Here’s the thing you need to know if you work in a chocolate factory: all anyone knows is what they’ve seen in Willy Wonka.
This is important. When someone walks into a dentist’s office, they have all sorts of idea about what might happen, from what they learned on Sesame Street to the story they overheard on the bus yesterday. When someone walks into a chocolate factory they’ve only got one cultural touchstone, and it’s probably been bubbling away in the back of their mind since they were a kid.
If you’re lucky, they at least read the book too, but let’s all be honest here, every single person who steps foot in a chocolate factory is on the lookout for Oompa Loompas. It’s a well-established fact, like how nobody really understands string theory, or how everyone secretly wants a pet tiger.
Now I’m going to tell you the secret to success in your career at the chocolate factory: never deny the existence of Oompa Loompas.
Let me repeat that.
NEVER DENY THE EXISTENCE OF OOMPA LOOMPAS.
Yes, I’m sure there are plenty of well-adjusted adults who have absolutely no interest in make-believe creatures from an imaginary jungle who sing strange songs about children’s shortcomings, but those people don’t go on tours at chocolate factories. You know who does go on tours of chocolate factories?
People who not-so-secretly want magic to be real. People who think it’s entirely reasonable that Augustus Gloop wanted to drink from the chocolate river. People who are inevitably going to ask, “Hey, where are the Oompa Loompas?”
Now, they will pretend it’s a joke. They will laugh and wink and smile knowingly when you play along. But they’ll also involuntarily crane their necks, triple-checking the room as they say it. And it’s always grown-ups who ask. Kids know better.
If you work at a chocolate factory you instinctively know that you need to joke it off. “Oh, they’re very shy,” you might tell them, or, “It’s their day off.” Don’t try to get too clever, re-read the book, and then work in a joke about Vermicious Knids (the creatures Willy Wonka was saving them from), because no one cares about esoteric Roald Dahl references.
And, whatever you do, DO NOT TELL THEM THERE ARE NO OOMPA LOOMPAS.
I had been working at the chocolate factory for a few weeks, long enough to be getting a little bored and distracted, but not long enough to have learned all my lessons, when I found myself giving a tour to a bunch of coworkers from an office nearby, without a single child in the group. I was tired, they were annoying, and when the inevitable Oompa Loompa question came up I was off my game.
“We don’t have any Oompa Loompas.”
You could have heard a pin drop. The affronted shock hung in the air like a guilty fart, unacknowledged but undeniable. What I had just done was unforgivable, the ultimate trespass. I had stolen the magic from the chocolate factory.
Nothing could save that tour. Not the story of finding a hundred-year-old coffee roaster abandoned in a field in Croatia. Not the hypnotizing view of cocoa liquor, flowing over continually turning granite wheels. Not even the unlimited free chocolate samples! I took the Oompa Loompas away, and after that there wasn’t really any point.
I’m sure there’s a larger, more philosophical message here, about how even adults need a little wonder in their lives, or the power of myth, or the human need to leave truths unspoken, but honestly, none of that mattered to me. What does matter is this:
Never, ever, under any circumstances, deny Oompa Loompas when you work in a chocolate factory.