My twelve year-old daughter Ellen calls me up on the phone the other day, says, “Hey, listen. I thought maybe on Friday evening, we could go and catch a movie.”
You take a wife and three kids to a movie in 2010, it’s about fifty bucks even if you’re going easy on the popcorn. So it’s not usually something we do lightly.
“Is that what you thought, Ellen?”
“Yeah,” she goes on, casual and half-distracted by some kind of horsy computer game or something, while she’s breaking off a quick cell phone call to her dad. “Grandma had me doing a bunch of chores, and she paid me twenty bucks, so I thought, me and you could go and catch a movie.”
Startling. “So, you want to take me out to a movie?”
That’s what she wants, and she’s got a deal. So a couple days later, we’re walking into Lennox to see Toy Story 3 – in super 3-D.
My wife isn’t here to protect me from the up-selling concession girl, so we go ahead and get the large popcorn based on the undeniable logic of it only being an extra dollar – and free refills. Then we go in to the theatre, and we’re early so we can get good seats, and we crank down the popcorn so quick it’s almost gone, and let me tell you, we are in no way interested in a refill.
We start thinking, let’s go and get a free refill and then go around pouring it into everyone’s smaller containers, then go back and get another free refill. Give the popcorn to the people.
This whole overpriced popcorn thing is an oppressive shakedown anyway, let’s rise up and take the power back.
How many free refills you figure, before they’d cut you off?
We don’t do it – because we’re lazy – but it leads to a discussion of what exactly we just paid ten bucks for.
“This soft drink,” I tell her. “Is water, and carbonation, and a little syrup. It’s worth about a penny. This popcorn is mostly air – it’s worth about ten cents.”
“Why did we buy it?”
I shrug. “Movies and popcorn are ingrained into my psyche. There’s nothing I can do about it. I need to have popcorn with my movie. If it was forty bucks, we’d have to work out a grift, some bit of misdirection, get ‘em looking one way, while we’re swiping popcorn the other way.”
“The old Kansas City Shuffle.”
“That’s right, cupcaker. It would take cracker jack timing, and nerves of steel, but I know that…”
Then suddenly, a young usher comes in – the same girl who was frowning at us in the hallway, for leaving a big cloud of popcorn in front of the giant cardboard stand-up of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, where we stood and killed some time while they were cleaning the theatre. She had a broom and a dustpan on a stick when she was coming toward us frowning earlier.
Now she’s just got the frown.
She says, “It’s just going to be another five minutes. There’s a problem with the projector.”
Yes, that would be the new state-of-the-art 3-D digital projector. Every other projector in the building is working fine.
That’s no problem. We go on back to talking about popcorn and grifting and Nick Cage, while all around us, the mild moviegoer grumbling begins to build until finally the most high-strung guy in the place gets up and theatrically stomps out of the theatre.
Yes, I’ll bet that’s going to be a constructive exchange. Somebody needs to go on up there and furrow their eyebrows at them, start bitching. Perhaps remind them about the ten dollars he spent to come in here, and how that makes him the Lord and Master of Time and Space.
“Where’s he going?”
“He’s an agent of chaos, sweetheart. He’s going to spread negativity throughout the universe. Let’s insist on being super, bulletproof happy no matter what, to cancel him out.”
Ellen shrugs. On inspection, we realize that we both are pretty happy right now – no need to insist. I’m pretty sure the theatre – which has been here for fifteen years – is aware of its responsibilities toward ticket holders, and if they can’t get the projector working, they’ll make it nice and square for us here in a minute.
Ellen turns around in her seat and looks around. When she sits back down she looks amazed and says, “Dad, there is exactly one other kid in this whole theatre.”
I turn around and check it out – she’s right. There are only about thirty people in the theatre, but all of them are full grown adults or suspiciously blinky, smily college students. Yes, hello you little groovers, I see you.
So pretty soon, the usher comes back and she has another usher with her. They both look like they are about sixteen or seventeen, but the new one is some kind of senior usher or shift manager or something.
She tells us that the projector is being stupid and that it would be stupid to ask us to keep sitting here waiting for the stupid projector. Following her logic so far, we’re waiting for more specific instructions.
She says, “So there’s another movie starting in forty minutes in the next theatre. You’re all welcome to go and see that one, or you can go and get a full refund at the ticket counter. Also, everyone gets a free pass to an additional movie which you can redeem any time.”
See? Squaresville. Ellen and I snap to our feet and start gathering our belongings and we are startled as we get moving to realize, no one else in the whole theatre is going anywhere. They’re still staring at the teenage manager as if she isn’t finished talking yet.
A couple of people start firing off irrelevant questions at her. When will the projector be fixed? What are we supposed to do for forty minutes?
At the same time, a substantial number of them start grumbling in general. The most overused word in the English language right now is “ridiculous.”
Because listen, theatre-full-of-full-grown-adults, this kid just came in here and reported reality to us – it’s a technical problem, and we’re all getting a couple of movie passes for our troubles. This conversation is over – do you think that’s Brittany Pixar standing up there or the BP spokesman or something?
She just used the word stupid three times, in describing the situation to us. Let’s not give her a reason to use it again.
So Ellen and I clear out of the whole theatre, while everyone else goes up to the ticket counter to squawk and urinate and inflate their amphibious neck glands.
Meanwhile, the two of us head over to Johnny Rockets and sit there at the counter dropping French fries and cheeseburgers right on top of the large popcorn we just inhaled. And I realize that I’ve never sat at the counter in a diner and eaten dinner with Ellen before, maybe never in my life.
We laugh our asses off for a half an hour – an innocuous experience that I will remember for very literally the rest of my life. We could have been sitting in the parking lot of a Seven Eleven eating hotdogs and potato chips and we would have had exactly the same amount of fun.
Then back to the theatre, where the shell-shocked ushers at the ticket counter look exactly like they’ve been screeched at for the last half hour by about thirty adults who didn’t get to see Toy Story 3 precisely when they planned to.
They even lean back as we approach, thinking we’re going to lay into them.
When all we say is, hey, we’re going to go and catch that six-forty showing because of the projector thing, they blink at us suspiciously, nodding their heads. Why aren’t we vomiting bile on them and demanding that they all bow their heads in shame?
Because we’re perfectly happy, that’s why. We rock on into the new theatre, and the projector works just fine, and the movie is awesome and like its two predecessors, it makes us both cry like small children by the end of it.
Neither of us is a small child anymore, is probably why.
That’s the flip side of the white-hot, atomic reactor pride I experience, whenever I hang out with my smart and beautiful and confident twelve-year old baby – the jarring, agonizing knowledge that she doesn’t need me in the same way that she used to.
That she still needs me, to be sure, but that the past is vanishing in the rear view mirror at alarming speed, and the day is arriving when I’m the one who will need her that way, and that I’ll have no right to ask it of her.
We hit the corner exit door that no one ever uses for some reason, stepping directly out into the sunlight, wiping our eyes, and when we get in the car I realize, Ellen’s still got her twenty bucks.
She says, “Yeah, that’s because I’m the one who sabotaged the projector. Get you looking that way as a distraction – the old Kansas City Shuffle.”
Well done, Ellen Margot Chalfant. Later this week, you’re buying me some ice cream.
Previously featuring Ellen and her deadly-and-talented sister Chrissy, The Lunch Money Job