WTF Happened to Pizza Hut? And Other Musings On An Insane, Emotional Evening.

My son won a coupon at school for a free personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut, for reading a certain number of books last month. As a bit of a food snob, I of course prefer more epicurean pizza places like Crust or Bar Cento, but when we need delivery, I’m not above a local chain like Marco’s or Jet’s, which D likes. I figured oh well, it’s just one meal, how bad can it be?

I haven’t been to a PH in something like 30 years, I’m serious. Back when I was growing up, in the 70s and 80s, it was kind of the place to go for a fun family meal, or the type of place your sports team might go to after a game. I remember the inside being rather dark and intimate, with a lot of exposed brick and warm lighting. The booths had a nice, private feel to them, with thin, carved wooden poles going from the top of the booth to the ceiling, and wicker lamps overhead. I remember the big, red plastic cups and playing the Journey video game while waiting for food.

I was honestly shocked when we walked in. It looked more like a BW-3 than the PH of old. It was just a big, cavernous concrete room with no decorations at all, save a few pictures on the wall, and of course a TV in every corner. The smell, I can’t even describe it. My Mom, who was along with us to attend Bingo Night at D’s school, said it smelled like someone was burning tires, and that’s pretty close. Honestly, the place could not have been more barren and unappetizing. I should have turned around and walked out, but D was really excited to use his coupon.

They don’t even have real menus anymore. You get glossy, tri-fold take-out menus. They no longer serve beer, and the salad bar is long gone. In fact, there isn’t a single vegetable to be had on the entire menu, save for the toppings you might get on a pizza; they only serve pizza and wings, and a couple of pasta dishes. So we all got a personal pan pizza. None of them seemed to have any sauce on them, which was also a little weird. If you scraped away the tasteless, rubbery cheese, you could see maybe someone had brushed the crust with tomato water or something, but there was literally no discernible red color throughout the pizza. It was just bizarre. What was really incongruous was our server was really very nice and very attentive. All I could think was Jesus, lady, you should be waiting tables somewhere else. I can’t imagine why she would be at that place. There were very few customers and zero foot traffic while we were there. We will never be going back. Next time he gets a coupon, I will buy him his own pizza from Marco’s or take him to Chipotle for tacos.

Then it was on to Family Bingo Night at D’s school. All I can tell you is this was like a cross between a Marx Brothers movie and an SNL sketch. I honestly thought the entire chaotic evening was very, very hilarious, but my Mom could barely stand all the noise and how hot it was in the school cafeteria. This ain’t your grandma’s bingo. There were FOUR HUNDRED people there, and most of them children, so you can sort of imagine the noise level. The teacher reading off the bingo numbers was going at such a fast pace D couldn’t figure out how to keep up, he’s just not that quick with numbers yet, so I had to play his cards for him along with mine. Every single number the guy called out, D would say, “Do I have that one, Mom?” and I’d say no or yes and then mark his card and my card and the instant I was done with that, the next number would be called. And there was a lot of shouting and screaming, not just of “BINGO!” but of kids calling out numbers they really wanted the teacher to call next so that they could win.

The table behind us was filled with boys who looked to be in fourth grade. They would shriek things like, “USELESS!” when the teacher called out a number they didn’t want, or “YOU’RE KILLING ME!” They’d make fart noises under their arms and laugh, and one of them fell off his chair because he was screwing around. I somehow didn’t mind any of this, and found it funny.

All while this is happening, there are kids sprinting around the entire room, everywhere. Screaming and eating junky snacks and sprinting to the front table, clutching their winning bingo card for checking, so they could choose from the table of trinkets from China to take back to the table and break before they got home, like a super smelly rubber spider, or one of those paddle-ball things that makes you want to set the paddle on fire after only a couple of minutes.

Every 25 minutes or so, the teacher would announce that if you were with such and such group, they were going to the photo booth for a group photo. Soccer team, 2nd grade, girls with R in their name – kidding on that last one. And then about every 15 minutes they’d raffle off a door prize.

After we’d been there about an hour, the Dessert Girls started coming around. These were like the cigarette girls in the days of old, except they were little kids and their cart was filled with sugar. Four ponytailed youngsters, with a cart filled with cookies, cupcakes, etc, trying to shove their way in between the rows of tightly packed chairs and hawking their wares. It added a surreal quality.

Honestly, I thought it was fantastic. I am quite comfortable in large crowds and was overjoyed to see so many kids so excited about something as simple and old fashioned as bingo. Everyone wasn’t staring at their phones all night and the chaos was joyful. I was greeted by several of the PTA Moms and felt like we belonged right where we were, and that was nice. I couldn’t deny the familiar ache of wishing I had been able to have more kids – one that will never go away I suspect. But knew acutely also how lucky I was to have the sandy brown-haired boy in the green and brown striped shirt sitting on my lap, his shirt stained with blood from another nosebleed – he’s got my nose and is prone to them now.

I kept encouraging D to get up and go talk to some of his friends, but he was overwhelmed with the crowd and wouldn’t go anywhere alone. He got discouraged after his first few cards didn’t win, but he finally won a couple of games. After that, he was just about done. It was way past his bed time and he was obviously tired and cranky, but I couldn’t get him to leave. His Dad was picking him up after Bingo, and I think he just didn’t want to leave me. I told him I’d see him Saturday for a party I’m taking him to, and then all next week, but he was pouty and tired, and so was I.

After it was over and I had handed D off to his Dad, my Mom and I went out to my car. I opened the door and discovered I forgot to take D’s backpack out. I ran back towards school with it, as I knew he’d be upset not to have it, just as he and his Dad were walking out of the lunchroom. He ran to me and we hugged, and I told him what a good time I had all night and that I looked forward to the party, gave him a cheerful kiss and walked back to my car, tears filling my eyes.

How this world jerks us from one side to another, like a crudely built roller coaster. The ride is long and tough, and I’m exhausted.

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