As I mentioned in the review of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, the friend who accompanied me had a coupon for a five-dollar discount at the concession stand. I insisted on paying for the snacks as it was her gift card that had bought our tickets.
We scanned the menu board, deliberated momentarily, and then decided that a medium bag of popcorn to share and a couple of small sodas would prevent us from starvation until we could exit the theater in search of some dinner. The total charges for this three cents’ worth of popcorn and twenty cents’ worth of soda came to an even 14 dollars. I didn’t feel any less ripped off knowing that the coupon reduced that total to a mere nine dollars; it still felt like $8.77 too much. Alas, I am accustomed to that feeling when I go to the movies. I do manage to hold my tongue in check, usually, except for the odd occasion when I feel compelled to tell the clerk behind the counter that “those prices are so ridiculous that someone will surely be hell-bound for it; not you, young clerk, but someone.” I smile when I say it, so hopefully they take it as a joke. I’m just not entirely sure I mean it as a joke.
The young gentleman who was clerking at the concession stand that afternoon was tall, good-looking, friendly, polite, and had certainly not set the exorbitant prices for the snacks, so it did not occur to me to let loose with my standard movie concession-counter quip. I handed him the five-dollar-off coupon and a ten-dollar bill. To those who understand basic math, simple addition, that is equivalent to fifteen dollars.
This polite, good-looking, tall young man accepted both the coupon and the bill and looked at us with a faintly worried expression as he said, “I’m sorry, but you know I can’t give back any change when you use a coupon.”
I looked at him. I looked at my friend. I looked back at him. “Why is that?” I asked calmly. The bag of popcorn and two sodas had already been served up and were sitting on the counter right in front of us. As far as I was concerned, they were already ours. When I had said “Why is that?” what I actually meant was “OH NO YOU DIDN’T!” Prices being what they are in a theater, the inability to produce a single dollar in change just because we had used a coupon seemed incredibly stupid to me. I wanted the popcorn and sodas but I also wanted the dollar in change that I was due.
The young man said, very politely, “It’s theater policy. I’m sorry, but I can’t give back any change when a coupon is used.” He was entirely sincere, both in his sympathy for our difficulty and in his determination to uphold “company policy.” This fellow did not present any outward physical sign of mental defect. He was not being rude, impatient, or cocky about anything. He looked like a college student, someone old enough to have learned how to add and subtract round numbers. As I started calculating how much time we had left to get settled in our seats before the movie and estimating how long it would take to get a manager to the concession stand, something clicked in place. I had an “ah-ha!” moment.
I reached for the money and the coupon, taking them both out of his hand. At that point, I suppose both he and my dear friend were assuming that I would refuse to close the transaction, causing the senseless waste of all three cents’ worth of popcorn and twenty cents’ worth of soda. However, that was not my intention.
I looked the clerk squarely in the eye and said, “Our total is fourteen dollars, right?” He nodded in agreement. I handed him the coupon and said, “This five-dollars off brings the total down to 9 dollars, right?” He nodded again, looking slightly puzzled. I then held the ten-dollar bill out to him and said, “Then when I give you this ten-dollar bill, you owe us one dollar in change. Right?”
For just a heartbeat, the three of stood there like cowpokes in an old western who are waiting to see which one would try a quick-draw of his pistol and start shooting first.
“Oh! Of course – I’m sorry,” he shook his head in embarrassment. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me today. Here’s your change.” He politely handed me the dollar that had become the single most critical issue in the universe to me over the course of the previous ninety seconds.
What’s wrong with him, indeed, I thought. He could have been dropped on his head as a child, accidentally ingested lead-based paint, stayed up too late and gotten too drunk the night before, had one too many doobies before his shift started, was preoccupied with the crushing debt he was accumulating in student loans, was worried that his bloodwork for the AIDS test might come back positive – any number of things that were none of my business in the first place.
I should have replied simply, “Oh, that’s okay. We all have off days.” I couldn’t help myself, though, the words just burst out of me without any hope of being swallowed before they left my tongue: “You aren’t a rocket scientist, are you.” This came out in the form of a statement, not a question. I was immediately almost sorry for having uttered the sarcasm, but since I was smiling I thought it might be okay.
“No,” he said. “But you know, my brother is an engineer and sometimes he has trouble with the simplest things, too.”
We closed the transaction with smiles all around, no animosity, just a brief, friendly encounter. But I’ve been wondering ever since if his brother the engineer had been dropped on his head as a child, accidentally ingested lead-based paint, was prone to binge drinking… or if it is something that just runs in the family.