Have you ever really looked at an arcade cabinet? Most casual arcade-goers don't. We may notice the sticks and the buttons and the coin slot because that is what we need to interact with to start our game. They're huge; tremendous colossi of wood and metal and plastic. And there are all kinds; they start out small with the Japanese Astro City cabinets, that look like little plastic dwarves, and then there are the proper American upright cabinets that we are used to, with their narrow build and their 17" screens, and there are gigantic 33" cabinets that demand your utmost attention. I've been a frequent arcade-goer since I was 15 years old, and I can't say I ever really looked at them. Not until today.
Two years ago, I came back home to a pleasantly chilly San Francisco Bay Area for Thanksgiving break from my freshman year of college. They say that the first time coming home is the hardest; for all the growing up and maturing we're supposed to do when we leave home for the first time, we will inevitably return home to discover that the weeks we spent feeling like real adults mean approximately zilch. Instead, we find that home has been doing just fine without us, thank you, and don't forget to empty the dishwasher after dinner.
But "home" for me was not limited to "home" in the traditional mom-and-pop sense of the word. Yes, I would be coming back to see my folks and gorge myself on turkey and do all sorts of Thanksgiving things. Maybe I'd even find the time to kick it old-school with some of my high school friends, and do whatever it is we do after spending a few months away at college. The "home" I was most excited to return to, however, didn't have my bedroom or my father or my car or any of the features we normally associate with home.
The home I loved was poorly lit and kind of out of the way, covered in the ugly attention-whore colors college students use for their advertisement flyers. Instead of a dining room, it had a pair of pool tables and a dozen barstools; instead of a TV, it had a few dozen arcade cabinets; and instead of my folks, it had a bunch of UC Berkeley students - anywhere from 10 to 30, depending on the time of day. The home I came back to was the UC Berkeley BEARcade, and it wasn't until I settled into the familiar Capcom vs. SNK 2 arcade sticks that I really felt like I was back at home. So I came back, played some games, lost some, won some, caught up on new techniques with old friends and eased back into being at home.
Now, I am once again sitting behind the BEARcade's counter. It's different now, though, and not just because I'm two years older, or because the games are different, or because the old-timers keep on graduating and making way for the younger ones. I am playing the same games of Street Fighter III: Third Strike, but there is no line of tokens waiting to challenge me; the place is completely empty, except for me and the manager, one Bihn Kim, and the Third Strike cabinet, which stands lonely against a bare white wall that used to be full of fighting games vying for your attention.
I had never noticed until now how loud each machine is; usually the arcade is so loud that long-time regulars get used to leaving with momentary deafness, but now the only noise in the room is coming from the Third Strike machine and it feels as though I'm being rude by disturbing some kind of sacred silence. I am sitting behind the same register, but I'm not doling out change to hands eager to exchange their cash for tokens; it's not even on. Instead, I have to watch as the hopeful faces of Berkeley - everyone from Berkeley college students to high school students and even a few elderly locals - fall as I tell them what should have been already painfully obvious from the dimmer-than-usual lighting and the flyers plastered all over the windows; sorry, guys, we're not open. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.