The year was 1982 — for all intents and purposes a true heyday for the video gaming industry. Arcades were booming. Pinball machines and pool tables were being wheeled out of recreation centers and pubs, making way for rows of heavy brightly colored video gaming cabinets sporting names like Space Invaders, Donkey Kong and Zaxxon. With them came the chance to face off against aliens, a giant gorilla and some weird space ship at the low cost of just twenty five cents (which rarely lasted more than a minute or two).
My mother worked as a cleaning lady for a local ‘rec center’; one of those places where you could do it all — pool, Foosball, those little punch out gambling table top games and of course get sauced and eat cheap food.
The Rec Center opened about 10:00 A.M. on the weekends, meaning my mother had to be in there about 7:00 A.M. to have the place cleaned and ready for the rousing day of patrons.
Now, a 13-year old boy doesn’t typically like to get up at 6:30 A.M. on a weekend to go play janitor — but the Rec Center was like a toy store for the kid who spent his nights hammering out BASIC code on a Commodore VIC-20. The latest video games … the potential for finding dropped quarters … checking each and every game’s coin return for a forgotten two bits. Plus a burger or grilled cheese for my troubles.
Oh and all the soda you can drink. Hurrah for the carefree lifestyle of the 80s.
Unfortunately for me, the Rec Center owner — Ben — didn’t own his video games. Like so many others, a coin-op vendor provided him with the games in his joint which meant no keys or means of accessing FREE PLAY on any of the games. Pay to play like everyone else and we weren’t independently wealthy (hence my mother cleaning a rec center on the weekend). Coins found rolled under tables or beneath the lips of the machines often went right back into them as I scrounged for pocket change to play my two minutes of Berzerk.
Naturally, I wasn’t there on scholarship. I was required to work for my supper. Oddly enough, this didn’t bother me. Dusting video games seemed like a real treat compared to digging ditches or chopping firewood (some of my other tasks as a teen) and even scrubbing a toilet was alright. Nobody was there — just my mother and me — it was bonding time and I remember it fondly.
Space Invaders was in the back corner; barely visible to the main floor. One day while dusting, I noticed that the front glass could actually lift up easily from the outside of the cabinet — giving pretty easy access to the insides of the unit.
What is a 13-year old kid to do when having access like that?
Figure out how the coin mechanism worked — Stevie Wonder style; by touch alone. Oddly, I think I Just Called To Say I Love You may have been playing on the jukebox at the time (don’t fact check me — that song came out in 1984 … let me have fun with my story).
Listen, I’d spent time at the local arcades and I knew basically how the coin mechanism worked by watching arcade owners clear jammed coins and “click off credits”. I had a good idea what I was doing. A few finger flicks and I had 20 credits clicked off on the Taito shooter.
Free Space Invaders. A million Japanese kids would have killed for that in the early 80s. But, something given has no value (thank you Starship Troopers) and the thrill of shooting down advancing lines of aliens quickly grew boring. I was off to see what other games may have glass that worked that way.
It was during this investigatory period I discovered a little something interesting. I found a quarter in the return of the omnipresent Pac-Man machine and immediately shoved it back into the machine from whence it came. It was stuck (now I know why it was in the return slot) and the coin return button did nothing. So naturally, I decided to pound on the coin door a little to free it up.
The unmistakable sound of a credit being issued hit my ears — but my brain was confused. I didn’t hear the coin clear to the clatter of the coin box inside. I smacked the door again. And again. And again. Each time, a credit clicked off.
It was like finding a golden ticket inside a chocolate bar.
Pure imagination indeed.
For a few weeks running, I got rather comfortable with my relationship with Mr. Pac-Man. I lightly banged on the door, he would answer. Pinky and Blinky — once arch-rivals became my little bitches.
Nothing lasts forever. The route operator must’ve been checking credits versus coins and figured out the growing dent in the coin door had something to do with it. One week — Mr. Pac-Man wasn’t home anymore.
Frustrated to be without my ghostly cohorts on a Saturday morning, I took a closer look at the back-glass and lo and behold … it slid just fine. But Space Invaders was a vertical pane of glass; easy to lift up and slide a bony arm into. Pac-Man was heavy, horizontal and awkward.
No worries. Once you slid the glass back, it lifted out pretty easy and with full unfettered access, getting to the coin door was a piece of cake.
Ahhhh … back on the Pac-Man Express with a round trip ticket to Energizerville.
Another few weeks had gone by and lordy lordy I was getting good. I could make it at least to the first key with my secret pattern (later discovered was fully documented in a How To Beat Pac-Man book; might have been written by Billy Mitchell).
Once my chores were done, the burger and fries poured into my gullet — it was time for a couple hour dot-munching session.
How could this story possibly go wrong?
Laziness. That’s how.
See, after a few weeks of “de-glassing” that big yellow cabinet and putting that glass gently on the ground while I clicked off my ill-gained gotten free games, I decided to short cut and use a nearby bar stool to put the glass on.
Yeah, the bar stool was about 12 inches in diameter. The glass was at least a few feet in length. It doesn’t take a physics professor to figure out what happened after a week or two of using that bar stool as the glass holder.
Despite this happening some 35 years ago, I still see the glass shattering into millions of pieces (it was that glass that falls apart … safety glass?) and the distinct sound of the breakage — like a klaxon or siren denoting my time as a free man was at an end.
There are distinct moments in life when your future hits a crossroads — moments you can put a finger on decades later and say, “Yes, that’s when my life changed”.
My mother came running — silly woman thought maybe I was hurt with all the blubbering and the crying that was happening. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I’m pretty sure my mother knew what I was up to. She was a wise woman that insisted on playing out the rope just in case I wanted to hang myself. The chair (er, bar stool) was kicked out and I was officially twisting in the wind.
I remember her having to call Ben — deceased now, by the way; that’s what happens to all the people you’re scared of in life — they eventually die; write that down. She told him what happened and I had to take audience with him and confess to what I had done.
Ben was a guy I’d seen angry a lot; a ginger, you know. Those red-haired folks just have a chip on their shoulder, I think. I must’ve been a mess at the time, because I think he went a little soft on me. Of course, that could be because he wanted to bang my mother — but we take our victories where we find them.
As I recall, it was $200 to replace that glass (my mother would know better — but it is a nice round number … and even if it was $125, the story is still good, right?) and there were a lot of free weeks I was working to pay it off. Suddenly cleaning video games and polishing pool tables wasn’t as much fun.
It goes without saying that I never tried to get free games again. Sometimes the lessons life hands us are heeded and provide the intended redirection necessary to make us a better person.
Soon thereafter I got a Commodore 64 and learned how to pirate games and make free phone calls to Seattle. Life wasn’t quite done with me yet.
But that is another article altogether.