When I had enough of asking Mom and Dad for money to buy Taco Bell combos, CDs from Sam Goode and extra night-and-weekend minutes, I knew it was time to get a damn job. Sure, they’d have to accompany me, unlicensed and autonomy-seeking, to make these purchases. But upon arrival, who’d be pulling hard-earned-dollar dollar bills out of their first wallet that didn’t have a cartoon character and/or Velcro, newly copped at T.J. Maxx?
Plus, my friends who had entered the land of 16 before me were all working and flourishing and getting their ears pierced at Claire’s in Coliseum Mall with their disposable income. So when my time came, I eagerly joined the workforce with a pretty sweet setup: Climb inside a giant costume and become a cheer-spreading rodent, learn some choreography, enchant and terrorize toddlers for a bit, do a song and dance each hour and be rewarded with a personal pizza with toppings of my choosing, thank you very much. As long as I could buy Cinnabons—then a food group unto themselves—at will, minimum wage was fine with me.
The icing on the cake? Access to all the Dr Pepper and orange soda an ever-famished, work-permit-sanctioned 15-year-old could ever need. It’s the little things.
For a few weeks, I was the guy in the Chuck E. Cheese suit who you, parent of an amazed or horrified child, either loved or loathed, depending on the child’s reaction. I waddled through the dining room, past the ball pit and the games, getting your little tax deductions all worked up, captivating the sugared-up, grabby masses with high fives, head pats and, occasionally, a masterfully deployed peekaboo offensive to tranquilize testy toddlers.
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Not bad for a first job.
My dressing room also housed mops, birthday-merriment apparatuses (candles, hats, balloons, helium) and tools to unfuck the janky games. I later learned it was also a preferred venue for workplace hanky-panky. I, however, was most familiar with the cleaning supplies—Lysol in particular.
“All y’all teenage motherfuckers are musty as hell,” a trainer told me on my first day, “so make sure you spray the suit down real good when you take it off. The head, too.”
And so I did.
In the beginning, I did a lot of sitting around and waiting, so the “Birthday Star Song” was the highlight of the hour. I was much less shy inside that deodorized hotbox, so I was able to ham it up and be goofier than normal. I’d frolic around the dining room recruiting eager kids, then line up with the party hosts, who’d help me instruct ye little ones on our forthcoming call-and-response bonanza (“I say ‘Happy,’ you say ‘Birthday’” and such).
’Twas my Janet moment. I got to stand in the middle and get the party started. And you better believe I gave those young’uns the most enthused handclaps and stomps they’d ever seen in the name of St. Damita Jo Jackson of Gary, Ind., First of Her Name, Breaker of Chains.
As a dancer, it was technically my first professional gig. I didn’t realize that until I started typing this sentence.
Luckily, being the dude in the Lysol- and Teen Spirit-scented suit was but a pit stop on my sojourn through the house that Sir Charles E. Cheese built.
Surviving a few shifts in the suit meant graduating to cashier in training, one step closer to CEO.
Equipped with a visor and dominion over a glorious bucket of tokens in case the register’s token dispenser malfunctioned (which happened often) and the ability to incite tantrums or appease distraught parents one glittery sticker set at a time, I was pretty content with staying behind the counter, spreading joy by slinging cotton candy and token-soda-pizza-cake combos.
Cashiering meant I’d be face-to-face with the germy, sugared-up, grabby masses at the prize counter. Many a toddler learned about capitalism upon discovering, to their dismay, that four soggy tickets and whining can’t buy a 1,500-ticket, multicolored disco-ball light. Sorry, Lil Maggie. The upside was that I got to act a fool with my next-door neighbor and partner in teenage fuckery, Mensa. I’m certain we did more laughing than anything else.
Being behind the counter had its drawbacks, though. As the givers of joy, Mensa and I had to maintain the salad bar next to the registers, ensuring that all salad toppings remained fresh and filled, that the ice almost runneth over and that the beer-guzzling parents were pleased.
Chopping veggies and replenishing cottage cheese wretchitude? Not ideal, but fine. Stopping fruit-punch-stained kids from reaching for tomatoes and occasionally having to sprint off yonder in search of more Italian dressing? Cool. We did not, however, sign up to battle beets and their omnipresent juice.
At the end of the night, when the poopy diapers and worn-out moms had dispersed, breaking down and storing the contents of the salad bar was always complicated by the presence of beet juice in all surrounding bowls, in the ice, on the counter, on the floor and always in the cottage cheese. And some days, folks would garnish the cottage cheese with a beet slice, creating more work, causing our rides to wait for longer.
It took me a decade to trust beets again.
I reckon my destiny at the little shop of miniature horrors was written long before I enthusiastically agreed to dazzle these kids with my mesmerizing choreographic mastery for $5 and change per hour.
Excluding my brief fling with CEC-competitor Discovery Zone during the summer when I let my friends, Seventh-day Adventists, sucker me into attending vacation Bible school with them, many of my earliest milestones somehow involved Chuck E. Cheese’s, “Where a kid can be a kid.”
The first time my cousin Willie—born 365 days before me in December 1983—and I had a joint birthday party outside my grandma’s house, where do you think our bargain-loving parents took us? Chuck E. Cheese’s. Mind you, it was six minutes from our house. I turned 7. He turned 8. Our parents bought two of everything—one in blue, one in red.
That was the year we each got one of those big-ass tic-tac-toe games that involved tossing cute little bean bags at the grid of spinning X and O blocks in an attempt to vanquish your opponent. And the standard gold nameplate necklaces with our names in cursive like good little halfro-Panamanians. I got what would be the first in a series of swiftly destroyed remote control race cars. We even shared a cake, which I could not, would not and still don’t understand. The horror.
The first time I went to a white kid’s birthday party? Chuck E. Cheese’s. Third grade. And he cried the whole time because his parents got him a lowly standard chocolate cake instead of a chocolate ice cream cake. Savages.
Where did my asshole friends and I seek refuge after being kicked out of the Toys R Us next door for riding bikes in the store, climbing up the shelves into the fun-sized log cabins and kiddie houses on display, and occasionally throwing balls to scare customers passing below us? Chuck E. Cheese’s.
Where was my older sister’s first job, seven years prior? You guessed it (this is a milestone to me because she’d regularly bring home pizza). As it was my first job, I’m pretty sure she’s 96 percent of the reason I got it.
“That’s April’s brother,” one manager told another during my interview.
“Oh, damn. When can you start?”
As such, I was often called “April’s brother” both intentionally and when someone forgot my name those first few weeks.
Oh, and while part of the red-polo clan, I punched my last card for Team Bisexuality-or-Something as a high school senior. The affair with the party host was quick, aimless and fun. We went on group dates with friends, rode around and got semifreaky in my Altima, and shared pizza and wings on our breaks. And then my homegirl told me she had a whole other boyfriend at her school across town, a fellow member of their school’s band. And then I became a full-time homothug.
(I finally met the other man last year at a funeral and I understood.)
People rarely (never?) mention Chuck E. Cheese’s in any pizza hierarchy situation, but when you’re midpuberty and hungry 92 percent of the time you’re awake, it’s the only thing in the world that matters. As the kitchen was bustling with goofy teens, hearing stuff like “Oh shit. They didn’t want green peppers. Y’ALL COME GET THIS DAMN PIZZA!” was a regular occurrence. No complaints from me.
A while back, I ventured into the Harlem location with a sister-friend and her rambunctious, ultracool, breakdancing then-4-year-old, Kenzo. I ate most of a large pie with nary a piece of shame in sight. It passed the munchies test; it stood the test of time.
In between pizza slices, fueled by my burning fatherhood itch, I followed Kenzo around the game room, holding his tickets and passing him tokens after he grew tired of each game. It was just like the location back in Hampton, Va., except everybody had on Tims, the machines all worked, and whereas I was once annoyed by packs of rabid kindergartners, I now wanted to adopt and play Skee-Ball with them. And I don’t remember the daddies in Hampton being as fine.
As Kenzo burned through tokens, a lanky Chuck E. Cheese came skipping through the dining room and game area, terrifying, greeting and corralling kids into a large open space between the games and tables. Kenzo joined the sugared-up, grabby masses screaming and reaching for Chuck E. like autograph-seeking groupies.
A game tech/toddler wrangler appeared and passed a few blocks of tickets to Chuck E. The screams intensified.
“Uh-oh,” I thought.
Then Chuck E. and the manager raised their arms and made tickets rain down on the crowd, inciting a heinous death match in the name of riches, Westeros and crayon-shaped piggy banks. They pulled arms, dove and snatched, cried, hit and kicked. Valiant moms waded into the fray to yank their shrieking wounded warriors out of battle. Some—like my boy Kenzo—emerged victoriously, holding mounds of tickets in their sticky palms or inside their shirt. Others, overwhelmed and ticketless, fled to safety. It was a mess.
You can’t buy that kind of entertainment.
Two years ago, my sister’s daughter followed in our footsteps and wore the red polo as her first job, hosting parties at Chuck E. Cheese’s until the hours and shifts decreased to “What’s the damn point?” and she sought new employment. I’ll report back in about 19 years when my future offspring starts working.
I haven’t been back since that war broke out, and while I sometimes miss the pizza and the janky games, I won’t be the guy who goes there alone to eat yummy pizza with a smile as kids flail about. Anyhow, pardon me while I check and see what Kenzo’s up to this weekend.