Poza Zilei: Loose Change

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I took this photo in Brasov earlier this week and it’s a real, working model although I didn’t play it. It gave me goose bumps to see it because it’s been many years since I’ve seen a Pac Man cabinet game like that and it brought up a lot of old, old memories.

On the side of the cabinet and on the front (look right under the Pac Man image) it says “20th anniversary – 1980-2006” and I certainly remember when this game was brand new, when it was part of a strange obsession that took over America for a few short years. It’s hard to really explain just how important these beeping colored screens became for the entire (American) public in those days, with songs and movies and clothing and television shows dedicated to it and people going broke and becoming hospitalized and injured due to their obsession for playing them.

To give you a small idea of how big these video games were – the most popular games easily made double the amount of money than did all the Star Wars films. Even the President of the United States talked about video games in those days.

But it also reminded me of a very old memory from way back in 2000 here in Romania, my very first trip to this country. My ticket was round-trip via Bucharest although I had spent all of my time in Cluj. And since my return leg left around 6:00 am from the capital, I had a problem. Somehow I had to get from Cluj to Bucharest in some kind of way where I could get to the airport around 4:00 am (for security and check-in) and yet I didn’t know anyone in Bucharest and I didn’t feel like paying to stay in a hotel for essentially “half” a night.

What ended up happening was I flew from Cluj to Bucharest in the early evening before and met up with a guy who I barely knew – he had driven me to my hotel on my first day in Romania. He offered to let me leave my bags at his house for the night and then take me to the airport at the crack of dawn. Which did happen. But because he had to work, he left me in the care of his brother, whom I didn’t know at all, and thus began a very strange evening as I had to stay awake and see the sights in a foreign land where I did not speak the language with a guy whom I did not know at all.

Some very odd and interesting things happened that night, including meeting someone famous, which I will save for another time. But the story I want to tell today involves video games and the picture above. It was fairly warm that night but it began to rain somewhere around 2:00 am and my new “friend” and I hopped into a taxi and pulled up in front of a large, decrepit old building that seemed to be virtually abandoned. I’m guessing at one point it had been a warehouse or some other kind of industrial building.

Inside however it was full of arcade games, dozens and dozens and dozens of them, with young Romanians hunched over them and feeding in coins and pounding on the buttons and yanking the joysticks. And I stood there in awe because these were no “anniversary editions” of old, popular games but the original cabinet models. They bore scratches and dents and some of the labels were peeling off. And I saw every video game from the 1970’s and 1980’s, from the popular and well-known ones (like Pac Man) to obscure ones I barely remembered.

To say it was surreal was an understatement. It was like a cemetery for an important part of American history (as well as Japanese – some games were entirely in that language) only the machines weren’t dead. They were abused and used but they still functioned and in the wee hours of a rainy spring morning, dozens of young Romanian guys were playing them.

I didn’t have a camera and so there are no photos. And I’ve never seen anything like that before or since. I’m not even sure I even played any of those games – instead I was happy to just wander around and gape in amazement to see Galaga and Dig Dug and Centipede and Pole Position and Defender and Missile Attack still bleeping and chirping and whirring and still alive, hidden away in an old warehouse in some obscure neighborhood of Bucharest, Romania. I mean they had Frogger for christ’s sakes! And the original Donkey Kong. To this day I can still hear in my head that strange little melody that plays whenever Mario would jump over a barrel.

I got on the plane the next morning and went back to America and then I came back to Romania a few times and ended up eventually moving here, learning the language, writing my book and creating this blog and making this country my home. I never saw either of the brothers again and I could not tell you where that old warehouse full of video games is in Bucharest. But for a brief moment in time I was transported in a time machine to a very far away part of my past.

Nowadays I do have a camera, which is how I was able to take the photograph you see at the top of this post. And it brought back such a flood of memories that I stood there transfixed for a few moments. And today, well, I guess I thought I’d share it with all of you :)