As a kid, I had a love-hate relationship with the Somerset movie theater: I loved the movies but hated the hoods hanging out there. The old movie theater was located on our side of Somerset and took only twenty minutes from our house. Except for a drive-in further away, the theater was the only place to see movies in the entire county. In fact, as far as I knew, it was the only theater this side of the Allegheny Mountains.
The Somerset movie theater was like a piece of the fabric proving Somerset, itself, was a significant presence, even though the city was situated in the middle of no-where on the top of the Allegheny Mountains.
We saw practically every movie shown in the Somerset movie theater. All the Disney movies, the Jerry Lewis movies, the Tony Curtis movies, all the Natalie Wood movies, the Jack Lemmon, John Wayne, Dean Martin movies, the Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Marilyn Monroe movies – we saw them all. We even saw the Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, especially if we were good and promised we wouldn’t be scared, though frequently I sat horrified and swore to my brother Charley I would never take a shower with the curtain closed again.
Often, on what seemed like a whim or a last minute decision, Daddy would race us to the movie theater and, as a result, we never arrived on time. Fifteen to twenty minutes into the movie, we would enter the darkened theater to find our seats, hoping for a bright scene so we could sit together, trying to figure out at the same time what was going on and what had occurred before we arrived, why the Swiss Family Robinson lived up a tree, or Kirk Douglass was 20,000 leagues under the sea, or why gorgeous Natalie Woods lay splendid in the grass or wanted sex as a single girl, or when exactly were the days of wine and roses, and how did Gregory Peck choose his team for the Guns of Navarone, or meet the crazy people in Dr. Newman, MD., let alone represent a black man in a murder trial in the deep South.
Frequently, after the movie, we would remain seated, waiting for the beginning of the next show if only to understand the story. The teenage boys cleaning the auditorium didn’t care and Daddy never picked us up on time. When we left the theater, the ticket booth would be dark and empty, and we would stand alone for what seemed like hours outside under the darkened arcade, watching Somerset’s high school kids and farm boys from the county drive by the theater, hooping it up and hollering at Allison and Holly to join them, both of whom invariably would stand back away from the street and away from the gaudy, glassed-in, movie posters.
In the parking lot to the left of the theater – a dark, dreadful place created by some moron demolishing the building next door – kids parked near the back wall, smoking cigarettes and drinking at their cars, inviting my sisters to join them when the boys came out to wave down hot-rods driving past the theater.
It was the men’s room that I hated. Located in the basement of the theater down a horrible set of steps with a rusty railing, the men’s room was a challenge at any age, but especially so when I was a young boy. The basement was dimly lit with peeling paint on perspiring walls, and the bathroom was directly across a small open area in which men could stand and smoke cigarettes or wait, perhaps, outside if all the toilets and urinals were being used. Often this was where the Somerset toughies – hoods, we called them – would stand clustered together in their leather jackets, dark jeans, and black engineer boots, smoking cigarettes and laughing among themselves. The teenage ushers were afraid of them and, as long as they didn’t make too much noise, left them alone, and, given they were down in the basement, the manager didn’t mess with them either. Certainly, no one seemed to be pushing them out of the theater and into the back parking lot where they would be soon enough once they were old enough to drive.
I hated going down the long set of steps to the men’s bathroom and would wait until I absolutely couldn’t hold my pee any longer. Fidgeting in my seat, I am sure I drove my brother and sisters crazy. At first, when I was younger, Charley would accompany me, but as I got older his desire to be interrupted in the middle of a movie to take me to the bathroom waned completely. Until, without telling my parents, he refused to go along with me, and if I pressed him, I was sure, he would beat me up when we got home. No, this was something that I had to do by myself.
Once, I remember, we arrived late for “Lonely are the Brave” with Kirk Douglas and because we wanted to get our seats and catch the story as quickly as we could, none of us went to the bathroom ahead of time. Half way through the movie I had to go, but Charley refused to accompany me.
Creeping down the worn steps, holding the crusty rail, I dreaded who or what would be waiting for me at the bottom and, sure enough, given this wasn’t a “kids movie” and I had to be the youngest person in the theater that night, it was inevitable there would be trouble. As I came to the bottom of the steps there they were waiting for me, a group of young teenage hoods, hanging out between the stairway and the men’s room door.
“Hey kid,” one said from the middle of the pack. I looked away and tried to keep walking to the bathroom, but a tough kid with slick black hair and open jacket stepped forward and blocked my way.
“Hey, I’m talking to you,” he said roughly. “You have a cigarette?”
The group became silent, there were like five guys standing there, but they were rapidly growing in numbers to something like fifty, along with cyclopes clutching spiked clubs and giant octopuses with swirling tentacles behind them, and now the four other guys were staring at me waiting for me to respond to their leader. I couldn’t ignore them, but I didn’t want to answer him either.
“No sir,” I mumbled, pleading in my eyes to go to the bathroom. The smell of cigarettes and stale air from the bathroom was horrible.
“You don’t have a cigarette? Damn! Want one of mine?” the teenager asked, turning back to his friends, laughing and pulling out a pack from his shirt pocket. The other boys joined in his laughter and came closer to me.
“Do you have a match?” another boy asked. He had blonde hair but it was long, stringy, and dirty.
“No sir,” I stammered to him, looking back to the steps – so many steps to get upstairs. I could hear the movie sounding distant and distorted, vibrating through the room, but no one was coming down the steps to rescue me.
“Hey, where are you going?” the first boy asked me, pulling me closer to him, turning my attention back to him: his black pupils, his sharp nose, the red pimples on his face.
I desperately needed to get to the bathroom. I had already waited too long and now these guys were making me squirm.
“The bathroom,” I stammered. The hallway was old and dark and doors behind the hoods led deeper into the theater. They could pull me back there and I would never be heard from again. “I – I – I need to go to the bathroom.”
“Wait a sec. Where are you from kid?” he asked.
“Brotherton,” I answered weakly. “Please….”
“Hey, farm boy,” another one of the hoods responded, “where are your cows.” The other boys laughed.
“Do you have sheep?” the leader of the group asked me, eyes lighting up, again turning the attention back to him.
“What? Yes, sir.” I responded feeling myself starting to tinkle in my underwear.
“Do you play with your sheep?”
What was he asking me? “Yes, sir.” Everyone burst into laughter.
“Please, please, I have to go to the bathroom.”
“This isn’t a movie for kids like you. Why don’t you just stay here with us,” the second kid suggested. “We can all be friends. You have any money? I want some popcorn.”
Everyone burst into laughter again.
“Give me some money, “ the second kid continued, more threatening this time.
“I don’t have any money.” I moaned. I already had eaten my Milk Duds and had nothing to offer them. “Please, I have to go.”
It was already too late. I knew the tinkle would turn into a torrent if I didn’t move now.
“You need money for this bathroom. You need to pay us.”
I thought I would faint. The door was open, the bathroom was empty.
“Please,” I started crying. I could feel myself losing the battle. I was wetting my pants in front of these guys and it was awful. I could smell the pee.
“Let him go!”
Suddenly I heard Charley’s voice behind me. Charley had come down the steps. “Let him go. The manager is calling the cops”
Charley was three years older and much larger than me. He was my brother and not intimated by these hoods. In the surprise of hearing his voice, the boys changed their focus, and I took the moment to run into the bathroom.
“Picking on a little kid,” Charley said to them, following me quickly into the bathroom before they could challenge him.
Charley went to the urinal next to mine, but he didn’t say anything. I looked over and he had a grim expression on his face. Seeing me staring, he asked, “Are you okay?”
“I think so,” I stammered, worried about getting back upstairs, positive he would beat me up later for getting us in this predicament.
“Jerks,” he said.
When we came out of the bathroom the hoods were ready to fight.
“Hey farm boy,” the blonde-haired boy hissed, “Bet you’re not so tough outside.”
Charley ignored them and kept walking to the stair well, directing me quietly, “Don’t listen to them. Come on. Let’s go.”
Someone jabbed his shoulder and another threw a cigarette butt at his back, but we went up the stairs before they blocked our path.
“Charley,” I said, when we were in the standing room area. “I peed my pants.” I started to cry, relieved to be upstairs, but not knowing what to do.
He looked down at my blue jeans. “It doesn’t look so bad,” he said. “Stop being a baby.”
I stopped crying and waited for him; he was my older brother, he would know how to fix this. Charley’s idea, after a minute of thinking, was for me to go into the women’s lounge and take off my underpants.
“No….” I said. I had never stepped into the ladies lounge. What if there were girls in there? I couldn’t…
“Go on,” he said. He would watch the door so no one would enter. “You’ll be okay.”
I hated his plan, but there was nothing else I could do. I couldn’t go back downstairs to the men’s room, not with the hoods down there, and I wasn’t going to sit next to my sisters and all the strangers in the dark theater smelling like pee.
Reluctantly, I crept quietly into the lounge, looking around for anyone who might be in there, seeing myself reflected in the table mirrors all about the room: a small little boy caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, watching a movie I didn’t understand, hours from being picked up by Daddy, from going back home to the farm with Charley and my sisters where I would be safe.
Minutes later Charley threw my underpants in a garbage bin and cuffed me across the head when I thanked him for saving me from the hoods.