It hit me harder than I expected.
Kid Quick, I mean.
I was caught defenseless in his flurry, and before I could get a punch in, I was on the canvas, the ref counting me out, and Quick taunting me the way he used to when I was a kid, “Come on … stand up and fight!”
But, hey … first time in the ring in, what? Thirty years? I think a little rust is forgivable.
Sh*t … I was ready for the rematch before the ref was done counting.
Channeling Moonlight (Graham)
When was the last time you bumped into someone you haven’t had any contact with in decades? I mean zero contact. No pictures. No social media. Nothin’.
Now, imagine that happening, like, 50 times in the same evening.
On a Saturday not long ago, I experienced the closest thing to the sensations of a pre-Internet high school reunion: the exhilaration of seeing old friends I used to spend hours at a time with … for the first time in decades; of matching faces with names I’d totally forgotten about; of trying to recall dance steps my younger version had mastered and memorized … surprising myself at how much came back, and forgiving myself for how much didn’t.
If I kept a leaderboard for most single-night “Oh My Gosh”-es, I’d have set a new personal record.
All while discovering just how good most of those old friends have held up. And, as with the best of reunions, totally forgiving the years for not being as kind to others.
The place: Pinball PA.
Think Field of Dreams for any child of the 80’s who wasted (read: invested) any portion of their youth dropping quarters in exchange for the temporary dopamine rush of blasting enemies and chasing high scores.
Aisle after aisle (after aisle) of exquisitely preserved pinball machines and arcade cabinets, perfectly nestled, non-descript, in a shopping center (where else?) in Hopewell, PA.
I owe the invitation to Andy, a friendship minted in the fourth grade, in whose company I logged many a mile biking across our hometown to temporarily tattoo our initials all over our its 8-bit cathedrals: the Station Arcade at the shopping center, Fun City at the mall, and the Electric Playground in downtown (across from where the Manos Theater used to be).
Andy lives a generous bike ride/short drive from Pinball PA. After a handful of “Dude, you need to see this place …” overtures, I found an open Saturday afternoon and made the pilgrimage. Pulled into a shopping center that could’ve been a Hollywood lot recreation from our teenage years.
Walked in and was greeted by the sweetest, beepy-est 8-bit symphony … and the nicest man in the universe: a middle-aged long-haired dude in black concert t-shirt whose 2017 closet bore an unapologetic resemblance to his (and, um, my) 80’s closet. He [1.] gave me a lay of the land, [2.] offered to give me a complimentary tour at any time — I think the place is technically considered a museum–, [3.] issued me a wrist band if I decided to leave and come back that day, [4.] gave me a red solo cup for the B.Y.O.B. bottle of wine I’d brought, and [5.] led me to the back tables, where he encouraged me to leave my stuff next to where a birthday party was going down.
“People are pretty cool here,” he said.
I took my time finding Andy. Spent a good 15 minutes just walking the aisles and involuntarily spasm-ing Oh-My-Gosh-es like they were hiccups.
I was totally Moonlight Graham stepping onto a field for the first time in years, calling the saints of my youth by name.
Galaga. (of course)
Gorgar. (which was like the badass bouncer of the pinball aisle at Fun City).
Dragon’s Lair (reverent bow).
I finally found Andy in one of the aisles, deeply engaged in battle. Waited for him to finish. He walked with me.
“So, what are you gonna play first?”
Into The Ring…
It was like being kickball captain on the playground with all your best friends standing, expectant, in front of you.
Andy had his guess: Stratovox, which we used to play at the Rec Center after swigging big-orange-container-Gatorade after summer basketball camp. Over the years, we’ve found many random excuses to quote the game’s signature monotone warning: “We’ll be-back!”
It would have made a fine choice (I made my way back to it later), but my first pick was a ceremonial one.
I paused in front of Laguna Racer, an old black and white, early generation cabinet from the Age of Pong. It caught some of my (Dad’s) first quarters at Fun City at the Uniontown Mall. I pressed play, hit the gas, and experienced the sweet simplicity of Accelerate, Avoid, Earn Extra Time … not through the lens of 2017, but through the eyes of my six- or –seven-year-old self experiencing the thrill of a steering wheel for the first time … moving my car avatar over the ramrod straight open road.
After a couple rounds, and adding my initials to its neglected leader board, I moved a couple cabinets down and stood in front of Punch Out.
Smiled when I saw Glass Joe staring at me from across the ring. Still the same old confidence builder he always was.
Made quick work of him to earn a bout with Piston Hurricane. When he teed up his, “Come on, Come on,” (“Ha! Bring it!” I may have said out loud), my subconscious blew the dust off my file cabinet of patterns, and I bobbed right to miss his big punch before unloading a flurry and uncorking a finishing uppercut to put him on his keister. Next: Bald Bull, from Istanbul, Turkey, all 298 pounds of him. He weathered a couple knockdowns before staying down for good.
Kid Quick, though, knocked me back to 2017, which coaxed an involuntary eff-bomb spasm that would’ve gotten me kicked out of Fun City. I quickly looked to my left and right, and exhaled NOT to find any small children within shouting distance.
The magical concept of free play meant I could jump right back in the ring (Punch Out allowed you one rematch to coax a couple more quarters from your pocket).
In the rematch, I went the distance, but couldn’t put the Kid down.
I was back on the street. Just a man and his will to survive.
I started all over, tore through the trio again … Joe, Hurricane, Bull … before returning to my unfinished business with the Kid.
Third time was a charm. I found the rhythm and settled into a pattern. Dodging and counterpunching, dodging and counterpunching. Hoping I’d wear him down before the timer expired. “Stay down!” I would’ve said in my head had I not been yelling it at the screen as the ref counted so effing methodically to 10.
Beads of sweat dotted my forehead as I paced around the cabinet waiting for my next victim, Pizza Pasta.
It was coming back to me. Stick and move, stick and move. Pizza went down like a slice with anchovies pulled from the warming oven of Pizza Town across the alley from the old Station Arcade. Easy pickins.
Then, Title Shot … the Champ: Mr. Sandman.
Thankfully no video documentation exists of my reaction after taking his title. All I’ll say is that it was an absolutely appropriate response for a nine-year-old, if a nine-year-old had the refined ornery adult vocabulary of a 47-year-old.
Guy Kawasaki wrote a book a few years ago in which he describes Enchantment (the name and subject of the book) as “the act of losing yourself in the moment.”
For the next three hours, I was enchanted.
Time and Places
One of the most resonant and unexpected parts of the experience was how the individual games conjured the locations that hosted them.
Time Pilot? Used to be at the movie theater at the Uniontown Mall. Such an exotic treat you either had your parents drop you off early, or added a time buffer after the movie was over before you had them pick you up.
Gorf? Winky’s. Gorf was an inspired mashup of Galaxian and Space Invaders. How good was it? Good enough to beg your Dad to take you to Winky’s (though not good enough to make you eat the food).
Spy Hunter? Uniontown Pizza Hut.
Scramble? Laurel Mall movie theater.
That Space-Invader-ish-knock-off-game-whose-name-I-can’t-remember that was my go to when others were shooting the duck at all those skating parties at the Wheels of 8 Roller Rink.
And the “foster games” that rotated in and out of our local Dairy Mart, and stayed only long enough to allow us to achieve mastery before being replaced (so we could begin our training anew, i.e. pouring quickly expiring quarters into a new machine): Asteroids, Donkey Kong Jr., Tron, Moon Patrol, Dig Dug, Star Trek. Though the facts are lost to history, I wish a record existed corresponding the tenures of machines with the tenure of some of our favorite Dairy Mart employees (Estelle, Mean Wilma, Elaine who Made the Awesome Microwavable Burritos, Dewey, Chuck, Bill, etc.).
Gyrus? Parked next to Dragon’s Lair (reverent bow) in the front row as you entered Fun City. Andy recalled that Greg Marmol used to kick ass at Gyrus (1,000 bonus points for remembering that).
If you would have given a genie lamp to the younger version of myself, it would’ve conjured Pinball, PA. The concept of free play after paying for your wrist band … total game-changer.
At the peak of my indulgence, I played myself two player on Galaga to double my chances of notching a perfect bonus round to earn the 10K bonus (an essential for anyone with high score ambitions). Managed to crack 200K, which was my benchmark when I was in my prime.
It was at this point I made the strategic decision to leave my wine bottle uncorked. Didn’t want to run the risk of dulling my reflexes. I was taking having so much fun that seriously.
After a while, it occurred to me just how much of my Dad’s modest disposable income must have gone to my video game addiction. That he never counted the cost is a lesson I’m still trying to fully put into practice. He lived his life by a different calculator, where time was the only currency that mattered. I couldn’t suppress a smile when I passed by the old Xs and Os football game. The one he and I’d play at Fun City (translation: one of the few he understood). I remember him still picking his play when the ball was snapped, and me taking it easy on him to keep things competitive. He was a good sport.
Free = Great, But Not Better
A couple hours in, Andy and I were joined by Wolfie, a friend I made in junior high and have kept since. I spent more teenage mall Fridays with Wolfie than anybody else, our parents graciously taking turns sharing the transportation burden until we got our licenses. I hadn’t seen him in awhile, but couldn’t imagine a more perfect place to catch up.
Though we would’ve loved a fourth player, Andy, Wolfie and I mustered up the courage to give Gauntlet a try. We chose our roles, wizard, warrior, elf … and charged into battle.
At first, the concept of free play was a reassuring novelty. We played aggressively, but respected the dangers in the game play, steering clear of risky situations. After a while, though, it became a bit absurd, as we’d just hit a button to refresh our player after getting offed. It got to the point where we were like hungry diners at an all-you-can-eat buffet of our favorite foods, eating ourselves beyond full. Probably a good ½ hour passed before we just walked away from our characters, since it was never going to end on its own.
For all the awesomeness inherent in an evening of ‘Free Play,’ there was a subtle, but important lesson in our Gauntlet experience.
The investment is what made the arcade.
A physical destination that required a pilgrimage.
A finite experience that lasted only as long as the quarters in your pockets multiplied by whatever skill you brought to the table.
Don’t get me wrong, we were beyond exhilarated when Atari (followed by Intellivision, then Coleco-Vision, the forefathers of today’s PS4 and X-Box) introduced console crack into our living rooms. But, looking over my shoulder, I can also say that empty pockets were their own gift, chasing us back into the daylight, where other adventures awaited, and leaving us eager for the next time.
I imagine that pre-Internet high school reunions regularly conjured a range of emotions that echoed the original feelings of one’s youth.
I’ll never know for sure. For all social media has given us in connectedness, its robbed us of the spasmodic Oh My Gosh-es that used to be the sole dominion of reunions and the random, chance encounter.
So it was nice to be reminded of my teenage feeling of anticipation pulling into an otherwise non-descript shopping center. Of spending a dopamine-drenched Saturday afternoon losing track of hours … of years. Of hanging out with some old friends.
And Andy and Wolfie, too.
As I walked to my car for the drive back home down I-79, I couldn’t help but think of a certain monotone refrain.
We’ll be back.
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