I decided to go to church yesterday. I like going to church. The music is good and the people make good conversation and the prayer isn’t invasive. It’s fun. It’s led by a teenager wearing a gigantic mouse suit and holding a foam skateboard. The lead pastor will sometimes look over to you and say, “Is that an adult Chuck E. sees?”
Church is nice.
The Chuck E. Cheese in Pasadena is just as sticky, capitalistic and riddled with predators as any church in America, and the pizza is much better. The sticky surfaces are the same, but there’s terrible Wi-Fi and coffee with grounds in it just like any church hall on a Sunday. But that’s a broad stroke, isn’t it?
This church has five robots, most of them animals and one of them an Italian chef who drums. It’s a bit of a drive but it’s the only one with a full band, and they’re slowly being phased out. Churches need to seem modern in order to survive, so I can’t fault them but I can feel sad about it. There is a part of you that wants to think the Italian chef who drums is timeless, but he isn’t. I enjoy him while he’s still around. He’s served a purpose.
First, the reason I am able to be here, at the Chuck E. Cheese in Pasadena, in the first place: I get to work for myself, which means I can generally work from where I like and when it suits me. It was not always this way. It might not stay this way. I remember to thank whomever for that, partially me and partially Chuck E. and partially the deeply flawed societal norms that make it possible for me to do this.
Being one’s own boss is a good deal, and maybe one I am too young to fully appreciate. It also means that my boss is insecure and clinically bipolar and obsessive compulsive. In a way that I find generally manageable. In a way that is useful, most of the time. She gets up early. She keeps to herself. We get along. So that’s good.
When you enter the Chuck E Cheese in Pasadena, you pass a barrier. This is my church’s narthex. It once meant something—that is, to pass this barrier means you are a parent with a child who wants to see a robot strum a banjo—but now it’s little more than a leftover symbol. These days you can come here whenever you want if you’re not scary about it. The barrier remains. It’s there to tell you that you were exposed but now you are incubated, for a reasonable price. Safety is an illusion but at the Chuck E. Cheese in Pasadena, it’s pretty spectacular.
The church robots’ voices have been turned off this afternoon but their thick bodies continue to flail around even after the hymns (many of them written by Gavin DeGraw) have been turned off. Forty-year-old animatronic valves hiss at me while I start in on the five tiny slices of pizza I’ve gotten from the buffet, and the nannies glare at me from the table over. That’s okay.
We pray sometimes. Chuck E. appears on one of the many screens at the front of the church to remind us of these core tenants: You are special. Fun is good. Try some pizza. The kids with the nannies flail around as he preaches over a tin-can rhythm and take their communion from purple paper cups with Sonic the Hedgehog on them. After service, Chuck E. lets us rest and talk, and it starts again a half hour later. You are special. Fun is good. Try some pizza.
Our congregation is nice, but troubled. The man who darts through the Chuck E. Cheese and fixes the robots recognizes me and apologizes—there are no more tokens for him to leave on my table today. This okay, because that was more for him than it ever was for me, but I don’t say that. I don’t need coins tossed at me like I’m a street musician, but he doesn’t need an adult at the Chuck E. Cheese at 1:30 PM on a Thursday, so I guess that makes us even. He always tells me about Las Vegas. I’ve heard it a bunch of times, but he likes telling it, so I pretend I haven’t.
“No more tokens,” he says, shaking his head and pointing at my notebook. “Put that down. No more tokens. I swear to fucking God.” Which he shouldn’t have said, or not here, anyways.
People go to church to find words they did not have. This is why I come here—not religiously or anything, but enough times a year that it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow from anyone who knows me a little bit. Why are the words you’re looking for hiding in your church so often? Something to do with sitting inside of a place you recognize from before the first time you made a mistake. Something about that feels good.
“Did I ever tell you about when I worked the Chuck E.’s in Vegas?” he asks me.
“Nope,” I tell him. This is a good lie. He tells me again.
My friend comes by and sits with me because she is a good friend, and because the same brain fragments that appeal to me here appeal to her, too. She’s going to be married, she says. That’s very good. She gets a Sprite and we talk about what that might be like. Neither of us know now, but one of us will soon. They don’t want to get married at church, but I don’t think a teenager in a mouse suit can be legally ordained anyways.
I come here to think about things. It is hard for me to find the words to put in my mouth at the right time. I lose and abandon them, and by the time I get them wrapped around my tongue in the correct order they are frustrated and sad, left at the bus stop too long.
My friend goes but I stay a little longer. Alone at church again, and it’s good. Most churches do not have the Jurassic Park arcade game where the seats vibrate. This is probably why everyone thinks church sucks.
“Say goodbye to these guys,” the man who darts around the Chuck E. Cheese says to me before I leave. He points to the five robots inside our church. They are scheduled to be carried out in a few weeks to be sold for parts, replaced with a dance floor that lights up. Churches change. They have to.
“Not like they can say goodbye to me,” I say. The robots hiss with their valves, still voiceless.
“Doesn’t mean they can’t hear you,” he says, then goes to fix something. The robots are being taken away, but we can still talk to their dismembered parts in our heads. This is a good church lesson. Even when they cannot speak to you, still they are listening.
Jamie Loftus is a comedian and writer. You can find her some of the time, most days at @hamburgerphone or jamieloftusisinnocent.com.