back to the Black Table

 He was a little pissant of a man, balding and with an almost surreal gut despite the fact that he couldnít have been much older than 30, tops. He sat there, in his stupid little hat and his stupid little shirt in his stupid little booth with his stupid little clipboard, judging the pasty, acne-ravaged, nervous 16-year-old in the baby-blue button-up shirt and dark blue tie. "Did your mom make you wear that tie?" the pissant smirked, checking something unseen on his stupid little clipboard. Uh, yeah, ha ha, she did, ahem, thought for my first job interview, I should look sharp, do I look sharp?

"Sure, man," he smirked again, catching the eye of a fellow employee, ringing up someoneís French fries, or Curly-Qís, or what the fuck ever. "You look sharp." He then marked something else on his stupid little clipboard, made an unpleasant face and decided to have a little fun.

"So this is your first job interview, eh?" Yessir, it is, am I doing OK, heh-heh? A joke to relieve the pressure. A little self-deprecation. Yuk yuk. Wakka wakka wakka. "Well, you know, uh, what is it, oh, yes, Will ... it takes a special kind of person to work at Hardeeís. We donít just take people in off the street, any kid who walks in. What do you have to offer us? What are your long-term goals?"

Long-term goals? Christ, my long-term goal was to kiss a girl. "Well, um, Iíve always wanted to be a baseball broadcaster. You know, like Jack Buck, from the Cardinals."

"Will your mom dress you for that job? Or will you go it alone?"

Hardeeís, which, to you people not from Middle America, is a slightly below-average fast-food joint that happens to be the only business in Mattoon, Illinois, that is open 24 hours, never called me to offer a job. Totally fine with me. I didnít want to work at freaking Hardeeís. Hardeeís hired mentally retarded people, which is meant not to be a slight at those with cerebral malformations or genetic anomalies; they really did, through some kind of work-exchange program. When we were 16, we would mock them through the drive-thru and then feel really bad about it later, I swear, honest. Hardeeís would hire anyone.

Except for me. Momís attempt at securing my first job, a reason to get Will out of the house, ended up backfiring on her. The suit-and-tie trick set the Big Manager off into some sort of miserable revenge fantasy, where he could finally find that one person more pathetic than him: Me. No job for me.

When I was in Mattoon last, I stopped by Hardeeís. The guy is still there, working as a manager, or maybe heís a senior manager now, I couldnít tell. He didnít recognize me, but I sure as fuck remembered him.

Let me tell you a little bit about your 16th birthday in Mattoon. It is ó not to overstate the case here ó the single most important day in your life, ever, bar none. It is Bar Mitzvah, Homecoming, Prom, Loss of Virginity, Wedding, Death, all wrapped up in one exhilarating, terrifying package. When I turned 14, I put a piece of paper on my wall. "730 Days Until Freedom." I actually counted down for a while, but then I put up an Elle MacPherson poster instead. Sheís hot, you know.

At 16, everything changes. After spending more than a decade and a half in solitary confinement, subject to the rules and regulations of two security guards disguised as parents, you are released. You can go anywhere, do anything, see it all. Girls, particularly ones who arenít 16 yet and canít drive themselves anywhere, suddenly find you approachable, lo, compelling. I mean, a date! I could get a date! I could just drive over there, pick them up, take them somewhere. At the end of the night, I could pull into their parentsí driveway and ó shit! ó maybe even kiss them goodbye. The next date, there could be parking. Parking is heaven. Parking is Valhalla. Parking is the promise of a new land, unexplored territory, undiscovered country, dirt in Waterworld. Parking is a touchdown and a two-point conversion.

You sense it coming the last semester of year 15. Rather than taking typing, or home ec, or arts and crafts, or something similarly useless, you take drivers ed. There it is, right on your schedule: Driverís Ed. Education of Drivers. They educate drivers there. I would be a driver. An educated driver. My Driverís Ed teacher was Mr. Wiman, an former football coaching legend who now had a serious drinking problem and served as an unofficial school mascot, trotted out and propped up before Homecoming games as a symbol of Mattoonís Christmas Past. Mr. Wiman actually once asked Alan Hill and me, during a driving lesson, to stop off at the liquor store "so I can pick up some shit." Everyone had a great Mr. Wiman story. My favorite was the time he supposedly passed out in the middle of one of those Terror on the Freeway film strips, then snapped awake, screaming "Christ! Thereís a baby on the road! Fuck! Turn!"

And then, the day I turned 16, at the beginning of my junior year, finally arrived. Dad had wised up and decided his prized Camaro had no business in the hands of a schmuck who couldnít figure out how to downshift. Instead, my parents were kind enough to buy a beaten-up 1987 shit-brown Ford Escort. I donít want to disparage this car, considering it was the only reason I had any contact with the world outside our happy nuclear family, but on two separate occasions, on simple short trips to school, the muffler fell off.

With a car came responsibility, the sad realization that in life, in order to have shit, you have to figure out a way to pay for it. Hence the job search. After the Hardeeís debacle, I had to find something, and fast.

Enter Jenny Christensen. She was in my Spanish class, a year older, all rebellious and full of Mattoon angst (she was the only girl I knew whose parents were both Nazis and Communists simultaneously). We werenít close friends, but I helped her cheat on tests and had once been stuffed in a locker by her boyfriend, so I had her sympathy. I mentioned one day, in between recitations of "Me llamo Guillermo" and "No me gusta trabajar," that I was looking for a job. I was talking to the right person. Jenny worked for the movie theater.

In 1998, five years after weíd parted ways, Mattoon built one of those impersonal mega-gigaplexes that have 14 screens, four of them showing The Fast and the Furious, and seats that recline so far back youíre practically sitting upside down. To many city leaders, this was classified as progress. The Showplace 14 sits right off Interstate 57, almost exactly between Mattoon and hated neighbor Charleston, just far enough away to make the movies a place you have to travel to, rather than gather with others. The ushers all have walkie-talkies, and the projectors are all run by computers, clicking on and off automatically with dry, bland precision, click click, whir whir, buzz, buzz.

But in 1992, it was the way it was supposed to be. There were two theaters: One, the Cinema 1-2-3, had ugly maroon carpeting, popcorn makers with molded butter still stuck in the grates from the í50s and old -style projectors powered by a hamster running on a wheel; the other, the Time, was even older, with two screens, seats slanted at a 45-degree angle, secret rooms in the back where projectionists hid the dirty movies from the censors and a main screen the size of a water tower. Both theaters were downtown, the center of the Christmas parade route, next to the Burger King and Club Illini Tavern, the cultural epicenter for the kids, who gathered, commiserated and caused trouble. It didnít matter what movies were playing, or what people you were hanging out with; if you werenít in a cornfield drinking or attempting to make out, you were at the Burger King or the movie theater, or at least in transit. Anybody who wanted to be seen, heard or at the very least acknowledged by something other than a brutal wedgie hung out there. It was our Las Vegas.

Jenny had the golden ticket to this world. If I took her recommendation to the Cinema 1-2-3 brass, and then managed to not screw up the interview by burping or farting, I was in, and the trappings of high-school social stardom would roll right in. Iíd be all dressed up, right in the middle of the action, greeting every girl at the door, letting the ones I liked in free, maybe copping them some free popcorn ... I would be unstoppable.

The managerís name was Don, and he started the interview by shaking my hand with the force of a dead snail. He had feathered light blond hair and a lisp so severe you almost figured he had to have once been a Navy SEAL just to make up for it. I believe, in my rabble-rousing days of 14, ancient history, har-har, some punk friends and I wrote "GAY" on a piece of paper and stuck it on his back with gum. He didnít remember me.

"So, Will, this would be your first job. What do you have to offer us?"

"Well, Iíve always liked movies. Woody Allen movies, mostly."

"We donít typically play Woody Allen movies."

"I know."

"Are you willing to work late nights? Weekends?"

"Of course, of course. Iíll sleep here if youíll give me this job."

I asked no questions. Hell, I probably would have slept with the guy if itíd secure the job, virginity be damned. He hired me. I donít remember why.

My 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 being an usher. Living at the epicenter of the Mattoon Algonquin Round Table wasnít 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 dupe for obnoxious, adrenally 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 "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 start the show on time. Loading the projector took weeks to learn, but Iíve never forgotten how to do it. 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 hadnít taken over.

I also was in charge of assembling the new films from the six different reels they arrived on come Wednesday. 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.

I met my first girlfriend there. I stayed out all night. I had money for dates. Everybody knew me, and everybody greased my palms for favors. For one year, I was the most popular guy around.

It is depressing to realize that the high point of your career happened when you were 16. I wonder if the Showplace 14 currently has any openings.



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