Some people look so lost when you’re kind to them.
I used to be a projectionist at a movie theater. When I think of the holidays, I can only think of the projectionist booth and the chains of storytelling spinning onto the silver screen in waves of 35 MM machinery. The insect-like hum of the gears spinning inside illuminated boxes, powered by bulbs that could melt flesh and hang on the tips of the sun. I worked there for three years; cleaning, threading, splicing, building, moving, storing, playing, and breaking-down film four times a week.
The projectionist booth was a corridor of concrete stretched along the ceiling like the body of a snake. Along the walls were square eyes of port glass, which peeked out onto the films like kids beneath a blanket. The smell of the booth was a mixture of dust and chemicals. Those ingredients were overpowering when isolated, but meshed together they seemed to form a natural concoction of sourness, which would sink into your clothes like an insult. The entire booth was about ten feet wide, which meant you couldn’t back up or walk forward without bumping into a projector. You became a master of moving diagonally between the machines, which looked like hunched over old men staring out the window, only they had steel boxes for backs.
Working as a projectionist meant you were there late at night, sometimes till dawn tearing down films that were being shipped out by Technicolor the next day in orange cans. Around 1 am the janitors would show up to clean the theaters. I worked at Har Mar Mall in Roseville, Minnesota. It was an AMC theater, with 11 screens split between two buildings. The three large screens up front in the building could hold nearly 1500 people if the shows were sold out. In the back part of the building were another eight screens, which were smaller, and could only hold around 100 people each.
For this entire theater, no matter if the screens were sold out or empty, two adults and their children were responsible for cleaning the two buildings. I remember the family very well. There was the father and mother, both were probably around 30 at the time or older. They would bring their children along overnight. They had an older son, probably around 10, and a daughter who was a few years younger. Being there late breaking down movies, I would run into them or see them working from the booth. The brother would always keep track of his sister in the theaters, or play tag with her. Often times, they’d both start out trying to help their parent’s vacuum popcorn and mope floors. After a couple hours of work, they’d fall asleep on a bench or chair in the lobby. Working overnights was too hard for the children.
While I was working at Har Mar, I was also attending the University of Minnesota, pursuing my degree in English and creative writing. Any money I made from my part-time job of being a projectionist was spent on alcohol, food, and an occasional book needed to combat my colleagues in existential conversations. I didn’t often think of other people. I just thought about myself. Watching that family toil throughout the night beneath the bleak fluorescent cleaning lights buzzing over their heads was hard to watch. I could see how exhausted the family was in their shaky postures and careful movements, which were clearly calculated to save energy throughout the night. I tried to talk to the parents a few times, but they only understood bits and pieces of English. They’d moved here from Mexico City their son said. I tried some of my Spanish, but often times it became so laborious, I felt like I was distracting them from their jobs. They never wasted a second of their time. The son spoke perfect English, but he was often asleep by the time I’d emerge from the booth. I didn’t want to wake him.
Christmas time in the movie theater industry is brutal. Business levels soar for a few weeks, and the new releases pour out. Introverts even show up, having to escape awkward conversations with their family. The amount of filth and trash that accumulated at Har Mar was insane. Often times, the garbage room would overflow, like a plastic tidal wave was locked in a box. On one of my breaks at the nearby Cub Foods, I stopped by the candy section. I bought a couple of those plastic candy canes filed with Hershey Kisses for the kids, and a box of Whitman chocolates for the parents. It was the Thursday night close to Christmas, which was typically the day you’d teardown and ship film. I snuck downstairs the moment the family arrived at the theater. I didn’t want to wake the kids up to give them their candy later.
When they walked in the door I promptly gave them their candy canes, which they thanked me for profusely. The little girl actually gave me a surprise hug. She was so tiny she wrapped around my leg, stepping on my foot for leverage. I approached the father and handed him the yellow box of candy. He didn’t move, but just stood frozen in his flannel shirt like a mannequin. The circles beneath his eyes looked like they had burrowed into his skull, like they’d be there forever. He didn’t know what to do, even though the box was unopened, directly in front of him, and said Christmas.
“Dad, he’s giving you that, come on,” his son said behind me. He’d already eaten half of his candy. It didn’t seem humanely possible. The father raised his massive hands up to take the box. They were covered with calluses, scars, and bumps of arthritis.
“Thank you,” he said, with an uncomfortable nod.
For a little while, I always thought this gentlemen was insulted by my charity or that I was demeaning him. Sadly, something far more insidious was actually occurring. This father, working an awful job to provide for his family, had forgotten what it was like when someone was kind to you. He couldn’t remember the last time someone did something nice for him. He didn’t know how to react. It was written in the lines on his face.
I always wondered what happened to that family. After the theater closed, and a new AMC opened in Roseville, a different janitor crew was hired. They were gone. I never knew what happened to them. I just hope that father remembers what kindness felt like.
Be kind to people, so we can remember what it feels like. Happy holidays!