I guess it wasn’t that fast, my transmogrification from upper middle class soccer Mom (which I would be if my daughter played soccer, but she doesn’t; and if I had a minivan, which I most certainly don’t) into minimum wage Popcorn Betty, standing behind the counter at a local movie house. I had been blessed with a husband who stumbled into the high tech world and, until recently, made a salary that allowed me to stay home with our children. It didn’t occur to me then how false was my sense of security, how flimsy was my safety net. I worked at home a little, writing: during naptimes, while perched on the edge of the bathtub, after dinner. It was enough.
And then it wasn’t.
I look back and I can see the trajectory with hindsight; the slow sputtering and death of my dot-com writing gig and then, several months later, the bankruptcy of my husband’s company, leaving him with no severance, just worthless stock options. I thought, okay, this is bad, but he has connections and an Ivy League pedigree, and we just bought him four more pairs of hip-and-casual, workplace-style khaki pants. Of course he’ll get another job. Of course we’ll be okay.
And we weren’t.
I went to temp agencies first because, of course, my husband would be getting another job at any time. I didn’t want to make a commitment to someone and have to leave after a few short months, and, secretly, the idea of being away for eight hours at a stretch seemed an unnecessary sacrifice on my part, considering how quickly this would all be resolved.
I had no idea.
It turned out my computer proficiency was mostly obsolete, and being able to check email while simultaneously breastfeeding and playing Chinese checkers was not a skill highly sought after by any of the agencies I contacted. All that time at home I had thought I was in the real world. In truth, I had been barely on the periphery: skirting along the edges in my middle class life, not recognizing that bottomless lattes and free-range play dates are not the norm for every mother. It’s like that campy cartoon — “I forgot to get a career!” — only I’m the one slapping my forehead. Now that I needed a job there weren’t any: not in this economy, not for me.
Then one day the phone rang. It was a friend of mine who had taken my daughter and some other children to our local movie theater: a rehab-ed vaudeville hall with a row of apartments on the second floor and small shops on either side. It was “second-run,” meaning that after the megaplexes squeezed all they could out of the big-budget action flicks; the tender, quirky indies; the broad comedies, this place got them — sometimes six months late, but tickets were half-price and they served local ice cream.
There were various ghost sightings — or stories about ghost sightings, anyway — and the workers made the popcorn in a vintage metal popper that billowed steam and made a sound like firecrackers set off in a tin can. The old balcony was split into two tiny screening rooms high up in the building, where badly-done plaster friezes of cherubs flaked paint from the ceiling and the long corridor once used for back-stage scenery now led to angular, cramped restrooms. There was always a sweating pitcher of complimentary ice water on the counter by the stairs.
While at the movie, my daughter had been hit by a wave of motion sickness during a particularly swoopy chase scene and had ruined everyone’s popcorn, so I was called to come and get her. On my way out of the theater, as I escorted her with a beach towel from my car held under her chin, I saw a “Help Wanted” sign in the lobby. I went back the next day and filled out an application. Near the bottom, next to where I was supposed to list my parent or guardian, I had to note whether I had a curfew. I suspected this would all be extremely awkward.
During my first week at work, the terrifying Uber Soccer/PTO/Block Parent Mom from my neighborhood came in on a date with her husband. She spotted me at the concession counter, hunkered down beside the melted butter machine.
“Oh!” she trilled. “You work here? How great! What a fun way to get a little ‘you’ time!” Like this was a lark, a kick. I was out at ten-thirty on a Tuesday night, pouring Freezies and sweeping kernels as a relaxing respite from drinking wine and watching “Judging Amy reruns. She had chosen to go out, to leave her children for a little while. I felt like I had been ripped from mine.
I spent a lot of time that first week ducking into the storage closet whenever a neighbor came in. When I was younger, before I became a mother, I had waitressed, I had dog walked, I had scooped ice cream and made pizzas, so it’s not as if I didn’t get the whole service industry thing. I’ve cleaned house for other people more often than I’ve paid to have my house cleaned, but I still felt the sting of being someone living in a generally affluent suburb who now waited on her neighbors for minimum wage.
I still work at the theater, and I am still horrified when my girlfriends swing by. I can tell they think they’re cheering me up when they come in with their babies and their snippets of gossip, but I hate having anyone from my old life see me in this new one. I hate to see my old life paraded before me. I envy their casual banter with their children, how they can choose to come visit me while I wonder if at home teeth have been brushed, homework has been completed.
I keep a firm line between my worlds. The one exception is that I try on a regular basis to sneak in my neighbor with her four children, because there’s something quite satisfying about letting them see an outdated, badly animated movie for free. I nod to my coworkers to set up my pal Michele with a free popcorn, and it’s sort of like buying a friend a beer. When the architect who had to stop our remodeling project due to our lack of funds came in to talk about how much she admires me for “stepping up,” I joked that, hey, it’s not coal mining, and we laughed. I made sure I kept smiling as I served her a soda, checked her ticket, and directed her to the romantic comedy down the hall.
It’s worse when my family comes in. Hannah is eight. She holds herself carefully, eyes slow to blink, aware that she’s in territory where Mommy can’t be seized physically or held enthralled by one of her monologues. She can sense there are rules about all of this. Charlie, three, ambles in, tries to get across the concession counter to me, bleats for me.
I reach across the Plexiglas case to tuck the hair behind my daughter’s ears, to pat and stroke as best I can reach, sneaking in my attention, shooting them bright looks between customers. I pass them Dixie cups of popcorn, coffee cups full of Freezie drinks, ask if they’re okay, is everything okay, how is their day going so far? My husband looks worn and slightly pissed-off because he knows Charlie will melt down when they leave and I know it as well, but savor the five or ten minutes they linger in the lobby. I try to get in a whole afternoon’s worth of devotion in those five minutes because by the time I get home, I don’t want to hear about new Pokemon cards or misplaced dinosaurs. After eight hours of dealing with the public, my capacity to listen and hand out snacks is significantly diminished.
I think a lot about how generally angry and tired and frightened I am, and how badly I am hiding it. My oldest gets all of this — she’s seen me burst into tears at the dinner table, watched me hesitate over a purchase at the market, heard me childishly throw things across the room. I worry about what this is like for her. She remembers before: when a spilled glass of milk was no big deal, when overdue video charges wouldn’t send me into a little fit, when I was around all the time, physically and emotionally available. My youngest has no memory of our lives, of me, being any different.
When my husband and I had to go sign papers to refinance our home, I thought about asking one of the girls at the theater to baby-sit for us. I hesitated. This was crossing the boundary between worlds, and what if she drank the cooking sherry or went joy riding with the kids? How could I work with her afterward if things were awkward?
It was ridiculous to overthink it so much. There’s something reassuring about hiring a sitter for the first time after you’ve spent several hours together, scraping gum off a bathroom stall door. You develop a certain level of intimacy. Still, it’s odd that at work she has seniority over me, while in my home I’m the one pointing out where the mac-and-cheese is stored and how to work the remote. I pay her the going rate for babysitters, which is two dollars and twenty-five cents an hour above what she and I are paid at the movie house. Now all my friends use her to baby-sit as well, so she is home with their children while they are at the movies. While I am at the movies.
All of us who work at the theater are damaged in some way that keeps us from working at a place where more is asked of our intellect, our creativity, our commitment, our ability to show up on time — physically or emotionally sober. Sure, some of the 16-year olds work there because it’s a simple after-school job. Then there are the Lifers: Rowan, the post-Goth girl who was training to be a ballerina before she burned out at 19; 24-year old Lynn, a fanzine writer who regularly throws tantrums at patrons when they want more butter or ask for directions to the bathroom, bursting into tears and announcing it’s just too much, she has to go home; and Cheryl, the Tufts grad who maybe wants to go into medicine and maybe wants to be a painter, but has been unable for years now to choose and move forward.
For a while I felt sure that I was different from them, but now I know better. It’s been more than a year and no one is interviewing my husband for a desk job. The country has gone through, at last count, two wars, with more international hideousness looming. There’s no economic upswing in sight. I keep applying for other jobs, but no one is hiring me, either, so I’m also a misfit, a worker with faded skills whose resume ends with the first Bush presidency. I’m a person in need of a job when there are no jobs to be had; someone too old and too smart to be making so little, doing so little; someone fighting pride and snobbery while sweeping up popcorn and wearing a Greek tragedy logo over her left breast. I was horrified for a long while that this was the best I could do, with my college degree and my years of experience and my ability to drive a stick shift, plant a garden, throw a dinner party, write a novel. I thought, “These people don’t know who I really am. How much better I am than this.”
Which, of course, meant better than them.
The other night as I stood on the rickety ladder to change the letters on our marquee, the wind and passersby both made me feel vulnerable and I threw a little tantrum in my head. I was so ready to walk away. Who did they think they were, asking a 38-year old mother to climb a stupid ladder? If the theater’s two-dollar suction cup device hadn’t fallen off the broomstick, I could have changed the letters from the ground like a normal person. This wasn’t me, none of it. This wasn’t a corny Hollywood movie about the snotty mom who learned humility by working with the little people. But I held onto the industrial orange ladder as cars whizzed by and the wind blew trash. I picked off the titles letter-by-letter and slapped up new ones and I didn’t look down. Because I’m not better than the 15-year-old or the 24-year-old, so why shouldn’t I be up on that ladder? As much as I hated to admit it, we’re all equals. This is the best job I could get. And that really pisses me off.
I call home during my breaks to check in, to rearrange my husband’s arrangements. He’s kind about my attempts to manage, to not give up my hold from five blocks away. After work I head home to them, my house brimming with pets and scattered with toys, and my husband greets me on his way out the door. We call it the “hand-off.” We’ve split our time so that we don’t have to pay for daycare, which means the four of us are virtually never awake in the same building at the same time.
Sixteen months ago he was a top executive for an international software startup. Now he’s selling motorcycles, or hoping to sell motorcycles, to men who look and dress and spend exactly like he used to. Who is buying motorcycles from my husband in this economy? Not my husband’s ex-coworkers, most of whom are still unemployed or consulting for possibly worthwhile stock options, for the promise of a job in the future “when the economy picks up.” My husband and I joke about having our picture taken together, both of us in our polyester-blend work shirts (that itchy, universally unattractive costume of the working stiff), something vaguely American Gothic, perhaps: a memento to look back on when it can be funny, our “underemployment,” a souvenir of leaner times. We haven’t yet mustered the energy to pose.
I hate it, how my old life is gone, how much I miss my kids, but I enjoy parts of my new life, too. I like the way I feel so viciously awake. I hate missing my children, but I am relieved, reassured that I miss them. I didn’t always know I would. When I tuck them in at night, if I’ve worked the day shift, they both deeply inhale as I lean close. “Yum!” sniffs Charlie as I kiss his freckles. “I smell popcorn.”
It feels like this: my children think that before, we had some tiresome, ill-defined desk jobs. But now? They tell everyone. They brag to all their friends that Mommy works at the movie theater and Daddy sells motorcycles. We’re the coolest parents ever, they say, and they mean it.
And it feels like this: I’m terrified. We’re a few short months from losing everything, our credit, our house. I didn’t know how good it was to be home with my kids, slightly bored, affably dismissive, vaguely affluent. I had no idea how Goddamned lucky I was, and I sure know it now. I know it every time I walk out my door, stop to blow them good-bye kisses and turn away again so they can’t see that I’m starting to cry, even after all this time.
I watch Hannah’s face as she waves to me. She sees my stained one-issue shirt, eyes my slumped shoulders, but she’s young enough, I tell myself, that the measure of these things is infinitesimal. I don’t know what she’s taking from all of this, whether she’ll recall this swing-shift parenting, but I know she’ll remember the times she offered her allowance at the check-out line, the look on my face when I read my pay stub. I feel the weight of being the woman she effortlessly adores now but might, someday, not want to become.