When I was in my senior year of high school, I took a part-time job working at the local movie theater. It paid reasonably well, enough for me to have a bit of pocket money, and despite the management’s strange stance that high schoolers had nothing better to do in their spare time than work, I did like the job. My coworkers were nice, I got to watch bits of the latest films during my breaktime, and I always came home smelling like popcorn.
It was also my very first foray into the wild and maddening world of customer service, and as the months passed, I saw more than my fair share of rude, dense, uncooperative, and downright dickish customers. Most of them have faded into the background over time, but there was one experience I had that rattled me so badly that I still recall it now.
During the run of “What Lies Beneath” (a ghost story/murder mystery movie starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer), I got promoted, so to speak, from concessions to box office, so I was learning how to work the computer and sell tickets. There was no monetary raise involved; the additional training just meant that the management could swap people around to cover different jobs as needed.
One particular evening, as I was working the box office, a man came in to see a movie. He was on the tall side and that vague sort of pudgy that looks more broad than fat. I smiled and launched into my typical greeting.
“Hi, welcome to the theater! How can I help you?”
“Yeah, I’ll take one ticket for Lie Beneath Me.” Mind you, at this point, I’d heard the movie misnamed a few times, but there was something about the way he said it, and the way he leaned forward and stared directly at me, that made me vaguely uncomfortable. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it didn’t seem like an appropriate sort of look for a grown man to be giving a seventeen-year-old girl. Nonetheless, I maintained my Customer Service Mask, pretended I hadn’t heard the slip-up, and handed him his ticket.
“Here you are, sir, enjoy the show!”
“You wanna come watch it with me?” Still with the stare and an odd smile that didn’t reach his eyes. I was starting to wish my trainer was in the box with me, but I was too short to look over to the concessions counter to see if anyone was there to intervene. The only thing I could do was keep the mask up and hope for the best.
“Sorry, no can do. Have to stay here and sell tickets. You have a good one though!”
He stared at me for a few unending seconds, then plodded off toward the concessions counter. I let out a breath and composed myself, then put the smile back on to greet the next customer in line.
A couple of hours later, the strange incident almost forgotten, I swapped out with a coworker who was going on break and needed someone to cover the ushering for a couple of shows that were about to end, including the Ford-Pfeiffer flick. Grateful for the break from constant smiling, I grabbed a broom and pickup, and went to go sweep the aisles and remove trash and spilled popcorn. Let me tell you – something about being in a movie theater turns even the most fastidious people into complete slobs. I swear it’s a sickness.
I entered the theater as the last guests were leaving, while the end credits rolled. As I was picking up trash in the forward section, minding my own business, who should I spy but Mister Creepy from the box office. And his eyes were fixed directly on me once again. I’d never been leered at so openly in my entire young life, and I wanted to bolt for the door, but I had a job to do. So I kept my head down and hoped that he would leave with the rest of the patrons.
No such luck.
As I was dumping a load of spilled popcorn into the garbage bin, I heard footsteps behind me, and then a voice, far too close for comfort or manners, said, “Too bad you weren’t here. I was the only one in the back row. We could’ve had some fun.” One of his hands was fumbling deep in the pocket of his khakis and he was breathing hard and staring at me. I gripped my broom and tried to subtly edge away. He moved to block me.
My heart jumped into my throat and lodged there. The theater was now empty, and as far as I knew, I was the only one ushering for that show. I was too young and too scared to know what to say or do to get myself out of the situation. Nothing in our employee orientation had mentioned anything about what to do if you got trapped in a theater with a creepy customer. All I could think was, “If he comes any closer, I’ll jab him in the balls with my broom and run like hell.”
Fortunately, at that very moment, a couple of other employees walked into the theater to help with cleanup. Mister Creepy yanked his hand out of his pocket and booked it down the steps and out the fire exit at the front of the theater. I was shaking, but otherwise unharmed. I didn’t know what to say or how to describe what had happened, so I said nothing and went back to concessions for the rest of my shift as soon as I was able. Being around half a dozen other people and the watchful eyes of the office security cameras made me feel a little better.
When my shift ended, I grabbed my hoodie, put the hood up against the light rain that was starting to come down, and walked outside into the nearly-empty parking lot. I had no car of my own yet, so my mother came to pick me up when I was done for the night. And just like clockwork, she was there in the side parking lot just beside the entrance. I waved to some coworkers who were leaving at the same time…and then I froze.
Halfway down one of the aisles, sitting at the wheel of a large dark-colored SUV, was Mister Creepy. And he was craning his neck like he was looking for someone. Without waiting to see more, I booked it over to my mother’s car, hoping my hood had hidden my face so that he didn’t know it was me. As we pulled out of the parking lot and headed for home, I saw him still sitting there, watching the doors of the theater as if waiting for an unsuspecting young girl to come out.
I saw him a few more times during my tenure at the theater, but I always managed to duck into the storeroom or the breakroom or the lady’s toilets before he noticed me. So thankfully, Mister Creepy and I never did meet again.