I suppose I should explain that when I was a kid, video arcades were a thing. They were a BIG thing, because there was no internet, personal computers were slow, clunky things with no hard drives, often with black and white screens, or green screens. The only game consoles were Atari 2600s, and we were so desperate for electronic entertainment that we thought those were completely awesome forms of entertainment. The 2600s were the cause of many fights and much envy among children.
They absolutely paled in comparison to the video arcade.
The arcade games were full color, and they had what seemed like crisp, clear graphics. When Pac-Man hit America, it was like a nuclear bomb went off as part of the opening fireworks of a Beatles concert, with the miracles of Jesus Christ as the opening act. Okay, maybe not that big, but it was fucking BIG!
It was bigger than Pokemon Go. It was bigger than whatever big game is more current than that, because it was all new back then—the world had seen nothing like what was happening in the world of coin-operated wonder that was the American arcade– and there was very little real competition. These days there are millions of games or more, all competing for your attention, affection, and currency, and you can get them in some form or other basically wherever you are on the planet.
Back in the day, in my day, there were only dozens of decent video games, and you could only find them in certain locations. There’d be like three video games and a pinball machine or two at the local pizza parlor. There was maybe a couple in the corner of the pizza place. There’d be some at the airport, the bowling alley, and other key areas that we’d all map in our heads and exchange via word of mouth the way druggies share information about their dealers.
The arcades–the good ones–were like a fucking all-you-can-play buffet, and there were dozens of machines, usually with masses of kids and adults not only lined up to play, but also smooshed around to watch because every time you took a bite of this buffet it cost you a quarter. A good player could play a long time on a quarter, but eventually whoever you were and however good you were, you’d run out of the money that mom and dad gave you.
And then you’d just watch.
You’d all crowd around the guy playing the game, close but not too close because you don’t want to fuck up his game. The guy at the machine is right up against it, one hand on the joystick (or roller) and the other hand furiously hitting whatever buttons make something else happen in the game. All of the guy’s attention is on the game, because just like in the games today, it was both engrossing and dangerous—one mistake, and he’d die. Back then, you’d only get three respawns before you had to put in more cash.
There’s usually somebody hugging each of the front corners of the machine, too. They’ve got the best view, outside of the player himself. There’s space between them and the player, but not enough to squeeze in another person, so the next layer of watchers is a half-step back, staring at the screen through that gap between the first row. The third row watchers is bigger, and the view isn’t great because the gaps are smaller.
That’s where I am.
There’s a fourth row behind me, and maybe a fifth after that, although it all becomes muddled into one big crowd by that point. I don’t know, because they’re all behind me, and every single fucking ounce of my attention is on front of me, obsessed with whatever magic act of neon glory and human skill is happening. I’m like a cat who sees a mouse, like a dog who sees a squirrel.
I am rapt.
I don’t remember if there was a break in the action that caused me to break out of the hypnotic state of focus that I was in, or if it’s simply that my inner frog eventually realized that it was time to check the water temperature. What I do remember is that there was something warm and firm pressed against the seat of my Toughskins jeans, and the guy standing behind me was pressed way, way too close.
I was a child, but I wasn’t stupid, and I wasn’t ignorant. I knew what a dick was (I had one myself, after all), and I knew what a pervert was. I’d had the “No, go, tell” lectures at school, and I knew that strangers could be dangerous to children. I quite probably even knew the word “Frotteurist,” well-read little bastard that I was.
I was annoyed.
One of the corner-huggers had left, and I quickly moved to take his spot. I went a bit further down the side of the machine, sandwiching myself between the machine I was watching and the one next to it. A deliberate move, because now my butt was pressed up against the safety of a heavy arcade game instead of some pervert’s crotch. Then I went back to watching the game. The Frotteurist wandered to a different part of the arcade.
A little while later, one of my friends found me, and let me know that there was a pervert rubbing himself up against kids. I’m guessing that my friend found out the same way that I did. We decided to leave, because while we were confident that we could each protect ourselves from this guy, we were hanging out with a younger friend of ours, and we weren’t sure if he was worldly or wise enough to watch out for himself. We gathered him up, and we left the arcade.
I wanted to kick the guy’s ass. He was bigger than me, an adult or a highschooler (all the olds and talls looked the same to me), but for a while my brain furiously thought of ways that I could turn the odds in my favor. Maybe stand on a trashcan, and hit him in the head with a baseball bat when he turned a corner, for instance. But he was still in the arcade, I didn’t have a trashcan, didn’t have a bat, and didn’t know which way he’d go when he left. Besides, we had other places to be.
We totally ignored our “No, Go, Tell” training. It always just seemed stupid, screaming “NO!” at an adult, then running off as fast as you could. It didn’t seem to fit this situation either, because this wasn’t a guy in a van offering candy, or somebody in an alley at night or anything.
In hindsight, it would have actually been a decent way to bust this guy, raising the Hue and Cry to at least get him tossed out of the arcade. The training was stupid, though, and hinged on a kid who’d been taught that adults were authority figures, a kid who didn’t like attention, a kid whose anxiety made any unusual or intense interactions with adults all the more torturous… that kid? That group of three kids?
No. Go tell somebody else to pull that crap.
I didn’t want to have to deal with adults or cops asking me a shitload of questions over a minor incident that left me pissed off, but not in any way hurt, damaged, or traumatized. That shit would have been worse and more traumatizing for me.
Years rolled by, and I barely thought about it. Sometimes I’d remember, and I’d wish I could punch the fucker, or give him a hard kick in the nuts. Because while I’m not traumatized, and it wasn’t a huge part of my life, this guy took a moment where I was having a great time, and he spoiled it for me. He didn’t ruin arcades or video games or anything for me; he just ruined that moment, that hour, and any minutes since that I’ve thought of him.
Only not just for me, but probably for a lot of other kids as well.
One of the times that I thought about that guy was last year, when the #MeToo went viral, and women everywhere who had been sexually harassed, abused, or assaulted, all let the world know that they’d been the victims of similar assholes and outright monsters. It was… nice? Heartwarming?
It was something to see all the virtual hands raised in empathy and accusation.
I was tempted to tweet a #MeToo myself. Maybe I even did, but I hope not. I remember thinking that it was a bad idea, because this thing was about women, and they didn’t necessarily need men talking over them or stepping into the spotlight in any way. They get too much of that as it is.
So life moved on, as it does, and I didn’t think of the incident again until today, when somehow that piece of shit again crossed my mind for some reason, and I decided that I’d tell my story. It might have been therapeutic, I guess. I teared up a couple times. Not because of this guy or the memories of him interrupting my day. Not that I’m aware of, at least, because brains can be tricky bastards. No, it’s the arcades of that era. They were something special, and as I grew older and the arcades grew fewer and fewer, there must have been some time where I went to a real arcade for the very last time, and I didn’t even know it happened. I didn’t even know how bad I missed it until I watched the Netflix series “Stranger Things” a few years back, and I sat there stunned and misty-eyed as I heard the sounds of a 1980’s video arcade for the first time in decades.
I don’t feel like there’s a good end to this post. There’s no particular moral, and no narrative closure. Like life, I suppose. Maybe that’s the moral.