When I was a child, there was only one type of currency that really mattered: The quarter. The quarter was a near-mystical token of future enjoyment; when you wrapped your fingers around it, you owned both power and choice. To have two was a joy beyond thinking. And five dollars' worth of quarters, heavy in your pockets, was an afternoon's orgy of sprite-fuelled delight.
The quarter bought you a game.
See, kids these days don't understand the quarter, because the arcade's been eaten away by the home games. A PlayStation 2 has graphics that are just as good as any game at your local Dave & Buster's. Why bother going out when you can buy a disk and play all afternoon in your comfy chair?
But when I was growing up, the home machines were a pale echo of the arcade, simpler and a lot uglier, and it took months for them to be translated over. The only way we had to buy the latest game was with quarters, two minutes at a time.
A quarter was power because your parents carefully monitored your arcade habits to make sure your brains didn't rot. They handed them out in meager portions, a dollar at a time if you were lucky, so each quarter had to last. When the quarters were gone, so was your game.
A quarter was choice because you had a whole arcade full of machines to choose from, each beckoning with some fancy rotating graphic array… which was it? Did you choose the new game, and get your quarter eaten up in thirty seconds as you struggled to understand the mechanics, or did you go with an old favorite, condemning yourself to an afternoon of wondering what the new game would have been like?
Part of the fun was just wandering between the cabinets in a raster-burned daze, exploring the possibilities. And the best place to go in the whole wide world was Arnie's Place.
When I say "the whole wide world," I'm not kidding. Arnie's Place was built in Westport, Connecticut, one of the richest counties on the planet, and it was intended to be so good that you'd never have to go anywhere else. It got written up in all of the games magazines, and shown on television, and there were framed pictures of people who'd come from Japan to see the wonder of Arnie's Place.
Most arcades back then were little more than warehouses with better electrical systems. If they had carpets, you were lucky; most of the time you played on concrete flooring with peeling paint on the walls, the machines scattered haphazardly. Sometimes the machines had cigarette burns and graffitti on the side panels.
Parents hated arcades because a) videogames were, of course, harmful to children, and b) they looked like places that only a child molester or a parent would go.
But Arnie's Place was designed to be parent-friendly from the get-go. It had carpeting, and good lighting, and brass fittings with fans above. The machines were lined up neatly in wood-panelled rows, each game ensconced in a small alcove specifically measured to its width and height. Because kids kept track of who had the next game by resting quarters on the screen, Arnie's place had custom-designed quarter racks full of little half-moon grooves so the quarters wouldn't fall out or slip into the machine's guts.
It wasn't mahogany-panelled splendor – more like a well-kept Applebees – but compared to the moldy abbatoirs of all the other arcades, it was heaven.
Arnie's Place was made for the gamer. Other places had half-broken machines; the joysticks wouldn't go left, or one of the buttons was intermittently-functional. They'd stay that way for weeks at a time as the machines slowly corroded. But rumor had it that Arnie's Place hired a full-time arcade repair technician – a job we all aspired to – whose position was only to keep the machines running.
Dress codes were enforced at Arnie's Place. There was a place for parents to sit, complete with newspapers. There were pool tables, if you were inclined. Fat Italian guards in Arnie's Place uniforms policed the area, making sure you didn't run too fast.
The best part was that Arnie's had every machine that came out. If it was new, Arnie bought it. If it was a game you'd read about, you could be sure that Arnie's had it, which was a sea change. Before Arnie's, you were forced to stop in every arcade that existed, dragging your parents to the bad side of town on a vacation, because they might have that game you read about that sounded so cool. You had whirlwind romances with a game you found in a remote corner of Dayton, Ohio, falling in love with it and then being dragged off by your parents at the end of the trip.
But Arnie's had them all. You wanted it, it was there. No questions asked.
And while it lasted, it was the greatest glory of them all. Cair Paravel? That was nothing, compared to Arnie's Place. The Emerald City? A slum. Arnie's Place was where I wanted to sleep, wanted to dream, wanted to live….
But the downfall of Arnie's Place was, sadly, Arnie.
Arnold Kaye was, to put it kindly, a greedy nut… But then again, he had to be. The Westport Town Council was convinced that arcades were the spawn of the devil, and so Arnie was engaged in a continual battle with every adult within five miles. Nobody wanted it there except for the kids, and so Arnie made headline-grabbing ploys like locking himself across the doors of his arcade and picketing peoples' houses.
He saw the inherent potential in upscale arcades, but he didn't know the business well enough to make it profitable. Buying all the latest arcade machines sounded good – in fact, he touted it in the press – but the truth was that renting machines was a far better option. When a rented machine stopped producing money, you could send it back — but a bought machine hung around the arcade, taking up valuable floor space and not doing much.
I suppose Arnie could have sold them, and for all I know he tried, but the machines that nobody wanted to play were the machines that nobody wanted to buy. And Arnie didn't want to take a loss.
Faced with an ugly choice, Arnie kept buying machines but he ramped the play price to two quarters. This was a common practice back then, but the gentleman's agreement between arcaders and owners was that when the machine stopped being hot, you'd drop the price back to a single quarter. Not Arnie, though. You'd find games a year old that were still fifty cents, and the trips started becoming prohibitively expensive.
In an attempt to bolster his profits, Arnie opened an upscale ice-cream parlor called Sweet Nothings. I ate there once, a precious little barbershop place. The two-scoop sundae cost what would have been $6.50 in today's money, flecked with stale almond chips, and it tasted just like it had been scooped out of a supermarket. Judging from the foot traffic, nobody else liked it either.
Convinced that the key to success was expansion, Arnie opened up a new wing devoted exclusively to pool… which was, surprisingly, a success. Now, Arnie's Place had wall-to-wall guidos, angry teenagers with Winstons in their rolled-up sleeves and a sneering attitude towards dumb kids who'd play videogames. It turned out that Arnie liked the sneering teens better than he did the squalling kids, so the arcade police turned into arcade Nazis who'd boot you out for running but would cheerfully ignore the pool-shooting thugs smoking directly under the "NO SMOKING" sign.
By now, Arnie's was too expensive, oppressive, and filled with kids who wanted to beat the crap out of you. Traffic dropped. Sensing that the arcade side was over, Arnie stopped buying every new machine, and the spiral continued. The pool hall kept Arnie afloat financially for awhile, but it also made his arguments with the town council worse; like it or not, Arnie's Place was a hangout for drinking teenagers now, and his lawyers got rich while he got poor.
It stayed open until I left town in 1995, but it was a shadow of what it had been. When I returned recently, it had finally closed down, its massive floorspace replaced with two trendy clothing stores.
I hold a quarter in my hands now, and it has no power aside from memory. I can reach my hand a foot to one side and click to bring up a game far better than anything Arnie's could have ever offered me. Those days are gone.
But there will always be a part of me that's at Arnie's Place, in my mecca, wandering among the games. If there is a heaven, there is a room containing Arnie's Place – what it was, and what it should have been.
Rest in peace, little arcade. You will be missed.