“That Time I…” posts are true stories that am I retiring from my social repertoire. To honour them, I am committing them to text for the first time. Read stories about sound torture, abortion, and my awesome tattoo.
I graduated university with a degree in Theatre. When I considered, after the fact, what this qualified me to do, I didn’t think about moving to Los Angeles or writing the great Canadian screenplay. I thought that maybe – just maybe – this qualified me to be an usher.
Working against me was the fact that I had not taken a single course called Intro To Never Saying Anything Offensive or Being Nice To Old People, 1990 – Present. However, I would absolutely be able to deliver if a patron needed clarification on the proper definition of dramatic irony (the boring kind of irony). A posh downtown theatre agreed and gave me the job.
When I began the job, my managers were very excited about a new piece of marketing technology that was revolutionizing the theatre game. They were called ‘buttons’ and I was responsible for handing them out after the shows. I know it sounds easy. Any bike-riding, tote-bagging, theatre-goer would shred their library card for a free button. Unfortunately, these people were not them.
Generally, these audiences were exceptionally, exceptionally old. They could not take the buttons because they were focused on surmounting their personal Everest: the many inappropriately placed stairs between them and the lobby. I quickly realized that if I was going to make my mangers happy, I would have to do a little selling.
The first button was easy. On it was a picture of a conical brassier which represented the first show of the season, a British farce. After a few dress rehearsals, I discovered that the words ‘Brassier button?’ were all I needed to say to get old ladies tittering. Bolstered by the success, I quickly expanding my sales pitch to ‘Brassier button, ma’am? Wear one on the inside and the outside.’ Too cheeky, you think? Surely a fireable offense, you say? Nope, old ladies loved it and I began unloading free buttons like it was my job. Cause it was.
The second show was a bit more difficult. The image on this promotional button was a fancy hat because the show was all about fancy hats. I tried ‘Hat button?’ but it wasn’t as fun. I added the line, ‘Hat button, ma’am? Don’t put it on your head. You might stab yourself.’ Old ladies thought this was crazy funny (old men don’t laugh at anything). Personally, I was never happy with the line but why mess with a good thing. I did not get fired for saying this either.
Several months later, the third show of the season opened and presented a serious problem for button distribution. The image on this button was two hands reaching for each other. But were they? They’re hands for sure but…what are they doing? It lacked context. And it wouldn’t make any more sense after watching the show; you had to have seen the poster in the lobby. This button tested all of my university-certified creativity.
I started with the basics. ‘Hand button?’ I offered to the opening night audience as they hobbled up the stairs. No go. What does that really mean anyway? Do I want to see your hand? Am I trying to hand you a button? Am I trying to give you a severed hand and calling you button (Hand, button?). More clarity was required.
I felt an adjective would help and because this show was a brooding drama, I attempted, ‘Tragic hand button?’. I knew the phrase was awkward but I thought that might give it charm. It didn’t. The handful of blank stares I got proved that Tragic Hand Button wouldn’t do the job. I left work that night determined to invent a fun way to sell sad buttons.
My next shift was two days later. When I arrived, I didn’t even make it to my locker. I was intercepted by a manager who had been stationed by the front door. He escorted me to a meeting with a second manager, a very nice man who we will call Jason. Jason opened the meeting with a question. With genuine curiosity he asked, “Brian, have you ever heard the phrase Tragic Hand Button?” I said that I had. “What does it mean?”
I told him this story, about how it was difficult to give away the buttons and that humour improved things. When I was done, he nodded and said, “That makes a lot of sense.” He appeared relieved for a moment, like a great mystery had been solved. Then he said, “Unfortunately, one of the board members overheard you say Tragic Hand Button and felt that you were insulting the play. We have to let you go.” I was not allowed to be an usher anymore.
For my tastes, the best part of this story is Jason and how little he understood. What seems to have happened was that Jason was working that night. He was surely standing in the lobby with his clipboard, looking over attendance numbers, when the board member trudged toward him in a huff. It seems that the very important man pointed in my direction and yelled, “Blah, blah, blah! Tragic hand button! Blah, blah, blah! Fired!” Jason was confused but had no choice but to go with it. He clearly didn’t have the opportunity to ask any questions and he knew that he would be risking his own job if he didn’t comply with the frothing man’s demands.
I like to imagine that Jason spent the next two days thinking about it. I picture him driving down the highway, barely listening to the radio, muttering the words Tragic Hand Button, and hoping that they will make sense before my firing.
After work, he inquires at a hobby store but the clerk tells him that they don’t carry any brands with that name. Jason thanks him and leaves, disappointed.
Later that night, he and his wife are in the kitchen, her washing, him drying. He is quiet and distant and drying a plate that was dry several minutes ago.
“Something on your mind?” his wife asks.
“Yeah. Do you know what a Tragic Hand Button is?”
“No, I don’t, dear. Why?”
“I have to fire someone for saying it.”
“Is it a button that turns your hand on? Like if you were a robot?”
“That doesn’t make any sense. Why would a robot have buttons to turn on individual parts of his body? And why is it tragic? Because it’s a stupid design scheme?”
“I don’t know. I’m just trying to help.”
“Thanks. But that’s clearly not it.”
“Well, not all of us are as smart as you are, Jason!” She stomps upstairs and slams the bedroom door. Jason sleeps on the couch.
By the time I arrived for my next shift, Jason was desperate to understand the words Tragic Hand Button. That’s why he wasn’t angry when I explained it to him. I had done him a favour. I allowed his world to make sense again.