Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Challenger

My undisputed title as number-one spieler faces a serious challenger in the summer of 1992. "Robert" (name changed) joins the Games crew in the Old Chicago section. We work a shift together in the long-range basketball toss and he relentlessly pitches the game to every passerby.

"Hello, sir, would you like to try your luck?"

How can he run with that much energy for so long? He tells me he loves people, and this gig beats his previous jobs at Shoney's and McDonald's. I understand, but I want to see if a theorem from a foreman holds up: "After the first two weeks, your enthusiasm just dies."

A few days later, we work a racing game together. In a rare change of duties, I don't have to call the races because Robert is blowing everybody away with his relentless power spieling. A supervisor tells me I better start running if I don't want to get beaten for Spieler of the Year. I'm a bit envious. Robert finally lets me in on his secret to perpetual energy: one hour of sleep and one hour of sitting meditation. If somebody can get that pumped after only two hours of down time, he deserves some kind of award.

I step up my own game the next day, power spieling at Whack-A-Troll in Britannia and turning red in the face.

"Remember to breathe," a co-worker tells me.

"Take it easy," a foreman says. "You got eight hours to go."

About a week after Robert's debut, I hear scuttlebutt about a supervisor trying to set up a Spielers' Challenge. Robert and I would both work a double shift in Old Chicago on the same day, taking turns calling racing games and seeing who could make the most money for their stands. Nobody officially comes to me with the challenge, but I find Robert and we shake on it. Now we just have to set a date for the showdown.

But neither of us gets to rock the mic. Days later, Robert's sacked for being $10 over on his till, a day after ending $16 over. And I see some of his final hours.

It starts when I take a 15-minute break, authorized by one of the foremen late in the evening. I walk into the Old Chicago backroom, where a forewoman and a supervisor are talking business.

"Could you do me a favor?" the forewoman says immediately. "Could you go back into the section for a few minutes?"

"I'm taking my 15-minute break now," I reply as I fiddle with the lock on the slide-out basket where I'm storing my till.

"Oh, okay," she replies. "Here, I'll lock that up for you. Go ahead. Go on out."

Strange. I go down the path to one of the restaurants and grab a Mr. Pibb. I return to the backroom with it, so as not to sip in front of the guests -- one of the directives of Good Six Flags Guest Service. This time I see the supervisor taping together a ripped-up till audit sheet. As I sit in the room, I quietly hear the forewoman and her talking about where they are going to meet outside the Games office, that another worker is "out of his stand again," and something about a write-up. The worker they're talking about enters the backroom and the forewoman sends him down to Long Range, where Robert is working.

"I thought we closed Long Range," the worker puzzles.

"No," the forewoman replies. "We'll be down in a half-hour to close it."

Not soon after, the forewoman has some words for all the black tags in the backroom, including me. "Could you all wander around the section for awhile?"

"The only reason I'm here is because I don't want to sip in front of the guests," I say.

"Oh, well," the forewoman replies. "As long as you're on a bench, it doesn't matter."

I go to a smaller backroom behind one of the stands and sip there. When my break ends, I return to the main backroom and fetch my till apron. The foreman who had sent me on break is the only one in the room besides me, and I tell him the whole story.

"Sounds like you were about to hear something you weren't supposed to," he says.

"That's what I thought."

When I see Robert in Wardrobe at the end of my shift, he clarifies everything.

"Goodbye," he tells me. "I'm not going to be seeing you anymore."


"I got fired today."

"For what?"

"Being $10 over."

He tells me the Games department head dropped the ax himself. But he doesn't tell me everything. I later learn he's dipping his hand in the till, just like so many black tags who think they can steal without getting caught. A co-worker who borrowed money from Robert tells me he saw no money in his wallet at the beginning of one shift. Afterward, he had $30.

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