Not the Mickey. The Chuck. As in Chuck E. Cheese, the big gray mouse sporting a bright purple tee-shirt and a baseball cap. Mouse with a game arcade, lots of really bad pizza, and hundreds of running, screaming, tantrum-throwing children – mostly under the age of six.
The decibel level in here rivals a heavy-metal concert. And speaking of heavy-metal and industrial drums, I happen to be guarding the winning cups for my granddaughters at a table across the aisle from Guitar Hero, an arcade game which features a large, animated screen of an industrial band who are performing for convicts in white- and gray-striped prison pajamas. At the moment, two sweet-faced sisters are manning the two interactive guitars while their younger brother looks on in wonder from the sidelines and their young mother gives them instructions. The only on-screen instructions to the wanna-be rockers are found in a smallish box near the top of the screen: Don't fret; strum. Beginner's mode. And the song they are rocking-out to just now? "Hit Me With Your Best Shot."
Next to them, my two-year-old granddaughter, Whitney, is feeding a gold coin to the Big Bass Wheel Pro arcade game which, all evening, has returned – to even the most skilled players – only 2 or 3 tickets. The good thing about a two-year-old, though, is how she is equally as happy with one ticket as she is with ten or twenty. That is how young she still is. How wonder-filled. Not far away, her big sister, Haley, is torpedoing ships with great gusto from the submarine Sea Wolf. She brings back to the table an impressive string of tickets for her "winning cup" and then runs right back off to her Papaw to ride the big white horse in the Derby game over in the Toddlers' section. In front of her, the track and the heads and rumps of other virtual horses against whom her horse competes.
In the far back of the General Admission tables, where we sit, is the section of specially-reserved tables for the birthday parties. The children back there have a stage and a larger-than-life stuffed version of The Mouse. They have a video booth where they can watch themselves dance and make faces at themselves. They have a big cake and get a visit, every hour, from The Mouse himself: someone dressed in a big gray mouse costume who waves nd moves among the birthday children, giving them high-fives and hugs and posing with the children for their parents' cameras. Big smiles and excitement all around.
The children in our section want to hug The Mouse too, but they are not "allowed." One mop-headed toddler has to be carried away by his mother who seems weary and distracted, uninterested in the moppet's sadness. She plops the boy on his father's lap and goes for a refill of her diet soda; the boy's father continues texting someone and tells the boy to "shut up." The boy does, but his eyes are still following the big mouse around the back of the room. Even in a children's paradise such as this, there is privilege and hierarchy, permission and denial. Haves and have-nots. Not that the boy yet understands this. But he will, in time; he will.
Outside, the sky has gone stormy and, across the parking lot, both flags atop the Texas Roadhouse are flying perpendicular to their flagpoles. Hurricane Irene is moving up the coast. Not that we have much to fear, inland, except maybe the amping-up of the usual high winds, hard rain, and flooding that we are growing accustomed to here in Central Pennsylvania. But we have become a sort of "tornado alley" in the last two years – 3 of them so far this year – so we are learning to keep a watchful eye on the wind, even as the winning cups fill with tickets, then overrun their plastic rims in that "my-cup-runneth-over" way that they do.
When all the gold tokens have been spent in the arcade, when all the games have been played and replayed, when the tickets are gathered up and cashed in, there will be prizes to select and carry home. Small treasures for the children. Keepsakes. Departing gifts from The Mouse and all his weary, faithful minions.
photo courtesy of photos.com, author's collection