December 1997. The year Titanic was released. I was one. Okay, no, I was out of high school. (This story is seriously going to date me.) I worked at a four-screen movie theatre outside a mall in a Vancouver suburb. It was a good job, my second at the time, the perfect blend of camaraderie and movie geekery. It wasn’t often run-off-your-feet busy but we had our moments. We were the kind of crew who generally got along best when we were wreaking havoc. Like this one time we decided, for reasons I can’t now recall, to fill the manager’s car with popcorn. He was really devoted to that car. And popcorn is, you know, notoriously greasy. We knew he’d probably fire whoever did it so we all did it. He couldn’t fire the entire theatre. We turned our break into a bucket brigade and filled it from floor to roof. When he found it he called us all into a line and strode in front of us like a drill sergeant, demanding to know who was guilty. So we all stepped forward. He had popcorn blowing out of his air vents for days afterwards. But it was that kind of bonding spirit that made the job fun.
This isn’t that story, though. This is the story of the first month of Titanic’s release and New Year’s Eve.
Those of you who don’t remember Titanic... are lucky. Kids, it was a true story. It was a film based on actual events. The real Titanic was a giant luxury liner designed to sail across the Atlantic. It was part of the Olympic line of vessels built by the White Star Line and all three were named for enormous things: Titanic, Olympic, and Brittanic. The Titanic was the largest ship afloat at the time of her maiden voyage in April 1912. And it was during the maiden voyage that she struck an iceberg and sank. Yes, kids, SPOILERS. The Titanic sank. And out of a manifest of over 2200 passengers, only just over 700 survived. Which also makes the Titanic a gigantic tragedy. Thus James Cameron, he of The Abyss and Aliens and Terminator fame, decided to make a movie about Titanic. Okay kids, yes, James Cameron also made Avatar. You need to widen your horizons! Anyway, that James Cameron made a movie about the Titanic called (fittingly) Titanic. It starred a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet and featured Billy Zane and Kathy Bates and Bill Paxton and a theme song by Celine Dion that would not die ever. Titanic the movie featured a love story between Leonardo DiCaprio’s third-class artist character and Kate Winslet’s first-class aristocrat character set on the maiden voyage of Titanic the boat. And - MORE SPOILERS - the boat sinks. And many many people die. Among them Leonardo DiCaprio. Titanic was a smash hit. It was an enormous, gargantuan hit. It won eleven Oscars. It was the highest-grossing film of all time until James Cameron’s own Avatar beat it. It has earned something close to two billion dollars worldwide in all its various incarnations.
Titanic was showing on three of our four screens in December of 1997 (if memory serves the fourth screen was showing Flubber) and all three of them quickly began to sell out every showing. It was a bombastically busy time for us. The lines to buy tickets to Titanic stretched out past the box office and outside around the side of the building. Inside the lines to get into the theatres snaked back and forth around the centre island candy bar and then outside and around the back of the building. All the theatres would empty one after the other as the screenings let out every ten minutes so for a good half hour it was pandemonium as sold out crowds exiting in tears streamed into the bathrooms and sold out crowds with eager faces surged into the theatres and the candy bar was caught in the middle, like an oasis in a great battle. We were besieged. There was no time to think. It was just mass amounts of popcorn and coke and great heaping bins of rubbish rolled out of the theatres and everywhere you looked, throngs of movie-goers.
Cleaning the bathrooms became of paramount importance once all three theatres were loaded. With a running time of over three hours, we had a guaranteed two and a half hour window to get the disaster that our lobby had become into some semblance of order. We no longer had time to pull pranks on managers. It was all hands on deck. (Yep, that’s the cliché I chose. Fitting, right?) But cleaning the bathrooms became incredibly vital because without fail about 80% of the viewers in any given showing of Titanic would immediately run straight for the bathrooms at the film’s end, usually in tears.
It was like that for weeks during Titanic’s run. We were open on holidays. The crowds didn’t change. It was packed from open to close. We were packed on Christmas Eve. We were packed on New Year’s Eve. And that, finally, at long last, is when this story actually takes place.
New Year’s Eve during Titanic’s run was like every other day in the theatre that month: manic. The last show of Titanic was screening over midnight which meant we’d be ringing in the New Year at work, waiting for mass crowds to surge out in a brand new year. Somewhere before midnight and just about an hour or so before the end of the movie, a man ran out of the theatre and into the bathroom. Which wasn’t in itself unusual except that he ran into the women’s bathroom. That was more unusual. He was in there for a bit before emerging, green-faced, to come talk to us. What he said was “I’m sorry”. Before we could pursue what he was sorry for, he started swaying so we sprang into action steadying him and getting him seated and calling paramedics. After he was capably in paramedic hands we noticed little splotches on the floor. They led into the bathroom. They were made of vomit. We followed the vomit-splotches into the entry of the bathroom where they turned into puddles. The puddles led to the bank of sinks and every sink was full. Of vomit. The sinks led to the row of stalls. Pushing open the doors to the first two stalls revealed toilets full of vomit. But the third stall was where everything came together. Inside the third stall it looked as though Linda Blair had exploded. The toilet was full of vomit. The floor was covered in vomit. The back of the toilet was coated in vomit. Vomit spray completely covered the back wall and both side walls up to eyeball level. We gaped (and, admittedly, gagged). How on earth could one man hold so much vomit? And still be bodily intact at the end of expelling it all? We understood, with a dreadful finality, what he had been apologizing for. A handful of puddles, five sinks, two toilets, and one entire stall’s worth of vomit lay between us and a sold out theatre full of Titanic fans who would all, with absolute certainty, make a beeline for this very bathroom at the film’s end. Which was now only forty minutes away.
We drew straws. Melvin and I drew the shortest. Melvin and I got to don aprons and rubber gloves and enter the vomitorium to clean all the bodily expulsions from out of the sinks and off the walls. There was no good way to do it and do it quickly. Time was running out. It was us against Titanic now. Could we clean faster than the ship could sink? We were about to find out.
Which is how it came to be that I rang in 1998 in the middle of a woman’s bathroom full of vomit. We’d resorted to throwing buckets of hot water at the stall walls to rinse the vomit off to the floor where we could get at it with a mop. I remember Melvin stopped suddenly and looked at me. He said “It’s midnight, you know.” And it was really incredibly funny all of a sudden. We stood staring at each other as vomit-water trickled down the walls and pooled around our feet. “Happy New Year,” I said to Melvin. And we hugged gingerly, avoiding each other with our vomit-y gloves. “Happy 1998,” he said back to me. And we resumed cleaning.
On that festive note, here’s to 2014! May your night be merry and vomit-free. ;)
Happy New Year, everyone!
- Corinne Simpson