Up Chuck

Sunday night, 7 pm. I’m pooled on the couch in the fireplace room. Immobile. Nursing a Chuck E. Cheese hangover.

Chuck E Cheese hangover [noun]the disagreeable physical and emotional aftereffects from visiting said establishment such as: grimy, sticky, clamminess of skin; uncleanliness; headache; anger and moodiness; loathsome thoughts related to children.

Far more scathing reports dissect the hell that is Chuck E Cheese. I’ll just say that stepping inside is both a form of torture and a testament to a parent’s love. Because as much as you hate Chuck E Cheese, your kids adore it.

Visiting is like venturing into a trendy nightclub. It’s mobbed, overheated, dirty and incredibly noisy. And there’s a wait to get in the door.

Especially on a winter weekend. The line winds around the building, parents clutching a birthday gift while shoving their kids towards the first set of glass doors — everyone jostling to escape the frigid wind.

Inside a bouncer funnels the crowd into a single file line and stamps hands.

Each adult and associated kids are stamped with a number — a mystery number visible only under a black light. It’s a system to ensure that “everyone who arrives together leaves together.” But I wonder if the parents are branded to prevent them from sneaking out without their charges. A twist on the old “dine-and-ditch” — instead of leaving without paying, you leave a kid instead.

Past the velvet ropes the Mouse House is busting at the seams with every walk of life. Short people, tall people. Fat, thin, toothless, botoxed, bleached, bald, tattooed, big haired. Soccer mom-types and camera-wielding dads. Grandparents, godparents, uncles and aunts.

The interior is purple and bright and there’s blaring carnivalesque music muffled by buzzing, ringing token-fed rides and games. And of course, lots of kids screaming.

Kids screaming with glee. Screaming in frustration or screaming in despair. Screaming just to scream.

I check my watch. It’s been 15 minutes since I’ve last spotted Cayden and Hadley. I scan the army of kids streaming between the arcade games and inside the giant hamster habitrail overhead, but it’s impossible. They’ve melted into the mass. So I focus on Brynn, who’s lurking around the tot games. She loiters until she spies a child feeding a token into a machine and then she moves in — elbowing the kid to the side and grabbing the joystick or control buttons. I should curtail this conniving behavior but it’s entertaining — watching a 20-month-old hassle older kids. So I spy from a distance.

Until a goofy giddy voice booms over the din and everyone crams their kids into long tables for pizza and cake and singing. Cayden and Hadley are seated with their friends and while I see them, I can’t reach them. There are too many parents jammed in every nook and cranny of space.

The meal is a blur. There’s a flurry of food served and scarfed, a rendition of “Happy Birthday” with an awkward pause to insert any kid’s name, and a guy in a rodent costume who works the room by alternately thrilling or positively terrifying the kids. Then it’s back to the arcade and game section for round two.

After two hours it’s finally time to go and I corral the kids and their shoes and coats and my coat and the car keys and my cell phone… we’re on the verge of a meltdown. I’m sweaty from holding Brynn like a football under my arm. Hadley’s overheated and begging for water. Cayden’s amped up.

We’re being herded out while they clear the table for the next birthday party when I run back to retrieve the diaper bag.

“Oh, is this yours?” a fathers asks, holding up the bag.
“Thanks,” I say gratefully.
“And….this?” he says. Amidst the used plates and discarded forks and napkins, nestled between the remnants of the cake, is a ziplock baggie.

A baggie that appears to contain urine. The father looks repulsed and reluctant to handle it.

“It’s not pee, it’s apple sauce,”I say. I could explain that Brynn’s apple sauce container had leaked in the bag — and what remained was this watery run-off. Even better, I could have thrown it out, had a trash can been in reach.

But there wasn’t so I couldn’t, and in a moment of defeat I left the bag on the table for the waitress to find.

I felt a little guilt for planting this confusion, but already the hangover was setting up shop. I had to get away and shed myself of these kids. I was desperate. The waitress could handle apple sauce masquerading as pee. I noticed that she wore rubber gloves when she served the kids their pizza and cake. Obviously she’s handled worse.