On Summed Fears

I walked quickly out of the theater, scanning the hall and then the packed lobby for signs of management. All I saw were kids running wildly and a snaking line at the concession stand. Desperate, I marched up to the teenage ticket taker – tall, lanky, and wearing a countenance that indicated marijuana had been smoked recently.

“Excuse me,” I blurted, “does your theater have armed security?”

He looked at me vacantly, not understanding that the only two paths forward for both of us were either a calm confirmation or a panicked call to police to alert them to potentially yet another public mass shooting.

“Yes, we have security,” he lazed, the words circling off his loose tongue much as the marijuana smoke had recently, I’m sure.

“Armed security? You have armed security?” I wasn’t hysterical, but I was firm. “As in, security that wears heavy vests and a firearm on their belt?”

“That was probably security,” he said.

Never, in the history of the world, had a “probably” been so important to me.

I guess the trouble started with my decision to see the latest superhero blockbuster on an opening weekend. Now, I make no bones about my love of superheroes. And I catch almost every superhero flick these days. But my love for superheroes has been tempered by my love of empty theaters where I can stretch out, focus on the film, and not contend with bratty teenagers (or adults or children or cellphones). And so, I usually catch my superhero tales several weeks after they open. But my better judgment lost last Sunday evening, and there I was, 7pm, still several days after the premiere, hoping for a thinned crowd.

Thirty minutes before the film, I thought I had scored a victory, as only a dozen or so other nerds lined the seats. My hopes were dashed, however, by a steady influx of folks, from senior citizens to kids that, without a doubt, should have been home preparing for the following school day. The growing crowd made me uneasy, and I’m not sure why. I don’t mind crowds, but I felt my anxiety continue to rise. Crowded theater, urban area, how can one not think about current events?

It’s a silly thing to worry about, statistically speaking, but that’s the point of irrationality — it’s not rational.

I calmed down once the movie started, and I could focus on repulsors, flying shields, and slinging webs. But, amid the fights, explosions, and aggression, my anxiety hadn’t left but, rather, just hid in the shadows. And, one hour later, it pounced.

I can’t remember him coming into the theater, and I can’t remember him starting to climb the stairs, but, from my seat at the end of the row, I looked over as he walked past me. Both arms heavily tattooed. Heavy tan vest bulging with numerous compartments and undefined pinpoint lights. And, most notably of all, the firearm on his hip. It took me half a second to register the scene, and even less time to decide to leave the theater. I stood up and quickly walked out with a speed consistent with a needed bathroom break but not so fast as to indicate to the would-be attacker that he would need to pick off this defenseless lamb before I could report his nefarious aims.

After the ticket taker had inspired less than full confidence, I guess I talked some sense into myself. I went back into the theater, walked to the opposite side and immediately saw the armed man now crouching against the wall, flicking through Facebook on his phone. I could again see the tattoos, and now I could see that he was wearing shorts, tennis shoes, and still had a large gun on his hip. I figured he was either a bored security guard or an attacker preparing to post his manifesto to social media. I circled back around to my side of the theater, stood against the wall, and proceeded to watch the movie. After a few minutes, I decided that, like the ticket taker said, he was “probably” security. Besides, I had a few M&Ms left at my seat, and I wasn’t about to let fear come between me and my candy treat. I guess in that moment, as I walked back to my M&Ms, I was pretty much my own kind of superhero.

So, nothing happened. I finished the movie, left the theater in an orderly fashion, and drove home thinking about my reaction. It was silly, I guess, but, then again, perhaps it was more a testament to our culture’s increasing saturation with fear and violence. In the last 15 years, we’ve experienced the cultural trauma of international terrorism combined with a seeming increase in random public shootings. And those terrible events (and all of the political and social ugliness unleashed in their wakes) have traveled at the speed of light, from their deadly epicenters to the smart phones in our pockets to the tiny, defenseless recesses of our minds and our hearts. Big city, small town, school, church, office, highway, party, mall, it doesn’t matter. You can’t escape the possibility.

We are more interconnected than ever, and maybe more interdependent, and it takes just one nutjob to throw the whole country into a tizzy in the span of fifteen minutes. And it’s not just violence. Now, our 24/7 news relentlessly reminds us of crushing debt, unstable third world regimes on the far side of the planet, and the dangers of peeing next to a dude that wasn’t born a dude. Since 9/11, I wonder whether that random car on my street will explode, or whether the weirdo on the subway is just moments away from an attack. Perhaps most distressing of all, my thoughts aren’t panic but calm realizations of an option. There’s a chance this car might explode. It’s infinitesimally small, but my world paradigm now includes that option nonetheless. How can it not?

We all dance with dark thoughts, and, for the most part, we all manage to go about the business of leading our lives, don’t we? After all, that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? Not let them win. Not change anything. Go about our business. Be brave. Don’t worry. Keep calm, carry on.

And, then, we find ourselves racing to the stoner teenage ticket taker, begging for him to soothe our fears, because we can’t comprehend the awfulness of it all or the possibility that our comfortable world may come crashing down in a theater full of strangers and empty M&M boxes.