I’m a fiction writer, but I’m not a very good creative writer. Like a lot of writers, I steal shamelessly from my own life and change the names to protect…well, probably my marriage. Thinking about how to write a bizarre but true story, I have another handicap. The really bizarre stuff happened when I was MUCH younger, and most often my consciousness then was, politely phrased, altered. So, how reliable is my memory? Since I am not writing satire, science fiction, or news for the Fox Network, I have to be grounded in some reality. It had to have happened, right?
True, but hard to believe? How about the time I stood in the lobby of a theatre in Oklahoma, covered in human waste, being robbed by a man with an invisible gun.
It seemed like a good story, but true? I made some calls, located a few of my former staff, who confirmed the details in general, but all of them insisted on a few conditions: don’t use their real names and don’t identify the exact theatre. See, all of them that night were on drugs of some sort. All of them are adults now. All of them have Republican children. Me? I was expelling cannabis vapors and depressed about a recent romantic meltdown. I had already set the film obscenity standards for the state of Oklahoma, and Jerry Lee Lewis was my hero, but not for his music.
It was the early ‘70s. I had worked for a string of theatre chains that kept going bankrupt, so I finally floated a loan and re-opened an 800-seat theatre, making myself a movie mogul in my own mind. Trouble was, I didn’t appreciate the fact that movie exhibition was a business, not an avocation, and just because I liked a particular movie didn’t mean that the rest of Oklahoma shared my good taste. I was always struggling for money to pay bills. Fortunately, I had found the perfect crew to share in Larry’s Great Hollywood Adventure. Free candy, popcorn, soft drinks, not having to wear a uniform, and unlimited movie passes for their friends…plus being high most of the time…compensated for an irregular paycheck.
My lack of business acumen also showed up in my choice of which theatre to buy. I should have had it inspected. More precisely, I should have flushed the toilets a few times before I signed the lease. Within seven days, our first ritual was established: call the plumber and have him do a colonoscopy on the sewer lines, always yielding paper towels, kotexes, Jimmy Hoffa body parts, and anything else flushed down a toilet and guaranteed to block a line, which, not surprisingly, meant that what was supposed to go down the toilet usually came back up through a floor drain or bubbling toilet stool. The larger the crowd, the more toilets flushed, the quicker they backed up. Electric hand-dryers instead of paper towels would have helped, but those cost money, and my employees could more easily steal paper towels from other businesses.
This particular night, I was mopping the men’s room floor, channeling Hunter S. Thompson and praying that the plumber (who was on retainer by then) would get there before the next intermission. We were showing a Peter Sellers Pink Panther movie double-feature. Not a massive crowd, but evidently one that had come to the theatre with gastro-intestinal issues.
Within minutes, a series of vaudeville skits unfolded in the men’s restroom. I fell down, flopping around like a soon-to-be-filleted fish hauled into a boat. I yelled for help. I yelled again. Silence, except for the gurgling floor drain which was erupting with brown lava. I yelled again. I crawled toward the door of the restroom, leaving a trail of human waste and the remnants of my pride. I grabbed the door handle and raised myself up, gathered my residual dignity, and walked into the lobby looking for help.
This theatre had a huge lobby with green shag carpet, giant plate glass windows overlooking a pristine parking lot, and through which I could see a darkened marquee. Damn, I thought I had paid that bill, I told myself, just as I noticed that everyone in the lobby was motionless, almost in mid-step. I thought I was in a mime show gone tragically bad. I also had another thought: I really should stop doing drugs. It was starting to affect my vision.
Evelyn, the sixteen year old girl behind the concession stand, toward whom I had spent weeks trying to charm into my arms, had money in her hand, about to give change to the two customers in front of her. But they were all frozen, their heads turned toward the indoor box-office, where my favorite cashier Nancy was leaning across the counter, her right hand pointed like a pistol at the man in front of her.
Why was Nancy my favorite? She was mature, reliable, honest and could sell tickets like a machine. She was also what you could call “good country people.” A no-nonsense, big-boned, attractive in a sort of nineteenth century frontier mid-wife feminist, Chaucerian…stoner. But she could count money, make change, handle complaints, tear tickets and smile all in one motion. If I had not been so shallow back then, I would have loved her.
The man in front of Nancy was obviously an upright epileptic. The shake in his legs accelerated the higher it went up his body. His hair was electrified, and his eyebrows were crawling all over his forehead. In his left hand was a pulsating butcher knife, and his right hand was shoved into his pants pocket, a pocket bulging with an erection or a gun. Whatever it was, Nancy wasn’t taking the epileptic’s word for it.
“You don’t get shit until I see the damn gun,” Nancy explained to Clyde Barrow, in a gravelly voice that would have made Satan wither.
“I’ve got a knife,” Clyde sputtered back, looking at it himself just to make sure he was telling the truth, and all I could think of was that vibrating blade flying out of his hand and sailing across the lobby to impale one of the few paying customers I had that night.
It was a Mexican standoff, and I was trying to use mental telepathy to get to Nancy and remind her of one of my few management rules: Your life is more important than money.
But, looking toward Nancy, I got distracted by Evelyn. I started thinking what a lovely profile she had, more proof of her physical perfection. In full stare, I was able to see her nose start twitching, her eyes blink, and her head turn slowly in my direction. Face to face with her boss, the older man who adored her, she screamed.
Of all my employees, Evelyn was the only one younger than me, but I was Mr. Baker to all of them. I was the Rock of Gibraltar, the Man with a Plan. I was covered in human feces and urine.
I took a step toward the concession stand. My shoes squished. Something wet dripped into my right eye so I stated blinking like crazy. I raised both my hands, as in supplication. I was the Monster from the Black Bowel Lagoon.
The two customers dropped their popcorn on the counter and stepped back. Saucer-eyed Evelyn smiled at me and started laughing. Clyde turned toward me as well, and I was sure that he was re-considering his career choices, as was I. At that moment, Nancy reached across the box-office counter and slapped the knife out of Clyde’s hand.
And then the police arrived. Not with a bang, but a whimper.
A single police cruiser eased into the circular driveway in front of the theatre, in clear view of everyone in the lobby except for Clyde, whose back was toward the windows. I tried to not stare too much, afraid Clyde will turn around and go crazy. He’d been partially disarmed, his gun or erection still to be determined, and the two cops were sitting in their car smoking cigarettes. No damn hurry.
Here’s what I find out later. Clyde is well known to the local cops. He’s a wino, always looking for a handout, and this particular night he has been walking down the street robbing businesses one after the other, in a straight line that led to my theatre at the end of the block. The cops were on a first name basis with him, but I don’t know that. All I know is that Andy and Barney finish their smokes, get out of their car, and simply lean against it shoulder to shoulder, obviously discussing what they will do when their shift is over. Me and my crew are about to get gunned down, and Mayberry’s finest are looking through the window from the outside as if we are the movie.
Only a few minutes left in this episode of “COPS,” I start squishing my way closer to the box-office, thinking I should negotiate with Clyde, keep him facing me so the cops can do something…anything. Nancy is sitting back down, having come to the obvious conclusion that Clyde is a phony, and she starts counting her cash, pausing to say, “Mr. Baker, you oughta get cleaned up. Intermission’s in thirty minutes.”
At that moment, my assistant manager, Mac, walks into the lobby from the auditorium, walks straight toward me, oblivious of the crime scene around him, seemingly oblivious to the public health menace of my apparel at that moment, and proceeds to tell me, “Mr. Baker, I have to quit.”
Mac had quit a few times before, always for a different reason, but never for long. Sweet reason and sobriety usually prevailed. My favorite previous reason for his quitting had been his disappointment that he had offered his virginity to every female employee at the theatre and had been turned down.
This particular night, Mac was more than stoned. He made Timothy Leary look like an amateur. You should know that Mac was my very best friend, a man I can truly say that I loved, as loony as a toon, but a profoundly decent guy who had figuratively held my hand throughout the previous six months of my romantic dissolution, dragging me out of bars and driving me back to the house we shared. I cut Mac a lot of slack.
Him quitting at that moment was more irritating than anything else. I wanted to say, “Mac, we’ll discuss this later. Right now, we’re all about to die.”
But he was adamant, “Mr. Baker, Peter Sellers is chasing me. I have to quit.”
I wish I could remember what I said when I heard that, but, according to Mac, I said something like, “Peter Sellers is chasing you, and you have to quit?”
“Yes-sir, he walked off the screen and started chasing me around the auditorium. He’s still in there, and I’m afraid he might bother somebody else, so you better get in there…but you might wash your hands first.”
Reconstructing this story, I can safely say that I do remember what I said next, and Mac’s reply.
“Mac, did Peter Sellers tell you to quit? Is that why?”
“No sir, Mr. Baker, but it’s a sign, for sure. A man walks off a movie screen and starts chasing me around the auditorium. That’s not right. It’s gotta mean something. I gotta quit.”
In hindsight, I realize that if we had been showing The Ten Commandments instead of The Pink Panther, Mac’s vision at that moment would have led to a lucrative career in televangelism.
Andy and Barney walk through the door as I stare at Mac. Nancy points to me, as if saying, “don’t ask me…he’s in charge.”
I smell popcorn burning. Forcing myself to turn away from Mac, I turn to Evelyn, fire of my loins, who smiles at me, her lips like scarlet cushions, and says, “Oops!”
Causes Larry Baker Supports
Holt International Adoption Services
Harry Chapin Foundation
National Public Radio