The Chuck.

E. Cheese, that is.

Chris and I made it four years, ten months, and three days into our parenting career without crossing his threshold.  And we were well pleased with ourselves.

Then we received an invitation to a good friend’s son’s birthday party.  A friend that Ali would be disappointed to miss his celebration.

(A friend whose mother agreed that I should write this post, for what it’s worth.)

He had been begging his poor mother all year long to have his birthday at Chuck E. Cheese, and despite her attempts at helping him pick a more lovely place, his heart was set.

I didn’t think about the invite for too long – I knew Ali would be thrilled to go, and my parental guilt of not taking my kid to the place Where a Kid Can Be a Kid earlier in her life temporarily eclipsed my intense desire avoid that GermHole at all costs.

Plus, it couldn’t be as bad as I imagined, right?

I was so deluded in my planning for our attendance that I even nonchalantly agreed to take both kids alone if Chris wasn’t able to leave work early enough to join us.

Fortunately, God did not smite me that ruthlessly.

We set out as a family to The Chuck.  Our first clue of what was to come should have been the fact that there was nary a parking spot available.

No, all of those cars definitely weren’t there for the eerily empty looking Japanese Steakhouse next door.

Nor were they there for the ABC State Liquor Store on the other side.

(Although I have a feeling that more than a few parents have been driven to it’s doors after visiting The Chuck.)

(In fact, I now have a strong suspicion that their choice in location was no accident.)

No, all of those cars were there because the fire code was being grossly violated at none other than Chuck E. Cheese.

Chris dropped Ali and I at the door, and he and Noah set off in search of a faraway and mythical parking space.

Ali and I crossed the threshold.

…and were both immediately in shock.

I have been to the Circus.  I have been to the mall during Christmas.  I have been to many Alabama football games with the attendance over 100,000.  But I have never seen so many people crammed into so little square footage in my life.

It was bone-chillingly frightening.

And deafeningly loud.

And there was a very distinctive odor.

So distinctive in it’s unique mixture of vomit, feces, and germs in their most natural form that it was the first thing Ali pointed out.

Not the arcades, not the blinking lights, not her friends (that she couldn’t see through the throngs anyway), not the prizes behind the counter…

“Mommy, it smells really bad in here.”

“What baby?? I can’t hear you!!”

“IT STINKS!!!!”

Maybe this was all because it was a Friday night… and Veteran’s Day… and that they had obviously booked as many birthday parties in one night as would possibly fit in their building AND the empty steakhouse next door… but whatever it was, it was more shocking than I could put into words.

I only managed to get one picture of the madness, and it doesn’t do it justice at all.  But to give you a small taste of the ocean of people…

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(See that tunnel in the sky in the background? Remember it – it’s important.)

After several minutes of trying to schematically figure out how it was possible, Ali and I squeezed and pushed our way through the multitudes to find our party.  We got some tokens and headed into the Corral of Crazy.

I am no germophobe, but the inch-thick layer of grease (that I’m sure could be grown out in a lab to reveal several new mutations of filth) on each and every arcade game about did me in.  However, I held in there, began to get amused by the situation in which I found myself, and dove into the deep end of the germ pool.

A few days later after finally finding a parking spot and fighting his way through the front door, Chris and Noah found us.  I barked out stringent orders to not let Noah come within eighteen inches any surface anywhere, and Ali and I went back to playing.

Then Ali saw the PlayPlace in the sky.

“I wanna climb in there!”

“What?? I can’t hear you!!”

“I WANNA GO CLIMB!!!!!”

“OKAY!! TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES!!!”

And she headed off.

Chris stole a few tokens and headed to the Skeeball machine, leaving me to commiserate visit with some other Mommies and watch for Ali in the windows above my head.

A few minutes in, I could see that the other guests were beginning to congregate in the birthday party area.  I watched for Ali to pop up in a window, and when she did, I waved for her to come on down.

At which moment, she realized that she didn’t know which direction to crawl to get out.

She was only around one corner from the slide and the stairs, but she inherited from her mother a gene of panic-first-when-out-of-control.

And I saw it happen, in silent slow motion.

She had a meltdown, up in the sky tunnel.

She began crying, which drew a crowd of other tunnel dwellers around her.

But Ali also has a severe issue with her personal space being invaded by strangers.  So the crying turned to weeping, and the weeping turned to screaming.

All silent, of course – at least from my spot on the ground.  I’m pretty sure it was reverberating nicely in the tunnels, though.

I tried to silently comfort her from my spot and point profusely in the direction in which she should crawl.

Complete panic, no room to pay attention to me.

One of the other Mommies sent up her daughter, a year older than Ali, to retrieve her.  Ali loves Abby – surely this would work.

I watched as Abby arrived at Sky Zero and began to comfort Ali and tell her that she knew the way out.

Nope – she was completely frozen in her all-encompassing panic attack.

More kids were crowding around, except this time they looked angry with the panicking, tunnel-barricading child.  Ali reached for me, crying pitifully.

I had no choice.

The way up to the tunnel were those half triangles that are purposely impossible for adults to snake through – I am pretty sure I had to bend my backbone in four different directions to weave up eight levels of germy plastic to make it to the tunnels above.  I finally made it up, and was gaggingly horrified at the thick layer of dirt, mud, probably a little poop, and botulism that coated the floor of the tunnel.

I wish I were exaggerating, but it was thick, dark, and I had to put my hands all up in it to crawl to rescue my daughter.

As I was turning the corner, I heard a kid screaming obscenities.  He was coming around the corner towards me, still screaming with his head looking back over his shoulder.  AT MY DAUGHTER.

He saw me, and instead of getting polite in the presence of an adult, he started screaming at me.

“You better get her ass outta here!! GET HER CRYIN’ ASS OUTTA HERE RIGHT NOW!!!”

That kid was so lucky that there was a slide at his feet.  He popped through it and disappeared, as I began to shake with lividity.

I reached my hand out to Ali and led her back around the corner to the stairs made for invertebrates.  We made our way down together, her crying, me boiling with horror and anger.

Of course, by the time we made it to the bottom, the eight-year-old cuss factory had disappeared into the masses.

I picked up my poor, sweet, innocent, panicking daughter and held her close.

She told me in my ear that she got stepped on – twice – and that it hurt.

And that kids were mean to her.

I managed to not begin weeping with her and apologized for the fact that there were awful, nasty, mean kids in the world.

We both made it to the birthday party, at which point I showered Ali in hand sanitizer, and she was soon lost in eating Pizza and birthday cake and watching a six-foot-tall electronic mouse dance the night away with his fake and nightmarish smile.

Fortunately, children are infinitely more resilient than there parents.  Because I can guarantee you that I was the one that left the most traumatized that night.

…Well, me and the poor Mom who had to throw the birthday party – her row was a far worse one to hoe than mine, and she deserves the hugest of Mommy Scouts Badges for making her son’s birthday dreams come true.

But the next time we saw each other on Sunday morning, we pinky swore (or the Mommy equivalent of pinky swearing, anyway) that no member of either of our families would ever, ever, EVER step foot into Chuck E. Cheese ever, ever, EVER again.

 

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The Sequel can be found here.