Confessions of a cinema usher
Who's saying what
Then I wait for it to stop.
I turn the kettle on its side,
A perfect batch - a sense of pride.
I shovel golden puffs of corn,
Into the bag, the kernels mourn.
For those kernels know their fate,
Inside black bags, marked with the date.
I push that red button just once more,
Sit back and wait, just like before.
This poem was written on a scrap of paper on a bench next to a burning-hot hand-operated popcorn machine by a guy I used to work with at a small independent cinema in the mid 00’s.
It was one of many poems he wrote, all about concession stand snacks, regular cinema patrons, favourite movies, and other staff.
And it wasn’t only this lone poet, scribbling away with bright orange flavacol* encrusted hands, who payed homage to the place of our employment. The cinema (which will remain unnamed to protect the embarrassed) was loved by many of its staff but respected by none of us. It was a strange mix of fierce loyalty and complete apathy that kept the choc tops dipped and the tickets torn.
Our duties as cinema ushers included opening the cinema in time for the movie, taking tickets from patrons, assuring no patron was disturbing anyone else during the screening, and cleaning chip packets and popcorn from the cinema after the screening. It also occasionally included confronting rude patrons, herding drunks, crowd control of hundreds of children, and cleaning urine, used condoms and discarded underwear from under cinema seats. It wasn’t the worst part-time job a person could have but it certainly had its off days.
The management style that prevailed would be best described as ‘Fawlty Towers-esque’. Competing as we were with the massive chain theatres, our little cinema chugged along as best it could but slowly and surely, due to the fox-hole mentality of the owners; constantly under threat of losing business; each staff member fell prey to a kind of jungle madness.
This cabin fever threatened to wear us all down. Every day bizarre staff memos were posted and increasingly stupid rules were introduced for staff and patrons (a big day once came when a pie warmer was installed in the concession stand, accompanied by a rule which we had to explain to each and every customer that yes, you may buy a hot delicious pie but no, you may not actually take it into the movie you are here to see, there is no hot food allowed). The lunacy we were required to peddle did threaten to wear us down but it ended up doing quite the opposite, It actually bolstered us to new heights of bad behaviour. We were big fish in a small, dull pond and as each working day passed we engineered bolder and more creative ways to make our minimum wage more bearable to earn.
Of course the owners and managers had nothing to do with this and we hid it from them as best we could. Our methods of flouting authority were covert. When taking ticket stubs outside the cinema door one usher, sick of being ignored by pushy patrons, started to slip the stubs one by one into his mouth. Silently he took each stub and swiftly ate it. A few shuffling patrons did double-takes at what they thought they saw but none were actually paying the usher enough courtesy to look him in the eye in the first place, so they continued into the darkness with furrowed brows, wondering if some kind of glitch in the matrix had occurred.
Once the boundaries were tested and were found to be about a solid as a melted Mars bar the misbehaviour became much bolder. The same ticket tearer that once ate the stubs started licking them and sticking them to his face, covering himself until his head looked like a piñata. One of the projectionists spread a rumour that a certain cinema was haunted and hid behind the screen to whisper ghostly things to ushers cleaning on their own in the dark, or early patrons alone in the front row. There was one girl who smuggled entire garbage bags of popcorn out of the building at the end of every night for ‘parties’ and there was an incident when a rude patron demanded to know where the toilets were, only to have a staff member hand her a paper cup and quietly walk away.
As each stunt succeeded, staff found themselves becoming more and more loyal to this hokey little place that let us get away with such nonsense. We were drunk on our own sense of self-importance. Fairly soon we were thinking of ourselves as a gang, and the cinema was our motherland, worth protecting. We gave ourselves all wrestler names one night; The Arkon Skull Crusher, The Brownfist Warrior, The Silky Mustang, The Diamond Shank, The Professor, and The Baroness Von Cuntenborough. Yes, we may have been rude to you if came in to see a movie but we felt as if customers were stepping into OUR territory. Our tomfoolery was merely an expression the love we had for the place.
Once united it was only a matter of time until we found ourselves channelling our fury toward a common enemy. Small cinemas around the area had been under common warning for some time about a criminal pickpocket who had a particular talent for sneaking under cinema seats and stealing from handbags on the floor. Swift as a shadow, this man- known to the police as a methamphetamine addict- would be in and out of the building before anyone ever knew of his presence. His obvious skill astounded us. He was like some kind of real-life super villain, moving only under cover of darkness. As staff, we were under strict instruction not to approach this man; to call the manager and the police straight away if we ever saw him; but bolstered as we were by our we’re-in-this-together, band of brother mentality we took it upon ourselves to defeat this villain.
Of course, we never did. Despite all the talk of tackling him, of locking him in the cinema and crawling in through the vents to apprehend him, nothing ever actually happened. Even the most daring group of wrestler-named weirdos were no match for a hardened criminal on ice. We were just uni students and teenagers after all, but the stories that circulated, both real and embellished, went down in lore, and bound us together for life. A rich social culture evolved from the cinema that still remains solid today, in fact I’ll be attending the wedding of two staff members this weekend.
Most of the staff I worked with have moved on now to careers and day jobs, and security cameras have been installed in the staff rooms along with stricter management guidelines. If you visited the cinema today your service would be courteous; beyond reproach I’m sure. Your popcorn will be hot, your Pepsi cold, and you will enjoy your movie but the service you will receive will be perhaps a little less passionate; with less flair, less joie de vivre.
You see, the employees at our cinema were like a family; the kind you must never go against; so when visiting your local cinema you’d better be on your best behaviour. Be polite; be friendly. Your local cinema usher holds more power than you might think.
Besides, if you’re extra good you may just be lucky enough to receive one of the ‘super’ choc tops we spent our time engineering in the back room. Dozens of layers of chocolate and frozen chocolate through the cone. I’m not sure if anyone ever actually ate one of those but there was enough weight in one of those things that it would knock a man out if aimed at the head.
The Arkon Skull Crusher always kept one handy in case a certain pickpocket visited.
*the butter flavour on your popcorn: it isn’t butter. I’m sorry.
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