I know what everyone is thinking. “I really like the stories lately. But I feel like the title puns aren’t as obscure as they could be. Don’t be afraid to throw in some references from British rock groups from a decade or two before you were born.”
You. Are. Welcome.
I imagine you’re also wondering, “How does one go about spending an unexpected $1600 in college?” For the most part, one doesn’t. At least if it was me, which is the perspective you’ll be locked into for most of this story.
This probably comes as a bit of surprise to people. After all, even those who didn’t have bad spending habits as a young adult at least knew a few friends who did. I was personally shocked to see the way some of my friends spent money in college, especially when it belonged to other people.
Alas, I grew up very poor. While some people view financial security like a dip in a warm pool – a comfortable, relaxing experience that lasts as long as you like – I didn’t have that luxury. (Pun mildly intended.) To me, financial security has always been more like wading into a warm spot in a pool – mysterious, fleeting and less and less pleasant the more you think about it.
But every night I did dig into the bag of loose change I’d been picking off the ground since I was five years old, grab four quarters and went to the local arcade.
Let me go back over that last sentence, because I understand there’s a lot to unpack there. An “arcade” is a place where they used to have a bunch of video games in a single building. They slowly lost their following over the late 20th century and were slowly replaced by every imaginable form of media ever. So far as I know, there’s only one left in Japan and a single hunting game from 1996 at every bowling alley in America.
As to why I only brought enough to play four games, well, that part’s easier. I am, in fact, amazingly good at arcade light gun games.
If you were waiting for the punchline to that joke, there’s not one coming.
I’m not sure where that all started. But it likely had to do something with my not having a decent video game system most of my childhood. Combined with my habit of picking coins off the ground since I was five and having plenty to spare, things just kind of worked out that way. It certainly didn’t help that my mother’s shopping trips tended to last several hours at a time. Very likely, it was on one such trip, just after I’d recited the final digit of pi, that I saw a video game cabinet in the store lobby, shrugged and decided to go for it.
Still, coins weren’t an infinite resource. And even if people had dropped an unlimited supply of them for me to pick up it was only a matter of time before I found the dirty coin that would make me patient zero for the plague that wiped out humanity. So I took advice that wouldn’t become commonplace in gaming for at least a decade: I got good.
Am I telling you this to brag? Yes. And I demand all the respect that one might earn for being able to beat “Area 51” or “The House of the Dead” with a single quarter.
But in another way, this is all just part of my comedic balancing act. People can only handle hearing about how poor or sad or friendless I was for so long before screaming out any confidential information they might know, just to make it stop. In small doses, self-deprecation is funny. In large doses, a form of torture.
This was my upswing. For the space of four quarters almost every night, I wasn’t worrying about grades or a rocky home life or where my next meal would come from. I was happy. No matter what else was going on in my life, I worked through it six imaginary bullets at a time, pointed offscreen and did it all over again.
I won’t lie and pretend that I was ever surrounded by crowds of chanting fans. In fact, I don’t think I ever spoke to anyone in the arcade I hadn’t arrived with. If not an official rule, there was always at least an understanding that people hadn’t paid their hard-earned money to stare at a screen in an attempt to talk to distracting random strangers. It’s essentially the same as putting on headphones and staring at your phone, except that people actually took the hint.
In any case, it was a thing in my life that happened and it made me happy. I remember each and every game I ever beat there with that odd sense of pride that would actually diminish by sharing it with another human being.
It was as close as I ever came to therapy in college. Unless you count the time I went to a few free session carried out by Pyschology Majors as part of their course requirements. And if I’m being fair, that was less like a therapy session than going to a session and speaking to someone who was, to some degree, aware of therapy.
To this day, I still think flashing lights on a screen and a plastic orange gun did a much better job.