I tend to helplessly over-engage with the daily grind of trivial illogic and piddling absurdities of modern life. "I hope you're not proud of yourself," my not-quite ex-spouse would often say about these sort of run-ins (at restaurants, hotels, on telephone helplines, or with the gym teachers in my children's schools), which could often escalate into unseemly showdowns and vivid name-calling.
Last Sunday afternoon, on the way to the movies, I sensed such an incident coming on when, in Juice Press on East 1st Street, New York, I was given a clear plastic bag in which to carry my juice, instead of an opaque one. (A clear bag? Why?). Still, it seemed more of an assault on dignity to try to hide my juice under my coat as my companion urged before we entered the Sunshine Cinema on Houston Street, than to flaunt it. Besides, this was an art house in the East Village.
The East Village – land of nut jobs and bad behavior! And we were seeing Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress, a film about nuance and sensibility and modern ironies. This wasn't a corporate blockbuster in a soulless multiplex in an authoritarian mall.
So, I paid my $26 bucks for two tickets and, with reasonable confidence and nonchalance, entered the theater carrying my expensive juice in a transparent bag.
But the eagle-eyed ticket-taker immediately sent up flares as we passed him by. "What is that?"
"Privately purchased juice, which I plan to shortly enjoy," said I.
As so often happens, I was suddenly much more interested in the possibilities of conflict, of all the variable forms of dominance and submission that might unfold, than I was in seeing the movie – a personal quirk to which almost nobody I know is sympathetic. The issue is proportion, I have been told. And something about picking your battles.
"Sir. Sir, you can't do that," said the manager, a young woman running into the frame – a Tracy Flick type if there were was one.
"I'm afraid I can, and that I'm going to," I said, rather too jauntily.
"I told you! You're an idiot for not hiding it," said my companion.
"I'm 58 years old. I don't think I have to hide my juice. Besides," I said, "What were they going to do?"
As it happens, the Sunshine Cinema may be in the East Village showing a quirky film, but it is part of the Landmark chain, which is owned by Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and a dotcom billionaire – as keen on having people acknowledge his position and authority, as I would be inclined to defy it.
Tracy Flick called the police, who were curiously prompt – a three-minute response time for a bottle of juice – making me wonder if they aren't getting free tickets to art films.
Now, as to the issue, which I briefly tried to outline for my companion as much to stiffen her resolve as to justify myself: theaters clearly permit eating in the auditorium. They might, fairly, be able to stop you from eating if eating was not permitted at all (say, for sanitary and janitorial reasons; in fact, they encourage you to eat messy and smelly foods).
Unlike a restaurant, which can reasonably stop you from sitting and eating your independently purchased food, because otherwise you would be stealing the use of their facilities, the primary usage of a theater is not eating; there is no requirement that you eat. And most people don't; they just watch the movie. Thus, the theater is trying to curtail legal and reasonable behavior in an attempt to coerce you to do something that is an optional part of the deal.
True, the issue is petty, but it is, too, curiously character-defining, in one of the following ways:
1. There's the great mass who shrug off the obvious contradictions and accept the regulation, and so create the de facto movie theater business model, wherein the movies themselves become something a loss leader, and profits are made by price-gouging on cheap food to a captive audience. Why would anyone accept this? Because most people shrink from conflict and friction – and, too, are helpless in the face of junk food. Call them the hungry submissives.
2. Then, there are those who see the absurdity of the rule and set out, with cunning and ritual, to subvert it, hiding their juices and snacks in bags and coat sleeves, and consuming them with surreptitious slurps and nibbles. Call them the happy cheaters.
3. And there are those – one a day? Two, maybe? – who are cranks like me: polemical recreationists and authority-phobes, no doubt looking for some kind of personal vindication and acknowledgement. The obnoxious know-it-alls. Few, however, are obnoxious enough to push this as far as having the police come.
Of all the participants in the movie theater food-consumption question – faceless corporate management, officious clerks, the hungry submissives, the happy cheaters, and the obnoxious know-it-alls – the latter is probably the least popular. Nobody likes a grandstander. Nobody likes a loudmouth. Nobody likes someone who turns a trifling issue into a big drama.
"Please come outside," said Officer Gannon, not with an art-house demeanor. For a second, I detected that my companion was wavering between support for me and her interest in seeing the film, but she summoned herself and got up.
"Is that the juice?" Asked Officer Gannon.
"As far as I know, there is nothing illegal about this juice. As a matter of fact …"
I may be obnoxious but I am not out of control. In the realm of the hair-trigger NYPD, as suspicious of an overly verbal urbanite as they are of a nonverbal gangbanger, I can be very docile. Although, of course, not that docile; and, at this point, taking badge numbers, I began to tweet, too.
I was mindful of the opportunity. It was not just that there were, on the street, eight police officers and an ambulance (ready, I assume, to take me to Bellevue if I appeared to be frothing at the mouth), to deal with a middle-aged writer and his expensive bottle of juice. But they were there to enforce the Sunshine's concession monopoly – at no cost to Mark Cuban and his billions. The New York taxpayer was defending Cuban's margins on popcorn and Coke.
But even in the face of police overkill, to most of this contempt's witnesses, I was still more kook than martyr or hero.
But for Twitter.
My companion noticed me tweeting and glowered:
"Don't mention the police – it's embarrassing." So, of course, I did, which turned out to be the hook that electrified the Twitter world.
Indeed, in these circumstance, these minor breakdowns of the social compact, I have always tried hard not to say the thing every journalist can barely keep himself from saying: "Do you know who I am? I will write about this, and you, buster, will rue the day you looked cross-wise at me." I mostly succeed in not being this lame because I realize that, astoundingly, nobody cares about journalists (except journalists); and, also, that as a rule you never really do write about this stuff, anyway. Its timeliness is, to say the least, fleeting.
But not for Twitter. Twitter is an ideal medium for not only galvanizing tectonic political crusades, but for chronicling the daft and absurd, no matter how inconsequential. There are no editors to advise maturity and caution; it requires virtually no work; and it lets you publish simultaneously with your outrage and annoyance.
What's more, you enlarge your audience of witnesses to include people remote enough from your actual highhanded and obnoxious behavior not to be threatened or repulsed or embarrassed by how you're calling attention to yourself. The world is suddenly – quite a novel experience; at least, for me – on your side.
Within a short time, Mark Cuban himself began to get into the act. Twitter, perhaps more than any other means of communication, gets instant attention (which, perhaps, says something about how little most people have to do). And say this for Mark, he was not hiding behind a PR social-media team programmed at the least sign of agitation to suck-up and mollify.
No, Cuban was his usual aggressive and hot-tempered self, offering a robust turf defense of theater ritual and the importance of popcorn and of why he was entitled to keep my $26. (In the heat of the Twitter exchange, there emerged on Cuban's side that other confounding character type: those who like to defend authority. "Private enterprise. You don't follow their rules they can ask you to leave," declared a passing tweeter. Go figure.)
But most remarkably, and unusually, in the Twitter context, I was no longer the ridiculous crank I have long resigned myself to being. Rather, in the blow-by-blow parsing of the nonsensical and the absurd, combined with the wisecracks that, in real life, just make people despise you all the more, together with the New York backdrop – the police threatening cuffs and examining my juice bag for weapons – I became almost virtuous. If I was not quite a hero to my children, who were following events as they unfolded on Twitter, I was at least amusing, rather than horrifying.
For my companion, who was clearly ready to bolt throughout most of the incident, I suddenly, through the excitement of the Twitter crowd, became a figure of some wit and coolness. Indeed, our experience and near arrest, suddenly seemed at least as entertaining as the movie itself.
And this weekend, we're going back. Whit Stillman chimed into the Twitter stream, too. So, we're going with him to the Sunshine to see Damsels In Distress. And we're all carrying our juice.
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