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  LIFE AS A LOSER #67: "THEATER OF PAIN."  
   
   
 

 Found out the most disturbing thing about myself the other day.

I’m in dire need of some cash these days, so while I’m looking for a suitable place to work on a full-time basis (say, Wal-Mart), I’m stringing together some temp jobs and freelance assignments to make sure I can eat. But the job market’s slow these days, so, half on a whim and half on the exasperation of failing to find any kind of permanent work, I decided to return to my roots.

The first job I ever had was at the Cinema 1-2-3 movie theater in Mattoon, Illinois. My job title was usher, which was a catch-all description at a theater without union projectionists. The job was two-pronged, like a barbecue fork.

The lousy part, surprisingly: actually working as an usher. Living at the epicenter of the Mattoon Algonquin Round Table - the movie theater was the hangout area for all high school kids not lucky enough to go make out in the woods - wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Sure, I met girls, but most of them just made fun of my bow tie or mocked the “butter” that never failed to end up in my hair at the end of the evening. No, ushering basically meant playing the fool for obnoxious, adrenaline-enhanced 15-year-olds whose main joys in life were to scream obscenities at the screen, throw milk duds and harass the usher. I dreaded Friday nights, when they would all gather, cause mayhem and try to sneak into Basic Instinct. A complete wimp, I was nevertheless charged with shining a flashlight on collected masses of braces-wearing, glue-sniffing little shits, warning them to be quiet and then, when all attempts at diplomatic negotiation had failed, throwing them out of the theater. This made me the uncoolest guy in town, the cranky parent telling those darned kids to keep it down, the guy who ended up with a tag reading “GAY” stuck to his back with gum.

The fun part: being a projectionist. I was responsible for winding the film through the projector before every show and pushing the big white button to get things going on time. Loading the projector took weeks to learn, but I’ve never forgotten how. Take one end of the film off the middle film pan, coil it up the first holding rod, through the top spool, pull down, through the bottom spool, back up, through the middle spool, across to the projector, snake it into the viewer, clamp one, flip the center mirror, clamp two, snap snap, click, out the underside of the viewer, back across to the bottom film pan, flick into the spinner, placing the loose end of the film in the metal rack on the pan, rotate the pan four times, giving yourself some slack, check the lens for dirt, snap, crackle, pop. I could still do it today if the damned computers hadn’t taken over.

I also was in charge of assembling the new films from the six different reels that arrived on Wednesdays. I would sit in a back room for two hours, listening to R.E.M, Nirvana and Skid Row on the Walkman, and wheel the thing through, splicing at the end of every reel, making the magic happen. After all the showings for the night were through, whoever wanted to stay would then watch the movie through, making sure there were no breaks or no wrong splices. We would stay there until 3 a.m., just watching movies, alone. Not only did this further my love of the movies, allowing me to see everything, crap or gem, that came out, but it gave me the perfect excuse to stay out all night without Mom or Dad being angry. Hey, I was just doing my job.

It was by far the best job I ever had, and I miss it (and dream of it) regularly. Needless to say, when I thought of a job I was qualified for, wouldn’t have too much trouble obtaining and would be able to start immediately, working at a movie theater again seemed ideal. Could do it for a couple of weeks before a real job came along, sure, no problem. Couldn’t hurt. Heck, I’d even get to see some free movies. It seemed like a harmless plan.

So I called around and next thing you knew, I had an “interview” at the Quad Cinemas in downtown, just off 13th Street and Fifth Avenue. For the likes of me, I couldn’t figure out what exactly they would ask me in this interview (“Can you add various permutations of $9.50?” “When you need to a movie to begin, do you hit the ‘start’ or ‘stop’ button?” “Are you able to read subtitles?” “Allergic to popcorn?”), but I couldn’t imagine it would hurt. Besides, I was unemployed. I had nothing better to do than interview for a $5.50-an-hour job.

I even dressed up, in a nice sweater and a pair of khakis that had been washed more recently than the rest of them. Pal Eric Gillin told me that going to stupid interviews like this was just an excuse to have a topic for columns like this one, but, if you really pinned me down, I had to admit it: I did kind of need the money. Deep down, the interview wasn’t really a joke.

So I arrived at 7:15 p.m. and was asked to sit in the lobby. Seven fifteen seemed a most peculiar time to have a job interview at a movie theater; the lobby was halfway full of people heading into the evening shows. I took out a notebook and pretended to write important notes with an intense, concentrating stare. I was a serious applicant.

Fifteen minutes passed, and the manager I was waiting on had yet to arrive. All the shows save for one had started, and it was pretty much just me and some other poor sap sitting on butter-stained couches, hoping there was no gum on our shoes.

For some reason, in the distance, I heard a vaguely familiar voice. I stealthily rotated my head right, keeping my eyes down, and there, with a date, was Shii-Ann Huang, former producer at Novix Media, my old employer. To be honest with you, I’d never fancied Shii-Ann the brightest bulb in the office - she wasn’t in any particular danger of breaking the top 10, really - but we’d never really had any personal battles or knock-down, drag-out fights. That said, I hadn’t seen her since we’d all been fired and I’d written an article about our time at Novix that she might have found somewhat less than flattering.

Of all people to show up ... I’ve always fancied myself the type of person with no shame, no pride, not so high-falutin’ about professional matters. Who cares what you do for a living, or how much money you make, or whatever? I figure I’m a pretty nice guy and don’t have that much to be embarrassed of.

But Shii-Ann had never struck me that way, and for some reason, she made me realize I wasn’t either. An old colleague, one with whom I’d had creative differences, five months after we parted ways ... she runs into me while I was applying for a job at a movie theater.

I was petrified. When she walked in, she didn’t see me, and for a moment, I thought she and her date would just slip past and head straight into the auditorium. No luck. She wanted popcorn, or candy, or something. There would be no way I would be able to avoid her. She’d see me, politely come over and say “hi,” we’d make small talk, then some dork in a bow tie and butter-stained armpits would announce my name and say they’re ready for my interview.

My eyes went to Shii-Ann. To the manager’s door. To the auditorium. My mind was in overdrive. How to handle this situation ... what would people say when they learned Will Leitch, Mr. I’m-Writing-a-Book, was seen applying for a job at a movie theater? Even better yet ... what if he didn’t get it?

I waited until Shii-Ann definitely wasn’t looking, and it was clear the manager wasn’t ready to speak with me yet. I gave one final look askance, then grabbed my bag, bolted down the hallway and sprinted out the exit door into the cold, penetrating, unforgiving New York night.

 

*BT*

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