There was once an episode of Rod Serling's post-Twilight Zone show, Night Gallery, that featured John Astin as a hip, jive-talking biker dude who found himself in a white room with no doors. Also in the room were several old men who were sitting around watching a slide show of the Grand Canyon and listening to Lawrence Welk records. After a short time of being driven nuts by the accordion music and being bored to tears by the slide show, he tried to figure out how he got there.
The last thing he could remember was a truck turning in front of his motorcycle. He came to the realization that he was dead and that he somehow had ended up in his own, personalized hell. Even more galling, he realized that for everybody else in the room, it was heaven.
That's not entirely what this story is about. Certainly, there are times in life where one person's meat is another person's poison. (And for you yellow-skinned PETA people, just stow it, all right? I didn't make up the saying.) There are matters of personal taste, changing circumstances and having to react to those around you in different situations that arise. This story is mostly about universal experiences, situations so uncomfortable and unnerving that there can be no debate as to whether something else could possibly be worse.
We've all been there, and we don't ever want to be there again. At one time or another in our lives, we've all endured ... The Worst Seat in the Place.
I was actually thinking about this in church one day. (I know you're not supposed to think in church. Start thinking, and the next thing you know, you're questioning that whole fishes and loaves story.) My kids were serving Mass, as they did every Sunday, so my wife and I were dead center in the front row. I suddenly thought to myself, "Wow, if I didn't have my kids to look at, to make sure they're not picking their noses or whatever, this would be the worst seat in the place."
Sitting there, right in front of the priest and the deacons and all the rest of the people who ascend to and descend from the altar, you're stuck: no fidgeting, no closing your eyes for that brief respite from the (ahem) glare of the lights, no reading through the Gospels looking for a loophole.
Of course, these days, just about any seat at church can be a bad one, what with the cell-phone whores, the text-message addicts and the latest abomination, the young couple for whom the church pew is the modern-day equivalent of the back seat of the Chevy.
I know Vatican II liberalized things, but I didn't see anything in there about tongue action.
So, I'm sitting there with all of the people on the altar staring down at me, and everybody in the congregation was looking at the back of my shiny head. It's not a good place to be. As long as I've been going to church, it's second nature to stand, sit and kneel down at the right times, and I can recite all the common prayers from memory. But being in that spot is extremely limiting. You can't pick a wedgie; you can't scratch your head; you can't roll your eyes at something that was said from the pulpit.
(There is one exception to not enjoying that seat: I used to enjoy sitting there on Christmas and Easter, when all the twice-a-year Catholics would show up. I'd stand up at random times, and some of the other people would follow my lead. Then I'd adjust my pants and sit back down. That was always fun, plus it left me in a state of grace.)
I talked to a priest about the seat once, and he said that when he was a young lad, he developed this really cool way of kneeling during Mass. He'd put his hands together in prayer, and then he'd put his head down on his hands as though he were in industrial-strength devout mode. Depending on how fast the priest was working up on the altar, our kneeler could get in a good five-to-10 minute nap. He said it wasn't until he got to the seminary that he learned what went on between the time you kneel down and the time everybody stands up to pray the "Our Father."
Nevertheless, church is voluntary; it's good for you, and it mostly doesn't cost anything. What about places where you pay to get in, and then you'd pretty much pay to get out?
Tom Dunham, a self-employed businessman and property manager, knows the feeling all too well.
"We went to see Titanic when it first came out. It was a late show, and we got in. You know how they usually tell you that the only seats are down front? Well, they didn't. I watched that 19-hour movie from the far left seat in the front row.
"You know how some people say they never want to go on a cruise ship after seeing that movie? Well, my disgust goes much deeper than that. I don't want to sit in the front row of anything ever again. I don't want to see Kate Winslet, naked or otherwise. And I don't want to have anything to do with (director) James Cameron. Or Kirk Cameron. Or Cameron Diaz."
Obviously, the theaters want to squeeze in as many people as possible, but sitting in that front row can be absolutely painful, leading to a stiff neck, eye strain and an increased chance of getting hit in the back of the head with a flying Milk Dud.
Actually, with each individual Milk Dud now costing about 47 cents, they hardly ever get thrown anymore.
Dunham thinks that theaters ought to get rid of the first four or five rows so that sitting in what would then be the front row wouldn't be so excruciating. He understands that their profit margins are razor-thin, but he just figures that they could make up for it by raising the price of popcorn.
"They haven't done that in the past week or two."
What's the worst seat in a restaurant? Some say it's by the kitchen, but I disagree. I like sitting by the kitchen. You get to brush up on your Spanish skills, even at Chinese restaurants. Others say it's near the bathroom, but at least there, you can see whether the employees have good hygiene. If they don't walk out with their hands slightly damp (from the water!), you can always say, "Lava tus manos."
The worst seat used to be near the smoking section, but thanks to Arizona's voters, that seat doesn't exist anymore. So now, the absolute worst seat in any restaurant is next to the guy with two cell-phone holders on his belt.
Sometimes, the worst seat isn't a seat at all.
Hayley Evans, 15, and Michelle Spector, 16, both have the same quick answer when asked that question concerning any concerts they might have attended.
"It's up against that rail by the stage at the Rialto," says Evans, as Spector nods furiously in accord. "We were at the Panic! at the Disco concert last summer, and it was the most uncomfortable situation we've ever been in."
The two had arrived early and rushed to the front when the doors opened. Soon, the place was packed, and it was sweltering in the building. The concert was still a long time off.
"It was unbelievable," say Spector. "I've been in saunas that weren't that hot. I've done Bikram yoga and didn't sweat as much."
When the show finally started, bodies got to movin', and the sweat got to pourin'. The crowd surged forward, and the two struggled to maintain some sort of space between themselves and others.
"We've all heard stories about people getting crushed or trampled at rock concerts," say Evans. "We weren't really scared about that; I'm sure they're good at crowd control at the Rialto. It's just that it was so unbelievably hot. I wanted to go to the back of the room and sit down, but there was no way."
"Yeah, it's funny," remembers Spector. "We wanted to be in the front, to get the best seats, but there aren't any seats. This woman was pressed up against me, and the sweat was almost jumping off her body onto me. It would have been an amazing experience if it hadn't been so gross."
Evans interjects: "I'll tell you what's gross: The members of the band were drinking water and then spitting it out on us. So Michelle had that woman's sweat, and I had Michelle's sweat and the band's spit. Then, somebody opened a side door, and I saw that it was raining outside. I wanted so badly to go outside and just stand in it. After the concert was over, we went to the Circle K and got water, Gatorade, juice and soda, but we were too drained to even drink it. We have a picture of Michelle in the car, hunched over her straw, too tired to suck."
That would be a great name for a band. "Hello, Tucson! We're Too Tired to Suck!"
The two went back to the Rialto recently to see some of their classmates at the Battle of the Bands. "This time, it was OK," says Spector. "They had a mosh pit, but it was strictly voluntary. There wasn't any involuntary moshing going on."
So will she go back to the worst seat in the joint? "I don't know. I'm kinda short. I like seeing the band, but I can't get that night out of my head. I don't think I ever want to be in the squishy spot ever again."
Squishy Spot. Hey, that would be a great name for a band.
Other really bad seats (in order):
5. Any seat in the back row of the Physics and Atmospheric Sciences Building at the UA when you realize that the professor has laryngitis and likes to use pastel markers on the white board.
4. The toilet seat at your friend's apartment after you realize that he has painted the inside of the toilet black so he won't have to wash it.
3. The defendant's chair.
2. The seat for the guest of honor at an electrocution. And:
1. The passenger's seat of Paris Hilton's car after Britney Spears just got out.
Former Tucson Weekly contributor (and current professional grump) Emil Franzi attends both the symphony and the opera. He and James Reel get together about once a month to trade opera CDs (imagine Niles and Frasier Crane, only nerdier). They, and apparently every other guy of their ilk, will argue to the death over where the best and worst seats are in any given concert hall.
"Oh yes," gushes Franzi. "It's very important. The great conductor Georg Solti used to walk around concert halls during rehearsal to hear how the music would settle in certain areas. He'd go up to the balconies and walk down the aisles, sitting in random seats. The word is that he claimed to be able to adjust the performance depending on the acoustics and layout of the particular hall. It seems possible, I guess."
Franzi knows the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall and generally prefers sitting dead center, a few rows back. He can't stand being way over on the side.
"Especially with operas," he explains. "You get over on the side, and the voices wash out. A stringed instrument or a horn can project sound in all directions, but a human voice, even an exquisitely trained one, must have limits. That's why it's better to be up high for an opera. Do you know why the most-expensive seats for an opera are those boxes up high?"
I always thought it was so the rich guys could look down the diva's dress.
"The sound just mixes better. The notes come from within the opera singers and go up as they go out. Opera houses are all built accordingly."
So what's the worst seat in the joint?
"Down front, off to the side. I just don't like it. You can't see the conductor at a symphony, and you get weird angles of an opera. Besides, the TCC Music Hall is OK, but the best place to see something is at the Berger (Performing Arts Center) on the campus of the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind. There isn't a bad seat in that entire place."
Jesse Gutierrez has never been to the opera, but he's sat in many a bad seat. An engineer for the city of Tucson, Gutierrez is a big-time sports fan, although he generally enjoys ragging on the Arizona Wildcats more than rooting for them. "I'm just kind of contrary. Everybody I know roots for the Cats, so I root against them just for argument's sake. I'm an Arizona alumnus, and I like Lute Olson a lot. It's just fun to mess with people."
Gutierrez was in high school when Olson first came to Tucson. "We used to go to UA basketball games back then. I remember going to one when Ben Lindsey was coach. There were only a couple thousand people in McKale; it was like the women's games are now. You could sit just about anywhere you wanted. But then when Lute got there, things picked up, and we were forced to sit farther and farther away from the court."
Gutierrez was a UA student during the magical run to the Final Four in 1988. "It got harder and harder to even get into McKale to see the games. One time, I got a ticket from somebody, and you wouldn't believe the seat. I remember it like it was yesterday: Section 116, Row 40, Seat 1. You're up in this corner next to a wall, and you can only see about one-third of the court. We used to sit up there and wonder if McKale was designed by a graduate student or something. And not a real good graduate student."
I decided to check it out and, if anything, it's even worse than he describes. You have to go up to the top level of McKale and then somehow climb even higher. Fortunately, to aid you in your quest is the (and I'm not making this up) Barbara MacBeth Honorary Handrail. Yes, they sold the naming rights to the handrail. The next thing for sale is that mechanical device that blows hot air to dry your hands in the bathroom. I'll leave it to you to come up with the best name for those things.
I trudged up there and sat in the seat. Sitting there and imagining what it must be like to be there on a sold-out night of Wildcat basketball, I thought "Let's briefly put on manly readiness and gather i' th' hall together. Well contented."
(Actually, that's from the first page I opened to of Macbeth. The only quote I had in my head concerned a dagger, and it didn't make sense when applied to the seat.)
I'm going to try to get into McKale someday soon to talk to whichever poor schlub has to sit in that seat. At first, I wondered whether anybody actually occupies that seat during UA men's games, but I was told that all seats in McKale are sold. There are people who actually walk around McKale looking for a spot where a new seat can be installed just so they can have the right to pay for that newly installed seat.
In the meantime, if you're ever in McKale, I highly recommend making the pilgrimage to the worst seat in the place. If you go on a weekday, you can at least sit there for free.