Long before Katy Perry sang about dancing on table tops and getting kicked out of bars I was mastering the art of Friday night. And there’s one particular one that I’ll always remember.
It’s a Friday night in the early 1980′s and my friend Mike and I are hopping into the back seat of his Mom’s old blue station wagon and being chauffeur driven to the Palmer Park Mall. Thirty years ago, being a teenager at the mall on a Friday night was on par with going to the “Dip-and-Dances” at the Palmer Pool in the summer or hanging out with a bunch of classmates after a school event at Penn Pizza. Even if you weren’t popular, if you made it to the mall on Friday night you were part of the in-crowd.
You see getting dropped off at the mall and left alone by your parents moved you up three notches on the coolness meter. Personally, it was also the perfect opportunity for me to showcase my chiseled teenage abs and Sylvester Stallone looks. My red Members Only jacket and my Jordache jeans. Ok, I made up that last part. I really didn’t wear Jordache jeans.
But a typical Friday night excursion to the mall was always exciting for me. It was a chance to see all the kids from school outside of the element. No teachers, pencils or homework assignments. More importantly, it was also a chance to see the hottest girls from school too. Oh sure, I’d always see a few of them here or there roaming the halls all week but in the mall environment they ALWAYS gathered together in some kind of sorority. And although I knew my shyness would inevitably hinder any chance I had at any real conversation with those of the female persuasion, I’d still be polishing up my “Hey Baby” lines as we’d pull into the parking lot.
It wouldn’t be long now before the smell of pizza and feel of Orange Julius running down my arm would put any thought of romance on hold as there were more “male” dominated matters to attend to. Mike’s mom gave us the usual time and rendezvous point to meet up with her for our journey home and at this point, the entire mall was ours.
With no I-Tunes or Internet access of any sort, unless you consider the useless modem that I had for my Commodore Vic-20 computer, being at the mall was the only chance I had to stop into the Listening Booth record store and seek out new music. On good days, today being one of them, I had extra money and with that, the opportunity to buy my very first record album which I eagerly did.
With new music now in hand, Mike and I made our way down around the furthest corner of the mall. Well past The Gap, Pearle Vision Center and Waldenbooks store. A place that was always dark and mysterious. Kind of like some seedy back alley. One of those places where there might be a bunch of people playing an illegal poker game in some smoke-filled back room and you needed a special knock just to be allowed entrance.
Only one thought came to mind as we approached: My pockets have gone through six days of pregnancy with quarters and it was now time for delivery.
I could not wait for the chance to open a can of whoop ass on Mike again playing Space Invaders or Pac-Man. I was feeling particularly lucky this evening which wasn’t a good thing for Mike. Tonight was going to be a good night. I pictured my initials being emblazoned upon all of the top spots of the machine. I was more than ready to place my quarter on the console while someone else was playing and reserve it. You see, there’s a certain unwritten rule about strategically placing your two-bits on the machine that even the meanest of children abide by. It’s the customary thing to do to indicate to the kid currently playing that: “Dude, once your ass is dead, this machine is mine!”
As we slowly entered the darkened Fun Attic arcade it sounded like a scene right out of The Empire Strikes Back. Machines beeping and flashing as far as the eye could see. Teenage Boy Nirvana. Nothing but kids congregating with each other around machines in an attempt to dominate at Pole Position or vanquish the evil Donkey Kong once and for all.
I was always conservative when it came to my video games. Although most kids were now on to bigger and better things I relished being one of the last old school players who much preferred dominating on mindless games like Space Invaders. So you can imagine the shock when I discovered that the Space Invaders machine had been replaced. Apparently, the brilliant minds at Fun Attic had decided to take away the only game I’d ever love.
But that’s when I saw it: Dragon’s Lair.
It sat alone in the middle of the arcade, right where Space Invaders once sat. Beneath a single spotlight that I’m sure was always there but some how never noticed before. It was almost as if it were the Hope diamond on display in some museum.
The machine read “50¢ a play” – fully DOUBLE the cost of three lives on a traditional machine. But as I stood there in awe watching the movie preview enticing me to dump Mario and Ms. Pac-Man to save Daphne the princess and defeat the dragon, I realized I had no choice.
I spent every last quarter I had on that game and loved every minute of it. As I progressed through the levels I took notice that a gaggle of girls from the Palmer Mall Sorority were now lining up around me to watch and cheer me on. Something that never happened while I was playing those “other” games, or at all for that matter.
It didn’t take me long to realize that in addition to this game being the coolest thing ever, it was also a chick magnet. I felt like a rock star maneuvering through the catacombs of the dungeon to the delight of those observing. Even Mike, my loyal compadre, who normally would have beckoned me over to play pinball by now still stood by my side: my wing man.
When the last of my quarters was gone without rescuing the princess and the girls went back to doing whatever it was girls did my life suddenly had new meaning: I needed to defeat the dragon and impress the ladies.
We soon met up with Mike’s mom at the rendezvous point and were en route back home. And although I had originally planned to just listen to my new music all weekend I couldn’t help but also think about how I needed to double my quarter intake in six days.
Because next Friday night, we were going to do it all again.