the happiest place on earth
i got home two sizes too small. a real wreck. feral. mean. cranky. long, hard day and my energy went south. pressed for time i stopped at the grocery store for some junk food: chips, doritos [two flavors] and ruffles with ranch dressing dip. plus a diet pepsi for me and a bottled water for nick. for i had promised to take nick to the drive-ins. tonight.
my plan was to stop at jimboys tacos for some bean&cheese burritos. these are the best in the world but super bad for you, loaded with fat and cholesterol. then i wanted to stop at target for a new portable radio and some batteries. drive-in theaters long ago abandoned those tinny speakers you would place on your car window for fm radio frequencies.
but anna saw all the junk food i brought home and sensibly reminded me that that was more than enough crap to eat. we should have something a bit more nutritious for dinner. i made myself a sandwich and got some leftover pizza for nick. i threw everything in a bag. i grabbed a sweater and jacket and told nick to do the same because it will get cold once the sun went down.
i felt the squeeze of time. the drive-ins would be, i know, packed. get there near dark and you will find yourself stuck in a very long line and jockeying for a good place to park. and i do not like to drive. car culture, the kind i grew up knowing in the 1970s, is long gone. traffic winds me up like a rubber band.
i didn't go to jimboys and i decided against the radio figuring the car radio will do an adequate job. this gave us more time. we got to the sac 6 drive-in theater a little after 7:00 pm. nearly an hour of daylight to spare. i began to unclench once we found our place in line. and the line was short.
i became tamed. i felt bad for my earlier cranky behavior. i owed all of creation an apology. the screen for the movie, avengers: age of ultron 
, was crowded. i found a position up front. not great but a good seat for the action. then nick and i locked up and headed for the snack bar.
if the drive-in is a body the snack bar is its brain and heart. sac 6 drive-in theater has a snack bar like a panoptican. a circle in the center of the grounds with the projection booth on top of the snack bar building. the projection booth has always fascinated me. i remember walking past the projection booth at a long defunct drive-in, mather auto movies, when i was about seven years old. the movie was a bruce lee kung fu flick. the projection booth at mather auto movies was smack in the middle of the parking lot. the snack bar was in another building at the rear of the parking lot. i walked past the projection booth. it was a hot summer night. summer in sac can get hot, triple digits, and in high summer it does not cool down even at night. i walked past the projection booth. the door was open. i peered inside. an old man, the projectionist, was sitting in a faded green recliner reading a paperback as the intermission shorts played on the screen. i thought somehow a mystery of life revealed itself to me. a mystery that i would spend my life trying to solve.
we walked the circumference of the snack bar. nick pointed out an employee on the roof of the snack bar fixing the swamp cooler. we watched him for a minute. then nick and i looked at the playground equipment at the snack bar. mothers and fathers and their children running everywhere. a bbq stand was doing brisk business. the line to get in the drive-ins growing longer. we began to head back to the car. nick wanted to get the money he left in the car to play a couple of video games.
the employee fixing the swamp cooler was now on the ground right in front of us. he turned to us in greeting. i asked him about his work. he was friendly. i asked him about the projection booth. i asked him if they have old film reels in the projection booth. reels of old intermission shorts. there is one intermission short that has become like the holy grail. if you've been to the sac 6 drive-in theater in the 1970s and 1980s you know this intermission short. i know it. anna knows it. a song with a line, 'mushy roomy room sauce', for pizza. i wondered if they still have that old reel.
the man said, oh, you wanna speak to the manager, earl. i'll go get him.
earl was a very kind man who started in the movie theater business as a projectionist. he asked if we wanted to see the projection booth. are you fucking kidding me?!
nick and i followed earl. we walked up the steps on the roof of the snack bar and walked thru the door to the projection booth. earl explained that the sac 6 drive-in now uses digital projection. the movies come in hard drives. every moment is particularly queued and specially timed for best performance. earl explained that some theaters don't get hard drives. they get their movies thru the internet, or satellite.
but there is a single old projector left. earl explained its workings. he showed us the reels used for 35 mm prints. and the one giant reel that would wind the movie as it finished its projection.
earl hit my sweet spot. here i am in the projection booth. finally, after all these years. all i needed to do to see it was to ask. i asked earl about those old reels. he showed nick and i a box of old reels. 35 mm prints of commercials and trailers. used before the drive-in switched to digital projection. i asked about the reels from the 1970s and 1980s. he said those are long, long gone. he told us we can each take a reel if we wanted. i took a commercial for an old nintendo game and i took for nick an ad for pacific rim 
the world has changed. the projection booth was automated. there is no projectionist. as we were leaving i noticed a sink and a toilet, without walls and door. i asked why is there a toilet in the projection booth. earl told me that in the old days the projectionist would have to stay for the duration of the running of the movies. if something went wrong he, or she, would need to act within a couple of seconds. he or she could not afford to be away from the projectors. thus the need for a toilet.
i thanked earl. nick and i walked down the stairs on the roof the snack bar back to our car. nick got the couple of dollars he needed to play a couple of games. after that we set up for the movie. i opened a bag of dorritos [old-school taco flavored] gave nick his pizza. reached for my sandwich and settled back for the evening as the first trailer started.