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Can Chuck E. Cheese Save America?
Think of a perfect moment.
A moment where you had no choice but to stop, step back in awe, and just say, “Wow.”
Mine occurred when I picked up a skeeball. The weight was perfectly distributed, the shape was perfectly spherical, the color was perfectly uniform. When the ball rolled, it rolled with such control and such smoothness I felt like the game had all of a sudden opened itself up to me and only me. I was calling my shots like Babe Ruth: 500! 5,000! 20! 20! 20! …20 again! Boom. Boom. Boom. Right in the cup. It was sublime. Like I was playing skeeball for the very first time and also, somehow, like I had been dedicating my entire life to the game.
Perfect moments are rare, fleeting reminders of life at its best. Luckily, they aren’t hard to come by if only you know where to look. Like in an unassuming Chuck E. Cheese deep in the Appalachian Mountains – there, you might find America at its best.
Gene Santizza, 78, a Chuck E. Cheese franchisee for the past 40 years in the northern panhandle of West Virginia, is in the business of creating perfect moments. Taking life and infusing it with so much thought and attention to detail that the result to those experiencing it feels… magical.
“The people want it to be good, so I do it good,” Gene says, smiling from ear-to-ear underneath a bushy mustache, revealing laugh lines so deep and so pronounced they could only have been carved out of a life well lived.
I came to know Gene at a low point in my life both personally and professionally. Dumped by my girlfriend for waffling about the idea of having kids, and fired from my job as a clean-living advocate for kidding about the idea of having waffles, I found myself heading to a birthday party for a close friend’s child. The occasion felt like a poetic bottom, forced to eat wet, spongy, pizza amidst screaming children all in the world’s foremost safe-haven for demonic, anthropomorphic sewer animals.
When I arrived at the Chuck E. Cheese, in a decaying strip mall, I found it ironic that a place that went by the motto “Where A Kid Can Be A Kid” was sandwiched between a derelict Office Depot and the faded remnants of a Gumby’s Cigarette Depot that had long since relocated, likely to a less depressing part of town. I opened the door to a cartoon rat’s idea of a human child’s playground expecting to be greeted by the stench of cheap yeast, sweaty children, and industrial plastic that has been barfed on and sprayed down so much it likely contains novel diseases waiting to be unleashed on the world.
But, to my surprise, that did not happen…
It was pristine.
It was beautiful.
It was buzzing.
Upon entering, the union between body, soul, and this Chuck E. Cheese was transcendent. Borders melted away. Existence, in its purest form.
Gene stood observing it all. A smile on his face belied the very real processing that was going on in his head at all times. What was lacking right now? Which table needed more attention? Has the increased humidity today caused the parmesan cheese to clump and congeal slightly, thus making it harder to shake, thus sullying a patron’s perfect experience? This kept Gene up at night.
Every inch of the space was accounted for. Every detail painstakingly managed and scrutinized. Every table, steady. Every chair, comfy. Every game, glitch-free. Every pizza, pepperoni. Every song, Pearl Jam. Everything, perfect.
I began apprenticing with Gene that very night and have continued my apprenticeship for coming up on 15 days now. It is the honor of my life to be studying under a true master. Gene puts up with me – he’s learned my name and seems to acknowledge that I work here. Currently, I’m on crushed red-pepper duty. It’s the only thing Gene trusts me with. 328 flakes of red pepper must be in each shaker when service starts. After I fill them up, Gene dumps each shaker and makes sure my count is correct. I’ll admit, I’m usually wrong. I get too distracted, dreaming about the day when Gene will tell me with pride, “Now go check the napkins.” I trust Gene knows when that time will be right for me.
Late after service one night, Gene and I are sitting at a table recounting some of his early struggles. “The previous manager had been using real rats stacked on top of one another to play the Chuck E. Cheese mascot. He thought it was more authentic that way. Well, the rats escaped the suit one night and held the dining room hostage for hours. When they fired him, no one else on the crew wanted his job. I got picked because my name kind of rhymes with pizza.” Gene chuckles now, “So I took over and one day as I was sitting in the ball pit, moping, having a pity party, when I realized, ‘Gene, just make it good. You can just make it good.’ So I did that.”
At 78, Gene is aware that he can’t keep it up much longer. The only thing keeping Gene here for as long as it has is an ache in his heart that once he’s gone, his franchise will be gone soon thereafter. First Gumby’s, then Chuck E. Cheese, then… well, who knows about that Office Depot.
“If they just follow the blueprint, this building will never not be a Chuck E. Cheese….” Gene drifts off. The romantic in me assumes he’s thinking of soda guns or the ideal number of bumps on a basketball, but the actualist in me knows that Gene likely drifted off because of advanced age and mental decline.
So where do we go from here? After our late night talk, it seemed like Gene was asking himself the same question. He seemed restless, like he wanted to go home but I think he felt that more in a more metaphorical sense. He was thinking about his legacy. Where would America be without Chuck E. Cheese? Where would he be without Chuck E. Cheese? He looked at me again, with sorrow and hope:
“Just do it good. If you do it good, no one thinks you did anything at all. But you still have to do it… So go refill the crushed red peppers… I know you didn’t do that yet… I can’t go till you do it… Go now! Before the rats come back and steal the shakers again!”
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (a book)
Saftey Not Guaranteed (a movie)
Survivor (a show)
Weekday Downdate (my show! On Instagram!)