Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
I am in Portland’s Pearl District. If Tatooine is the farthest place from the bright center of the galaxy, this is the universe’s chaotic core. There is a timelessness to Pearl. 1890’s hotels, 1920’s pubs, and modern skyscrapers all in the same cityscape. With only a little editing you could film a Cagney era gangster movie or the Blade Runner Sequel here. But today it is as if I really am in a time warp.
The Genius Loci of Portland is before me and she looks like she just stepped out of Ridgemont High. She has a New-wave hairdo, complete with workout headband and wearing one of those sweater-thingies that ends between her butt and knees, that that girls wore when I was in high school. Even the girls who were comfortable with their bodies and budding sexuality never seemed comfortable in them, but the G.L. seems completely comfortable in hers. Mouthing the words to Pac-Man Fever, she does a kind of a hop-skip dance I haven’t seen done in twenty years. “Dude, this is totally tubular.”
I roll my eyes and dead pan “If you say gag me with a spoon, I am walking.” She is my subconscious personification of Portland the city that I love. And today we are hitting Ground Kontrol. It is a classic arcade/bar. It is full classic arcade games form a time that Wikipedia calls ‘The golden age of arcade gaming.’ 1979-1984, which was also by chance was my high school years. I wasn’t much of a gamer back then. Mainly because a quarter for three minutes of entertainment didn’t seem like a good deal, but like everyone else in my generation I was greatly influence by the arcade machines existence.
I did have one exception to this no arcade game rule. December 23rd, if I had done all my gift shopping I would take the two or three dollars I had left and walk about a mile to the arcade in a local mall and play, Cross Bow, Gauntlet and some live motion game that you blew up enemy ships that looked like shuttle in Empire Strikes Back. It was a Christmas ritual/tradition. And when I walked in to Ground Kontrol I got the same kind thrill I did back in Christmas break of ’83.
G.K. has them all. Centipede, Glatica, Pac-Man and his wife. In the very front of the arcade is the multi-player X-Man game. This brings back especially fond memories when some friends of mine, three brothers, got a gift certificate from their sister for $40.00 worth of gaming tokens at the Ventura Gulf & Stuff. We cashed them in and played the X-Man game for like ninety minutes. I was a little more comic book savvy than the others, so I grabbed Night Crawler while they fought over who’d be Wolverine, with one poor Brother ending up as Dazzler. We kept feeding it tokens until we made it to the finial boss Magneto. That was the only video game I ever played all the way through.
All the games are the 1980’s price of a quarter (Fifty cents for pinball). I marvel at how slow the cars seem to be going in Froger, but still I can’t get my frog to the other side. I pop a quarter into a Donkey Kong machine that looks original but has a gender swap in that you play the princess, rescuing a kidnapped Mario. And in Street Fighter my Guile, gets his butt handed to him in two rounds by Ken.
I head upstairs where they have twenty-eight pinball games. I chose A Doctor Who machine that came out when Sylvester McCoy was the newest Doctor. The place is dark, normally playing the hyper-lighted games that is no big deal, but it does make pinball a bit more difficult.
“You know.” The Genius Loci of Portland said looking over my shoulder. “That in the forties they outlawed, pinball in Portland, because they were use as gambling devices, people would bet on who had the high score or if a player could do a trick shot or not. It got so bad two gangs started stealing each other’s machines in what was called the pinball wars?” Of course I knew that she is part of my subconscious so everything she knows I know.
After a few balls I head down to the main room. I see in most cases people don’t go here solo. I see a few hipster couples on dates some dudes playing Pac-Man Vs. with their bros, and a few fathers with their kids. This part surprise me because I thought this was a fully functional bar and kids weren’t allowed.
The girl at the concession stand with cotton-candy pink hair tells me that between noon and five it is open to all ages and after five it becomes 21 and older. A guy comes up and ask if she has Dragon Quest a game he played as a kid, and she directs towards the closest equivalent. It then it dawns on me she was probably born after the 80’s ended.
After thirty minutes and six bucks lighter (Five on games and a dollar for a soda) I emerge to the gray light of the Portland day. My mind awash with Midnight Oil, Mallory Keaton, the real Robo-cop, and the red head who I sat next to in history class. It was a different time, the cold war was dying and no one thought anyone would fly an airplane full of hostages in to a building. Maybe we were naive, maybe I just saw the time with the eyes of youth.
As I walk down 6th street, I wonder what ever happened to the dreams that we had. As The Genius Loci sings Berlin’s Take my Breath Away. I think maybe it’s still there I just need to visit it more often.