Despite the fact that I still have P.T.S.D. about their animatronic singing rats, and the fact that the fecal count in their ball room is higher than a port-o-potty at Coachella… I still love Chuck E. Cheese.

When I was a kid, Chuck E. Cheese was THE place for birthday parties. The kids at school would always talk about it. The games. The pizza. The prizes. “It’s basically Disneyland,” they told me with a faraway look in their eyes.

The closest one to where we lived was in a super ghetto part of town. Half of the windows were boarded up and someone had vandalized the name with red spray paint, so it read: Chuck E. SUCKS DICK Cheese.

Every time my mom would take me and my sisters, the parking lot would be filled with rough-looking teenagers drinking out front. Their music blared from their dented pick-up trucks as they drank beer and smoked cigarettes. At the time we assumed they were pretty dangerous. I mean, their music DID feature several shred guitar solos.

After a few trips, we learned to expect this. So we’d wait in the car for a few minutes to assess the “sitch.” I could see our breath hanging in the cold air, our hands eagerly gripping the door handles, as we waited for my mom’s signal. She’d eyeball the rearview window, and when the time was right she’d slide out, wave us on furiously and yell “RUN, KIDS!” and we’d all haul ass to the front door.

All part of the fun.

As the doors slammed behind us, I realized it was a different world in there. It was like being in OZ. You know, that TV show about prison. We were on the inside now. Shit was getting real.

The first thing that would hit me was the smell. Mold, bubble gum, barf and possibly a grease fire that had recently been put out. Then the familiar chorus of screams. Happy screams, cry screams and horrified screams. All DQ-swirled in with the sound of bells, whistles and those godawful fleabag singing Chuck E. Chupacabras. I remember the first time I stood there as the great Chuck E. Cheese (mascot) himself waddled past me, carrying two plastic jugs of root beer. As I stood there, starstruck, he shoved me and muttered, “You’re in my way, kid.” And some of the root beer splashed onto my shirt.

That was my baptism.

As the stain began to seep in, I realized it was every man for himself at Chuck E. Cheese.

Then there were games. THE GAMES! They were everywhere I looked. It was a glorious sight to behold, although as you got closer it turned out most of them were barely functioning. Some were just really old, some were missing parts, while others had huge shards of glass or wires sticking out and you’d likely need some kind of tetanus shot if you played them.

My game of choice was Whac-a-Mole. If you aren’t familiar, it’s a game where you hold a mallet and a bunch of plastic moles pop out and you beat the living shit out of any mole you see. Oh how I used to wail on those feisty moles. Although at this particular location most of the moles had already been whac’ed off (so to speak.) So I was mostly just aiming at metal stumps. This required a certain level of skill however, because if you hit the metal the wrong way, you’d hear a loud clang, and a jolt of pain would shoot right up your arm.

All part of the fun.

And who could forget the legendary Ball Room™. I never ventured in. Too dangerous. Over the years I had lost a few good friends to that room. Tommy, Ashley, foreign exchange kid Angjærd. All lured in by the beauty of the colorful orbs. Sometimes I’d see parents head straight for that room and just dump their kids in. I’d watch the children’s eyes slowly turn from excitement, to confusion, to sheer terror as they’d sink down, dowwwwwwn into the balls OF DEATH. Once they went in, we never saw them EVER again. Well, like, for an hour. But in Kid-Time that’s like eight years.

However, my main goal at Chuck E. Cheese was getting tickets. Like a junkie I’d do anything to get my fix. I’d scavenge around the floor, pick through the garbage, even fork over my last precious token to the punk kid with the bandana and creepy early-onset mustache in exchange for tipping me off on a busted game that was accidentally spewing up scads of tickets.

One time I even managed to befriend the sister of one of the scary guys from outside. His name was Todd. How the hell does THAT happen? We snuck over to a deserted area where her brother was perched on top of a Skee-Ball machine. “Is the coast clear?” he asked. She nodded and instantly he began to jimmy open the control box and proceeded to make it RAIN with tickets. We squealed with glee and outstretched our arms as if money was falling from the sky.

“We’re rich, you guys! RIIIIIIIIIIICHHHHH.”

And then, at the end of an exhausting day, after giving Chuck E. Cheese my all, I’d lug what seemed like MILLIONS of tickets up to the counter only to discover that I barely had enough for a crummy eraser or a lousy mouse sticker.“ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” I’d wail,“THIS IS BULL CRAP. Thanks for nothing, CHUCK.”

And that taught me a lot about life.