Sunday, November 27, 2011

Where a Kid Can Be a Kid

A coworker was telling the story some time ago of how he used to work at Chuck E. Cheese, the miniature family fun center fronted by a pizza-loving anthropomorphic mouse. It was one of the first jobs he ever worked, and among his responsibilities was having to dress up in the Chuck E. Cheese costume to greet and pose for pictures with patrons. Great fun for the kids, of course, but the job could be brutal on the employees. For the germaphobic, it's disgusting enough having to maintain all the coin-operated arcade games after they have been pawed at with the unwashed hands of children coming directly from eating pizza on the restaurant side of the establishment. But there was apparently nothing more nightmarish than being the guy in the mouse suit and being abused by unruly children. I can well believe it, because, once upon a time, some twenty years ago, I was one of those kids making it a nightmare.

Chuck E.'s was initially kind of a scary place to me. In my memory, it was a dimly lit and uninviting hole, filled with strangers—mostly kids and teens, yes, but also oddly with some gruff-looking biker types there for the video arcade games. The entertainment was pretty awful, too; the animatronic stage show was just creepy. Even today, I still find these singing robot puppets to be disturbingly inhuman simulacrums of life that only leave me yearning for something real.

The “live” Chuck E. was a different matter, however. It wasn't that I cared much for Chuck E. himself, and I understood very well that it was just a man in a costume, but at least that meant he could walk and behave like an actual human, which made him not scary, unlike the animatronic version.

Almost as soon as he appeared and began waving to the guests, he was mobbed by kids who, for some reason unfathomable to me, were overflowing with affection for this character that seemed to me nothing more than a second-rate cartoon mouse. As he was high-fiving and hugging as many kids as he could while making the rounds, my mother urged me to get in there as well and lay hands on him before he disappeared, as though just touching him (or, rather, his gnarly costume) were supposed to produce some magical result. It was hard to grab his attention in that swarm of children, however, so my mother suggested I grab his tail instead. I gripped that tail and pulled with all my seven-year-old might. And in the next split-second, I witnessed something real yet simultaneously unbelievable.

It was one of those moments where time seemed to slow, when my senses seemed to operate a thousand times faster than my reflexes, so that I could glimpse every inevitable microsecond across a seeming eternity, yet I could not move at all to affect it, my own body frozen helplessly along with everything else before me. Chuck E., taken by surprise by being pulled from behind, reflexively stretched out his arms in front of him, as if to balance himself. But it was no use. The pull was irresistible. One foot followed the other backward too quickly. Arms now flailing frantically, he was tripping over himself, stumbling, his behind outstripping his feet, the rest left to gravity, a dull thud as he crashed to the floor.

Poor Chuck E., after struggling to get back to his feet, spun around quickly to see who had been behind him, but I had already retreated back a ways, and there were tons of other laughing children in the same direction. There was no way for him to know who had made such a fool of him.

I know I should have felt sorry for him, but I couldn't. I still can't force myself to feel bad about the memory now. It was as though it were the funniest thing I had ever witnessed, so overcome was I with laughter.

Twenty years later, I finally went back to Chuck E. Cheese. It was not the same location that I went to as a kid. I don't know if that place is even still around, but I know that it was in a part of town that I don't travel anymore. This facility was much brighter and probably cleaner than the one in my childhood. But, either because of that or maybe just because I'm not a child anymore, it was missing some of that mysterious quality that made Chuck E. Cheese both scary and exciting for me as a kid. This just seemed like a pretty sparse restaurant with a very small selection of arcade games. This location as a whole was smaller, I think, than the one in my memory, or at least it seemed that way.

It was actually pretty dreary and depressing. Granted, it was the middle of the week and at night, but there weren't a lot of kids there. It just didn't seem like a very happy or lively place. The pizza was way overpriced and mediocre, and the animatronics show was as creepy as ever, yet now made additionally obnoxious by the weird pop songs that the puppets sang. Most of the amusements were just random games of chance, little different from slot machines, yet they were not only legal but targeted toward children. The selection of coin-operated rides was especially meager. (Yes, I realize there's no way I could enjoy the kiddie rides now, nor did I want to, but it was disappointing all the same to see this part of my childhood disappearing.)

But the most disappointing aspect was Chuck E. himself. Examining the artwork for the character, one of my companions noted how much "cooler"  the modern Chuck E. was, dressed now in his cargo shorts that were quite a departure from the rodent she grew up with. Later that night, the live Chuck E. made his much anticipated arrival, but indeed this was no longer the mouse I remembered. He was decked out in the skater outfit, yes, but, more importantly, he no longer had a tail! Thinking back, both to my coworker's accounts and to the incident from my own childhood, I could understand why maybe they had finally removed the tail from the costume—after all, even a seven-year-old child could have a grown man at his mercy if he got hold of that glaring weak spot—but, even so, there was something lost there, something to be lamented. Alas, you really can't go home again.