Happy Faces

by

11/12/2022

Neighborhood: Featured, Long Island, Syossset

I don’t get paid enough for this shit, I whisper, looking at my frightening reflection through the tiny knit film of my costume. Let’s just say I would not have picked this outfit: blue overalls, a singular metal goggle, black gloves, and boots stark against my yellow frame.

Allegedly, I am Stuart, a Minion and one of the protagonists from the 2010 film Despicable Me. Inside, the costume smells like I’m mid-mosh at a 1993 Nirvana concert. Soon, my subpar dance moves will receive poor Yelp reviews from Long Island Moms, but first, let me explain how I got here.

It’s been about three years since I started at Krafty Hands, my not-so-glorious source of employment and future therapy sessions. Arguably similar to Chuck E’ Cheese or Build-A-Bear, and in furious competition with Fantasy Junction a few towns over, Krafty Hands is a small outpost of a billion-dollar birthday party industry that feasts on anxious parents. While I, known for sporting a resting bitch face and listening to The Cure, never saw myself as just another cog in the birthday-party industrial complex, Krafty Hands was the easiest route to a part-time job at eighteen, and one that offered the potential to make hundreds of dollars in tips over a weekend.

Krafty Hands sits on the ground level of a beige shopping mall in Syosset. It has large glass windows and an endlessly flickering rainbow neon sign. Once you enter you are ambushed with more rainbows across every wall and shelf. Even the paper wrappers for the prepared food are rainbows. Shockingly, as far as I know, no one has yet experienced a seizure. Syosset and northern Long Island are generally known for great public schools, high taxes and easy extravagance. The parking lot here is filled with G-Wagons. Moms exit Mercedes SUV’s and flash wrists stacked with Cartier bracelets. Growing up here, the bat mitzvahs I attended cost more than most weddings, and the birthday celebrations are not too far behind. The basic twelve-child package at Krafy Hands starts at $599; most parties, however, typically cost anywhere from $2000 to $3000. Each one is more extravagant than the last due to parents’ being held hostage by the need to prove that, yes, they are the best parents ever, and yes, they bar no expense when it comes to their precious little one.

Don’t get me wrong, Krafty Hands has its charms. The birthday party center offers various activities: ceramics, tie-dye, silly science, and crazy milkshakes (I still have nightmares about that last one). On an average Saturday, we are completely booked and host six birthday parties. If you do the math, that’s six more than any sane person should have to attend.

Today began as one of those Saturdays. The first party is for Ella, who is turning three and is obsessed with Despicable Me much to her parents’ dismay. Nonetheless, they have called in a photographer, videographer, and custom-ordered a three-tier Minion-themed birthday cake from a high-end bakery.

Priyanka bursts in. “Sara! We need to talk. Jess! Run to Starbucks, get me a coffee. My head’s pounding, and I want to fuck the mermaid on their logo. Anna! Start making a piñata. Oh, if my father-in-law calls the store, tell him I’m in a meeting!”

That’s Priyanka— resident hurricane and owner of Krafty Hands who, I must admit, never fails to make me laugh. She’s 33 years old, born in India and raised in the U.S, and after embarking on a successful physician’s assistant career decided to give it up for the children’s birthday party industry. After years of carting her daughter to lavish parties, she saw how lucrative a place aimed precisely at Long Island Moms, with someone to catch up to or something to prove, could be. Priyanka’s career pivot wouldn’t have been complete without her cutting corners wherever she can: watering down the pink lemonade, dipping into staff tips, and never paying vendors on time.

“Good morning to you too, Boss Lady,” I say, bracing myself while organizing goodie bags.

“Are we serving popcorn or cotton candy? And… do you know when we’re getting paid?” asks Anna. I know she’s itching for a new Illadelph glass bong.

“Popcorn. I always take care of my girls. I’m just waiting for my accountant to double-check the numbers. But I do have your tips!” Priyanka replies.

I try to ignore her usual script of bullshit, which includes her demeaning the “girls” as her acrylic-nailed vice grip on the cash doles out fifties. The routine certainly doesn’t help alleviate the feeling that we are prostitutes with Priyanka as our ersatz pimp and genuine cheapskate.

“Who put that ‘OUT OF ORDER’ sign on the gumball machine?”

“I did,” says Jess. “The gumballs are ancient, and the machine eats all the quarters. We spend half the party trying to stop the kids from slamming the machine!” She usually must convince the kids a gumball will not, in fact, change their life and a lollipop is equally enjoyable.

“Take the sign down; money’s money.”

I look at Jess whose smirk tells me as soon as Priyanka leaves, the sign’s going back up.

It didn’t take long before I realized Priyanka had questionable business practices and was chaotic even on a good day. Sometimes, when working a science party she’ll mix yeast for the volcano experiment and ask the kids, “What does it smell like?” After hearing the kids’ “correct” answers like “Cheerios!” she’ll say, “You’re right! But I think it smells like my son’s stinky socks!” Priyanka doesn’t have a son. This white lie isn’t as bad as when she stole our tips, got caught, and gave us hush money. Or when she showed up late to work, coffee in hand, after phoning in and saying she had a “heart attack.”

Post-gumball machine drama, Priyanka and I walk through the kitchen and out back to sit on a stoop facing a dumpster, a Dunkin Donuts, and the train station. It’s a bone-chilling February morning, but that doesn’t stop Priyanka from wanting to have one of our “pep talks,” which is code for her telling me what I, as her manager, need to know for the day. This includes — but is not limited to — who’s been promised discounts, which vendor she’s dodging now, and which helicopter parents to avoid.

“Do you have a light?” Priyanka asks as she takes out a pack of Marlboros and hands me a cigarette.

“Yes,” I say, knowing our routine well. She leans into the flame and takes a drag. I can’t take my eyes off her inspirational “Believe” wrist tattoo where a unicorn horn replaces the ‘L’.

“What would I do without you? You can’t leave me next year. Also Jenny, Ella’s mother, is driving me crazy. She’s freaking out, wondering if it’s too late to change the theme from Minions to JoJo Siwa and if the scooter race is too competitive. I thought she was going to cry.”

“Oh boy. You won’t find a better ringleader to this shitty circus than me but you’re gonna’ be okay. I’ll handle Jenny.” I take a sip of coffee, knowing it will not be my last.

Even though I’m constantly reminded of their wealth, I feel for mothers like Jenny. They’re bound to their circle’s Long Island birthday norms and if they opt out they face ostracism and exclusion. And then there are social media’s “picture-perfect” pressures. Jenny’s debacle over the theme is understandable because if she does not engage correctly, or if she does too much, or, god forbid, too little, she will be judged to be not a “good mother.”

The train whistles, signaling it’s leaving for Manhattan.

“Shit. The party’s about to start. Grab the microphone!” Priyanka says, putting her cigarette out on the cinder block wall.

“On it,” I say, running back inside, my ears bombarded with the devil’s music: Kidz Bop.

Not too far behind, Priyanka joins Jess, Anna, and me in the front of the store. Clapping her hands together, she whispers her brief incantation. “Alright girls, it’s time to go, happy faces!”

***

Sara Sturek received her B.A. in Creative Writing and Communication from the University of Southern California. She is currently a Goldwater Writing Workshop Fellow at NYU where she is pursuing an MFA in Poetry. She is at work on a collection of poems.

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