I was born in the wrong time. I grew up in the 1980s, in a world of growing technology, a shrinking globe, and MTV; everything fast, bright, and built to be replaced. I never saw anything of elegance or quality until I started looking back in time.

Ronald Colman, Humphrey Bogart, and William Powel were my idols growing up. While every other little boy my age was watching cartoon turtles do karate in city sewers, I was with Nick and Nora in a world where ladies never left the house without white cotton gloves, and men always took off their hats indoors. When boy-bands threatened to gobble up the globe, I was in the library falling in love with the voices of Betty Grable and Julie London on old vinyl records. By the time I was old enough to stop growing, I was solidly locked away in the past. I gladly threw away the key myself.

As I fed the last reel of the film onto the middle of three horizontal platters, I watched the dim frames fly along the celluloid. This was a good one; His Girl Friday, with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. I’m not the biggest fan of Cary Grant, but the script for this movie was one in a million. I slowed the reel and the platter from spinning too fast as it got to the end of the film, and then stopped it just before the frames went black all together. I carefully lay a thin strip of shiny silver queue tape across the film. Now the projector would know to slow down too at the end of the movie so that this old and delicate film wouldn’t get stressed or break.

I wound up the last few feet of film by hand, into the three-foot wide ring on the platter, and placed the stop gently against the edge to keep it from unwinding. I ran my fingers over the sharp and grooved surface of the top of the wound up film. More than simply watching these great films, I actually got to touch them. I knew how to care for them. It was my job to put them together, to protect them, and to show them. I don’t think I ever wanted to do any other job in my life.

I live in the small, single screen, historical theater that I work in. The second floor of the old building used to be an apartment before the stage theater was converted for movies. After the apartment was split up into a couple of storerooms, and the windows were closed off to keep the sunlight out of the projection booth, all that was left of it was the still working bathroom and shower, one dark room, and the open balcony high over the theater seats, where the projector was placed. When I’d taken the job, I realized quickly that it was a comfortable enough place for me to stay after work. One day, I simply stopped going home. The management didn’t seem to care, as long as the movies ran on time.

I’ve got an old couch, a mini fridge, bookcases full of second hand paperback classics, an electric kettle, and a coffee press; what more does a man really need? By now, I’d covered the dark walls with aging movie posters of all my favorites. I kept light from bleeding down into the theater below by only using string Christmas lights and small desk lamps. The room now had a cool, dim, comfortable charm to it. And even without a window, it has a fabulous view. The small balcony was only a few feet down from the ceiling, and it felt like it was miles above the rows of plush red velvet seats, down in the theater. The screen was set over the ornately gilded stage, and covered with thick red curtains between showings. The walls down there were decorated lavishly with gold, wood, and more red in a slightly deco style. Who needs a TV when you’ve got this?

After the usual three showings of His Girl Friday, I shut off the projector and wound up the tail of the film for the last time of the night. I placed the stop again, covered the film with a large cotton cloth to keep the dust off it for the night, and opened the little glass door to the projector’s gears to let them cool from the heat of the three shows. Then I snatched my grey fedora off the tall wooden hat rack by my door, straightened the black tie around my neck and my simple, sharp, gray suit, and then went out for a late dinner around midnight.

One last convenience that made my life that much better, was that I didn’t even have to leave the building to find a good meal and a decent cup of coffee. When the theater had been renovated in the seventies, they had put in a fire exit for the second floor. The small hallway outside my door led to the right toward the office, store room, and the stairs that led down into the theater lobby, but it also led left to another set of stars to the back of the building. Down at the bottom was a small landing and a door to the parking lot outside, along with an unmarked door that was the fire exit for the café next door.

As I was walking into the back of the kitchen, I waved to the cook; an older man with a pot belly and horrid temper who made the best tasting health food on the planet.

“Hey Charley, how was today?” I asked cheerfully as I walked by.

“Slow as hell,” Charley muttered, chopping something and not looking up. “Usual?”

“Yes please,” I said, heading out into the front of the café.

My favorite seat—a booth against the front windows that had a great view of the rest of the café—was open and waiting for me. The coffee counter was against one wall, with a small stage set with speakers and a sound board opposite. There were only a few people in the café on this slow Thursday, but I knew that tomorrow night it would be half full till four. It was the only place in this sleepy little college town that was open later than the bars. It also had a much more artsy vibe—with open-mic nights, classical or samba music lilting softly through the air, and the best coffee in town, along with a small kitchen and good, simple food—and it attracted the sort of people who liked to sit for long hours, scribbling on bits of paper with focused attention or talking together about music and philosophy.

“So, what’s the movie this week, Steve?” Beth, Charley’s nineteen year old daughter, asked me as she came to deliver me my usual cup of Italian roast and a pile of sugar packets. “Anything fun?”

His Girl Friday,” I said brightly, taking the coffee and opening two sugar packets at once. “It’s one of the best.”

“You always say that,” she said, smiling at me. “Is there any old movie you don’t like?”

“Yeah, I hate Citizen Kane,” I said quickly as I stirred in my sugar and put my hat on the table beside me. “It’s maudlin and obtuse.”

“What’s ‘maudlin’ mean?” Beth asked, cocking her head to one side like a spaniel.

“The whole movie is about some guy being too full of himself,” I said, waving vaguely at the idea. “You know, like that…”

“Oh,” Beth said, still looking a bit confused, “but this movie is good?”

“Oh yeah,” I said, sipping my coffee. “One of the best of all time.”

“Beth, stop flirting and give the man his meal,” Charley snapped from halfway behind the kitchen door.

“I’m not flirting, daddy,” she huffed, sulking towards the café counter. “It’s just Stevey, anyway,” she added, pouting.

Charley only shook his head disapprovingly before disappearing again into the kitchen. Beth stuck her tongue out at the closed door and then giggled to herself.

I tried to disappear into my coffee cup before she had a chance to shoot me any glances. I didn’t have anything against Beth, exactly, I just wasn’t into people who didn’t know what the word ‘maudlin’ meant. And I liked my routine. My life was simple, easy, and just the way I wanted it. Outside the window of my favorite little café, the world was nothing but black and streetlights, fractured in the rain tracks that ran down the glass. In here I was warm, there was something baroque playing softly in the air, and no one wanted anything from me. The last thing in the world that I needed was a complication.

I got about half of the way through my toasty, organic, roast beef sandwich and sweet potato fries, and was into my second cup of coffee, when a new customer walked in from the light rain outside. She shook herself slightly at the door to knock some water off before stepping up to the counter. She had purple hair, a green velvet coat, a black and white checker skirt that didn’t make it down as far as her slender knees, and heavy looking black combat boots. I think it was the combo of the guitar case hanging from her small shoulder and the black top hat on her head that really got me.


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