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Monday, September 26, 2016

A New Darkness, Glass Ceilings, and a Bit About Rikki-Tikki-Tavi

When you're a young lad with zero interest in staying at school for even one second longer than you are required by law (and often attempt as hard as you can to not even be there that long) society acknowledges your general lack of meaningful contribution and offers you a bargain: work for minimum wage doing things nobody else will do, and you will get free movies. At least that's how it worked for me. At 16 I applied at the movie theater in my neighborhood where my cousins had worked before me and, because I'd earned my Eagle Scout award (and because my cousin was a manager), I was hired.

I might have mentioned this before, but 16-year-old Howie was the worst. I'll never be sure if everyone was the worst and we all think that we were terrible but this is clearly not completely true, as many of my peers were well-liked and I was ignored by most and despised by a few. At school, at least. At work, I experienced something of a renaissance. Freed from the shackles of my ignoble high school rep (well-earned, I'm sure), I made quick friends and, in some ways, flourished. I made super good friends, you guys, some whose influence on my life I think about on the reg. And I am so grateful for them. 

The only two school dances I ever attended were with girls I worked with at the theater. Once we were all sitting around between movies and a guy asked me if I was going to Homecoming, I said I didn't know who to ask, and he said, "Take her," gesturing to the girl who was also there. It was very awkward, but somehow I stammered out an OK and so did she and negotiations were made. It was fun and if we're all going to be honest with each other I did have a crush on her and he knew it. Thanks, bud. Sorry we're not Facebook friends anymore because of politics. 

The other one said it would be fun to go to a dance with me and I said there's a dance coming up and she said we should go. I liked her a lot, too. She had a boyfriend but we had fun and I was a mess. It's weird being a teenager. You have crushes on a lot of people all at once and you're like a mongoose who was raised by an old lady who always had a bowl of milk out but she died and suddenly you are unleashed on the world. You know you're supposed to pursue cobras. There's something in your DNA that says get those cobras, but when you see a cobra you also want to hide and so often you do. Or you sort of hang around the cobras, but don't let yourself get too close because they are very, very scary.

ANYWAY. The movie theater was a strange place. You had full-grown adults (like 20-30!) running the place. They were the managers. Then you had kids (16-18), who were the rank-and-file employees. Some of the kids had crushes on the managers and some of the managers had crushes on the kids. In some cases this was within the realm of acceptable social circumstances and I would be remiss to not say that there are at least a couple of quite happy marriages that resulted from this fraternization (I guarantee if you're reading this, it isn't about you). But there were some cases, and in this case one case, where a guy in his 20s regularly and serially harassed 16-17 year old girls.

If she went out to the parking lot and came in saying it was cold, he would look at her chest and say, "I can't tell." He would tell a girl (legally a child) that her shirt was too tight. Or that girls can't wear the horrible dorky plastic suspenders that we were supposed to wear because of their breasts. He would turn and let me know whose shirt was see-through enough to make out her bra. Later, as an adult, I would remember this guy every time I had a sexual harassment training and think that every single day I worked with him I observed a fireable offense. 

Later, at other theaters, I would watch these assistant manager predators work their dark arts on generation after generation of 16-year-old girls just starting their first job. When I eventually reached that ripe old age of 25, it made a kind of gross sense to me. This kind of guy lacked the confidence to hang with the self-aware, smart girls his own age, felt bitterness about it, and took it out on the cute young girls who didn't know enough about the world to destroy him for it. The combination of power from being older and the authority over them in a professional sense creates a brew as toxic as when elementary school kids mix everything from their school lunch into one square of tray and dare each other to eat it.

Even when the girls I worked with and respected uncomfortably (or seemingly comfortably) laughed this stuff off, I knew it was awful, but I can't guarantee that it didn't wear off on me. Let me be clear, I don't remember a single case where I would have had the guts, let alone the desire to try any of that crap, even though at least I was the same age as these girls and we were friends, but I also know that I said a lot of really dumb stuff at the time in an effort to be funny and I've been told later that some of it definitively was not. I don't know what the impact this situation had on the girls I worked with (if you happen to read this, shoot me a message though), but it stuck with me.

Another thing that stuck with me was the concessions-usher situation. Apparently pretty girls sold more concessions than boys did, so girls always sold the drinks and popcorn, and boys always tore tickets and swept out the theaters. Concessions was easily the worst job. It was often intense and physically exhausting. You'd finish your shift coated in fake butter and stinking like stale soda. You spent the last hour cleaning everything, soaking the nozzles on the soda machine, mopping the floor, taking apart the popcorn maker, and dozens of other tiny and gross tasks. During this time the ushers who were closing would sort of sweep and make sure that all the hobos from the liquor store across the street had woken up and cleared out. We also ended up cleaning vomit and other mystery liquids but we all know that's boy work.

The joke was that we ushers were in charge of "holding up the railing" while the movies were playing, while the girls constantly bustled and/or hustled. Being ambitious teens, we all aspired to the next level up. If you were a girl, that meant you worked the box office. It was a little cushier and a lot less buttery. If you were a boy, you aspired to usher-b. You guys, Usher-b was the pinnacle of the teen job. You thread the film through the projector, you start the movies, then you sit at your desk and read while they play. If you want, you can go help sweep the theaters, or back up in the concessions if your friends were working, but if you didn't, you didn't. For a while there I would go to the book store, buy a book, read that entire book during my shift that day, and go home.

Every once in a while a girl would look at us boys in our bow-ties and immodest suspenders while oil dripped down their apron and teens relentlessly asked for their phone numbers and say, "I want to be an usher," and everyone would laugh. Girls just weren't ushers. It was not how it was done.

Until one was. At the age of 16 I got to watch a very small and very minor glass ceiling get shattered. One day one of my friends, let's call her Popcorn Penny, showed up to work, put on a bowtie (I don't think suspenders), and stood behind the podium and tore tickets. Like a damn boss.

Then boys started getting hired straight to concessions. Were these boys especially cute? I don't remember. I do know that I wasn't one of them. I was an usher-b at this point and basically didn't even have to learn anyone's name anymore, I was such a badass. But you guys, it wasn't that big of a deal. Girls can tear tickets, boys can ask do you want butter (flavored topping) with that, and we could all do whatever because that's the way the world works. Or the way it should work.

Basically what I'm saying is that if we get a woman president, I'm going to give Penny the credit.

Well. Have you heard of Joseph Delaney's Spook's Apprentice books? There were 13 of them. In that series Tom Ward, the seventh son of a seventh son, works as the Spook for the county. Each county spook takes care of the ghosts and witches and boggarts and whatnot. They're like a plumber but for scary stuff. (I'm acknowledging that plumbers deal with a lot of scary stuff.) Tom takes on the apprenticeship and for 13 books encounters one horrible nasty thing after another while working under the legendary spook Old Gregory. That's a lot of books, you guys, but they are quick and fun and you read them one in a day (especially in the projection booth) and they're genuinely pretty spooky in the not-real way that I like so much.

You should probably read them first. But after that, read A New Darkness, which is what this blog is about even though we all know by now that the blog is about something that's bugging me and I shoehorn a book in even though the population of people who know what shoehorns are is dying out like Fox News supporters (because they are the same people).

In A New Darkness Tom Ward is on his own as the new County Spook. (I won't tell you why because that would be a spoiler but you don't know that it's because of a bad reason and you should just go ahead and assume it's because Old Gregory is happily retired on a porch swing watching the world go by.) Tom is just 17, which is young for a spook, but he's been through some pretty crazy stuff 13 books in. Early in the book, a young girl with remarkable powers approaches him about being a spook, which is crazy bonkers.

She's tried to apprentice with two other spooks, one was, in her words, "a pig." The other sicced his dogs on her. Guess what, you guys, girls just aren't spooks. Why not? Because you have to be the seventh SON of a seventh SON. Jenny is just a seventh daughter of a seventh daughter and that's not the same thing because (and this is not said in the book but let's face it) of penises. Tom Ward is young, though. At first he's resistant, but when he sees what Jenny is capable of he starts to really question it.

Why can't a girl be a spook? Well, because one never has been before and because men make the decisions. After some deliberation, this doesn't cut it. In Tom's adventures he's encountered countless powerful women. One is a witch assassin, another is his mom, another is his best friend Alice. They all carved out difficult places in patriarchal worlds. He's also seen women being marginalized, accused of witchcraft just for being assertive, and enslaved. So he gives Jenny a shot.

It's a fun book, but you better read the ones before them first. This one, even though it's the beginning of a new series, is pretty self-referential. Also don't read it if you love the way things are right now and don't have a problem sending your teenage daughters to have grown men talk about their nipples and your teenage sons to work with adult role models who will attempt to undo every lesson you've taught them about respecting women. Or if you think that you're worried about a female president because they are so hormonal that they might start a war, even though every war in American history was started by a white man. Actually, you should read it especially then.

"It is unwise to risk the good we already have for the evil which may occur"