“We’re going to get through this thing together,” I said to my wife, Kara, as I took her hand. We followed our children through the double doors, into our local Chuck E. Cheese’s, the place where a kid can be a kid, and a grownup can go insane.
“Can I please have my birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese?” our nearly five-year-old son Zack began asking about a month before his birthday, usually as his first waking words on any given day, thereby dispelling any notion that we’d be able to skate by for one more year without him noticing that we didn’t really throw him an actual party.
“That was your party!” we’ve been able to convince him every other year, and he never seemed to notice that, with the exception of his brother, he was descended from every other person in attendance.
At some point, though, you have to let your kid have a birthday party at their favorite rodent-themed arcade. It’s a rite of passage. In some cultures, you tie vines to your ankles and jump off bamboo towers. In other cultures, where there’s a higher tolerance for pain, you invite all the kids from your son’s daycare to run around an establishment that is packed with enough children on a Saturday afternoon that there would surely be a fire code violation if kids didn’t only count as half a person.
“This is stressing me out,” Kara said as we advanced into the flashing, clanging, beeping, screaming cacophony of Chuck E. Cheese’s, which is essentially a training casino for children. Kids put money into machines, push a button or two repeatedly, and occasionally get a little reward for their efforts. The reward comes in the form of tickets that can be redeemed for prizes that you wouldn’t bend down to pick up off the sidewalk. At this little casino, the mouse always wins.
“That’s my favorite game!” Zack said, pointing across the room. When their grandparents are babysitting, our kids always con them into Chuck E. Cheese trips. Zack’s such a regular there, I half expected a pit boss to comp him some pizza.
Zack strode into the arcade area, master of his domain, high-fiving the person dressed up like the eponymous mouse. If you’re not familiar with Chuck E. Cheese, he’s kind of like what Mickey Mouse would be, if Mickey had made worse life decisions. You just get the sense that Chuck E. is probably a good guy, but he’s living with some regrets.
Zack’s buddies all showed up shortly thereafter, and the kids orbited around each other as they bounced from machine to machine. A while later, after the pizza and cake, Kara grimaced when she realized what was coming next.
“Dude, they’re going to put him in the barf chamber,” she said.
She was referring to the Ticket Blaster, which is like a phone booth that serves as the grand finale for the birthday child. The child stands in the booth and catches as many tickets as they can in thirty seconds while tickets cyclone around. Years ago, we watched a little girl get into that very same booth and perform what could best be described as an upchuck-E. Cheese.
“It’s been three years since that little girl threw up in there. I’m sure they dumped plenty of sawdust on it,” I said.
Zack just laughed as the machine blew tickets, and who knows what else, into his face.
On the way home, Zack was still beaming, triumphant.
“What was your favorite part?” we asked him.
“The whole thing,” Zack said.
And really, what else matters? Still, it’s nice to be back in the regular world, where an adult can be an adult.
You can comp Mike Todd some pizza at firstname.lastname@example.org.