Chuck E’s in Traction

This post has been crafted at the request of my pal Sra, who recently requested that I share a childhood memory in narrative form. For those of you unable or unwilling to remember, there is a song by Ricky Lee Jones entitled “Chuck E’s in Love.” This little ditty has nothing to do with the story I’m about to tell you. So don’t come begging for royalties, Ricky Lee!

When I was younger and still trying to figure out what sort of error had been made during the placement of my female soul into my leviathanesque male body, I was frequently compared to a host of literary characters – Gentle Ben, Frankenstein’s Monster, whatever the hell that giant thing was in the Neverending Story – known for both their enormous size and gentle demeanor (at least until provoked). However, some things in this world will try the patience of even the most even-tempered among us – and this, my friends, is one of them. This is…


My sister’s fifth birthday party was supposed to be pretty standard; balloons, cake, presents, a bunch of screaming brats running around (or, depending on KR’s opinion of their present, running for their lives). I was looking forward to a little free cake followed by a quick exit, stage left, when Ma suggested we take the kids to Chuck E. Cheese for KR’s birthday instead.  In a world where KR was an only child, this would’ve been fine. However, since I am averse to both creepy animatronic bands with the eyes of the damned and costumed characters of any kind, this did not sound like a fun time of fun for me. Familial obligations proved to be mightier than my objections, and Saturday found me shuffling half-heartedly into Chuck E.’s den.

For those of you who have not experienced Chuck E. Cheese’s, let me attempt to share a soupcon of the putrid bile that is its ambience. Imagine a low-rent carnival (you know, the kind that used to camp out on the edge of the Fairgrounds, waiting for the gullible and the weak), transported to the inside of a warehouse-sized pizza restaurant.  Now, further imagine that everything has been painted in garish, fevered colors, and that you are twelve years old and already uncomfortably aware that not only is this sort of thing not fun now, but that continued exposure to it will cause you to black out, praying for death’s sweet release. By this point, adding costumed characters to the mix was just the pus-filled cherry on the scabrous sundae of repulsiveness.

I managed to endure dinner, poking at the undercooked, flaccid pizza and counting the minutes until the party ended and freedom would be mine. As things were wrapping up, I stood up in the vain hope that doing so would act as a cue to the rest of the table…a psychological gambit that had worked before but proved frustratingly futile this time. Even worse, standing up seemed to have attracted the attention of Chuck E. Cheese, the tattered eponymous pile of fur that was the dark lord of this hellish carnival of the damned. He came over to our table, hugging the other children (whose eyes were apparently blind to the pulsating aura of pure evil surrounding him). I walked away, standing at the railing just inside the entrance, hoping that whatever nightmare-inducing secrets Chuck E. was whispering in the ears of my sister and her little friends would not reach mine. And then…it happened.

Every child, I think, has a moment when they learn that, for whatever reason, adults are not to be completely trusted. Having set a trap for Santa as a child and finding only my visibly irate father standing in the moat of flour I had poured around our chimney, I knew that adults could, and did, lie to us, either directly or via omission. I was mostly okay with this, because I was sitting on a pretty big secret of my own. I’d also learned that some adults not only didn’t love children, but actively disliked them; the idiot husbands my older cousins chose were of this ilk, and took great delight in holding me down for Indian burns and wet willies and the like. And now, standing at the railing, I discovered yet another reason to distrust adults: some of them wanted to torture you, and because they were adults, they could do it and laugh.

Ma’s best friend at the time, a woman we’ll call “Demonica,” had noticed my discomfort, and decided I wasn’t quite discomforted enough. She leaned over and whispered into Chuck E.’s no doubt mite-infested ear, pointing at me and grinning.  Chuck E.’s blank doll eyes seemed to glow a little brighter, and he started his hellish shuffle toward me in what felt like super-slo-mo. Everything receded into the distance but that damned rat, his arms flung wide, his malicious buck teeth ruddy with conspicuous consumerism and, let us assume, the blood of his other victims…I froze.

But only for a moment. As Chuck E. drew in for a hug I knew would end with my dessicated corpse dropping to the carpeted floor, drained of all life force, I pushed away from the railing and ran for it. Of course, in doing so, I was fleeing the only point of ingress/egress in the whole damned place, and as I raced around the arcade machines, through a flock of puzzled middleschoolers and dodged the stage full of mechanical puppets, I knew my course could only have one endpoint. What I hadn’t counted on, of course, was Chuck E.’s willingness to chase me. He followed me through the whole restaurant, moving faster than a person in an eighty-pound suit should be able, and at the last moment, I found my escape cut off by a jeering Demonica, who encouraged Chuck E. to give me a big old hug between cackles. Back pressed against the railing, I tried to reason with the demented mouse, but he would not be dissuaded. Finally, overcome by fear, my adrenalin maxed, I ducked around him and let fly with all the pent up rage I could muster.

In case you’ve never punched a person wearing a fake head before, this is what it’s like. First, your fist hits the reinforced, papier mache-like head, covered in fur and plastic. Then, if your punch is driven by, say, the utter terror of an exhausted but freakishly strong pre-teen just discovering that 90% of the objects in the world will be destroyed by their unchecked wrath, there will come a second blow, this one coming as the fake head is knocked loose and is driven into the REAL head beneath. If the fake-headed person is unlucky enough to be standing with, oh, I don’t know, their back to a railing, then they will be driven back over that railing, falling down the stairs behind it to the floor like a broken marionette, and you will have time to leap over them and flee to the car because no one – not even you – will be able to believe what you just did.

I would’ve run and never looked back if I could. But it was the girlish scream of pain that left me shaking and sobbing in the van afterward. At first, I’d assumed the scream had come from me, but my Mother would later report that I had been eerily silent during the whole affair, my lips drawn back in a snarl of unadulterated loathing as I drove my fist into my opponent’s noggin’ “like a jackhammer. Good God, I thought you’d killed her.”

And of course, it was a HER. The young woman, probably working her way through college at the time of this story, had a sprained wrist and some bruising, but was not seriously hurt. For my part, I sent her a fruit basket via the restaurant, but as I was banned for life, I’ll never know if she received it.

The school paper did a write-up, and I became a minor celebrity, at least among small-town Ohio kids. My sister never had another birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. Demonica, her amusement somewhat diminished by the fact that she’d driven me to assault and battery on a beloved children’s character, gave me a wide berth after that day.

And me? I’m still unnerved by the costumed characters. A few years after the Chuck E. Cheese Incident, I was knocked unconscious by a lamp post (apparently part of the 10% of objects not susceptible to my bulldozer-like powers) while fleeing Scooby Doo at King’s Island. Scooby hadn’t made any motion toward me – hell, Scooby hadn’t even LOOKED at me – but one can’t be too careful, and as I was running away, I glanced back to make sure Scooby (or, it goes without saying, any member of his Gang) wasn’t following, and ran smack into the lamp post. When I woke up, I had gained both perspective and a sizeable goose egg. Outside of Hollywood and the type of carnivals that lurk on the edge of fairgrounds, costumed characters aren’t out to get anyone. They’re just people doing a job, and now when my friends ask for the Chuck E. Cheese story, I may threaten to beat them instead, but I almost always end up telling it, with my oldest friends adding color commentary just in case I leave out any good bits for the uninitiated.

And somewhere out there is a woman in her early forties who I hope went on to a successful college and professional career, a woman who can only sigh and relent as, once again, her friends call for another telling of the time some batshit Mexican kid socked her in the jaw.

I like to think of her smiling as she tells it.


8 Responses

  1. This is a great story but I think what is even better about it is your obvious knack for storytelling.

    I’d have given just about anything to be that girl’s friend back in the day and hear her story Monday morning at school.

    Thanks for sharing your side of it. I’m sure it is the better and most accurate account.


  2. @Heather Thanks! This story’s got quite a few miles on it (I even wrote about it for a project in college) but it’s probably emblematic of my entire approach to life, i.e. “Try reason first, but if it doesn’t work, it’s clobberin’ time!”

  3. Ha ha ha, good story! I love your description of the different kinds of adults, the ones who like to torture, who can smell fear. I always hated those adults when I was a kid. They think they are being funny, but really they are traumatizing innocent youth!

    I loved ShowBiz Pizza, the predecessor to Chuck E. Cheese. Their animatronic band was completely rad. I don’t remember much about Chuck E. Cheese, but I remember it wasn’t as fun as ShowBiz.

    I was once accosted by a college mascot, and was horrified by the smell of the nasty old suit. I hate mascots. It’s got to be the worst job too.

    I vote for more narratives from you.

  4. Ah yes… the Chuck E Cheese incident. This story gets better and more detailed every time I hear it. Still a classic.

    I think it’s weird how you have a presence in the blogoshpere, and people read and love you, and just when you start to get consistent, BAM! You disappear for months at a time. I’m sure you’re super busy, but it’s still weird.

    I’m still mad at Showbiz for killing Godfather’s in the midwest, although I hear it’s made a resurgence.

    I have never been to Chuck E Cheese. There are two within a half-hour of me, but why would I ever subject myself to that?

  5. @Sra Thanks! Yeah, adults are evil. Glad I never became one.

    Showbiz was, to me, just a jumped-up Chuck E. Cheese. I guess for me the Uncanny Valley extends too far in either direction for me to be comfortable around simulcra.

    And yes, the suits DO smell. They smell like sorrow!

    @Sov Yeah, I know. The only thing I fear more than obscurity is success. One day I’ll slip up and do something really popular, and then where will I be?

    Oh, that’s right. In my gold Lexus eating hummingbird tongues poached in the tears of my enemies.

    But that’s for later!

    One of my goals for 2009 (I refuse to have resolutions) is to be more consistent in all I do. Now that I’m a partner in an actual business, I have to start acting like a grown-up (“my greatest performance ever,” raves Variety!).

  6. Lurved it! I am with Sra on the Showbiz it was far better than Chucks place. I never knew about the Scooby incident. Good stuff!

  7. Heh heh.
    I love this story.
    I’m going to echo Sra and Mollie on Showbiz. I seem to remember a giant ape that played the drums…?
    And the best part was they sang, made merry AND kept their frickin’ distance!

  8. @Mollie Thanks!

    @Jessica I just can’t get excited about Showbiz. Evil is evil, bolted to a stage or not! 🙂

    Yeah, the ape played the drums, I think? Maybe a guitar-playing dog?

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