‘Oi, tukar, tukar!’ (Oi, change! Change!) yelled the Odeon cinema usher as he banged on the counter at my Dad’s canteen. He needed some change for whatever reason, and forgot to say please. I was furious; I’d had enough of his BS.
At 15, I’d had a personality transplant; from a mild, soft-spoken and obedient kid, I’d turned into a take-no-prisoners Hakka warrior overnight.
I was ready to pick a fight with anyone, anywhere, and thanks to spending most of my time working at the Odeon, it generally meant the hodge-podge group of cinema ushers recruited, I was sure, based on their talent to piss me off.
I’d had an uneasy relationship with the cinema staff almost from Day One. I remember early on at the ripe old age of eight, taking an instant dislike to one of the guys there – he seemed a bit too friendly and it gave me bad vibes.
One day I spotted some graffiti on one of the posters on the outside wall next to our canteen – it looked like something one of the other ushers had scribbled for a laugh. It mentioned a name, which I forget, but let’s say – Bob – and the message said –
‘Bob is sexy’.
I was disgusted and horrified at the same time – at that young age, having only started to learn English at school, I was convinced it wasn’t a good thing. After all, ‘sexy’ came from the word ‘sex’ – and ‘sex’ was ‘bad’ – therefore, whoever ‘Bob’ was, must be some sort of sexual deviant.
So I asked one of the ushers – ‘Who’s this Bob? Is it him?’, pointing at bad-vibes boy. He laughed and said yes.
That did it for me. It confirmed all my suspicions about ‘Bob’. I made it a point to be blunt and rude to him, and made sure he couldn’t get anywhere near me.
I even took pains to explain it to my younger sister and warn her about him. It wasn’t until years later that I found out he wasn’t ‘Bob’ at all – it was actually the guy I’d asked the question to – so, not only had I maligned someone due to my lack of English comprehension, I’d done it to the wrong person.
I wonder if he ever puzzled over why I was so hostile towards him all those years.
One of the veteran staff there was nicknamed ‘Bengali’ by everyone – I never knew why – he was Chinese and bald and didn’t have any Indian blood in him as far as I could tell. He even lived onsite, in a little storeroom upstairs plastered with old movie posters.
He was fond of me to the point of obsession, for some inexplicable reason. Every time he saw me, he would sing out my name loudly – ‘Nyok! Nyoooook! Ah Nyooook’ – and just keep doing so all hours of the day. I was pretty sure he was a bit crazy.
He would sit on the 6-inch ledge in front of our canteen during his breaks, enjoying his cigarettes . Every now and then, he would sneak me a movie poster pulled down from the billboards.
This was highly illegal, since they were meant to be shipped back to the film distributors at the end of the movie run. I’ve often wondered what happened to him after we moved to Australia.
Back to Mr. forgot-to-say-please for his change, he was at the top of my list of ushers I despised. I’d had a few verbal altercations with him in the past. This time though, I felt he’d gone too far.
Thanks, I guess, to my family’s survival instinct to avoid having our canteen lease terminated (a constant implied threat by what I saw as the tyrannical management) I never witnessed anyone else confront him about his behaviour. I had no such compunction about doing so.
‘Mahu tukar (Want change)?’ Here’s your bloody change, I thought – and I flung the coins hard on the stainless steel counter. As predicted, they went flying everywhere – some hitting him on the face and others bouncing on to the floor. He totally lost it.
He tried to grab me over the counter, and failing that, dashed around it to enter our canteen, procuring a sharp knife on his way (on top of candy and drinks, we used to sell cut fruit, hence the presence of knives). He pinned me against the wall and held the knife to my neck, completely out of control.
I groped around for something to fight back with, but the only thing within reach was a sad little bottle opener suspended on a string. I clutched it and held it against his neck in return – resulting in a knife vs bottle opener standoff, if you can picture it.
Everyone was freaking out (except me – I was all in despite my obviously inferior weapon).
It ended when he got dragged away by some of the bystanders.
Invariably, the General Manager heard about the commotion and summoned my poor stepmom into his office for what I presumed would be a dressing down plus more threats about kicking us out.
Apparently all he told her was to let us know not to fight with his staff.
Or maybe that’s just what my stepmom told me in case I decided to go all Hakka warrior on the GM as well.
This particular usher never bothered me again after that incident.