In the spring of 2002, I bought a used Mercury Sable from an abandoned auto auction held at a local tow yard. I thought this would be a great way to get an extra vehicle. I was driving a 1989 GMC S-15 and worried that if it ever broke down I’d need a back-up vehicle. The Sable was very clean, although really nerdy. However, I couldn’t complain for $600.
I took the car home and shortly realized I didn’t need a third car. It just sat in my driveway most of the time.
My friend, Steve, however, needed a car. His car was on its last days and he was tired of putting money into it. He made me an offer for the Mercury that I couldn’t refuse.
For the Sable, he offered to trade a Sinbad pinball machine and a Galaxian table top arcade unit. Both of these machines needed additional work, but I jumped at the deal.
In less than a year, those two machines would grow into a small basement arcade.
The First Machines
I’d been with Steve when he purchased the Galaxian machine. We used to spend several hours each weekend visiting local thrift stores in search of old video game systems and their accessories.
St. Vincent DePaul’s had an “as-is” warehouse where we could find old school video game systems like Atari, Odysessy2, etc. This was back in the day before eBay and Craiglist really took off.
One wintery afternoon we walked past the main store and through the storage yard to the “as-is” warehouse. Steve and I both spotted a table top machine sitting outside, near the front of the store. We had a “rule” that whoever got to an item first had dibs on it. It was a funny rule, one that developed over many years of hanging out together, and one we enjoyed lording over the other guy.
Anyway, we both took off towards the mystery table top. Steve bumped me out of the way as we hurried. It was a great move and I totally respected him for it, the dirty dog. There was no glass, nor artwork, on the machine. The top was spray painted black. It was ugly and covered with snow. We had no idea what the game was.
We went inside and asked the guy behind the counter about the machine. He said he had no idea if it worked or not. He said “$5” and Steve immediately said, “Sold.”
We loaded the machine into my truck and took it to Steve’s house. Steve was living with his father, who was retired and of failing health. Besides his own job, Steve was taking care of his dad.
We carried the machine into the basement and let it warm up. After a couple hours, we turned it on and the splash screen came alive. It was Galaxian! While the shell might have needed some love, the game worked perfectly. We grabbed a couple chairs and played multiple games that afternoon in his basement.
After the purchase of the Galaxian game, Steve purchased a pinball machine, Sinbad. He wasn’t a big fan of the Sinbad game, but it was pinball and that made it worthy in our world (this was many years before my financial awakening).
When Steve needed a new car, he offered up the two games and I took the offer without hesitation. As far as being a fair trade, I don’t know if it was a good deal, but at that time I really wanted to own an actual video game machine. (I think I got the better end of the deal, by the way.)
Sinbad was in decent shape but needed a good cleaning and updating of rubber components to give the game some new life.
When we brought the pinball machine to my garage, we lifted it on to a pair of saw horses to get a better look at it. It gave us a nicer angle to work on it.
For the Galaxian, I bought a new artwork overlay as well as a beveled glass top. I spent hours scrubbing the over-spray off and cleaning the machine up. When I assembled all the components, the result was beautiful.
Steve was a whiz at the electronics and mechanics of a machine. Ever since I met him back in high school, that kind of stuff seemed to come naturally to Steve My job was the aesthetics of the machine. Steve couldn’t see what would make the machine more beautiful yet that’s what I gravitated toward. We were a good pair.
However, what really made the mix was my daughter, Sarah, who was eleven years old at the time. She helped me clean the machines, replace the rubber components or do touch up painting. She’d watch Steve with wide eyes as he jimmied electronic components around. Steve was a very shy person, even around an eleven year-old, but she hung out and was part of the team.
I didn’t realize a fever was starting, but Steve and I went out looking for more arcade games while we were still working on the first two. I found a Lost World machine at a local arcade warehouse. They had once been a major provider of video games for the area but had fallen on hard times. They had a wall high stack of Ms. Pac-Man machines that I can still see in my memory. It was amazing and sad at the same time. I didn’t have much money and was limited on what I could purchase. I wasn’t able to afford one of the Ms. Pac-Man machines. I was, however, able to grab the beautiful Lost World pinball machine. The shop’s owner plugged it in to let me test drive it and the power supply fried on the spot. He let me buy the machine for $125.
When the three machines were done we brought them inside and turned them on. They were awesome.
Then the real madness struck.
Video Game Fever
If three games were cool, do you know what would be better?
That’s right, a whole room!
Steve and I went on a buying and trading frenzy through the end of the year.
Most of my games came through Steve. He’d buy something, tire of it and then sell it to me. I was fine with that.
We got a couple adventures out of it.
The first was the Silverball Mania run. Steve had picked up a Silverball machine and worked on it until he there was nothing more to do. He eventually sold it to a collector in Portland, OR. The collector, known as StompS, was all over the pinball collector boards at the time and had his own website. We drooled over his collection of machines and agreed to deliver the Silverball to him, partly in hopes of seeing his games. Steve agreed to pick up another machine for him in northern Idaho prior to our leaving. One Saturday morning, we took off for the six-hour drive to Portland.
When we arrived, we delivered the machine not to StompS but his parent’s house. He wasn’t there. Man, we were disappointed. After a short conversation with father of StompS, we unloaded the two games and headed back. We had stopped for a total of thirty minutes before making the six-hour trek back home. All in the name of pinball glory.
The second story was a run up to Canada for Steve to buy Baby Pac-Man. It was another long drive with a short visit only to turn back around and come home. In this case, we met Robert, a very nice, talkative man. Crossing the border in a single day caused us some heartburn. This was a couple years after 9/11 so the world had changed. A couple ding-dongs running across the border to grab an arcade game was no longer as innocent looking as it should have been. We were stopped and had to answer a number of questions, both ways. In the end, the border guards decided we really were a couple of thirty-something nerds with a Baby Pac-Man proudly displayed in the back of a truck. I could sense their envy, no matter how hard they tried to hide it behind sneers and snickers.
One of the guys I worked with heard I was I assembling a home arcade. He mentioned that he had an old Night Driver machine in his parent’s basement. He’d bought it right after high school from a group affiliated with the local fair. I told him I’d love to take a look at it and, of course, we struck a deal for $75.
I brought it home and cleaned it up. It worked perfectly. Surprisingly, there was still straw inside from its days as part of the Interstate Fair.
In the basement where I assembled my arcade, I hung a couple movie posters, strung light cable and set up a small stereo where I could listen to 80s music while playing games. I thought it was awesome. However, no one else really did. Steve would come by and play occasionally, but it was the same story with the games he owned. Once he was done fixing them, he lost interest.
I played the pinball games a lot initially but after a while, I just quit.
Soon, I had a room full of big arcade equipment that just took up space.
I created a fansite to commemorate that year and called it The Arcade Experience. It was a very basic website that I hosted on my Comcast account (long since dormant). I loaded it with pictures and shared the story of what we built. I even wrote a short article that appeared in Gameroom magazine (that's the cover of the issue my story appeared in).
There came a time when I realized I needed to get rid of the games.
I listed all of the games on eBay, expressly saying that no machines would be shipped. I was afraid that no one would buy them. It was amazing that they all sold on the first listing.
Soon, buyers showed up to my house and dismantled my arcade. It took less than a week and everything was gone. The room was empty.
How is this Relevant to Personal Finance?
For some people, it’s easy for an obsession to take off
Throughout my life, I pour myself into various things I get interested in. I find this a particularly helpful character trait when I want to learn something. It accelerates my ability to accomplish a particular goal. It also allows me to realize quickly, if something isn’t for me.
One weakness, though, is financial. If I start obsessing on something that has financial implications it can really zap me if I’m not careful. There has been a slow awakening to this blind spot in my personality.
I need to be careful when getting excited about something new, especially if there are monetary ramifications. When I was buying these games, I hadn't gotten myself out of debt with the Dave Ramsey program yet. This was still my heyday of spending.
It was easy for me to get into the arcade machines and before I knew it there was a basement full of them. It’s often harder getting out of an obsession than it was getting in.
Malcolm Forbes was attributed with saying “He who dies with the most toys, wins.”
There’s a take on that that I love, “He who dies with the most toys, still dies.”
What are you spending you days collecting? Toys, friends or experiences?
I spent too many days collecting toys.
You Can Never Go Home Again
Most people can understand this statement on a certain level. It has to do with nostalgia and the desire to return to a simpler time in our youth.
When I grew up, arcades were the rage. I loved them. They evoked a certain emotion every time I went. It was wonderful.
My home arcade? Meh. It was cool, but it never had that illicit feel about it.
When I was a kid, parents didn’t want you in an arcade. They were sort of dirty and bad. My grandmother even went so far as to compare it to gambling and said it violated some biblical principles. Oh, man! That’s exactly what a kid wants to hear. After that, I couldn’t get enough of the arcade.
My home arcade was safe and nice. It was clean. There was no swearing. There were no girls of questionable morals hanging around. There were no older guys I had to worry about beating me up for my pocket full of quarters. It was, well, boring.
Like I said, you can never go home again. I will never be able to return to the arcade of my youth. Even if there was an arcade exactly like the one I played in, I’m different. I’m not a kid anymore and I look through the world with different eyes.
It Wasn’t About the Games; It Was About the Shared Moment
Looking back, I don’t really care about the minutes I spent playing Time Machine or Lost World. They were neat games, for sure, but when I see them again, I can always drop a quarter in and play a few minutes.
What matters was the time I spent with Steve and Sarah.
Those moments were precious and they’re gone now, living only in my memory.
Steve died five years ago and I’ll never work on another project again with him. We had a lot of great memories, but the brief period of time when we worked closely on these games is one of my fondest experiences with my friend.
Sarah is in her mid-twenties now and is building her own life. She’s a wonderful woman and I’ve said it before on this blog that I couldn’t be more proud of her. But there is a side of me that misses those little girl moments when she looked at me like I was the smartest guy in the world. That’s probably a universal emotion most adults feel.
I have the boy now who is nine years-old. He is much the same as Sarah was, full of wonder and excitement. I realize more so now than ever, that these moments with him are precious and getting rarer.
If you’re looking to purchase something, consider why. Does it enhance your experience with your loved ones? If so, then it’s something to consider buying. If it doesn’t, then why are buying it?
What about you?
Have you had an obsession
that cost you financially?
If you'd like to see more pictures of the machines described, check out the updated version of my fan website, The Arcade Experience.