And then there was that one summer, the summer I was in college and supported myself working for minimum wage at a bargain-priced movie theater. After weeks at the concession stand, I got a promotion of sorts when the managers moved me to the box office. No more fake-butter stains on my shirts’ cuffs? No more twelve-hour shifts of listening to the same seven-minute loop of music in the lobby? Sign me up.
There, in the box office, I had much more direct contact with the people coming into the theater. On some shifts, I had to interact with every single one of them, since we weren’t quite busy enough to need two people working the box office; and since I wasn’t focused on up-selling them to a larger sized popcorn or adding a Coke, I got to have a more pleasant interaction with each of them. There was the woman who came to see Titanic on both Saturday and Sunday for its entire run, at least once each day. (“You must be a big movie fan,” she guessed. I wasn’t; it was the first place that hired me for the summer, and I stuck with it.) There were the kids, barely teenagers, who wanted me to sell them tickets for a movie that was just letting out as I closed up the office, to show their parents and disguise their having been elsewhere. And there were the people from the adult group home.
They drove up in a van, once a week. Adults who were physically disabled, or mentally handicapped, or autistic. Any sort of adult who couldn’t live on their own. Their caretakers brought them to the theater to while away a Sunday afternoon; and set them loose in the theater — those who could handle things on their own for a few hours — to give them a chance to interact with the big bad world without intermediaries.
There was one man in particular who was profoundly retarded. Each time he wanted to purchase a $1 movie ticket, he paid me $10, cheerfully thanked me for his $9 change and his flimsy paper stub, and went inside. Usually the $10 was a single bill, but there were times when he gave me a five and five ones. I had seen a few of my co-workers try to tell him he didn’t have to count out all the extra money, that they were just going to give it back to him; but this only confused him. I simply took the money he gave me, thanked him, and gave him correct change.
On one of those occasions, our chain-smoking assistant manager was standing behind me, observing everything for a few minutes. “I guess he just has a thing about paying $10,” the assistant manager said mildly, clearly unable to make sense out of this habit. “Maybe he just likes the number 10 or something. How weird.”
I was a little surprised, in turn. “I assumed it’s because he can’t reliably make change himself, so someone’s taught him to always pay $10 so he doesn’t have to figure out how much money to give someone.” And I could see it all, if this man did try to figure out that he needed only a one-dollar bill and not a ten: it was all there in the confusion on his face when my coworkers tried to explain this concept to him, in the grateful relief he showed when they’d snap, “Fine!” and take all the money he was offering before foisting most of it back on him. In the thankful smile he gave me, without fail, when I didn’t question how he chose to pay me.
“Huh,” my manager said, chewing on one end of his scraggly blond mustache. “I guess that makes sense. I never thought of that.”