Spy Hunter was one of the best video games ever. I never owned it– it owned me and my milk money. Quarters that were supposed to be used to buy a carton of milk at lunch time never made it out of the Short Stop gas station I would race to each morning. The little bell on the door would announce my arrival and the smell of the pizza pockets in the glass case would test my loyalty to Spy Hunter. I could save three days of milk money and be able to buy a pizza pocket if I really wanted to. A few times a year I’d have a dollar but it was too unpredictable to count on so I just made up my mind that I only liked the smell of pizza pockets not the taste. This allowed me to suck in all the greasy pizza pocket aroma I wanted without feeling like I should have saved my money for the pizza pocket. If I happened to glance at someone who did buy a pizza pocket and sat down at the little deli table near Spy Hunter, I would quickly break the gaze and remind myself that even though the cheesy strands that stretched unbelievable lengths before bending to gravity looked just like the cheese on real pizza, it was scalding hot from being trapped in the toasty dough pocket.
The summer before I had $1.25 that I was going to use to get into the city pool. They wouldn’t let us in because we didn’t have bathing suits, only cut off shorts. As we walked back to the trailer park, I could see the spirits of my sister, neighborhood best friend and two of my little brothers were low. I collected their pool money from them and told them we could still have fun at the gas station and even had enough to get three pizza pockets and split them. I wolfed my half down so fast I scalded my whole mouth with the hot pizza sauce and cheese. It wasn’t like the sauce and cheese from pizza, it was better. I took a drink from the root beer we were sharing and it burned even more. I made myself forget the cheese and sauce were from heaven during the rest of the year. When my sister or brother would look at the glass case I would remind them of the bad burns I had for a week and they would nod. They remembered we hated pizza pockets on that particular day.
I usually got a dollar when my grandma from California visited. She always had dollars and would give each of us one after she gave us our hugs and commented on how much we had grown. As soon as we got the dollar she would start in on how we better listen to my mom and not fight with each other. We didn’t have a phone at our house but my mom would save her quarters and call my grandma from the payphone outside the grocery store. Sometimes we would go to town just to use the phone. If my mom was really tired she would park in front of the phone booth but wait in the car with my sister and brothers. I would take the change and run into the phone booth and pick up the heavy and important feeling phone. I’d start dropping the change into the slot and after each coin disappeared I’d poke my finger at the little trap door where some of the coins might return. Once the coins had been accepted I would begin dialing the number I had memorized. You always had to dial a 1 first because it was to a different state. Then the area code. All my mom’s family lived in the 208 area code. It was always sunny and beautiful in 208. It had to be– that’s where oranges, grapes and lemons grew. It was sunny enough to wear shorts the whole year around unless you actually lived in 208. If you lived in 208, you would think it was too cold for shorts in December and probably even wear a jacket when I thought it was warm enough for shorts. I had to pretend I was cold one winter when we went after my cousin told me it was weird I thought it was hot. One of her friends asked me if we were poor and that’s why I didn’t wear a jacket in the morning even though it was really cold. She said her mom told her she should be nice to poor people and not make fun of them. I told her she was dumb and we were not poor. We had plenty of jackets but only wore them if it was snowing.
No one in 208 had ever heard of Spy Hunter or pizza pockets. They didn’t go to gas stations, they had little trucks parked along the sidewalk that sold laundry soap, chips, snow cones and real tacos. We told them not to feel bad that they lived
somewhere without cool video games to spend their milk money on the way to school. We told them how pizza pockets were even better than real pizza because the cheese stayed extra hot– the crust was like a little bread oven that kept everything steamy. My littlest brother started crying. We all tried to get him to shut up– my mom could hear him cry down the street even if there were a million other little cry babies around. I made the 208 girl with the winter jacket on give my brother her chips to quiet him down convincing her that if my mom came out there, she would set off a chain of mom’s interrupting a scheduled game of shark and freeze tag. It would be her loss. Our mom would go back inside once she saw my brother was happy but her mom looked especially grouchy and she might not get to play the game and this was no ordinary shark freeze tag game…..I would be showing them how to use the secret oil slick trick to avoid being tagged. She gave him her soda too.
After my parents divorced, we moved to a bigger town and had a phone in our house. My grandma would call right to the house and I don’t remember ever knowing her phone number by heart again. My mom would keep a little notebook with all the phone numbers in there. We would have long distance when we first connected the phone but after a month or two we would get it disconnected from talking to much to the 208 and not paying the phone bill. My mom would just call from a friends house or my grandma would call in to the house if we still had a working line– you could have a working line to get incoming calls but no long distance calls out. My brothers were all in school now, even the little one. He never played Spy Hunter but loved to play Nintendo. Him and the rest of the former cry babies were so good at Mario Brothers they knew how to cheat the game.
They would trap a turtle and kick the shell repeatedly against a pipe in the game and it would give them extra points and lives. I never knew if the people who made the game meant for people to be able to do that or not. It didn’t seem right to cheat the game. I tried to play Mario Brothers but didn’t like the controller. I was used to the
controllers being fixed to this massive box I would lean against. They would make fun of how I moved the controllers like I was driving a car– they held the controllers a special way and mostly just used their fingers to move the tiny buttons in all different directions at the same time. When I got to the place where you could cheat, I would hand the controller over to one of my brothers so they could rack up points for me. It wouldn’t matter, I never lasted long. These games seemed like they could go on forever. There wasn’t any season to take a break from them like Spy Hunter free summers. The day we didn’t make it into the swimming pool was the only summer day I played the game. I only got milk money during school time. It was no fun watching someone else play the game and eat pizza pockets so I stayed out of the Short Stop during summer.
Mario Brothers lived in our living room. He was always on as long as no one reset the game, used up all the ill gotten turtle shell extra lives or turned the game off. We owned the game and it owned us. Newer systems came out with wireless controllers and new adventures for old characters. New worlds are layered over and connections have little in common with joysticks or controllers- access has nothing and everything to do with being connected today. I am always connected and it’s never just a game. It’s evolved. I can eat pizza pockets anytime now and can even find a table at the Short Stop if I want to. I drove thru the little town the other day when I went to see my dad. I grabbed a handful of napkins and slid into the empty bench at the table. The other seats were taken. I couldn’t say for sure but I think I went to school with one of the guys sitting there– it looked like he was with his son. They all had their heads down, eyes fixed on their phones. Connected and entertained– from games to gaming.