Edit: I am a bit horrified to find that Whitney Matheson of Pop Candy has re-redirected her readership here to The League (big fan of Pop Candy! Hi, Whitney!). Welcome one and all. I also apologize for the many, many grammatical and typographical errors. If I'd time, I'd clean it up, but alas.
Every year on my birthday, people ask where I want to go for dinner to celebrate. And every year, I say the same thing. I say that I want to go to Chuck E. Cheese.
Its partially a test. The truth is, I sort of figured out a long time ago that even if its your birthday, you sort of need to pick neutral territory that everyone will like. You cannot say "I want to go to Chuck E. Cheese", because nobody over the age of 9 really wants to find themselves at Chuck E. Cheese for any length of time. Which is why they sell beer (or they did). So its always a fun litmus test to see how batshit people (especially Jason) will go when you quietly insist that, yes, you DO want to go to Chuck E. Cheese. When pushed, I insist that I like pizza, videogames and a complementary animatronic floorshow. And offer up helpful bits like "I told you where I wanted to go, and if you don't want to go there, that's fine. Just take me wherever."
I have actually had two birthdays at Chuck E. Cheese. When I was in 5th grade, my parents finally caved and agreed to let me have my party at a Chuck E. Cheese somewhere in Austin (probably off Burnet). And I recall pretty distinctly all of my friends just sort of milling around, realizing we were too old for Chuck E. Cheese. Whether we were too big for the "rides", or weren't into the robots anymore, or whatever... I just remember an awful sinking feeling that I'd made a mistake.
They probably still do this, but they would announce the names of kids having birthdays and bring out these cakes with these goofy sparkling candles, and Chuck would come by and give you a present. And as all of this was going on, all I could think was "Oh, Jesus Christ, I'm too old for all of this..." And as I was about to open the present from Chuck, this girl in a visor who worked there sort of apologized to me in advance, letting me know "we only have presents for little kids..." as I opened up what was a dollar-store Fisher-Price knockoff toy car. Pretty clearly intended for a kid, ages 2-6.
You Want Money, You Better Earn It
At age 16, I was informed I was to find a job once school let out. There was a certain window of time when school let out when people would plan to hire kids for the summer. This was kind of understood by me and my high school pals but possibly less understood by my folks. That year we headed out of town shortly after school let out, and remained gone for a couple of weeks. When I returned, I hit the road every day for several hours filling out applications, but to no avail. I was told at every place I applied that I could fill out an application, but they weren't hiring. For reasons unknown to me to this day, my inability to find a job was met with skepticism by my parents, who seemed to believe all you had to do to land a job was walk in the door of whever you wanted to work, and they'd hire you.
I confess I had a couple of rules.
1) I wouldn't sack groceries. Houston summers can be brutal enough, and I wanted to not wear the goofy bow-tie, long pants and smock get-up Randall's employed. Apparently the Randall's corporation believed that such a get-up would fool their patrons into believing that they were shopping in some Mom and Pop corner store during the early days of the 20th Century rather than in a state of the art grocery with automated rainfall on the out-of-season produce and endless aisles of preservative-laced foods.
In short, I didn't want to sweat so badly in my job that I'd not get tips, which is how the sackers made their dough.
2) I was avoiding the food industry. Apparently The KareBear had some amazing experience working at the same restaurant as a waitress for years as she made her way through school. But everyone I talked to made it sound like a lot of late nights and uncomfortable situations with assistant managers. Also, I get grossed out by other people's partially eaten food.
I wasn't going to land some sweet gig that my parents set up for me (which was something to always be jealous of), and I was starting late, after every 16 year old in the greater Spring area was already out and looking.
Landing the Job
But... Chuck E. Cheese was hiring.
When I asked for an application, the manager pumped my hand and asked if I could come back the next day. He was in his 30's, 6'4", wore a tie, and seemed like a great guy. The next day he put me in a booth, we chatted lightly (I had no experience doing anything but reading comics, shooting free-throws and doing homework, so... not much to chat on), and I thought we hit it off great. I was in!
I'd be nowhere near the food. I'd be working the Game Floor, which I imagined would be a bit like playing casino host to a bunch of 5-10 year-olds, handing out tokens, occasionally polishing a game, and getting free food.
Jason begged me not to work at Chuck E. Cheese. Family Pal Larry Lee had worked at a Chuck's in Austin when he and Jason were in high school.
"You don't just play the videogames," Jason told me. "You're going to hate it."
I steamed. Chuck E. Cheese was supposed to be fun, by definition. I had a job, and he didn't, so was clearly jealous of my job-landing skills, which... when the manager saw me, he clearly saw the potential that I thought pretty much darn near everyone SHOULD see in me.
I started a week later to the semi-surprise of the two managers on duty, Angel and Jim. Angel was probably in her early 30's, but looked older. I had a foot on Jim, and a head of hair he lacked, which at age 16, made me estimate him at somewhere between 20 and 95. The manager who had hired me was no longer with the store. No explanation was given.
With a few others, I was led to the back to be given a uniform and some cursory instructions. Stuff like "food isn't free, but it is half-off. Plan to be here for a two or more hours after closing every night. More on Saturdays" It was true I would be on the gamefloor, which thrilled me. No clearing plates of other people's slobbered-upon pizza crusts. No touching cups with lipstick smears. I would sweep up, I would wipe down machines. And, curiously, despite an utter lack of experience with anything more than a crystal radio kit, I would repair machines and games. And, give out tokens to kids who claimed they'd "lost" a token.
But there was literally no training. The tasks we were to perform were mostly so idiot simple (go sweep up pizza crusts), that I guess spending time training wasn't really necessary. And, what I would soon learn about the staffing issues probably led the managers to believe it was a waste of time.
Some vintage Chuck horror
Not clear on the spirit of the law, but intent to maintain the letter, I listened carefully to the uniform instructions. I was to wear what they gave me. No exceptions. A red, collared shirt with my name-tag. A blue visor with the logo. And a pair of khaki pants that was pretty clearly too small for me.
Someone asked if we could substitute our own clothing.
The answer was a definitive "no".
I have no recollection of my first day, other than squeezing into the pants I'd been assigned and worrying a great deal about whether I would burst, Hulk-like, from the pants should I squat down, and exactly how much of my wedding tackle would be on display at each shift, because... golly those pants were tight.
Plus, the visor pushed my hair up into a weird sort of explosion, jutting out the top of the elastic band.
I hopped into my disintegrating '83 Honda and headed off for work.
I was relieved to find we wore these little blue smocks that covered the area of primary concern, but did nothing to disguise the action going on in the aft.
The Way it Works
The most important thing to know is how totally gross a place full of children eating greasy pizza really is. Especially kids full of sugar who believe all bets are off because the ranting, robotic mouse keeps telling them they can "be a kid". Which, apparently, means pushing, shoving, kicking people in mascot costumes in the crotch and ass, and occasionally vomiting for no particular reason.
If I had a triumph in the summer of 1991, it was that I drew a line in the land which stated that I would clean neither the stalls, nor the vomit from the floor. That job, I bargained and bartered my way out of it. And you knew you were in dutch with the managers if you had to clean the bathrooms, but at our store, that usually fell to the "show floor" staff, who were perceived to have it somehow easier than the game floor staff during the usual hours.
But kids sort of leak fluids. Never, ever, ever allow your child to play in the ball crawl. No matter what they tell you, you can't actually clean one of those things. Just vacuuming the thing thoroughly, which was done a few times each week with a shop-vac, took the entire evening cleaning shift from 10 - 12:00 or 12:30. There was a semi-annual schedule for actually cleaning the ball crawl, and reportedly they found all kinds of stuff in there.
Walk into any Chuck E. Cheese, and you'll see some schlub constantly wiping things down. That's because greasy little kids are putting their greasy little hands on everything, always. Leaving handprints. The definition of sisyphian task was trying to keep the glass doors to the place hand-print free on a Saturday. Which the managers would do if they were displeased with you for some slight. Or, if they were really irritated, you could be condemned to rub the rubber floor edgings with lemon oil.
My Fellow Staffers
The turn-over was incredible. The entire crew I started with was gone within three or four weeks. Having a new person wander out to join you on shift occurred with such regularity, I mostly identified people by their physical traits instead of names. Guy Who Talks About Being Drunk All the Time. Girl With Too-Huge Boobs. Old Person. Too Much Make-Up Girl. That Guy Who Wears Shorts Even Though Its Not Regulation, But Nobody Says Anything. We were also not really supposed to talk to each other, anyway. Perhaps they feared Chuck himself would lead a Norma Rae-line uprising.
I didn't work many mornings, which was when you wanted to work. Customers tend not to hit the Chuck until later afternoon on weekdays, so the place is oddly sedate for the first few hours, especially before opening. And there were these two women who were in their late-40's, I'd guess, who had been there in a minimum wage position for over a decade. We were going through staff like people go through grapes, and these two had been there and seen it all. They were entrusted with the amazing "token counting machine", which had to be run every morning so they'd know how many tokens were in the store. I remember asking why they didn't become managers if they were there so long, and the conversation became suddenly very awkward until one of them assured me that they didn't want all the trouble of being a manager.
And from what little I knew of Jim and Angel, I didn't blame them. Angel seemed only like she constantly wished to be anywhere but there, but was at least kind of useful. Jim just dreamed up stuff for you to do, like polishing the baseboards. He just seemed particularly frustrated, and refused to crack a smile, even when I slipped and fell in the kitchen and the first words out of my mouth were "there's a lawsuit in there somewhere!" I spent that next Saturday cleaning windows.
Sure enough, I learned how to fix the ski-ball machines through a sure-fire method of trial and error that would make any psychology lab proud. (If you perform this action, you will receive an electric shock... if you perform that action, the game will come back alive, and you get to play a few rounds to test the machine).
I cleared out hobos. Once ate a handful of the pink powder they use to make cotton candy, right out of the box (do not recommend). Gave away handfuls of tokens to kids who lied about losing them. But never dressed in the mascot suit, for which my carriage was too large.
I did almost wear it once on a slow day, but a party of several dozen showed up, unaware you were supposed to schedule a birthday party in advance. Thus, my one chance for wearing the suit (and going to Fiesta to drum up business, which is what I told the manager I was going to do), was foiled.
Losing Faith in Humanity
I don't know if any particular incident occurred during my summer at The Chuck, but I do recall coming home every night increasingly despondent over what I saw as some less-than-stellar parenting. Drunk parents. Parents who yelled. Parents who felt that Chuck E. Cheese was some sort of "time out" for them, and that whatever happened on behalf of their destructive little monsters within the confines of our store was our problem. Kids whose parents tried to use the Chuck as a daycare.
And I'll never forget the dad who walked up to the ball-crawl while I was on duty and just heaved his infant into the balls. I didn't actually see the action occur so much as looked over and saw the top of an infant's head disappearing beneath the balls, which were about 6-12 inches higher than the actual balls. Plus: Infant with no motor skills and 10 year olds doing flips off the sides into the pit is just a bad combo.
"Sir," I said, yanking the baby out of the balls. "Is this your child?"
A guy I know didn't look like Jeff Foxworthy, but that's how my brain recalls him, sort of stared at me through the netting.
"Sir, I don't think this is a good idea."
I now know that the look of incomprehension probably came from a pack of Coors Light which had probably been consumed pre-Chuck, but I watched as he tried to sort out what I was saying.
"The ball pit is actually pretty deep. I don't think its good for your child."
"She likes it!" he insisted.
The child was actually somewhat emotionless, which was impressive, given the fate which could have greeted her at the bottom of the ball pit.
"Aren't ya'll supposed to watch these kids?"
"Well, yeah. But this isn't really safe."
"You don't think...?" He said, resigned to the fact that he was going to have to return to the table with his child instead of just heading to the counter for a pitcher of the lousiest beer in Spring.
"She may be a little small for the ball crawl," I explained. "She can't stand up in here."
"I think she'd have fun," he was still looking for an angle.
"I don't think so......"
He reluctantly took the child back. And I flashed forward to a lifetime of similar decisions this child was going to endure at the hands of her idiot father. I imagined sitting on the handlebars of an ATV couldn't be too far off in her future.
The Floor Show @#$%ing Sucks
I'd been working at Chuck E. Cheese all of a week when I was having dinner at my friend Mari's house and her brother asked, "So, are you in the band?"
I didn't have super-fabulous memories of the Rock-a-Fire explosion from Showbiz Pizza, or the mishmash of other characters that had populated Chuck E. Cheese when I was little. But I do remember that they played familiar radio tunes. And by played, I mean awkwardly jerked around in something always approximating the beat, but not actually on beat, with the patented delirious eye-rolls and herky-jerky laughing, lifted straight from the on-cue guffaws one saw on TV variety shows of the era.
At some point between when I'd last stepped into a Chuck E. Cheese, and had been weirded out that Mitzy Mozzarella was receiving a spotlight solo for lip-synching the Bangles' "Eternal Flame", and when I started work, someone in the Chuck E. Cheese corporation figured out they could save money by penning original, family friendly tunes. About stuff like "Summer Fun".
And so, every 55 minutes or so, I was reminded of the summer fun kids were supposed to be having while I was pushing a dust pan around and sweeping up stray pizza crusts, waxing the floorboards and telling little scam artists that I would not give them a handful of either tokens or tickets at no charge. Not even if they volunteered to be my friend (which happened more often than you'd think).
The band was sort of a weird deal, in that they had the different pre-programmed sets, and I don't really remember them every breaking. They just never seemed to be programmed all that well to begin with. And when they were taking a break or whatever was supposed to be happening behind the scenes, they still bombarded the place with music and video of the band. So, really, from the minute you walked in until the minute we closed the door behind Tipsy McStaggerson and Family, you had to hear the same loop of half-assed, crappily penned and performed tunes about important topics like fun, friendship and hygiene.
This is sort of the set up we had.
Our store may have been a former Showbiz, from before the merger, as the layout was a multi-stage affair, and different from a lot of what I see on YouTube. They'd reskinned the Rock-afire explosion during the conversion, or something. I don't know. I never thought to care enough to ask.
The show emulated a bygone era of a band, an MC and a comedy act, which the kids, short on their fandom of "Our Show of Shows" may not have been picking up on the origins of the borscht-belt humor and stylings. But, hey, talking rat and his horrible, Italian stereotype, Pasquale and whatever the hell else made up the band (such as purple horror, Munch), always hit their cues and were far less trouble than the average Chuck E. Cheese employee.
I honestly think the kids kind of hated the band.
One Armed Bandits and Free Videogames
My friend Dave (not his real name) took a job at The Chuck shortly after me, apparently intrigued by the possibility of wearing the mouse suit or something. He somehow ended up behind the counter, which is where veterans usually worked (you know, people with 6 months of experience).
I noted that he would often be on the floor playing games during my shift. Often at multiple times, with the smock removed and his visor off, indicating he was "off duty". His girlfriend was often hanging out next to him, despite the fact she didn't work there.
"How did you swing two breaks today?" I asked him as I passed the Whack-a-Mole machine one day (I'd gotten amazingly good at Whack-a-Mole, which needed constant fixing). He looked at me like the sucker I was, and continued playing.
"Dude," he explained. "They never pay attention. I just take breaks whenever I feel like it."
"But don't they notice all the breaks on your time card?"
This was met with a sigh. "I don't ever actually clock out."
"Yeah, you're the only person who doesn't do it. Haven't you ever noticed that?"
"No," I answered honestly.
"You need to start."
I never did.
Like everyone else, he was also using the stash of tokens to play the games for free. And while he wasn't exactly robbing the place blind (really, there was little to steal in a commerce system that worked on Chuck E Currency), he had figured out how to game the system in about two weeks. I never did.
Dave had been born with one-arm, which hadn't slowed him down at all. He played sports, including lacrosse, which he was much better at than me, what with my two hands.
It was never an issue for anyone until he was assigned to wear the mouse suit and the kids noticed Chuck had an arm that didn't look quite right. The rules were pretty simple for wearing the suit, which I didn't do, as I was too tall. Put on the suit, walk around (but not when Chuck is on stage), shake hands, wave "hello" to babies, and when kids start to attack, which they always will... retreat. And never talk when you're in the suit.
And so it was that some kid spied Chuck's arm just sort of hanging there and called him out.
"Hey, you're not Chuck E. Cheese! You're the guy from behind the counter."
Dave waved a "no" motion with his one hand.
"Yeah, you are!"
"Yeah, you are!" a chorus of suddenly ugly little children chimed in.
"Shut up, kid!" the mouse said in a muffled voice, his plastic mouth never moving.
"Yeah, you are! You're that guy from the counter!"
And, of course, the kicking and hitting began as Chuck uttered some profanities and retreated to the stage door.
Here's a training video someone put together, probably in response to how uninspiring it is to get in the suit and beaten for $4.25 an hour.
Also, you can see the basic uniform I wore at the time. Also, why is there jazzy 80's keyboard music through this whole thing?
All Good Things Must End
In my final weeks, I remember feeling daring and going into work in non-regulation pants. After weeks of seemingly smuggling grapes into Chuck E. Cheese, not one person noticed or said anything about my pair of non-reg khakis that allowed for greater freedom of movement, shall we say.
I wound up scheduled in the ball-crawl a lot. Which I hated, but I kind of hated it less than other jobs, because usually you were scheduled alone in the ball-crawl, which meant it was less likely you'd get stuck with Only talks About How Much he Drinks Guy, and spend six hours hearing about how very much liquor he'd drunk out of his parent's cabinets the night before.
Until one day I crawled into the ballcrawl and someone came in right after me. We chatted for a while, agreed it was weird we were both scheduled in there, and then I went back out to check the schedule. I was nowhere to be found on the chart.
"What the hey?" I asked Angel.
Apparently after I'd checked the schedule on Sunday (when it was supposed to be final), she had changed it, and I was supposed to show up and work Monday instead of Tuesday. When i didn't show Monday, she'd assumed that, like everyone else, I'd quit and rescheduled my shifts to others for the entire week and closed me out as an employee. This was just how most people quit. You just quit showing up, and if you didn't show, they weren't going to pick up a phone and call you or anything crazy like that. My absence was taken the same as every other of the hundred or so similar disappointments they would see breeze through that year.
"We've made the schedule for the next week, already. You aren't on it. Maybe the next week?"
"Honestly," I sighed. "I was quitting then. I start school and have after-school obligations."
"Well," Angel and Jim (who'd shown up) assured me, I would have a place at Chuck E. Cheese any time if I wanted to come back.
I considered it that fall when the play I was in ended, but another play came immediately after, and so on. Alas, I never returned to The Chuck to work.
Return to the Chuck
I went back in high school after quitting to take some students from my mother's class out for a "special day". The food was terrible, I used up my non-free-tokens in about five minutes and so retreated to a booth and watched the show.
A few of my classmates were there working, and I saw nobody who had worked there with me. I felt badly for all of them. Especially when Michael P. was yelling at me through the Munch mascot costume so I'd know it was him in there.
They've changed Chuck's look. He no longer dresses like a ringleader, pimp or showman, all in red sparkles and a fancy hat. Instead, he's now a sort of mid-90's idea of corporatified "cool for kids", with a sort of sporty look, as if he might go roller blading or something else edgy or "in your face". I dunno. Miss the old Chuck. I sort of think of him as this old, outmoded entertainer, and I've always thought of him that way. No need for kneepads and a skateboard.
And then sometime in 2002, just before I moved, my co-workers packed into cars and took me to Chuck E. Cheese for lunch on my birthday. The pizza was better than I remembered, and the show just as creepy and bad.
We hung out way too long, and got back to work an hour late, thanks to playing video games. And I tore a four inch hole in the leg of my jeans jumping onto a jet-ski video game, ninja style.
I confess I don't know if I entirely feel good or healthy in regards to Chuck E. Cheese. Or about trying to drag friends and family into my annual desire for self-immolation by way of animatronic floorshow. But it is what it is.
There have been rumors we may be returning to Chuck E. Cheese pizza in the coming week in celebration of my birthday. I let my annual threat slip, and I think people are taking me up on it.
More reports as events warrant.