These days seem like mean times. I miss kindness.
Lately, I was thinking about my first job; at age 17, I was a candy girl at a six-screen movie theater in Minnesota.
Candy girl remains one of my favorite job titles that I have ever had. Genevieve, Candy Girl. I doubt this title remains. These days the job title is probably neutral and reminiscent of a law firm position like Concessions Associate.
In the late 1980s, the local movie theater was a place of clear job division along gender lines. Boys were ushers and they wore terrible brown polyester jackets. Girls were candy girls and wore terrible brown polyester vests.
The jackets and vests hung from a pole. When it was time for my shift, I pulled off a vest and punched in with my manila time card. “Cha-chunk,” went the time stamp as it printed a time in blue ink on the card.
I gained important things from my two years at the movie theater. One was a good friend who is my friend to this day. I am still grateful for all the dollars he loaned me so I could buy a box of Milk Duds.
I could have free popcorn and soda but we had to pay for candy despite my critical position of candy girl. No free candy even for a candy girl. Milk Duds were the cheapest of the expensive movie theater candy and only cost a dollar. Since we were making minimum wage, $3.35 in 1986, twenty minutes of work for a dinner of Milk Duds wasn’t bad.
The manager promoted me to cashier and then assistant manager in the first six months due to my reliable and honest nature. I was free from the rigid polyester prison of the candy girl vest. I could wear oversized glitter neon sweatshirts, acid wash denim miniskirts and suede boots. I no longer had to stay inside a rectangular island made of glass counters. I walked the floor checking on the candy girls and cashiers, then chided the ushers to use the carpet sweeper on all the popcorn bits. I walked upstairs where I threaded six film projectors, looping the film over knobs and adjusting the focus.
Upstairs was quiet except for the clicking of the projectors as giant platters turned. Downstairs was a mob of thousands of people who poured in and out of the theaters about every two hours. Upstairs was the realm of the managers.
Mark was another of the managers. He had a bit of a crook in his posture. Despite being over six feet tall, he had a quiet presence that was easy to overlook. He was quick to smile and had a bit of an overbite. His wispy brown hair fell to his shoulders. Whether it was a holdover from 1970s style or he was permanently overdo for a haircut, I never knew.
He was in his 30s. Most of us staff were teenagers, working part-time for money we would use on clothes (like my acid wash denim miniskirt) or beer, with Wisconsin and its legal drinking age of 18 just over the bridge. Mark worked fulltime and the theater was his job.
It wasn’t his dream. He once told me that he had been in a band. But it hadn’t turned out. He ended up trying to wrangle dozens of teens in brown polyester to do the bidding of movie theater chain executives. He lived in his mother’s basement and had dark circles of disappointment under his eyes.
Most of us staff were merciless toward him. We would never end up in our parent’s basement without fame, money and love. We were better than him, so we thought. We were all going to be bright lights, the stars of our own shows, never to be conquered by ordinary life and bills, cynical audiences and regret.
He had so many targets to be tormented about that there wasn’t even a single topic people focused on. I had stood around and heard the candy girls and ushers make their comments. Some people picked on his overbite. Some picked on his quiet manner. Some picked on his rounded shoulders and imitated his walk as if he was a gorilla. Some picked on his unstyled hair, saying, “I don’t know what year it is. I’m still in the 70s.” Some picked on his odd outfits.
Some coughed “Loser” when he walked by. He always kept his eyes forward as he passed the gauntlet of sour teenagers and made his way to the staircase where he could go upstairs.
I sat in the office, counting tens of thousands of one-dollar bills that we collected from Dollar Night, truly the worst night to work in a theater.
As the granddaughter and the daughter of engineers, I have a great fondness toward smart, slightly awkward men. He must have sensed my kind view toward him because as we worked together, I became a trusted colleague.
Mark was colorblind. He picked out outfits that clashed terribly but they looked good to his eye. After he learned he could trust me, the first thing he did was ask how his outfit looked. I said mint green, pink and brown don’t go together so well and suggested a change of dress shirt. He started to bring in extra shirts in case his first choice was wrong.
I didn’t make fun of Mark, but I didn’t put a stop to it. I heard the teasing. I felt sorry for him and I thought it was mean what was going on.
But I didn’t put a stop to it.
One evening Mark told me that he was quitting.
“I’m going to work with plants in a greenhouse,” he said. “I don’t know how to deal with people. I don’t know why they are always so mean to me. I try to be nice but they treat me like I’m stupid. You’re the only one who hasn’t made fun of me.”
There was no farewell party. He left and someone else became one of the managers who chided the ushers to use the sweeper more. Someone else threaded the projectors and counted the thousands of one-dollar bills.
I left the theater and went on to many interesting jobs. It’s been 30 years since I worked with Mark.
Lately I have been thinking of him. I have been feeling like I understood him and what he said. Not knowing how to deal with people and not understanding why people can get so mean.
I think of him now. I hope that he found a place where he was respected, even though he wasn’t exceptional, only an awkward failed musician trying to get along the best he knew how.
I hope he found a place where he was accepted. A place of kindness among the plants.
It’s what I pray for all of us.