There are some obvious rip-offs we surrender to in suburban life — $5 sodas at the movies, $4 two-minute pony rides at community fairs and the inevitable trip to Chuck E. Cheese’s.
Make no mistake, I am among you, dropping a chunk of my paycheck on tokens for games to get tickets to earn prizes like spider rings that will be inhaled by my vacuum or rolls of Smarties I’ll find crushed under a couch cushion a week later.
Still, we return, like we’re under some kind of spell: I call it the curse of Chuck E.
My husband and I actually flip a coin — to see who gets to stay home. It’s a code red on the Stress-O-Meter. No offense Chuck E.; it’s not you. It’s everything combined. The blinking lights. The screaming kids. The five birthday parties crammed in one room. And the tickets, the unquenchable Vegas-like thirst for tickets. They should hand out tickets at the door for adults to cash in for earplugs or a margarita.
I blame my admittedly irrational aversion to Chuck E. on my first frazzled impression, jaded by my own weakness and naivety. I was there with an 18-month-old and a 3-year-old. I hadn’t been adequately prepared or warned. I came alone, without adult reinforcements.
Mistake No. 1: I bought two cups of coins and expected my two boys to stick together. I was left sweaty, out of breath and red-faced trying to keep tabs on them.
Mistake No. 2: I actually thought I could meet friends there and have a meaningful conversation.
Mistake No. 3: I thought my 18-month-old would play the game after feeding it 12 tokens.
Mistake No. 4: I didn’t think prizes mattered.
The image of my kids converging on a prize counter for the first time will never escape my mind. It was like they reached the finish line of a race. And they were all in first place, starry-eyed and excited — ready to claim their winnings. They pulled tickets out of their pockets, all sorts of places, and emptied fistfuls, all wrinkled and soggy from their tight grips. (This was before they had those machines that count them for you.)
With 30-something tickets each, their world was wide open.
They stared at the prize wall, aiming their arms and little fingers at the stuffed animals, lights, basketball nets and other bulky Styrofoam toys, only to be quickly grounded by the 15-year-old behind the counter. She tried to redirect their eyes to the top glass shelf where their real fortunes lay. Stickers. Gum. And stamp-sized, wash-off tattoos.
They didn’t give up on the wall easily.
“I want the lava lamp,” my 3-year-old said. My younger one just jumped and pointed in the general direction of the toys that required 2,000-plus tickets.
But the teen simply sighed and tapped on the glass — pointing at the toys in their ticket range. As the line grew, my little boy stood puzzled, unable to make up his mind. He tried a few more times for the wall toys before collecting a Spiderman sticker and two mini-lollipops. Then, in typically not-going-to-give-up-fashion, he turned back to the games, asking for more tokens so he could get a lava lamp. I nearly lost it after my 20th “No.” My 18-month-old needed a diaper change. My friends were scattered, waging their own toddler, token-ticket battles.
Exhausted and tired, I made the “we’ll-be-back” promise that we so often do in multiple-meltdown situations.
And, like other fallen victims to the spell, we were back, not the next day, but the next month, the next year — and we’ll still go back.
What can I say? I’ve been cursed.