The arcade was in a brick warehouse that spanned a city block, lined with numerous garage doors that opened to the sidewalk, its own advertisement to lure in anyone walking by the lake’s edge across the street. It was crowded, lots elementary to high-school age kids running around without adult supervision.
My dad was pretty vehemently anti video game, but he had to entertain us somehow up there, and he had to entertain himself in that place where he had nothing to distract himself. No internet, no construction, no paperwork, no friends for him. Nothing better to do than spend time with us.
So he followed Dan and I around the arcade, feeding us quarters. Dan and I probably spent a good amount of time playing the Jurassic Park immersive shooting game, which you’d think my father would take issue with, but we were killing dinosaurs and not humans which was better to him.
I had a tendency to ignore the ticket bearing games, the ones that actually provided you the opportunity to redeem your time and money invested for some physical token, usually plastic, usually worth far less than the amount of quarters you spent to get it, usually to break or be lost before we went back to Boston in a week or two. I also tended to stick to games I was familiar with—team brawlers like X-Men and The Simpsons. Four or five kids to a cabinet, united in pursuit of a common goal. The players were dispensable. When one ran out of quarters, a new one would emerge from the arcade depths to take its place.
Dan and I had separated. My father drifted in the area between us. We’d each been given an allotment of quarters, maybe $5 each? (Honestly not too bad a budget for entertaining your kids for a few hours.) I was finishing a run on the X-Men cabinet, playing with three or four other strangers.
One player was older than the rest of us by a few years, he was maybe sixteen or seventeen. He loomed over the smaller kids at the cabinet, and either because of his age or his size he was acting as our Teenage Commander. I want him to have been playing as Cyclops but realistically he was probably playing as Wolverine, because everyone wants to be Wolverine. Nowadays I’m partial to Nightcrawler, but back then I’ll admit I absolutely would have wanted to play as Wolverine, too. No one wanted to play as Dazzler, not because she was a female, but because she wasn’t a character in the 90s animated series and few kids my age knew who she was.
We were relatively far into the game, probably coming up on the final boss (Magneto, of course). I say “we,” but I’m actually not even sure how far I’d made it into the game before I ran out of quarters. Even when I’d run out of quarters I’d usually hang around the cabinet afterwards.
The best part about the arcade (to me, at least) was that you didn’t have to actually be playing the games to get enjoyment out of them, you could just watch someone better than you play and get pretty much the same effect. I still feel that way about video games, and people tend to think of that idea as really weird until I remind them that millions upon millions of people watch professional sports instead of going to a field or court and playing for themselves.
So when I spent my last quarter that afternoon, it was ok because, until my dad said it was time to leave, I could still watch for free. So I pulled away from the cabinet to let the next kid play.
Except, this time, there was no next kid. Our Teenage Commander was the only one skilled-enough, or quarter-rich-enough, or both, to stay at the cabinet. But, being the only player in a game almost definitely designed to extract a certain number of quarters from any number of players in order to reach the end credits, our Teenage Commander was apparently a few quarters short of the endgame. His avatar died.
In this type of arcade brawler, after all players have been eliminated, the game gives the player the opportunity to consider a continued investment of quarters towards their goal, additionally offering time for them to dig said quarter out of their pocket. It does this by displaying a one-word question, “CONTINUE?” on the screen, accompanied by a 30-second countdown. When that prompt appears, the defeated player without quarters has two options:
1) Let the next kid in line who has a quarter take over before the timer runs down, creating a kind of video game alley-oop, OR
2) press any button on the cabinet to make the timer count down faster down to zero to end the game, thereby disallowing arcade poachers from stealing arcade valor and reaping the rewards of all the hard work and quarters of the players before them.
What I learned that day at the Weirs Beach arcade was that there was a third option, which was to beg the people around you for more quarters, quarters that those people could use to play their own games of X-Men or put towards getting a few tickets. Our Teenage Commander was not above asking for this sacrifice.
Once the “CONTINUE?” and countdown timer appeared, he spun around to the small crowd of maybe five to seven people who had gathered around the cabinet to either watch him play or take over once he was finished.
“Does anyone have a quarter? We’re so close to beating this game,” he asked in a way that didn’t make me feel like he was asking for a quarter to play a video game, but like he was pleading for a battlefield medic. I want to believe that he was actually just asking for anyone to step up and continue playing, to not let the distance he’d covered go to waste, but I can’t imagine he didn’t want to keep playing himself. In my memory (which is almost certainly embellishing at this point) he spun around, arms and eyes wide, trying to impress the importance of him completing X-Men that afternoon in the arcade next to Lake Winnipesaukee. He sounded a lot like a person you might meet on the subway or bus stations who says they just need $3 more to get a room for the night, or their ticket out of town. You’re either the person who ignores this person or doesn’t.
Even though this was all taking place over the course of thirty seconds, the teenager somehow still had time to make eye contact with each person surrounding him. We all did our best to convey that we, too, were also out of quarters, but, brother, if we weren’t, we would have gladly loaded this machine up with quarters, for us and for you, even if one of us had to play as Dazzler.
At that point I realized my dad was there. He was about six feet away, observing me observing the game, possibly engrossed in my engrossment, or just waiting for me to get bored so we could find my brother and go eat something.
The teenager turned towards my father, and my father looked at the teenager in the way I only saw him look at strangers when they caught him flat-footed in conversation, when he’d been thrust into a situation where he hadn’t predetermined how he wanted to act. He stayed mostly still, eyes wide and not blinking, the way you’d behave in front of a wild animal that you weren’t sure what the best way was to avoid being mauled to death. Slowly my father reached into his pocket, pulled it back out with a quarter between his thumb and index finger. Still wide-eyed he extended his hand out to the teenager. My father, conceivably a person who had never inserted a quarter into an arcade cabinet in his life, a person who would scold us for leaving the light on in a room we weren’t in, but who was also a person to routinely drop $20 to $100 in street artists’ hats or musicians’ instrument cases, gave the teenager that quarter.
“Thank you, thank you so much,” the teenager said, taking the quarter. “Thank you.”
The teenager turned back to the cabinet and inserted the quarter before the timer finished, resuming his fight against Magneto. We kept watching, and when his avatar died again a few minutes later, he did a quick spin back towards the onlookers to see if anyone would stake him again. My father shook his head this time. The teenager turned back towards the cabinet, alone, hunched over, then indignantly pressed the button repeatedly to run down the timer until the “GAME OVER” screen appeared. He swiftly disappearing out a nearby open garage door and towards the waterfront.
My father, my brother, and I left together after that.
The last walk I ever took with my father was in December 2019. He had a bad knee and couldn’t go more than a half-mile or so from where he and my mother lived at the time. My mother had suggested he take me to the community garden she had a plot in where he sometimes helped her. It was a grey day and there was nothing in the garden except for someone else’s overgrown carrots. On the way back a woman stopped us in the street and started to ask us for money. I imagine I had nothing to give. I feel like I was just back from a run with no pockets, but even if I wasn’t and had my wallet, I probably wouldn’t have offered anything.
Before the woman could finish her pitch, my father, looking different than he did at Weirs Beach 20 years prior at Weirs Beach, now smiling to convey a non-verbal, “Lady, you’re not gonna believe this but,” reached into both pockets and turned them inside out to reveal their emptiness.
The woman wished us a nice day and we went back to the house.