Season’s Goodbyes

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.

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The story itself is hardly unusual. The arcade-going population of 2005 is a fraction of what it used to be in the days of Centipede or Street Fighter II, and the BEARcade’s was no exception. Its location on the Berkeley campus, dim and inconvenient as it was, remained desirable to school interests, and for years people struggled through the student government – known as the Associated Students of the University of California, or ASUC for short – to replace it. Even while in high school, I occasionally picked up rumors that it would have been turned into a pearl milk tea house, or a LAN cafe, or a day-care center for the children of UC Berkeley’s oh-so-illustrious graduate students.

This semester’s plan for the BEARcade was to use the space for an upscale gelateria. Despite grassroots efforts – including repeated coverage and letters in the campus newspaper, the Daily Californian, and a two-day petition drive that yielded over six hundred signatures – ASUC saw fit to dispose of the venerable game room, which had existed on campus as the ASUC Underground since at least the early ’90s, when it gave rise to some of the USA’s top tier Street Fighter II talent, in favor of establishing yet another ice cream store.

To say this was a slap in the face to the regulars, employees and casual passers-by alike was an understatement; to sacrifice their holy grounds in the name of profit seems to run counter to the goals of any academic institutions, and one would think that Berkeley’s reputation for encouraging individuality and alternative expression should have granted the BEARcade some special consideration. Certainly it felt as though the dozens of students who came into the arcade on any given day weren’t given any significant thought; anyone on campus who seeks gelato – from the same gelateria that is replacing the arcade, no less – need only walk a few blocks from the arcade proper, while a trip to nearest arcade of comparable quality would require over an hour’s drive into Sunnyvale.

But I don’t think that adequately explains why I can’t help but feel, as I sit here and choke back tears, as though I have lost something particularly important to me – something that feels more like home than simply a game room. Perhaps it becomes more apparent if I explain that it was the great people who I met through the BEARcade over the last five-odd years who have watched me grow up from a punk-ass high school kid to someone a little bit smarter and a little bit wiser that I will miss. Those who led me to my first actual job where I got my first actual paychecks. Those who looked out for me, even if that meant spotting me cash for dinner or driving me home when it was out of their way, just so I could be included with everyone else. Those who offered me a place to stay and escape the pressures of an alienating school and a periodically unstable family life, even long after the arcade’s 8p.m. closing time. Those who taught me that all I can do when I lose is put another token up and keep playing until I win. It’s Thanksgiving, and all of a sudden it seems like I don’t have quite as much to be thankful for this year.

And now I am helping Bihn push the arcade cabinets, one by one, into a Penske truck waiting to take them to their new owners. Some of them are going to San Francisco State, he tells me, and some of them to San Jose. Huh. It’s funny, you know, they look so much more, well, naked when they’re unplugged and their flashing lights and loud noises are turned off.

The rhythm games are first; we begin by disassembling Dance Dance Revolution‘s gargantuan, pure steel machine into its component parts and wheeling them out, bit by bit. Next comes Drummania V and Guitar Freaks V; they’re both newer cabinets, and while they don’t stand quite as tall as DDR, they’re still heavy enough with their idiot-proof black steel frames, and the speakers for Guitar Freaks V are two separate units, so we have to load each one separately. It seems so inefficient, now that we have home consoles – and even portable consoles – that can drastically outperform arcade machines, that we spend so much space and time making arcade cabinets as large as they are.

Last for the day is Guilty Gear XX; it was one of my personal favorites, and I have to redouble my efforts to withhold tears as I see one of the many machines that I have become very personally attached to, whether I was pounding it in frustration or celebration, gutted and neutered. But into the truck it goes. Before I know it, the day’s work is done, and I gather my things and cast my eyes around the place I called home one more time, hoping to burn its dusty, dimly lit majesty forever into my mind. Then I kiss my hand and slam it on the counter one last time and walk out into the sunlight. Goodbye, BEARcade. It was fun while it lasted.

I spend the rest of the day in a depressed funk, trying to revisit all my other old Berkeley haunts – Desi Dog, Buffalo Exchange, Sweet On You – but it just doesn’t feel right any more. The BEARcade was the lynch pin that held it all together for me, and without it, the city I once loved had fallen apart. From the looks of it, I’m not the only one suffering from arcade withdrawal; the few regulars I’ve seen around have all had equally empty stories to tell. Some have caught themselves instinctively walking toward the arcade after class, perhaps trying to catch a peek from outside to see if any familiar faces are around. Others have tried to fill the void with Mario Kart DS; alas, it just isn’t the same.

Jokingly, I asked Bihn what he was going to do now that he didn’t spend hours and hours at the BEARcade every day; he turned and looked at me with a hint of genuine existential bewilderment and told me that he really didn’t know. Later, something triggers the memory of heaving those gigantic metal lumps I’ve grown so fond of into the truck, never to be seen again, and I cry, pretty confident that I’m not the only one doing so.

And then something falls into place, hours later, while I sit sobbing quietly to myself outside a train station. I think about Thanksgiving, and good friends, and … well, arcade cabinets. They’re just so solid, and heavy, and big, and stable.

Stable. Just like home should be. Arcade cabinets can’t just be big because they need to be, they’re big because we become attached to them and we want them to be stable so we can feel at home. The BEARcade taught me that I can be at home sitting down at an arcade cabinet hundreds of miles away from the San Francisco Bay Area. That random strangers can quickly become close friends. That I can teach others the way those random strangers taught me, in the hopes that something as positive for their lives will come out of mere video gaming as it has from mine. And it has given me a dear group of friends who persist outside of the confines of the arcade. Yes, there is a time to be mournful for Berkeley’s loss; we really had something good there before they took it away from us. But I have plenty to be thankful for.

So thank you, all you employees and managers, students and teachers, regulars and passers-by, for making the BEARcade what it was. I, for one, will miss all of you.

R.I.P BEARcade
November 18, 2005

Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long.

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