, wishing for something to happen so I wouldn't have to do this job anymore.

Imagine my surprise when something did.

Some time that afternoon, not long into the 2:00 shows, I heard a pounding down the corridor and suddenly Steve burst into the Popper Room. He looked wildly around for a second, then kicked the door closed and locked it.

"What are you doing?" I asked. It was already stifling even with the door open. Now it was just unbearable.

Before Steve could answer, I heard an immensely powerful--and, I might add, angry-sounding--rapping on the door. It was quickly followed by a string of epithets and more pounding.

As I learned later, Steve had overstepped his authority down at the 2:05 showing of Prizzi's Honor. He had caught the same guy smoking in the theater for the third or fourth time and just lost it. I mentioned before that we didn't have flashlights to shine on customers, but we did have these little brooms and dustpans, which most of us ushers carried with us to sweep up errant bits of popcorn in the theater hallways. The broom was short--only about 3 feet long--but it was as close as Steve was going to get to having a weapon.

In his frustration, he marched up to the offending smoker, raised his broom and whanged it down on the metal side of the man's chair. He didn't hit the man, but the thwacking noise his broom made was so loud and so close that the man jumped, startled.

On the plus side, this forced him to drop his cigarette, effectively putting it out.

Unfortunately, he also spilled his large cola into his own lap.

When he leapt to his feet, Steve saw at once his error, and it was a scene eerily reminiscent of a moment in Back to the Future, when Marty faces off against Biff (which I happen to remember because I've seen the movie a time or 37). The guy towered over him by at least a foot, and outweighed him by dozens of pounds. He lunged for Steve and Steve, that military man in training, shrieked like a child, dropped his broom and fled the theater with the sopping smoker at his heels.

And so he ended up in the Popper Room with me.

We were trapped. The pounding was louder, the door was actually shaking in its frame. There was no phone in the Popper Room and no other exit. To make matters worse, I had just loaded a fresh cup of oil into the industrial popper, so it was now going through its hissing and spitting phase. If we backed away from the door, grease spatter burned us, driving us back to the door. The door we couldn't use because of the angry guy on the other side.

It was like--well, it was kind of like a scene from a movie, huh?

But the irony of that fact was lost on me. I was hot, greasy, uncomfortable, and pissed off at being essentially caught in the crossfire.

"Whaddawedo?" Steve asked me.

I wasn't even sure what was going on at that point, but even I knew enough to think, We? What's this "we" crap?

"I'm getting out of here," I said, reaching for the doorknob, which was vibrating pretty tremendously.

"No!" Steve yelled, swatting my hand away. "He'll kill me!" Steve looked around, mostly at the stacks and stacks of popcorn. I wondered: Was he thinking of bribing the guy with a lifetime supply?

And then a second later, Steve started tearing open the bags.

Popcorn was everywhere. We started slipping around on it. I howled, "What are you doing?!?" But before he could answer, we heard a loud noise from behind us and saw the last load of popcorn I had loaded into the popper was now jetting out of the dumper and onto the floor because, in my distraction, I hadn't loaded a plastic bag onto the end to catch it.

Then Steve, who I'm pretty sure had lost it at this point, reached over, grabbed the bottle of oil from the table near the popper. And just to complete the chaos, he shut out the light.

The Popper Room immediately went pitch-black. There were no windows, remember, so there we were, slipping around in this stifling, closet-sized room, deafened by the rat-a-tat-tat noise of fresh kernels spilling onto the floor, the smell of grease and hot popcorn and two sweaty guys filling the place. If I'm luckless enough to end up in Hell, the first room they take me to will probably be an exact replica of that Popper Room.

And then, before my eyes could adjust to the dark, Steve wrenched the door open and started hurling armloads of popcorn into the face of...Mr. Shattan, our boss.

Who had arrived on the scene seconds earlier and was trying to reason with the man who Steve had caused to spill soda on himself. Unfortunately, Steve's ill-timed popcorn attack only freshened the man's anger and he lunged past Mr. Shattan, into the darkened Popper Room.

There was some squawking and squabbling and flapping there in the dark. I still had not made it out of the room and, and there was one brief instant where I thought I never would as the man groped blindly in the dark and ended up hooking an arm around me. Well, that's just perfect, I thought. But before he could thump me, the man must have realized he had the wrong usher and let me go. I bolted from the room in a flurry of popcorn.

Steve managed to hold the man at bay by wielding the bottle of oil and shouting, "Hot oil! I'll burn you with it, man!" Which was an absurd thing to say, since he was clearly holding a bottle of room temperature oil. But in the literal and figurative heat of the moment, the man actually hesitated, long enough for Mr. Shattan to get a light on in the place and get between them. Mall security showed up a moment later and then it was all over.

Boy, was that a busy week. Steve lost his job. The Shat-man had to cough up about a year's worth of free movie passes to placate the angry customer. And someone had to work an extra shift in the Popper Room to replace all the lost popcorn (which now covered the floor of the tiny room to a depth of two inches).

But that someone wasn't me. I quit the next day.

Part of the reason was that my drunken father had left New Hampshire for a job in Massachusetts and with him gone it was suddenly enticing for my mom and me to go there. What's more, it was getting to be late summer and we felt we were entitled to a little vacation in the cool of New England.

But I had also come to a realization about myself, one that would become more acute as the years passed: I was not cut out for any job where I had to slog in any kind of routine for hours and days on end. I couldn't stand in movie theaters watching for hours on end for someone to break the rules. I couldn't work daylong shifts making popcorn. I got too bored and too frustrated. I needed work with variety. (Although NOT the kind of variety that involved being trapped in boiling hot rooms by boiling hot patrons.)

It was time to quit.

And my, wasn't Mr. Shattan a prick about it when I gave my notice the next day. When I went to his office to resign, Rhonda, the assistant manager, and Mike, the head intern were both there. I was very polite and professional (for 17) and told Shattan my reasons for leaving. Of course, he was already down one usher after having fired Steve, plus a couple others had quit recently when their three months had come due and they had not received the bonus Shattan had promised them. So my leaving only added to his growing man-power shortage.

The Shat-man might have tried to sway me to stay by trotting out that bonus promise now, but I think by this time even he knew it something no one believed. So instead he decided to be a shit.

"Quitting, hmm? Well, so much for integrity. So much for character," he muttered, chewing his mustache and glowering at me.

"Excuse me?" I asked.

He shook his head at me haughtily. "When we agreed to take you on board here earlier in the summer, you promised to work the full season. I guess we see now how good your word is, hmm?" Then he lowered his head and stared at me imperiously over the tops of his glasses. "You did promise. You gave your word," he repeated.

I couldn't resist. "You got that in writing?" I asked.

Rhonda snorted but managed to avoid a full laugh. Not Mike, though. He burst out in this startled guffaw, his eyes dancing between his boss and me.

The Shat-man turned red and started shouting. "Get out! Get out you brat! You shit!" He actually leaped out of his seat and began hopping with anger, something I had never seen before.

And it was a fitting last image of him. I turned on my heel and walked out of there, with him screeching at me all the way out of the theater.

A week or so later, I was at my mom's store for the afternoon. We were just a few days from leaving for New Hampshire and I was simply hanging out, waiting for her shift to finish. I was a little down in the mouth, having recently broken up with my girlfriend and just kind of casting about looking for something to distract or amuse me, when Mike showed up.

"Hey!" he cried, shaking my hand. "I remembered you said your mom worked here. I was hoping to catch you." We chatted for a bit and he informed me I had become something of a small legend at the theater, thanks to him and Rhonda telling the employees about my encounter with the Shat-man. It made my day. And so did Mike's gift.

I hadn't noticed the big shopping bag by his feet until he picked it up and handed it over. "Going-away present for you," he said with a twinkle in his eyes.

With Mike's sense of irony, I had thought it would be a bag of old popcorn, but no. Inside the sack was an unmarked plastic bag of the mysterious Vomit-X.

"Trust me," Mike said gravely. "That's going to come in handy when you get to college."

And he was right. In fact, my first month there, I used it when--

Nah. That's a story for another time. Maybe for when they make a movie of my life.

And if you ever go to see such a movie, just remember: smoking isn't permitted in the theater.

Enjoy the show.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

another illusion shattered --- I always thought that working at a movie theatre would be fabulous!
Now you make me wait for 90210: The college years?

And I am NEVER buying popcorn from the stands again.
We need some party stories MM!

TOOO FUNNY!!!! Love the stories!!! Keep them coming!!!
Hilarious story. You've had some wild times, MM! ;-)
I too have come to realize I can't stand working at anything routine or repetitive. Sometimes I wish I had more tolerance for those types of things, but not much I can do about it.
I was reminded of the scene in "Real Genius", where the popcorn overflowed the house, with your description. I'd think after something like that you'd never want popcorn again.
Holy crap. That was the BEST.

"You got that in writing?"

I about DIED.

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