I’ve been to a movie theater one time since the middle of March. My wife and I sat in the very back corner of a giant auditorium that normally seats at least 200. We saw Tenet. There were six other people there. I know because I counted. We gave each other nervous head nods and spaced apart as if we were planning to toss around a Frisbee. One couple got up and left about halfway through. It’s still unclear if they were worried about Covid or just mad it wasn’t as good as Inception. I wore my mask the entire time, except when I pulled it down to take bites of a hot dog. It was vaguely stale, with a hard bun and too much ketchup and mustard on one side. Calling it mediocre would be generous, but eating it made me so happy.
I used to go to the movies a lot. My routine was always the same. I’d show up 20 to 30 minutes before the screening and get a seat by my coworkers. We would speculate wildly and often very incorrectly about what we were about to see. Then 5 to 10 minutes before showtime, I would pee, get a hot dog and return to my seat, ready to completely lose myself in a story. It’s how I spent at least one or two nights a week for the last decade of my life, until suddenly it wasn’t.
Like gas station hot dogs, craft service table hot dogs, little league snack hut hot dogs and kids menu hot dogs, movie theater hot dogs are a chancy gamble. What size will it be? What combination of meats will it be made out of? Will it be undercooked and poison me? All of these questions are valid. A normal, well-adjusted person would likely seek out answers before ordering. I do not. Deep down, I think the what-if is part of the appeal for me, and as I’ve found out over the years, there are so many what-ifs with movie theater hot dogs.
What if I were to tell you that one time at a movie theater in St Louis, Missouri, I ordered a hot dog from maybe the highest person ever to successfully show up for a work shift? His eyes looked like blood moons, and he was smirking like he just lied to his mom and got away with it. He couldn’t find the buns so he went into the back and brought out a frozen package, opened it, snagged one and dropped my cooked hot dog inside. When I pointed out it was, uh, frozen, he said, “It seemed cold," then dumped the hot dog out into a makeshift to-go container, warmed the bun up for what felt like 5 minutes on high and handed it to me. Like I had the bun in one hand and then a to-go container with just a loose hot dog in the other. I should have just taken the frozen bun. What if.
What if I were to tell you that one time at a movie theater in the suburbs of Chicago, I ordered a hot dog from maybe the most beautiful woman living in North America? I was in high school. She was a little older, college probably. I ordered my hot dog and we had a nice little conversation about Dodgeball, which we both had recently seen and enjoyed. We smiled at each other, I walked over the condiment area, set my hot dog down and immediately knocked it into the trash with my elbow. I fought the urge to George Costanza it and instead got back in line, excited to talk to the same woman. As I got to the front, it suddenly occurred to me it was probably very weird to order two hot dogs in the span of 90 seconds; so, I blurted out, “I already ate the first one.” She looked disgusted. I should have admitted I dropped it in the garbage. What if.
What if. What if. What if. Hot dogs are always one giant what if. Sometimes I order one and legitimately have no idea how it’s going to be cooked. Is it on the spinning roller things? The grill? Is it drowning in hot water somewhere in the back? The hell if I know. And after it comes out, regardless of what it looks like, there's the figuring out what to put on top of it part. Sometimes there’s a generous spread of condiments like you’re at a salad bar. Sometimes there’s some weathered ketchup and mustard packets that may or may not require you sharpen one of your nails and say a few prayers to the big hot dog fan in the sky in order to open. I’m sure most of you are probably grossed out and thankful you prefer popcorn or BunchaCrunch. I’m not.
It’s the possibility of something great. I think that’s why I keep standing in line. Most of the time hot dogs aren’t as good as you’d hope, although it should be noted some theater chains have started trying a lot harder. Even so, they’re usually a little too burned or the bun doesn’t taste fresh. They’re a little too small for how hungry you are or the bread to meat ratio isn’t quite right. Most of the time, they’re just OK, but you never actually know until you try it. There’s always a chance it’s wonderful. It’s like a movie you’ve never seen before.
The best thing about sitting in a dark theater, waiting for a movie to start, is the possibility of something great. I don’t care what the reviews are. I don’t care what my wife or family members or friends have told me. There’s always a chance to really, truly connect with whatever you’re about to see. There’s always a chance that this specific movie at this specific point in time will hit you in a way you can’t predict. I’m an eternal optimist. Even though most movies let me down over and over again, some of them don’t. I miss sitting in that theater with hope and anticipation, and I miss biting into my hot dog with no idea how it’s going to taste.
Long live movie theaters. Long live movie theater hot dogs. And long live me, especially if I get a few more undercooked poisoned ones.