The movie had just gone off-screen at the St. George Theatre, our 2,672-seat movie palace in Staten Island. Gabe, our grizzled projectionist (returned to the fold after being disciplined by his union for TV watching in the booth) wanted to get on our good side. His shift over, he strode to the concession stand and slapped down on the glass display case a rather ordinary box of Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies.
“Happy New Year!” He smiled at me, that crooked tobacco-stained grin of his. “These are for you and Dean. Yeah, yeah, I meant to give’m to you at Christmas, but I forgot...” He buttoned his peacoat and made for the street, his brief foray into sociability accomplished.
Paulie, who had the concession shift that night, was just shutting things down, counting change, locking the case. He pointed a pretend revolver at the back of the retreating projectionist, and fired a phantom bullet. I laughed, Dean patted Paulie on the back. Everybody knew Gabe’s hourly pay was $14.76. Rich as he was, the Entenmann’s seemed as puny as the gesture that had produced it. We hadn’t paid ourselves in months, and Paulie, worth eleven of Gabe, got minimum wage, $2.20 an hour.
Dean stepped into the stand and grabbed Paulie’s Windex and rag.
“It’s almost midnight, and I imagine you’ve got other plans,” he told the kid, fourteen years his junior.
Thirty-eight years later, thanks to the internet, Paulie, in his fifties (these days an aeronautical engineer), found me via this website. We’re reacquainted as full adults since then, and I’m happy to say that his memory of that particular New Year’s Eve has become a traditional post for SW.
On that preternaturally cold night, we darkened the house, closed down the box office, locked the concession stand, threw the giant breakers to power down the marquee, and bolted the glass doors. We wished whoever remained good luck in the coming new year, 1977. Paulie jumped into his car, parked just below the marquee, and a few of us “management” folk straggled up the hill towards home and some eggnog I had ready. But Paulie’s night would be a little different:
You and Dean had made sure to get us out of the theater before midnight so we could make it home in time.
My ‘68 Pontiac Firebird was parked on Hyatt Street, right in front of the theater. At around 11:30 I got in, started the car, but could not get it into gear. So...at midnight I was still on the hill, waiting for a tow truck, the cold wind blowing. I was freezing.
[It was around 15 degrees F that night, with wind gusts off the harbor of up to 25 mph; in fact, New Year’s Eve in NYC, ’76 is tied with ’96 for the fifth coldest Dec 31st in recorded weather history].
Quiet, except for the wind. Then at the stroke of midnight, the ships in the harbor sounded their whistles and shot off fireworks. It was just me, the wind and the ships with the NYC skyline, a night to cherish forever. PS: The New Years party was still raging when I made it home (nothing missed).
Privation, exhilaration. These fit my overall experience of running the theater in 1976 and the first few months of 1977. It was going to be a cold cold winter; we’d be out, broke, by spring. But the theater, while it lasted, was itself a kind of fireworks, a lit spark I try to keep going, in these blog posts.
Thanks again, Paulie...and Happy New Year.
Peace to everyone... And in the coming year don’t forget to like us on FB, and don’t be shy about comments...and, if you can, find a local movie palace of your own to support.
As an afterthought, I offer up a poem I wrote forty-three years ago, “At the Box Office;” I found it in a box of journal entries rescued from my garage. Such is the life of the writer.
At the Box Office
Selling tickets last night
I got into a conversation with a drunk
who said, “Selling tickets must be pretty dull,”
and I said,
“I meet some pretty interesting people.”
He said, “You don’t talk to them though,
just sell’m tickets,
but wait a minute — you’re talking to me.”
I said, “Someday I may write a book about this place
and you may be in it.”
He said, “Be sure you spell my name right,”
and I said, “If you’re in my book you won’t be yourself exactly.”
“Like a myth?”
It’s amazing to me that I knew in 1976 what I was going to do. Wonder if the drunk is still alive? Despite his state, or maybe because of it, he understood, somehow, what a myth really is!