By the time I was fourteen going on fifteen, I had graduated from a paper route and odd jobs to working as a movie theater usher and janitor and playing in a rock and roll band. I could have just played for fun, but this was my kind of in-your-face, rebellious raspberry to Whitie. “Look at this, Daddio,” I was symbolically saying, “not only did I buy my drums myself, but I’m also making money with them.”
Truth be told, back then, at the beginning, it was the grunt work that made me the money that kept me largely independent of parental interference (and of any insistence I go out for sports), even if I’d already started thinking of myself as “a working musician”. I worked three or four times a week as a ticket-taker and usher at the Wapa Theater and then made a little extra sweeping up the popcorn, popcorn boxes and candy wrappers, and scraping the chewing gum and half-sucked candy off the floor. After my father’s night janitor at the Teddy Bear Restaurant retired, I also took up that job for a while, after I got off work on movie nights and every other night of the week but Sunday.
Working at the movie theater was fun. My best friend Mark worked there with me for a while as well, which made it more fun still. And the concession stand was run by the theater-owner’s daughter, Barbara (who was a year younger than I was), and a classmate of mine called Debbie. They were both shy girls whom I’d never really gotten to know at school other than to say hi, but here at the movies, we chatted and joked and laughed during the lulls in our work and generally had a good time.
The Wapa’s manager was a young guy called Leslie who was from out of town, someplace in Indiana. He drove a powder-blue Caddy convertible and dressed to the nines, but lived in a rented mobile home in a court on the north side of town. He was easy to work for and was always good-naturedly kidding us. When he found out Mark and I were old-movie buffs he used to now and then invite us to his place to eat popcorn and watch the black and white classics that he collected and projected on a screen in his living room.
Leslie didn’t own the Wapa. The building was from the turn of the century, had originally housed an opera house and theater and was quite grand inside for a small-town cinema, with a main floor and two balconies. One of the balconies—referred to as “the third balcony” for some reason the logic of which escaped me—had long since been hidden from view by a lowered acoustical ceiling, above which lived a colony of brown bats that would swoop down in the darkened theater and flash their scary silhouettes across the silver screen during projections, eliciting shrieks from the girls and nervous laughter from the boys in the audience, especially during viewings of Christopher Lee’s stunning portrayals of Count Dracula.But you could still appreciate the scrolling and ornamentation on the side walls and the fancy fronts of the former box seats that had also been closed up.
I liked to imagine what it must have been like back in the building’s pre-Great War beginnings, when early twentieth-century Wapakoneta residents arrived in gala dress for the first shows at what was then the Brown Theater. It had been owned from the 1930s by the husband of a grade school teacher of mine and she had inherited it when he passed away. Leslie leased the movie theater part of the building from her. A former Ball State University student, he had done some acting in college and had a real love of Hollywood and theater, but this appeared to be as close as he could come to getting into show biz.
I also became friends with the projectionist, ‘Herbie’. That wasn’t his real given name, but he preferred his moniker. Herbie was a couple of years older than I was. He was shy and overweight and didn’t have many friends. At school he was a popular enough “folk figure”, since he was the photographer for the high school yearbook (known as The Retro) and for school newspaper publications. We didn’t have a school paper per se, but rather, a column in the Wapakoneta Daily News entitled The Lantern. Herbie’s nom de guerre at school, then, was ‘Flash’. When he showed up with his 35mm camera around his neck, everybody was glad to see him, but he wasn’t the sort of guy most of his classmates hung out with. He wasn’t one of the “cool kids”.
I didn’t feel cool either, but I tried to make eccentric, rebellious and non-conformist work for me. I felt it should work for Herbie too. To my mind, he was eccentric enough to be non-conformist-cool. He was a conscientious projectionist and a surprisingly mature and artful photographer. And his “secret cool” that nobody saw during school hours was that when school was out, he was a biker! Herbie had a Honda Superhawk. That and his Pentax camera were his two prized possessions. They were also props in his dual-life persona. Seeing him mounted on that bike with his oversized denim jacket, engineer boots and two-hundred-plus pounds of humanity, you’d have thought Herbie was really bad-assed, somebody you didn’t want to mess with. You’d never have guessed he was a melancholy, easy-going boy with a big sad heart who hadn’t had it easy.
Herbie used to invite me to the projection booth when there was nothing else pressing to do and show me how the twin carbon-arc projectors worked, how it was important to adjust the carbons every so often so that the picture didn’t dim, or how when a reel was reaching its end, you had to look through the little window that gave onto the theater to watch for some small white dots that would appear on the right-hand side of the screen to let you know when to turn on the second machine that held the next reel. Herbie also knew how to splice broken filmstrips and how to fix the huge projectors when they broke. Herbie knew a lot of things and I found them all fascinating.
Another thing Herbie was in charge of was changing the big metal letters on the marquee whenever the feature film title changed. I used to help him do that and found it a lot of fun. It involved going in through a restricted-admission lateral entrance from outside and climbing a narrow staircase on which a tall folding step-ladder was leaned up against the wall and covered that side of the staircase practically from top to bottom. The staircase led to a cramped store room, in which the wall on one side bore a series of large pigeonholes containing several sheet-metal cut-out copies each of every letter in the alphabet. Reading from a paper where the theater manager had written down the title of the upcoming movie, we gathered the letters necessary to spell it out twice (once for each side of the marquee), placing them in a sturdy wooden box. Then one of us would grab the box and the other the stepladder from the staircase. We would also take along another wooden box to put the letters in that we took down. Once the two-sided ladder was set up under the marquee, Herbie would climb up one side of the ladder and I’d climb up the other carrying the empty box. He’d take down the old title letter by letter, handing them to me, and I’d put them in the empty box. Then I’d take that box down, carry up the other box holding the letters for the new title and hand them to Herbie as he called them off: C-H-A-R-A-D-E, for instance. Up close some of the letters looked kind of pitted and scratched and rusty. But when we would climb down to inspect our handiwork against the lighted marquee, they looked like for a New York premiere.
Herbie and I remained friends even after I quit working at the Wapa. A couple of summers later, he would announce he was joining the Air Force. People said, “Herbie? The Air Force?” But I wasn’t surprised. Herbie was a guy who knew what he wanted...and it wasn’t this. He had gotten into a special experimental training program that the Air Force was trying out on overweight recruits. It was not your regular Basic that did fat guys a lot of good but that didn’t get to the root of their problem. This was a rigorous regime of healthy eating, psychological motivation, and intensive, scientifically engineered physical exercise.
A few months later, Herbie came home on leave and had to tell my mother who he was when he showed up to say hi. She didn’t recognize him! And if he hadn’t spoken, I wouldn’t have either. It was as if he had gone into training as William Conrad and had returned home as Steve McQueen. We were amazed and Herbie was pleased, self-satisfied and more self-confident than I’d ever seen him before. After he shipped out for overseas, I would never see or hear from him again.
The job at the Teddy Bear was a routine janitor’s job, but I managed to make that fun too. I was always my own best company, so working alone in the place after hours was okay with me. A couple of years earlier, I had enjoyed working at the Teddy Bear during business hours in the summer or on Saturdays because the older girls who worked there always treated me a little like a pet and I wasn’t all that used to that kind of attention from the other sex. Whitie had me in the back a lot, peeling spuds and cutting them for french fries, washing dishes and helping with other types of food preparation, while he was out behind the counter.
My most fun relationship was with a bouncy, bubbly girl called Linda, who was about eighteen at the time. She pretended to flirt with me, which caused me to have an instant and terrible crush on her and to loath her older fiancé who often dropped by for coffee and to see her. The Christmas that I had turned thirteen, Linda blocked my path under the mistletoe that hung above the kitchen door and laid a big wet kiss on me that left my lips smeared with her bright red lipstick, and then laughed her head off at the combined look of shock, embarrassment and contentment on my face.
But it wasn’t like Linda was having a laugh at my expense. She genuinely liked me, as if I were an adoptive kid brother, and we shared little inside jokes and secrets. For instance, I had started pilfering smokes from Whitie’s packs of Pall Malls when I was twelve going on thirteen. The first time Reba Mae smelled smoke on me she said if she caught me smoking again, I’d be punished. But I wasn’t put off by the warning. I simply tried not to get close to my mother if I’d just had a smoke. Then I got greedy and started helping myself to Whitie’s cigarettes to the point that he noticed. My father was a lot more pragmatic than my mother, so his warning message was more economic than moral: If I was going to smoke I should “buy my own goddamn cigarettes,” because he didn’t plan to support his habit and mine too. So I took him at his word, found a corner grocery store that wasn’t picky about whom they sold tobacco to and, by age thirteen, was smoking several cigarettes a day. Linda, for her part, smoked incessantly and usually had one going in an ashtray on the shelf above the work counter in the kitchen, so when we worked there side by side on Saturdays, we would take turns smoking and if my father or mother came into the kitchen while I was having a smoke, she’d swiftly grab my cigarette and take a drag, leaving the end marked with her lipstick.
That part of working at the Teddy Bear during the daytime when it was open I sometimes missed, though not the almost constant bickering between Whitie and me, since none of the work I did was ever quite up to his exacting standards of quality control. Speaking of which, I don’t think there has ever been another restaurant in our town (or anywhere else) that had a more thorough clean-up routine than the Teddy Bear. After closing each evening every member of the staff had a specific cleaning task to do. And after they had all gone home, Whitie would go back and re-do every single one of those tasks—always alternating between whistling tunelessly and cussing under his breath. For himself, he reserved the jobs of re-ordering the refrigerators and cleaning and polishing the stainless steel back counter, soda fountain, under-counter refrigeration unit, fryers and grill. By the time he was done with them, these pieces of equipment always gave the impression of being brand new and having just been installed the day before. So when I came in, long after closing, the place was practically spotless, except for the dining room floor, which had merely been swept clean.
My job was, first, to mop it thoroughly with hot water and industrial detergent, to dry it with a squeegee and floor rag, and then to wax it with a thin layer of fast-drying liquid wax and buff it with the industrial buffer that Whitie kept in the back room—a machine so powerful that, more than use it, I was dragged around the room by it. The whole process took a couple of hours and I took advantage to turn it into some quality alone time (as if I hadn’t already been enough of a lone wolf).
After making sure all of the curtains were drawn over the front windows, I would put a quarter into the cigarette vending machine and get myself a pack of Winstons or Salems, depending on my mood, and light up with a book of the free advertising matches that were in a fish-bowl by the cash register. Then I’d take a couple of “special quarters”—the ones painted with red fingernail polish that the restaurant got back when the maintenance man came to service the machine and change some of the records—and, putting them into the coin slot on the colorful Wurlitzer jukebox, I’d choose eight of my favorite tunes—usually ones that would have been the last choice of any other kid in town, numbers by Peter Nero, Duke Ellington, Enoch Light, Henry Mancini, Ferrante and Teicher, Frank Sinatra, Mantovani, and so on. Finally, being very, very careful not to leave a single mark or drop of water on the stainless steel fountain, the meticulous last inspection of which would surely have included a final obsessive once-over with my father’s own pocket handkerchief, I would build myself a vanilla phosphate with extra “dope” (trade jargon for syrup) and light on the ice. Then, and only then, I’d be ready to get down to work. I “danced” with my mop to the sounds of the Duke’s band playing Satin Doll, to Ferrante and Teicher playing Theme from The Apartment (a movie that had made me fall in love with Shirley MacLaine and loath Fred MacMurray even more than I originally had), Mantovani’s orchestra playing Hernando’s Hideaway, Frank singing I’ve Got You Under My Skin, Peter Nero mixing The Yellow Rose of Texas with Mozart in a fascinating fugue, and Enoch Light and the Light Brigade playing a rousing rendition of Whatever Lola Wants, among a list of other personal favorites.
There, alone by night in my father’s restaurant, I could be whoever I wanted to be. I didn’t see myself as a confused, unhappy fourteen-year-old boy. I was a cigarette-smoking adult with a vanilla phosphate that could just as easily have been a tall scotch and soda. And I could pretend that the famous musicians on the jukebox were my personal friends. I could see myself playing with a studio band in New York City instead of mopping the floor in my dad’s soda fountain and grill. I could imagine myself a whole other life that I had no doubt would eventually come true, one where I was doing what I wanted to do and was really good at it. I would be a writer and musician and was sure my combined arts would be my ticket out of here and into a brand new and glamorous world.
To be continued...
You can read Parts 1, 2, and 3 of The Reluctant Athlete at the following links: