I often say that I'm not an adult, I'm a kid with a good budget and my own car. As such, certain activities often considered juvenile or "kiddy" entertain me. So when a friend said that he wanted to go to Chuck E. Cheese's for his 30th Birthday, I was all about it.
Little did I know that with the span of a few hours, I would for the first time in my life walk out of place of amusement saying "Thank god I am out of there."
First off, we arrived on a Saturday. The place was packed, wall to wall, with kids and their parents. If you've never been to Chuck E. Cheese or similar establishment, it consists of a play room filled with games that dispense tickets, a counter where you can purchase cheap plastic crap with said tickets, medium to low grade pizza (plus other kid friendly foods) and animatronic, anthropomorphic animals which light up and move in time to music, occasionally accompanied by people in costume. For most kids, this is like having a little Disneyland in your home town. For most adults, this is one of the definitions of hell.
We arrived with our friends, who had kids, and went in with them. They got their hands stamped (so that it was understood whose children belonged to who) and we went in. We had coupons, which was good, because the place charges almost $40 for a sub-pizza hut Pizza, 4 bottomless sodas and a cup full of tokens. We ordered our food, found a table without having to shed any blood and then sat down.
The kids were gone in a flash, off to make some tokens disappear into slots, and we had a moment to take in the experience. I realized that something had changed in me (and perhaps that I'd watched a little too much Dr. Who) when I looked over at the animatronic "band" and, because they were moving when the spotlights were not on them, wondered if they might step forward and start eating the children. Deciding that the possibility was remote (at least remote enough to not concern myself so much with it), I looked to the patronage.
Chuck E. Cheese is the sort of establishment that sells atmosphere as much as food. They also sell the idea that "expensive" equals "quality", a lie that mostly works on kids and people who haven't had a lot of real quality in their lives. As a result, most of the families that you see there are in the low to middle income brackets, salt of the earth folk that really just want to give their kids a good time and are probably there because of a birthday or other, similar remarkable occasion. They've been sold on the idea and this idea crumbles pretty quickly once you're in the presence of the screaming and the greasyness and the chintz. They looked defeated in a way, as if they understand now that they have traded a cow for magic beans, only the magic beans turn into wacky wall crawlers and silly straws.
After getting a good look at the folks there, I decided to go play some games. For some reason, the arcade area has very few video games to speak of. There were a couple of driving games, one interesting one that had ship's wheel with fire buttons on it but for the most part, it was games in which to drop, roll or shoot tokens in the hopes of getting more tokens or long strings of numbered tickets. Not finding most of these of any amusement value I almost despaired. Then I saw the row of skeeball machines.
I put in a token, get a trio of well worn, grapefruit sized plastic balls and begin to bowl them down the padded lane. One of the first things I notice is that the height is adjusted for people much smaller than me, so the bending down it takes to achieve accuracy quickly begins to stress my back. The second thing I notice is that the other adults playing the games are leaning halfway down the lane, within a foot of being able to put the balls into the holes by dropping them rather than rolling. Third, I understand that this is a ticket game and the only way to get a string of tickets that don't make you feel that you've failed as a human being is to be a player of legendary skill and consistency.
Despite this, I decide this will be the depository for the tokens I wish to spend and continue to play. After about three games, I get in the groove and am getting respectable scores when a toddler that I don't recognize, still in diapers, comes up and grabs one of my projectiles. He then throws it, achieving just enough velocity to gain a gutter ball. A male I assumed to be his father gave one token "No, no, no" to the child before turning around to speak to someone else and despite telling the kid I didn't need any help, I am now faced with the question of what does one do when a kid comes up and starts grabbing your... well, what do I do?
I decided that perhaps I should be as Gandhi-like as possible and let the kid bowl some balls. It's not like it's a big deal, I don't need a bendy straw that bad, so four of my nine throws are made by junior. He starts to wander away, so I play another game, but apparently he didn't wander far and soon, I have a little helper again. I put up with it again, but I walk away and let him go get distracted before returning to the machine to play again.
This was a great plan, I thought. Until another kid came up and did the same thing.
Annoyed, I accept the unwelcome help and watch another toddler throw another of my rented balls down both my lane and the lane of the person standing next to me. As the machine awaits me to make my last throw, impossible as the ball lies in the belly of another device I decided to take a break, eat more cheap pizza and perhaps give it another go later.
Only when I come back, a third kid does the same damn thing.
At this point, I revert to playground mentality, covering the balls with my hand and telling the kid, the under four year old kid, to get his own and wondering if I have the restraint to body check him without permanent damage. He makes two or three attempts to get them but finally wanders off leaving me to finish my game and consider what a horrible person I am.
Whoever thought that incorporating small children, stressed out adults and a machine that dispenses hard plastic balls meant to be hurled did not think this plan out very well, I don't think. Oh, did I mention you can get beer there, too?
My wife, who has a seizure disorder and is photo sensitive, was back at the table trying not to look at the animatronics. Somewhere, it has gotten into the psyche of the American mind that if you have a bad, you must also have flashing lights. It took only a little convincing to get her to agree it was time to vacate.
I left my tickets with my friend's kids, wished the birthday boy a happy birthday and escaped.
Once upon a time, that place would have been a wonderful thing for me. Now, I don't know if it's years or experience or something else, but even the most youthful impulses of my inner child were repulsed when they should have been bouncing. It's not that it's full of screaming kids or even that it's over-priced; it's that it's selling a particular brand of amusement to kids that is not so much what they might enjoy, but a grown-up's mistaken impression of what kids might enjoy. It's a racket to get the parents to pay money and then get the children to take most of the benefit exchanged for that money and give it back to the company. It's takes all the innocence and wonder of being young and then dresses it up in a silly costume and makes it dance at gunpoint.
I'm glad my friend had fun and I'm glad I was there to celebrate his birthday with him. Especially since, later that night, he brought me a bendy straw. That said, I had to agree with my wife; it might take someone getting cancer to get me to go back to that place again. Terminal cancer in advanced stages. And another bendy straw.