Some friends flit in and out of your life like fireflies on a summer’s evening. Some, even if you can’t see them for vast stretches of time, can pick up like you were hanging out only moments ago, and last a lifetime.
Reggie Forrest is one such friend among my arsenal of amicable associations. I met Reggie at my first job post mowing lawns for a living when I hit the street legal age of 16 and began working at the Fayette Mall theater, a place I’ve mentioned previously with three screens, a concession counter, and a ticket island for busy weekends.
A trade secret with movie theaters, they almost all pop popcorn in advance for anticipated busy weekends. Even when you can see the popper going on the day, there is still a surplus of clear plastic bags filled with previously popped popcorn stashed somewhere in the wings waiting to replenish the heater case while the shows are in and no one is looking. Supply and demand, think about it, all those grocery bags of popcorn going out to the people, there is just no way that little popper in the case can keep up, it only makes enough at a time to fill a couple combo sacks, and every round of popping fill too pour is anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes, depending on efficiency of the popper. So if you’re picky, only get popcorn when it’s billowing out of the popper in plain sight, and insist on corn off the top only. Otherwise, watch as they dig deep into the mound and fill your bag with the popped corn that could contain kernels agitated to bursting over a week ago. One manager I worked with called the old stuff filler, and had specific instructions about how to mix it in with the freshly popped corn on the day to ensure the public didn’t notice the cooler or room temperature kernels in among the scalding fresh hot ones.
I tell you all this to contextualize how Reggie and I became pals. Sure, we worked together, and the theater didn’t have a very large staff, even on the weekends. Reggie was in his twenties, in college, and in the National Guard. I was 16, in high school, and couldn’t name all the states in the nation, though I did know them all by shape and color as to place them all correctly in the wooden puzzle I’d mastered as a youth. Reggie worked as a projectionist and helped out the ushers, or lounged behind the concession counter giving the manager women a playful hard time. I worked as a concessionist, relief ticket seller, and occasional usher. We didn’t have a lot of interaction, though we had some, and it proved pivitol.
Reggie came back from his two weeks out in the field training with the National Guard sun burnt. Not a one of us knew a black guy could get sun burnt. Apparently, neither had Reggie, so despite warnings to his platoon from his commanding officers in Texas in June, Reggie had forgone sun block while helming a tank or blowing up sheep or whatever is it National Guardsmen do to train, and returned to us sun burnt, itchy, and grumpy about the scratchy white shirts and maroon polyester vests on his neck and back. After getting a lot of teasing, Reggie went to hide out upstairs in the projection booth, where despite the massive trio of projectors, stayed cooler than most anywhere else in the place except the storage room where the candy and the Coke brand syrup boxes for the pop machines were kept.
I can’t believe I used to siphon shots of that soda pop syrup on occasion, miracle my teeth didn’t turn to sludge on the first sip.
The projection booth also, by necessity, stayed dark inside, lit by the fluttering glow bouncing back off the glass window panes between the projector lenses and the auditoriums, barriers against the noise of the projectors, and a couple small, focused desk lamps on the projection table and a nearby desk littered with film magazines and Reggie’s course books. Reggie, overheated by his sunburn, also liked the dim lights and cool temperatures. Since the theater didn’t have a lot of patrons and no one needed help, he could get away with being Bella Lugosi for as long as he liked.
That fresh maker could fill a man sized double ply clear plastic bag within 10 minutes or less, 5 one everything go going smoothly. The person making the popcorn would have an agenda, say make 50 bags and call it a night. Start whenever, wear whatever, end when everything has been broken down and cleaned. Eat all the popcorn you want, initially an appetizing perk, eventually ensuring I’d not eat theater popcorn again until well into my thirties. Refill your 32 oz plastic cup from 7-11 as many times as you like, though failing to mention I should’ve been filling it with water to prevent dehydration from all the heat and popcorn salt, another lesson learned through garnered experience. I would get out of school early afternoon, pop home for a wardrobe change, and bike or walk over to the theater to start my shift in the popcorn room before Dan Rather hit the air with the evening news.
While the machine warmed up I’d get something going on the sound system, a grimy boom box on the wall by the door that played loud enough to be heard over the din of the machine’s churnings and sizzling and clank-clunks. The popcorn room didn’t back onto any theaters and so rendered effectively soundproof. TSOL’s Hit and Run was a favorite for me then, a group I’d discovered from the Return of the Living Dead soundtrack in that very same theater a year or so earlier in 1985. The 120 minutes worth of Bau Haus Jim Shambhu dubbed off for me stayed in regular rotation, I recall singing along to “Silent Hedges” repeatedly while shoveling fresh pour down the bed of the receiving tray towards the metal chute that would spill the hot fluff into a waiting, well anchored transparent sack. Something about the cadence of the song married well to the cadence of the swastika shaped metal agitator inside the heated and canola oil greased kettle.
The canola oil was a challenging aspect of making popcorn in all the theaters I worked for. Each 5 gallon bucket of oil required a flathead screwdriver to pry up enough prongs encircling the brim to get the lid loose to review a safety orange congealed mass that would require a plug-in electric wand to be shoved forcefully and with much wiggling into it like parking Excalibur so that the congealed mass might liquefy enough to draw up into the kettle so that the pop corn whisking around up there doesn’t blacken and burn before bursting into tasty edibles. The cans weighted a ton, contents solid or liquid, and if warmed into liquid and accidently spilled, created oil slick surfaces that negate any sense of traction or friction.
As an usher at South Park during the summer weekend rush we’d needed to swap in a full oil canister. The South Park concession set up was a round island with a white tile floor made up of tiny white squares, and by design the concession island floor sat recessed with beveled edges to trap all the anticipated spillage from pops and the like. The island had two smaller popcorn makers that ran perpetually, as well as a sister monster to the one I worked with at the Fayette Mall to fill bags with popped corn en masse. These makers were newer and had incorporated the electric wand I mentioned into a lid type design that sat on the cans and had a dial timer to limit how long the wands went, since you could forget with the old style wand and eventually cause the oil to boil and go dangerously everywhere. Typically replacement cans were congealed so despite shoving an electric wand into them, they could be tipped and turned without hazard while replacing spent cans. At the height of summer the stock room had been overly filled, so the cans had been displaced to a portion of the lobby where the sun came in through the windows and warmed the cans all morning, such that the can I grabbed to make a replacement in the island had thoroughly thawed. And as we tried to lift the can with its newfangled wand-lid into the cubby beneath the popcorn maker, it tipped and sloshed, surprising us both enough to scuttle back and squeal like the little girls we were.
I recovered first and got the can up and in before more than half the oil had poured out, more than enough to turn the island interior pathway into a veritable ice rink of frictionless fun. While theater goers queued up for their junk food and refreshments concessions girls and boy slid this way and that, flailing here, colliding there. I’m not sure how I didn’t get fired for the mishap, but after the shows went in someone figured out something powdery to pour on the oil to get it into a rubbery form we could sweep up, and mop up, and sweep some more, and mop again, before people began arriving for the next set of shows.
A few months ago I spilled some liquid laundry detergent in the downstairs bathroom and discovered the evil viscosity of that substance. Nothing seems able to wear through the degree of slick slime that stuff does. Gave me flashbacks to South Park, and the afternoon of the slip and slide concessionists.
So I would work for hours and hours filling some 50 bags or so with popcorn to ensure we wouldn’t run out over a weekend with a big opening, like Predator, or Dirty Dancing. And while Reggie hid from those that might dare mock his sun burn, he decided to come see what crap this white kid was singing along too in the popcorn room.
Reggie introduced me to Public Enemy, specifically Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Possibly to make what I sang along to tolerable to his pallet. He got me to dub him a copy, but the cassette he gave me couldn’t fit all the songs. I didn’t know if he’d notice, since at the time they all sounded somewhat the same to me. He noticed, you don’t dupe a copy of Nation of Millions and leave of “Don’t Believe the Hype”. Fortunately I had made a copy for myself on a tape amply long enough to fit the album and more besides. Feeling like I’d cheated my only twenty something friend, I gave him my copy. Turns out he liked Bau Haus.
He introduced me to African American Folklore later on, to Anansi the Spider and what it meant to Signify. Speaking of Anansi, King Rat by China Mieville has a very deliciously creepy take on the African trickster hero, would make a great film or BBC television serial, I think.
Reggie and I became friends, and that friendship has lasted, albeit often at an unfortunate distance, since all the way back then. When I joined the Navy, my last night of freedom was crashed at Reggie’s place, we went out and bought beer, for some reason I got one of those pony kegs with a handle of Sapporo, size over substance I guess, and spent the evening toasting life, loves lost, and liberty until the wee hours, before the man would come to fetch me and send me away to San Diego to learn how to be a man.
When I wanted to learn about projection, Reggie let me learn building a couple reels of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and stay after to see through the whole film. Casey Jones and Corey Feldman for the win. Still amazed my folks let me stay out that late on a school night. Or was that in the summer. If during my Senior year, same difference, really. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my Senior year. When every class is an elective and you technically could have graduated after Junior year and you can still legally date under-aged girls when you’re also under 18. I’m kidding. Young women smell weird.
Give me a Helen Mirran or Susan Sarandon or Jane Champion or Juliette Binoche or Lena Olin or Margaret Atwood or Michelle Yeuh or Hsu Chi or Jodie Foster or Holly Hunter or Chingmy Yau or Kwan-yu Sandra Ng or Jewel Shepard or Susan Marie Olsen anytime. Anyway, Senior year was a hoot, though I made ample social blunders and missteps galore.
After the Navy, Reggie and I stayed in touch, and he began his writing career, something I’ve followed and been inspired by since he began. His approach, sometimes radical and disjointed, other times flowing like lullabies from one stream of consciousness to another, waxing and waning like a tide beneath many silvery moons, distractions from the glitter of reflections on the ripples so that you can see all the dark forms stirring beneath.
Many times I’ve wanted to help Reggie out, give him some plate illustrations for his literary ambitions, something to inspire and motivate him the way his prose and unorthodox experiments with prose had me. A heap of false starts, of second guessing myself, of over thinking sketches until little remained by a pile of lead spaghetti on a wilted page.
Once I reentered the academic world at University of Oregon, I set one of Reggie’s manuscripts as my project in a graphic design class, with the full intention of sending him the finished work to use as he saw fit once completed. I still have most of it stashed away, just never felt it lived up to what I’d hoped it would be. Some really did suck, but not everything. Looking at the pieces now, the rendering that could have been done so much easier digitally now, yet looks so cool layered up with acetate and transparency, scratch to place designer text, designer tape, bleed markers, all that analogue old school layout goodness, wherein the ambition of my project goals forced me to learn and learn more until I had some basic sensibilities about composition and legibility.
The lessons learned on that project helped set up foundations of the aesthetic and compositional aspects of my professional design efforts for games and otherwise every since. Meaning the bar set by the quality of Reggie’s manuscript forced me to level up from troglodyte and luddite to an amateur aspect of aesthetically able-bodied. Not an auteur yet, not by a long stretch, not really even one now since I refuse to watch TED talks since it’s what all the cool kids are doing, meaning, like U2, when it’s mainstream enough all the enviable new choice car at 16 suburban kids spout off about it, I tune out. I’m not being fair to TED, it’s a cool thing and I’ll get over myself and check it out more sometime soon. Still not listening to U2 though.
So, as part of my aesthetic retrospective, and in the spirit of choosing that staggering scale Sopparo all those years ago, this cheers is for you Reggie, all your many manuscripts and ideas, all of which should be published to an unsuspecting world, because they really are that good.
I mean, look at me, I made all this art, and a load more besides, and I was too chicken to ever send it to you. That self-defeating solitude accomplished nothing. About time I shared some of this stuff, in context, and fully credited.
Reggie, sir. Your turn. Those stories of yours need to come out to play.