Living Paycheck to Ticket Stub

Old habits are truly hard to break. Ever since middle school, it’s been the same story—I have always taken on more than I need to or is wise for reasons that continually elude me. In high school, I took roughly double the number of classes I needed to graduate, eventually depriving myself of adequate time in my schedule to go to lunch in between class periods. Going to Oberlin only seemed to exacerbate the problem. I could have graduated a semester early despite enrolling with only 4 AP credits, but not only did I stay for that extra spring, I took a full course load, another 16 credits worth of classes as I had for nearly every semester before that. I rationalized it to myself well—tuition is a flat rate whether you take 12 credits a semester or 16, so I might as well make the most of it, not to mention the fact that I have a hungry curiosity and there are so many interesting classes to choose from. And that’s just the academic side—not to mention work-study jobs and extracurriculars. Like many Obies, it seems as though I had to learn time management the hard way, and it was only after I left Oberlin that I finally appreciated the concept of free time. Or at least, that was until I got antsy for something more.

Despite Chinese class being so intensive, since it was only one class, and since I had absolutely no extracurricular or work obligations at Cornell, I still felt like I had a ton of extra time. I realized that it was the academics in tandem with all of the extra stuff at Oberlin that made me so utterly insane. Stripping all of that excess away at Cornell was like shearing a sheep in the summer, despite that fact that, like sheep, I sometimes start to miss the outer sheathing that is part of who I am. I realized why this is—that doing things, perhaps too many of them at once, keeps me constantly restless, and not being content is the best way to move forward, to expect more from myself and work until I get it. If not for this, I would probably not have changed much from my high school self, which seemed to be frozen in time for the first three years. Keeping busy also gives me purpose, and allows me to sidestep the emotional nerves that perk up from time to time, which, with enough time to properly process, would completely drain me physically and creatively.

A view of the Cornell Cinema just minutes before a film screening. The usher is designated a special seat close to the exit in the back of the theater to make it more convenient to open and close the doors.

And so, seated with a flurry of free time and nothing to fill it, I went about sifting through the great ether of bulletin board listings and announcements that seemed to grow on walls like a fungus. What I overwhelmingly discovered were flyers to participate in surveys and studies. Most were sponsored by academic departments that were willing to pay volunteers to take part in their experiments, especially during the summer, when presumably, students are less busy and more in need of a disposable income. As having fit both of those criteria, I took up the offers, snatching up the little take-away information sheets with names and email addresses. At first, I was incredibly skeptical, and daresay a little nervous, but by the second week, I had already accumulated a stack of six and had my eyes set on more.

It didn’t take long before I got hooked. After the initial wave of emails were sent out, I signed up on list-serves and registered with online study databases. I was enrolled in both the Business Simulation Lab (run out of the Johnson School of Management) and Susan (sponsored by the Psychology Department), the only two active during the summer. I checked the listings every day and signed up for studies as soon as new ones became available. Pretty soon, I was pulling a handful of them a week. I participated in food studies, brainstorming sessions, olfaction experiments, and healthy aging surveys. As you might expect, some of the experiments were more engaging than others. During lunch and after class, I would disappear for minutes at a time to work through logic problems in crowded computer labs, put my nose to a gaggle of squirt bottles and test the efficacy of retronasal smelling, or decide how much money I would be willing to give to a complete stranger. Conversations with friends would inevitably revolve around comparing notes on future studies or describing how past ones went. A half hour of time was prorated at $5 an hour and an hour was upwards of $10-$15. Best of all, those were only estimates—realistically, you could complete most studies in half of the stated time. When all was said and done, I would guess that after a month I had made about $150.

With a veritable part-time job now eating up a good portion of every week, I was satisfied with the extra breathing room in my wallet for miscellaneous expenses and some costs that Shansi couldn’t cover. But the lack of extracurriculars was still wearing down on me—I wanted something I was reasonably passionate about that I could devote significant time to each week. The answer came from an unlikely source. Perusing through the usual selection of periodicals and stray publications floating around the library one day, I came across an advertisement for the Cornell Cinema. It wasn’t my first exposure to the Cinema. In the first week, I had seen a screening of the mildly terrifying Tim Burton film, Coraline, which only gave me nightmares for the first few weeks or so. Even this initial outing, I heard, though, was something of an anomaly—many of the friends I had talked to in my class had never heard of the Cinema, or if they had heard of it, had themselves never been before. My interest in the Cinema certainly didn’t come out of any experience at Oberlin. Though I very early on in my freshman year signed up on the OFS (Oberlin Film Society) email list, my involvement was limited to simply having been to a sprinkling of $1 screenings over the course of my four years. But at Cornell, given that during the summer there was nothing like AAA, TWC, or the BCSL to sink my teeth into, I figured it was as good an institution as any.

My single proudest photographic achievement, done by sticking the lens of my camera in the narrow, pitch-black opening of the ticket deposit. This must have been my tenth or eleventh attempt.

The advertisement in the paper was for an usher position, an unpaid gig, but one that came with a handful of enticing benefits. There was the boon of a free Comp Pass for two to all regular screenings at the Cinema, free popcorn and lemonade during one’s shift, and perhaps best of all, a snazzy “Cornell Cinema Staff” t-shirt. It doesn’t take a particular observant or even close friend to track my extracurricular interests at Oberlin, as almost all of them came with t-shirts that have now become the pride of my active wardrobe. In retrospect, it’s hard for me to imagine what I wouldn’t do for free, reasonably attractive apparel. In any case, I went that afternoon to the basement of Willard Straight Hall, a hulking castle of a building, which housed both the Cinema and the office where I dropped off my application. A day later, I received an email letting me know that my schedule fit well enough that on practically the basis of that alone and the fact that there weren’t presumably many other applicants, I got the job! I would be working one shift a week for my remaining six weeks at Cornell over the summer.

A view of the ever-engrossing Cornell Cinema concession stand.

According to its website, the Cornell Cinema has been cited as one of the best campus film programs in the country, screening close to 300 different films a year. The place was consistently well kept and the management certainly lived up to its good name. On any given shift, there were a handful of employees—the ever-critical usher, concession stand operator, ticket seller, projectionist, and house manager. Every person knew his or her exact role at any given time. As far as I was concerned, the usher duties were quite simple. They consisted largely of getting to the theater 30 minutes before show time, moving the ticket deposit from a dank closet to a convenient position in front of the entrance, ripping tickets and making small talk with patrons, watching the movie, and doing some minimal clean-up at the end. Perhaps the best part of the whole ordeal was what was called the “pre-screen,” the five minutes before doors opened when the projectionist screened the beginning of the movie to make sure that the picture was in focus and the volume was good. I was responsible for standing in back of the theater and communicating minor adjustments to the house manager, who stood on stage in the front, and then relayed those same cues to the projectionist. The sound the film reel made when the picture was deemed “thumbs up” and the screen gradually faded to a grinding halt was truly priceless.

As far of the selection of movies went, I was thoroughly pleased, not to mention fortunate to be working days when, what I believed to be, the most interesting films were being shown. There was everything from big Hollywood titles to indie flicks, and a fair share of documentaries, foreign films, and cult classics scattered in between. Unlike during the greater part of the academic year, in the summer, there was only one film screening a night on weekdays and two on weekends, as opposed to two every day. I was responsible for ushering either one or two films, depending on the day of the week that I worked.

I have an inexplicable obsession with popcorn machines, don't ask my why.

In my first week, I worked a Friday, and saw both the fungus documentary, Know Your Mushrooms and the romantic-thriller Duplicity, starring the dynamic duo of Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. For my second week, it was the animated kid-film Battle for Terra, as well as Watchmen that I saw on my own with some friends, which ended up being quite true to the graphic novel. With week three came Dersu Uzala, the brooding, very slow 1975 Kurasawa film. Week four saw The Silence Before Bach, a retrospective on Bach’s musical life, featuring one of my favorite movie scenes of all time (see video below). With week five came The Garden, an amazing and heart-wrenching documentary on the fate of the largest community garden in the United States. And finally, week six saw both The Soloist, starring Jamie Foxx as an autistic musician-turned-homeless man, and Tokyo! which was definitely one of the strangest films I have ever seen. Three different directors—two French and one Korean, including Michel Gondry of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fame—collaborated to present playfully apocalyptic, futuristic tales of modern Tokyo.

My favorite scene from The Silence Before Bach. According to me, it is every cello enthusiast's wet dream.

But great and interesting movies aside, the usher gig wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies. Coupled with the classic loneliness that comes from watching a movie in theaters alone, the job, innocuous as it was, did take a toll on my emotional well-being. Silent hours would pass, especially on weekend nights, with my only confidants being the concession stand operator and the faceless patrons who would smile and thank me as I ripped their tickets in half and put both ends in the deposit (we weren’t allowed to return ticket stubs). There was a certain rhythm to this that I quite enjoyed (I discovered that service jobs do have a particular mindless, carefree quality to them), but more than anything, I wanted some friends to accompany me on the long nights of movie watching past sundown. With the inflated price of movie tickets, though, I oftentimes had to settle for late-night hang-out or study-sessions at a Collegetown café after the film got out instead.

On more than one occasion, though, I staged a protest, collecting a few pristine tickets and pocketing them before they were ripped; later doling them out to friends like bribes for use at a future movie I was ushering. I even managed to crack the color coding system—namely, which color tickets corresponded to which screenings during the week. I considered it my civic duty—as with any job, there had to be the host of necessary benefits that made doing it worthwhile to both you and your friends. It was very reminiscent of the days in New York when Scott took me for the old “Eworks” trick at the Union Square Regal Cinemas, which, admittedly, had gotten us into quite a few run-ins (though all of them price-saving). As a result, some might call this newest indictment “paying forward,” others, “ripping off.” As for me, it was just another day at the office—even if that office was comprised solely of a waist-high ticket deposit and an industrial-strength flashlight.