Growing Up: The Mysterious Case of the Immortal Perverted Arcade

*Tap… tap tap*

The feeling on my shoulder was sharp and foreboding. Whatever it was doing the tapping was, very likely, something I’d find revolting. I knew this instinctively. I’ve felt gentle taps, curious taps and even menacing taps, but this wasn’t quite like any of those.

I knew that as soon as I were to turn around, it would become real. Like a quantum experiment where atoms take concrete form only when there‘s an observer to acknowledge them. I didn’t want to turn around. I didn’t want whatever it was to fully materialize.

And yet, in some strange way, this precise feeling and the tap that produced it is exactly why I came here.

I was deep in the underbelly of the Big City. I came here as an explorer on some sort of expedition of maturity — drawn here, among the neon swamps and shadows on a mission to build myself anew, of shedding my old skin. I was coming of age, and if this was a necessary part of the ritual, at least I had come prepared.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that this moment would become only a part of a broader mystery and an enduring fascination.

But first, a bit of backstory…

— — —

As an adolescent living out a typically sheltered, suburban life on the outskirts of the Big City in the 1990’s, traveling into the city was always an occasion to be remembered.

To a young mind especially, the city is a wild departure from the stifling, milquetoast sameness of the suburbs. Around every corner a new adventure drifts seductively through the air: a cacophony of exotic sounds, smells and people competing with one another like dissonant notes, and yet somehow hovering in an odd harmonic balance. Everything has a vague, otherworldly vibe. Especially the cast of characters you bump into that never resemble anything you would see in your small town; discarded actors that played like something straight out of a David Lynch movie.

It was a rare occasion to be sure. The Big City near where I grew up, and live close by to this day, is Vancouver, Canada. It’s an exceedingly small city when measured up against just about any other major city, but it always seemed larger than life to me.

It’s size and scope was especially distorted to a young mind out of proportion with the world around it, in the way that everything is distorted in emerging minds. Just as the hill leading up to the top of the street I grew up on seemed a small mountain. A mountain so steep — my memory tells me — that I barrelled down it in my go-kart, barely surviving death-defying acts on several occasions. In reality, it had a reasonable incline of about 15-degrees and stretched for no more than 10 house lengths.

And that very same distortion carried on to sense of distance. Vancouver, it seemed, is so far away from my sleepy, homogeneous suburb lying at the river’s edge of North Delta. And yet, it’s no more than a half-hour drive away.

The only call that beckoned me to the Big City as a youngster was some sort of special event. A Foo Fighters rock concert at a humble downtown venue (before almost anyone had seen them before). Or, seeing my older brother’s Power-Pop band playing the show of their nascent teenage careers: opening for a KISS tribute band at a 500-seat theater to a group of aging, non-discerning butt-rockers. Or the time my dad, in a seemingly random moment of dadly duty, took me to a Canucks game to see Pavel Bure, my favorite hockey player. In other words, rare one-off events never to be repeated.

As I became older and graduated High School, visiting the Big City suddenly and simply became a matter of choice. I could go whenever I wanted to, and I did so almost daily. Most of the time I would travel downtown with my best friend Ian, an aspiring writer who read all of the Beats and did his best impression of a Beat poet. Which mostly involved drinking, being sad and talking wistfully about having a career in writing.

With a plastic bottle of Coke enhanced with rum in tow, Ian and I would routinely head to the epicenter of the Big City: Granville Street. When we emerged from the Subway station — which is actually mostly above ground — we could see through slightly boozy lenses the cornucopia of weirdness on display sprawled out across Granville until the eyes reach a vanishing point: a bridge to yuppy town two miles down the street. As I said, Vancouver is small.

My now slighly-more-mature mind (which was really the same child-mind it had always been, but soaked in rum) saw an expanse of oddities waiting to be explored.

There were the trendy fetish stores with leather and fishnet garb on display. I was too young and innocent to even recognize the implication of buying clothes at such a store — I just thought the stuff looked cool. So one day I bought a fishnet shirt, a black undershirt and shiny PVC pants, without so much as crossing my mind that I had the perfect outfit for going to a gay bar.

There were the smattering of CD and book stores manned by life’s castaways: zombies who, it appeared, would be shocked to learn that the place they are standing in is, in fact, their place of employment.

Then there were the handful of fully stocked video game Arcades.

Arcades had always held a special fascination with me. It’s always been near impossible for me to walk by one without stepping foot inside. By this point — the mid-to-late 90’s — Arcades were clearly on a downward slide. Yes, they had the newest and best Racers and Fighting games, but most of them were $1-per-play and many had Arcade-perfect versions you could play on home consoles.

But there was one Arcade among the three-or-so you would find along the strip — almost right next to one another no less — that seemed the strangest, most alluring of the bunch. It didn’t have the best or most current games. Instead, it seemed stocked mostly with retro machines. This was a time before we even called them “retro.” We just called them “old games” back then. Mostly, I just walked by and stared at these old games, only interested in actually playing the few that I couldn’t play at home: Lightgun games, Japanese shoot-em-ups and the odd Fighting game.

Typically, I would drop a few quarters before leaving to grab a $1 slice pizza across the street (there seemed to be $1 slice pizza places every 30 paces) and catch a 3-movies-for-$3 matinee pass at the nearby Cinema.

In reality, I never spent much time in this particular Arcade. But whenever I had head into the city, it’s the only place that would immediately pop into my mind, somehow calling to me from the recesses of my consciousness.

To be clear, it’s not a very good Arcade by most standards. It’s incredibly filthy, under-serviced, small and smells of urine. Oh, and did I mention there are pornographic movies played on Reel-To-Reel in the back of the Arcade?

Yes, you read right.

For some inexplicable reason, the Movieland arcade on Granville Street in Vancouver has, and has always had, Arcade machines populating the front 3/4 of the main space while the other 1/4 is outfitted with a bizarre — almost nightmarish — row of “booths” that play vintage pornographic movies, on loop, for a small sum of change.

Because of this, the Arcade is technically an Adult-Only venue. A sign in the front window displays in big letters:

“NO ADMITTANCE TO PERSON UNDER 18.”

I’m quite sure that the first time I stepped into the Arcade — still underage — I had no clue about this. Only realizing this fact once I had spotted the sign stretched prominently across the room and hanging from the ceiling. In mismatched fonts it reads “Girlie Movies” on the left side, and on the right “Theatre for Men.” Even when I was of age and swimming in rum, I always walked by the booths holding my nose and mouth shut, fearful of whatever diseases from ghastly creatures emanated from within their grotesque confines.

Perhaps it was because of these booths that the venue attracted some of the strangest, most seedy characters you would find on the entire strip. Which is saying something.

I was standing in line for a machine when I suddenly felt that *tap… tap, tap* pricking my shoulder.

Reluctantly, I turned around and saw standing inches behind me a frail, hunchbacked old man extending a piercing, dirty fingernail outwards towards my face, aiming for my attention.

I was wearing a Marilyn Manson T-Shirt with the words “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This” emblazoned on the back (again, it never even crossed my mind).

The creepy old tree smirked a bit, exposing his yellowed teeth on the cracked-open side of his mouth and warbled: “Excuse me… those words on your shirt… are they… … TRUE?”

He elongated the word “TRUE” like he wanted the moment to last.

I shuddered a deep kind of shudder and turned back around as fast as I could. I glanced over to Ian and we both gave each other a look that said “so, this is what an old pedophile looks like. Just what you would expect.”

I gulped and moved away, not having the courage to look back until some time had passed. When I decided to look around, I was relieved to see the old pedophile was gone. He had vanished like a ghost — poof — leaving the Arcade entirely.

In reality, his almost-ghost self was likely parked in one of those booths at the back — his dirty old brown trousers crumpled up at his ankles. I don’t think it crossed my mind that he could re-appear. Again, naive.

Mercifully, I never saw him again.

Subsequent visits to the Arcade over the years often came with a run-in, or near-run-in with such shady characters.

— — —

The last time I was at this Arcade was just this past Spring, 2017. I don’t go downtown much anymore, and I live not terribly far from that same boring suburb who’s hills I go-karted as a kid. I was invited to lunch by a friend who was staying downtown for his visit. As we made plans over email for Sushi I warned him that I would probably try to drag him afterwards to this dingy Arcade nearby.

I know what you’re thinking.

I can’t explain it — but it still has its pull on me to this day. Shitty run-down machines and blood-curdling pedophiles not withstanding. I suppose I feel like there’s some broader mystery still hiding there that is meant to be uncovered. Only questions exist. How has it survived this long? Without changing in the slightest way? And why so insistent on keeping those booths in the back that a sane person dare not trespass? How much money could it all possibly make?

The lease on a venue like this on the most prime shopping real-estate in the city must be unimaginably high, costing thousands of dollars every month. It boggles the mind. There don’t seem to be any answers to this mystery anywhere you look.

Or, perhaps the question that keeps bringing me back is something from my past. Some small artifact of my own history. I don’t know.

My visiting friend and I had lunch that Spring day, and afterwards I reminded him of my plans to visit this old forsaken-yet-still-standing place. He did me the favor and agreed to go check it out. I don’t know if he did it out of a sense of duty or, perhaps, because he felt a bit sorry for me; surmising this was some sort of rare, oddball pleasure of mine and saying “no” would be a let down. It wouldn’t have been. I felt bad even asking.

The place was just as disgusting today as it was back when the probably-now-dead pedophile haunted it in the late 90’s. My friend dressed impeccably, had a belly full of Sushi and plans for the day, and yet I was taking him to the filthiest diverticula within the innards of Granville Street.

I asked him when was the last time he entered the place. He said he couldn’t remember how long it had been, even though he lived close by for the past handful of years and has a fondness for vintage gaming just as much as I do.

He pondered, for a moment, and remembered after all.

He had visited the place a few months prior when I wrote a note to him telling him that it would be a great place to get an interview for his podcast. Still looking for answers, I selfishly thought he could tease out something about the place, it’s history, and those godforsaken peep shows in the back.

But in reality I knew it was moot. The only guy who works there has the appearance of a surly, pork-like character in a Miyazaki movie and rarely speaks. He sits up at the front inside a waist-high booth. As soon as you enter, he greets you with a blank look (rarely a smile) and fishes out quarters from a pouch tied around his waist in case you presented him with bills. He is the same guy that sat at the same place since pedophile-ghost was around and probably before that. In other words, he probably owns the place.

But whenever you ask him who the owner is or when he’ll be around, he appears shifty and defensive, offering a terse “I don’t know.”

I knew this was what my friend was going to find out when I suggested he give it a shot. Indeed, he ended up reporting back that he checked the place out, and after the owner denied being the owner, he promptly left glimpsing his only other shot at an interview: a bug-eyed man playing at the Q-Bert machine; the only other person in the room.

Better luck next time.

— — —

With our stomachs now full of raw fish, my favor-doing friend and I ambled into the Arcade blocks away from the Sushi place. As we entered the front door, our attentions immediately shifted to the ostensible owner sitting in the front booth. Like a couple of hapless buddy cops we took turns grilling him, pointlessly asking the owner who the owner is. The owner reminded us he isn’t the owner and he didn’t know when, he, the owner would be around. Once again, he foiled our detective work. He has his act down pat.

We then strolled around the place, surveying the types of machines there. As usual, not much had changed. Games that were considered vintage in the 90’s were still on display in much the same place.

I pointed out to my friend that, no matter what he does, to not sit down on any of the stools placed out in front of the machines. He laughed and agreed. We played a few rounds of Street Fighter II before moving on to other games. I picked up a Lightgun game called Area 51 and looked over to see my friend took a seat at the Pac Man machine. I cringed.

After maybe 20 minutes had passed I was running low on quarters and my friend was running low on favors so we parted ways. I insisted on saying goodbye outside of the venue. I knew there might be hugs exchanged and, for some reason, didn’t much like the idea of putting on the spectacle of two men embracing in this dank place.

He asked where I was headed. “I’ll probably just head home” I told him. He cocked his head back a bit and let out a protracted “nooooo.” It seemed he felt bad for me. That I had come to this weird unholy land, on some sort of anti-pilgrimage, only to leave without getting whatever it was I was supposed to get out of the experience. He encouraged me to stay and play a few more games. I said “OK,” if for no other reason than we had just hugged and said our goodbyes, and walking together in the same direction afterwards would violate a social rule against awkwardness.

I turned back inside and walked up to watch a guy playing on another Street Fighter II machine (Street Fighter II really is still the best thing about coming to these kinds of places). I asked if I could jump in and play a match against him. Cheerfully, he agreed. We took turns beating on one another for a few rounds, punctuating the time between rounds with self-deprecating commentary. In the end I lost, but he was nice enough to let me play against the CPU using his remaining credit. I thanked him and watched as he moved two machines away, plunking a quarter in the Galaga machine.

I thought to myself “maybe I misjudged this place.”

“Afterall,” I considered, “the majority of people who come here aren’t creeps and weirdos. They’re nice, normal guys who eat Sushi and let strangers take over using their credits.”

I played against the CPU, but it wasn’t the same. I lasted a few rounds, half interested. I grew bored, my attention drifting to my right towards the guy who gave me his quarter.

And just then, I spotted in my periphery a figure slithering up to the lone machine in the space between the guy playing Galaga and myself. I looked over and saw a heavily tanned 60-something man in short white shorts, white tennis shoes and a white wife-beater rolled up and tied to just under the nipples. He peered intently at the Tekken attract mode featuring two blocky, scantily clad female fighters and blurted out in a theatrical lisp:

“Wow…. look at THESE girls…”

I turned and walked away from the Street Fighter II machine, and kept walking all the way outside of the venue. When I got out, I took a deep breath. It’s remarkable how the mind adapts to unpleasantness, which is only revealed by the subsequent presence of it’s contrast. In this case: fresh air (as fresh as you could find permeating a busy downtown street).

I laughed a bit under my breath and had a thought: had I found a clue to the mystery of how this magical, ugly, perverted Arcade is still surviving, doing its true seedy business?

Maybe.

I pictured an unbroken lineage of creeps and weirdos forming a secret society, paying the surly owner not quarters for the Arcade machines or even the peep shows in the back, but rather rental space — those musky booths — in case they land their less-than-1% chance. I’m not sure. I doubt the math adds up.

Perhaps this old, immortal, perverted Arcade is meant to always be a mystery. One that I willingly pay to reveal its secrets, one quarter at a time.