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Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Night At The El Camino - An excerpt from "A Bunny Screaming"

It was New Year’s Eve, 1978 and I had turned 18 that summer. That year I worked at the El Camino Theater in Scottsdale as an usher. It was the last hurrah for the huge, 800 seat movie theaters that sprinkled the Valley, which were already beginning to disappear in favor of the multi-plex, cookie-cutter theaters which are now the industry standard.

My main clam to fame as an usher was to have caught 156 straight M&M’s tossed high in the air of the immense lobby by a pretty cashier from South America named Inez. On the fly. I got a stomach ache and could not tolerate chocolate for three months, but the feat had made me a legend among the other jaded eighteen year-old Red-Coats who tore thousands of tickets a day and had seen much of what movie theater life had to offer.

The El Camino was the sister theater to the Cine’Capri in downtown Phoenix, which had been home to the blockbuster “Star Wars” upon its release in 1976. Lines around the building for every showing of the space epic had made headlines across the nation and the Cine’Capri was no exception. In contrast, the El Camino was a slower-paced environment and the closest we ever came to true blockbuster status was when the original “Superman” came to town and we were host to lines nearly halfway around the building on some showings of the film. We were no Cine’Capri, but neither did they have an usher who could catch 156 M&M’s in a row.

The point here is that we had lots of time on our hands at the El Camino Theater and we found many imaginative ways to kill it—stomp it to death, really. Bigler also worked at the El Camino and together we amassed one of the great collections of hood ornaments of all time, all harvested from the vast parking lot that provided presumably safe sanctuary to the automobiles that carried our valued patrons. Such is life.

On New Year’s Eve, 1978, I approached my father with an odd request.


Father sits at the kitchen table, a can of beer open in front of him, cradling a battered acoustic guitar on his lap, presumably polishing up the “Jerry Looks Like A Monkey” song.

Teen-aged Jerry enters the room, dressed in his red usher jacket, black pants and clip-on bowtie.


(Looks up, a look on his face that screams “What now?!”)
What now, Goddamn it?

(Shifting from foot to foot) I was wondering…

(Impatient, mumbles) God damn it…

I was wondering—since it’s New Year’s Eve and all… And I am eighteen and all—well, I was wondering if you could get me something to drink…

It takes Father a moment to process this information. He’s never known Jerry to take so much as a sip of alcohol. He does not know about the whole home-brew thing.

You mean alcohol?

Jerry shrugs and nods. Father leaps from his seat with the ease and lack of wasted movement that has amazed his son since he was a boy. Father rushes to the liquor cabinet over the oven and retrieves a .75 liter bottle of Bacardi Light Rum.

To his credit, young Jerry is unfamiliar with the contents of his father’s liquor cabinet and accepts the bottle without thought.

Be careful, Boy—that’s the stuff that made the pirates go crazy…

Father gazes at Son with a look on his face that could almost be mistaken for pride as we:


I knew the look—I had known my father for years. The look was not pride at all—it was an expression of glee in anticipation of impending victory. I knew not what victory lay ahead for him—I was young and naïve. But my father had been patient and now the day had come. It was like watching his boy going off to training camp. With my first little baby-step, I was embarking on the long and winding Journey To Become My Father. Only I didn’t know it at the time. I simply thought I was getting a free bottle of rum. I didn’t realize that I had just sold my soul.

Inez, the great M&M tosser of the El Camino Theater, was from Venezuela. She was a short, stocky girl with long, black hair and beautiful eyes. Inez was also C.R.A.Z.Y., only once again, I didn’t know it. I have proven to be a poor judge of such things. I thought she was simply a pretty girl with a decent, accurate throwing arm. I was dating a girl at the time, and being the basic overall monogamous individual I was, I hadn’t given Inez more than a passing thought. On New Year’s Eve, 1978, that all changed in dramatic fashion.

The El Camino was seating at a whopping 2% capacity, so I was let off work at 8:00 and chose to sit through a couple of viewings of “The Last Waltz” with Bigler and the demon rum rather than go home. I smuggled the rum into the theater and over the course of the evening, Bigler and I finished most of it. To my uninitiated palate, the stuff tasted like turpentine. But by ten o’clock, it could have been turpentine for all I cared. I was blissfully inebriated—shit-hammered beyond repair—and it was New Year’s By-God Eve at the El Camino.

As Levon Helm belted out his fourth rendition of “Ophelia” of the day, I sat drunk and silent in the comfy padded seat, a stupid grin pasted on my face, losing myself in the simple beauty of the darkness, the big-screen, the movie-theater popcorn and the wonder of Dolby sound. The movie opened with a five second printed recommendation: THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD. It was. And no one made better use of it than Levon Helm. I was in heaven.

Then I felt a hand on my leg. I prayed to God that it wasn’t Bigler. I glanced to my right and Bigler had a matching stupid, shit-hammered grim and was too busy watching The Band to think about suddenly turning homosexual. A slow, drunken swivel of my head to the left, however, revealed the lovely Inez, in all her Venezuelan splendor, smiling at me, her long, graceful fingers—the same fingers that had tossed me 156 straight M&M’s—stroking the inside of my thigh. “Hi,” I said, ever the gentleman.

Inez leaned over and whispered. “Allo,” she said, her thick Venezuelan accent never more apparent. I forgot about Levon, the popcorn and the Dolby sound—even the rum, for the moment—and rose from my seat. I took Inez’s hand and led her, leaving Bigler to the film and the booze, to the back row of the movie theater, where it was a bit darker and more secluded, if not the least bit quieter.

Inez and I made out for the rest of the night, ensconced in the back row of the El Camino for the remainder of that screening of the “Last Waltz” and well into the next. When we left the theater, midway through Muddy Waters’ rendition of “Mannish Boy”, I noticed that Bigler was gone. He had left and I hadn’t even noticed, so busy was I with the groping of Inez. We made it to my car and I tried my best to close the deal with all drunken adolescent vigor I could muster, but was soundly rebuffed at every turn by the swift Venezuelan hands, which apparently stroked and slapped and tossed candy with equal skill.

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