by Mitchell Waldman
His name was Charles (though nobody would call him that to his face – he was always ‘Mr. Shapiro.’) He liked his coffee with two sugars, one cream, would take it from your hand at the desk in his office without looking at you, staring down at his papers, saying a dismissive ‘thank you,’ then ask you what you were staring at, didn’t you have something to do?
He was old, bald-headed, except for little white fringes on the side.
He was gruff and unhappy, it seemed. Constantly jiggling the change in his pockets, which drove me and the other ushers crazy most of the time.
Having to put up with this guy, the theater manager, for $1.25 an hour was a bunch of crap. Yeah, I was fifteen, so, according to my mother, I should have been counting my lucky stars for the opportunity, right? A lesson to learn, to follow in life, while the entitled rich kids went along playing, going to their country clubs (which, by the way, wouldn’t take my type in), planning their fancy college lives, and coming back home to run their daddies’ businesses. Thank you, Masta, thank you sir. ‘You should feel lucky, just lucky,’ my mother said, because that’s how she felt about things. Don’t rock the boat, go along with it all. We’re lucky we’re here at all, alive, in America. (Her mother’s brothers and sisters hadn’t been so lucky, hadn’t made it, were never heard from again after the Nazis took over Europe and…well, you know that story).
And Shapiro, nobody really knew his story except that he was a gruff, disagreeable old man with jowls who rarely smiled (except to kiss ass Head Usher aspirant, Rusty Gamble. A total kiss ass. ‘Is there anything else you need, Mr. Shapiro? Can I get you something from the candy counter? Nothing worse than a kiss ass. And I was in line for the Head Usher position—could pocket maybe a 10 cent, maybe a quarter, raise for that—after my stepbrother Michael left the position. It was a seniority thing, generally, and I had the greatest time in there, 8 months already.)
It wasn’t a tough job, really. Corral the herd of moviegoers before the next feature, take tickets. Open the doors when the show was over, direct traffic out. Then let the new herd in, and clean up their messes. Occasionally there was a disruption in the theater—a drinker, loud talker, smoker—″that you had to deal with, but, thankfully, there were few of those. Or somebody trying to sneak their friends in a side door – you always had to keep an eye out for that. But mostly, it was pretty easy. You could spend a lot of time pretending to watch for trouble and watch most of the movie (end first, of course), learn some lines like ‘Santino, what’s the matter wit’ you.’ Yeah, the Godfather, with that great tollbooth scene, that was a great one, we had lines of people wrapped around the building waiting to get in. Even end first to beginning, it was pretty good. (You got to fill in the gaps over a couple of weeks of watching it.)
But Shapiro, he was a tough one. Not being an ass-kisser like red-haired, freckle-faced, Rusty Gamble, it was tough for me. I wasn’t a big chit-chatter, if you know what I mean. I’d be standing there next to him at the central location between the doors before the movie was about to let out and he’d be all jiggling his change, staring at the crowd behind the rope, waiting for the show to let out, jiggling jiggling jiggling. I’d see him out of the side of my eye, feeling uncomfortable – well, hell, I was fifteen, it was a normal state of being for me those days, anyway, but…the guy just plain made me nervous.
Then one day something changed. Sam Patino (yes, the same Patino who, years later, when home for a winter break from college, would throw me down his basement stairs because I, annihilated from drinking out of the whiskey bottle being passed around, knocked over his Christmas tree, but that’s a whole nother story) came in with a copy of an old newspaper article from the library, sets it on the railing, while the four of us crowd around for a look. The article had a picture of a young guy outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, with a headline that read “Manager tells about his part in Dillinger capture.” And there, standing with a blank expression on his face, was a young man with dark wavy hair staring back at all of the three of us ushers in the private balcony where we would take our breaks. ‘Old Shapiro was the manager when they gunned down Dillinger! That’s motherfuckin’ awesome!’ Patino said, staring hard at the picture. ‘Son of a bitch, who would have guessed?’ said Friedman, the short, curly-haired new usher with thick frames who’d just joined our ranks. ‘Yeah, what a deal,’ said Walker, faking a stifled yawn, he being the too-cool guy who always acted like nothing fazed or surprised him, he was just that cool.
And from that day forward every one of the ushers acted like frickin’ Gamble, ass-kissing Shapiro like it was no one’s business even (despite his unspoken cool) Walker. Even though, as the article said, all Shapiro had done was call the Chicago police, suspecting the G-men outside the theater were really robbers trying to hold the theater up, yet again. He’d been clueless. The G-Men sent them away. But still, he’d been part of the story, the legend, making him, too, a legend.
Many years later I read his obituary. He was, oddly enough, a father of three, grandfather of seven, a regular guy, it seemed. And, there was not a word in the obit about Dillinger. He was just a guy who had happened to be in that place at that time and somehow, in my mind, I’d always associated him with that event, not taking into account his humanity, never knowing him beyond what I’d seen or heard of him at fifteen – the grumbling old man with the jowls, jiggling his change, scowling at us, dismissing us, never smiling, all the boys afraid of him, really, and, of course, the Dillinger thing, embodied in my legend-loving fifteen year old’s mind. And reading that obit, it seemed a damned shame that that could happen, to ignore the whole of this man’s life, his being. Had he been plagued by that, himself? Who knew, who would ever know now?
Mitchell Waldman’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The Waterhouse Review, Crack the Spine, The Houston Literary Review, The Faircloth Review, Epiphany, Wilderness House Literary Magazine, The Battered Suitcase, and many other magazines and anthologies. He is also the author of the novel, A Face in the Moon, and the story collection, Petty Offenses and Crimes of the Heart, and serves as Fiction Editor for Blue Lake Review.
For more info, see his website at http://mitchwaldman.homestead.com.