I went to the grocery store today and ran into an actor/comedian acquaintance who was waiting in line ahead of me. While she was checking out, I zoned out for a second—as I’m commonly known to do—and started whistling. The checker called me on it after my friend was finished, and while she was ringing me up she asked, “Is that your Waiting-In-Line whistle?”
“Nope, it’s my I’ve-Got-A-Song-In-My Head whistle.”
She took a beat. “What song?”
“One I wrote, actually.” She has no way of knowing that it’s a brand new GhostBand song, and it’s a safe bet that she, like most other humans, isn’t even aware of GhostBand’s existence. “I was working on it all morning.”
“Oh. That’ll be $15.99.”
I handed her a twenty-dollar bill. “Hopefully you’ll be able to hear it out there in the world before too long.”
“I wouldn’t really know what to listen for.”
“Well, then. . .I guess I’ll have to keep you posted.”
There was an awkward pause, while she counted my cash and returned the change. “Okay, have a good evening.”
In the early 1980′s, the longest-lasting and most revolutionary new product was not the Rubik’s Cube, the tiny stuffed Garfield doll, or even MTV—it was the personal computer that would go on to change the world. A closely related product that was also created around that time was the video arcade game. Home video games, like the Atari 2600, or even the quaintly archaic Pong, had existed for a number of years by then, but video arcades were a new and exciting phenomenon. Pinball was for old people; video games were for us kids.
The grocery stores near our house both had a couple games each, but the nearest serious video game parlors were Pizza World (which at the time of this entry is the current location of El Portón, an excellent Mexican restaurant) and Nob Hill Lanes, a bowling alley with a smaller but more unusual lineup of games, including a 2-player Ms. Pac-Man console, which was—and still remains—my all-time favorite video game.
I loved Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man so much that I bought the ‘strategy guide’ books about how to beat the games. I even carried my little red portable cassette recorder to the arcade with me and recorded myself playing the games. I took the tapes home and listened to them in headphones, imagining how the game play went, and trying to re-enact it in my little mind’s eye.
One day, we got a new refrigerator, and it came in a gigantic cardboard box. When it stood on end, it was the size of a video game, which gave me and my brother a brilliant idea: LET’S MAKE OUR OWN PAC-MAN MACHINE. That’ll be great, we thought. Now, all our friends in the neighborhood won’t have to go to Pizza World or Nob Hill Lanes to play, they can just come to our front yard. And we’d be rolling in money! Yakima wasn’t anything like Silicon Valley (either then OR now, quite frankly) and besides, I was ten and my brother was six, but at least we had imagination and determination.
The contraption we made is one of the things I really wish we taken at least one picture of. It was absolutely ingenious, but surprisingly difficult to describe. Follow me closely. Here’s the type of original Pac-Man machine we were trying to emulate.
We stood the refrigerator box vertically, and then drew a Pac-Man maze screen in magic marker on the top half of the box. I think my brother drew the side panels, and we collaborated on the name plate that said, “PAC-MAN” on it. Directly underneath the ‘screen’, we placed a smaller cardboard apple box, which was for the joystick and coin slot. We cut a slot for people to insert quarters, and we sculpted a heap of clay into a joystick and plopped a golf ball on top of it. Voila!
So now it looked good, but it didn’t do anything yet; we had to figure out how to bring it to life. We knew that one of us would have to be inside the box, but we struggled to come up with a workable solution. I think it was Mom who had the idea of using a box knife to cut a rectangular ‘track’ hole along a section of the maze we had drawn, and then we could stick a magic marker through the hole and tape a cardboard Pac-Man to the end of it to move him through the maze. So that’s what we did. The Pac-Man kept falling off the end of the pen, though, so it took a while to figure out how much electrical tape to stick him on with. For the machine’s sound, I had all those cassettes I’d been making for weeks, so I put some batteries in the cassette player and brought it in the box with me.
We were ready to go. We ran up and down the street, yelling, “Pac-Man! Play Pac-Man!” We cajoled everyone to give it a try, and somehow they all went along with it. When someone put in a quarter, I would press the Play button on my tape recorder and the introductory song would play, followed by the sound of game play. The person would grab the golf ball joystick and move it around as best they could, and I would move the marker with the Pac-Man on the end of it through the maze route, randomly. Some people actually played this thing multiple times, but most realized right away that they weren’t actually able to control the Pac-Man at all, and that they’d spent the same amount as if they’d played the real game. I think the box lasted only a few days, until the novelty wore off, both for us and for our friends. But, like I said, I would dearly love to see a picture of that bizarre homemade contraption.
Since we’re on the subject of Pac-Man, once when my brother and I were at an arcade playing the game, a slightly younger kid we didn’t know (or maybe we did; I don’t quite remember) came up and said, very quickly and dramatically, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was this maze? And there was all your favorite food and you just couldn’t resist? And then you CHASE it? And then when you get there, you EAT it? That’d be awesome.” My brother and I stifled our laughter and kinda said, “Sure, yeah. . .awesome—” and turned back to our game.
Portland has a ‘vintage’ arcade down in Old Town, and every once in a while, I like nothing better than to plunk a couple of quarters down and spend an hour or so in an attempt to get the new high score on Ms. Pac-Man, and occasionally I even get it. You’ll know if I do, by the way, since I like to use the pseudonym Mr. T, so if you see ‘MRT’ on the high score list, that might very well be me. Be all that as it may, I was very glad when that arcade opened, because that meant that all those skills I’d honed as a kid weren’t going to lie dormant anymore. I would hate to think I wasted all that time on frivolous endeavors. I can rest assured, though, because there’s still something to be said for hand-eye coordination, and running through a maze with your favorite food that you just can’t resist.
There’s also something to be said for the old video games from the ‘golden age’ of the early to mid-1980′s. Despite their simplicity, they were captivating in a way that more modern games absolutely are not. If you haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing them, I urge you to arm yourself with a handful of quarters (most of these games, if they’re still around, still only cost a quarter to play, amazingly) and give some of them a try. I know you’ll be glad you did.
The building I live in is inhabited entirely by very busy professional musicians, and we seem to have a bit of a reputation in our neighborhood. This evening, while I was loading the accordion and the acoustic guitar into the car for tonight’s show, a woman I’ve never seen before was walking along the sidewalk and noticed what I was doing.
“Are you going to a gig?” she asked.
“Yup,” I replied.
“I hope you’re able to be self-supportive from your contributions to the group.”
I was dumbfounded, taken completely by surprise. “Thank you for that,” I finally managed to stammer.
Synchronicity is a term that was coined by Carl Jung to describe an ‘acausal connecting principle’, which is the short way of explaining a situation in which two unrelated events have an almost preternatural link, in a way that was unknown at the time of the first event. That sounds confusing, but it’s really a beautiful idea, and I’ve been lucky enough to experience it a handful of times, and here’s my favorite example.
When I was a kid, I used to have a green Huffy bike that was really heavy and cumbersome. Some of the other kids had BMX bikes, and they could race around, pop wheelies, and catch air off of ‘sweet jumps’ with ease. (That’s a Napoleon Dynamite reference, by the way.)
My tank of a bike made such stunts laughably difficult, although they did happen occasionally, albeit with a little help from my friends. One kid named Sean who lived across the street claimed to have bionic powers. This was in the late 1970′s, after all, and the Bionic Man TV show was in full swing. Sean was notorious for claiming the powers whenever he would throw a football for a slightly longer distance than normal, or run extra fast, but his favorite thing was to stand in the middle of his yard and gesture at the two large trees in it. “I can pick up this tree in this hand,” he would say, “and that tree over there in my other hand.”
“Well, let’s see you do that,” my brother and I said.
He would hold his arms out and flex his fingers before he poked at his wrist and said, “Hunh. My bionics don’t seem to be working today.”
“Oh, man, that’s a shame,” we said. “We wanted to see you lift up the trees. Maybe next time.”
That being said, one day all of us were riding our bikes in circles, jumping off curbs and trying to pop wheelies, and after numerous tries, I finally was able to get the front wheel of my Huffy off the ground at the precise moment it needed to be lifted, and the front wheel sailed into the air. I kept it aloft for quite some time, and I was elated. When the wheel found its way back to the ground, I pushed backwards on my pedals, stopped my bike, and shouted with glee. “Hey, everybody, did you see that? Oh, man, that was super high!” Most people cheered and said that yes, they’d seen it, but Sean was having none of it.
“Did you see me go like THIS right before you pulled up on the handlebars?” he asked, making a sort of throwing motion with his arm.
The rest of us kinda looked at each other, and I said, “Uh, no, I didn’t see that.”
“Oh, well, I transferred my bionics to you, and that’s what gave you the strength to do that.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, trying not to laugh. “Thanks!”
After much cajoling of my parents, I finally got a new bike when I was about nine years old. I’d been looking at it for months in a catalog I’d gotten from the Schwinn store. It was a Tornado, and it was love at first sight.
I don’t remember exactly when I got it, whether it was for my birthday or For No Reason, but I loved it, and I rode it everywhere. It was quite an improvement over the clunky Huffy. Suddenly jumps and wheelies were no problem, and I could skid around the slippery sidewalks at CatholicSchool like a pro. A handful of us clipped playing cards into the spokes of our wheels with clothespins, in order to make our bikes sound like hot rods. Incidentally, I think it may be time to clip a card or two into the wheels of my new bike and race around the neighborhood, just to see what kind of a reaction I get.
In true BFS&T fashion, I told you that story so that I can tell you this one, and this is where the synchronicity factors in.
One day, my brother and I were playing football in the front yard, like we did often. On this particular day, we were in full uniform, with pants, jerseys (he wore a Seattle Seahawks jersey, while I was partial to the Pittsburgh Steelers), knee pads, shin guards, shoulder pads, and helmets. We were quite well decked out, I have to say. So we’d been playing for a while that afternoon, when I got the sudden urge to ride my bike. Normally I would have gone inside to change out of my football uniform first, but this time I chose to climb on my Tornado and zoom away in full regalia. I thought I should just leave my helmet and everything on; I’m not sure why.
I had been riding for fifteen or twenty minutes, when the thought occurred to me, Why didn’t I take all this stuff off? I must look like a complete idiot. I’m going home right now and changing. About one second after I had finished that thought and turned toward home, my handlebars slipped ninety degrees sideways, and my bike fell to the ground. I flew through the air for a couple of seconds, flipped over onto my back, and my head slammed down onto the cement sidewalk much harder than it had any right to.
I lay there dazed, looking up at the sky, completely unhurt. I suddenly realized how glad I was that I’d chosen not to change out of my football helmet, and I rode home with newfound vigor. I don’t think I told my mom what happened, because I didn’t want her to worry. Nothing had happened to me, after all, so why bother her with a non-issue? But I never forgot, and I got a bike helmet pretty soon after that incident.
By way of a summary for this entry, here’s a video of the Police, tearing it up in 1984 (I’m guessing it’s 1984 by what they’re wearing), when they were at the absolute top of their game. This, naturally, is the song, “Synchronicity I.”