Back at the old HQ 10 theaters we had a bevy of regular customers, folks who would come to see almost every flick, no matter what it was. Some of these customers were decent folks, and a few of them we would wave in for free when it wasn't busy, but most of the others were as annoying as hell and we took their money with pleasure. I know it sounds cruel to say that, but their personalities showed that they didn't have much of an idea how to interact properly with people (a sad-but-true cliché about certain cinema fans) and that they didn't seem to have much in their lives other than movies. All of them had nicknames - Diet Coke Man, The Stygian Witches, The Stinky Twins, The Last Boy Scout - since we never really wanted to learn their real ones. The one who always stuck out for me was Norm, named after his resemblance to CHEERS' George Wendt, although even heavier (unhealthily so) and nowhere near as friendly or outgoing. Norm was a bit of an odd sort, as it seemed like he had a well-paying job of some kind; he would usually come wearing a business suit and brandishing a briefcase, with a copy of The Wall Street Journal tucked under his arm. You'd hear him on the pay phone sometimes talking about some deal of some sort, but what company he worked for or what line of business he was in, I'll never know. He showed up several times a week (almost always on Fridays) and I always had the feeling that he didn't have anything to go home to (though I remember he brought his mother with him one Christmas) and perhaps that this was all there was to the guy. I never engaged the guy in conversation any because whenever he spoke to theater staff he was always rude and belligerent, usually complaining about one thing or another. We just tore his ticket, sold him his popcorn, ran his movies and that was it.
After leaving the HQ 10 I never really gave Norm much thought, though I saw him on a NJ Transit train while traveling to my hometown once not long ago, but I was surprisingly reminded of him about a month back when I attended a screening of NETWORK at NYC's Film Forum. Much to my surprise, who did I see waddling his way outside the theater but Norm, attending the same showing as me, though dressed in more casual attire (it was a Saturday night). He seemed even heavier (not a good thing) and a little grayer, but it also seemed like it was the same old Norm, if any solace could be taken from that. Norm's out-of-nowhere appearance (did he come from the office?) also served as a reminder of the void that the movies seem to fill in the lives of so many people and how when it comes to the lonely, the movies can seemingly be their only friend. Many of our regular customers back at the HQ 10 came to the movies on their own, not just Norm, and it was always the saddest part of the job, seeing all these folks who looked like they had nowhere else to go and no one to go with. They all seemed to have one sort of personality problem or another (Diet Coke Man admitted - not that anyone asked - to having spent some time in the local sanitarium) and were admittedly not always easy to relate to, so the less you could speak to them the better. But a part of me always felt for them, too, because we all know how difficult loneliness can be, whether we want to admit it or not, and the movies can be a pretty lonely place sometimes.
I'm sure that everyone reading can recount more than one experience of seeing a movie in a baron theater with only a few others in the audience (if any), which can make for a strange, sad or memorable movie going event. Some people prefer to see movies this way, away from the crowds, but for others it's not really a choice. They may love movies, sure, but the sense of companionship they get from them is an important, essential thing, and the truth is that we all feel that way sometimes. Movies can fill a void in our lives for one reason or another, and not just to provide a sense of adventure or romance, but of companionship, too. The good ones give us something beyond entertainment - food for thought, a sense of wonder - and even the merely OK ones don't always feel like time wasted, while we hate the bad ones because they do. Sad as it is to say, there are some people who need what the movies can bring because they don't know how to get it or where to find it otherwise. They're shut-ins, shy people, introverts, whatever you want to call them they can't associate well with others and so this is what they have. It's not to say that they don't have friends or even families, but when it comes to the outside world they're not equipped to deal with it, so into the movies they go. Ever since my time at the HQ 10 I've noticed folks like this at various theaters and festivals I've been to all over, and while I'll admit I don't engage them in conversation any, I understand them a little bit, I think. These types exist in all pastimes - sports, music, knitting and the like - and people who have no place else to go have got to find something to bring meaning and joy to their lives. As wonderful as the movies can be, there's a bit of sadness there, too, and it's in the audience, not on the screen. Most people never notice it, but I do, and if you look close enough you might see it yourself. I just hope you never become part of it.