“Nearly everybody expected spectacular things from Tom Riddle, prefect, Head Boy, winner of the Award for Special Services to the School. …The next thing the staff knew, Voldemort was working at Borgin and Burkes.” —Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince p.430-1
How do you get a job in a store that sells magical artifacts? Ask the owner, “How much for Kirby’s Adventure?”
“Four dollars,” he says. Then: “Do you want to help out at the store tomorrow?”
And you think: “Do I!” Because this video game store– GameSource–is a magical place. Amid the Kirby’s Adventures and the Super Mario Bros., the Sonic the Hedgehogs and Madden ’95s, diamonds:
“How much is that?” a teenage boy asks, pointing to Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure.
This is an Atlus-published game. This is also years before the game’s re-release on the Nintendo DS, before the existence of the Virtual Console or PlayStation Home, even. “Seventy-five dollars,” the owner says.
The boy is something between bemused and crestfallen. “Oh.”
There are two people employed at GameSource; you don’t count yourself, since you’re only working for store credit. But you’ve forgotten to cash in your earnings for so long that one day a top-loading Famiclone ends up in your hands and you get into an argument with the owner over whether you should take it or not. You lose; years later, it’s still sitting quietly in your closet.
“Tera! We got a shipment of five thousand thumbsticks last night–and they’re filthy.”
Of all the odd jobs you do around the store–testing controllers, R/F cables and Game Genies, occasional shelf-stocking–cleaning thumbsticks is your favorite. You need no help to get started (“Which way do I twist this, again?”); you don’t even have to leave your chair. With your toothbrush and rubbing alcohol, you can make disembodied control sticks shine. Of course, you are eager to get started.
“What?” says the guy in charge of shipping. “You don’t even want to chat first?”
Oh. You forgot about that.
It’s not that you don’t like people, or even that you don’t like “chatting”–at least, in theory. It’s just that, despite what experts have written about people like you, in spite of your own developmental history and the fact that you often talk to yourself in order to think, you don’t like talking to people. Not in the Street Fighter II way most of them want, where you have to down-circle-forward punch words at just the right time or you lose them. You’d rather communicate in a Final Fantasy sort of way, where time freezes as you consider the other person’s words and think of a response. What you’d really like is for the shipper and the owner to talk to each other, while you shine thumbsticks and let their words watch over you, like a TV playing in the background.
Sometimes the owner and the shipper order a pizza from the Little Caesar’s in their strip mall, which the three of you eat for lunch. (You never think to pack yourself a lunch, since lunch-packing is for people in school or with real jobs). One day, they ask if you’ll walk over and get it.
“What took so long?” asks the shipper when you get back. “They were late again, weren’t they?”
“I got lost,” you say.
And he says, “Really?”
Even though you have trouble finding the pizza place in your store’s own strip mall and stock things slowly and always forget how to put Game Genies in even though you own one, the owner tells you, “I’d pay you if I could afford it. You have a better attention span and hand-eye coordination than the high school kids who work here.” The high school kids trickle in around 3:30, and have four-way Halo tournaments on the TV against the wall. Watching them is fun, listening to them even more so. You don’t know who’s doing what to whom, but you understand just enough (“You rat-bastard!”) to know that one of them can aim a grenade so perfectly that it blows up right at someone else’s feet. And that he likes to throw grenades at his own teammates.
You are little more than a fixture in the room, with your rubbing alcohol and your toothbrush, but the high school kids decide to teach you to play Halo anyway. And although you can’t aim your pistol and wander aimlessly through corridors without any clue where you are, Benedict Arnold says, “You’re doing fine.” When someone else swears–not at you, for some reason–Benedict Arnold scolds: “There’s a lady present!”
Your lesson is gentle: “Really? Where?”
Long after learning that you are not a lady, Benedict Arnold says, “How do you do this?” He keeps getting eaten by the zombie in the cabin. Despite your love of all undead things, you don’t play much Resident Evil. (You like Clock Tower 3 better). But this is Resident Evil 4, where men are men and “forward” means “forward.”
“Shoot him in the knee,” you say. “Then he’ll fall over and you can finish him off.”
“No,” says the shipper. “Shoot him in the head.”
The shipper is right, of course, but you can’t do headshots and the shipper can’t stop work to help take care of a walking corpse.
“Thanks,” says Benedict Arnold, and you go back to your thumbsticks.
Your college professors expected things of you that do not involve helping teenage boys kill zombies. They thought you would go on to graduate school, because “you are certainly smart enough.” And you thought you’d eventually teach Latin to elementary school kids–had ideas about the book you’d use, even. But after 18 years of getting good grades and winning academic awards, you realize that you don’t like school. You do like it here amid the Dreamcasts and the Arkanoid controllers. You like the people, although–no, because, at least partly–not many new people come in.
Some of the regulars bring their own games in to play, like the guy working his way through Shadow of the Colossus on Hard mode. He scampers across the wingspan of a giant bird; it pitches and rolls as he grabs onto its feathers and fur, and it’s beautiful. So is the steady simplicity of your work, warm like the rumble of a refrigerator in the middle of the night. You enjoyed reading Horace and Plato, but this–changing dirty thumbsticks to clean using only your magic toothbrush-wand–is something you could see yourself doing for money.
But it doesn’t matter that you aren’t getting paid, because you’re having so much fun. You can work whenever you like–you came in on your birthday once, after finally learning how to walk to the store by yourself. “Happy birthday!” says the owner when you walked in; your aunt told them what day it was, and that you’d probably be in. For lunch, the shipper buys you a large Vanilla Coke, your favorite drink. You’d work there forever if you could.
But you can’t.
After a particularly brutal hurricane season (though not near as bad for you as for the people in New Orleans), you and your mother’s apartment gets sold to condo developers, and you have to move back to where you grew up (house and all) which is too far away for hurricanes. The week before the move, you spend every day at the store. “What?!” says the owner, when you tell him why.
You want to give some money to the store before you go. It’s your penultimate workday, and you’re thinking of giant birds: “How much for Shadow of the Colossus?”
Are you sure you want that?” says the shipper.
“You don’t want to wait?”
“You almost had it paid for,” he says, once your money crosses the counter. “I’d have given it to you tomorrow.”
Store credit. You forgot about that–again.
On your last day of work, everyone–the owner, the shipper, all the high school kids, the owner’s wife–comes in. They all sign a card for you, which you still keep on your computer desk. Though there are other video game stores (including one you’ve learned how to walk to within the last six months) you have no desire to work in them. Because, like the film roles John Waters writes for his Dreamlanders, your jobs were designed for you, even though your employers were probably not fully aware that that’s what they were doing.
Sometimes you think about getting a proper job, one that pays you money or, at the very least, requires you to leave the house, but you don’t want one. You realize that you don’t really want a lot of things that you’ve grown up hearing independent adults must have. Yes, there is a sense of guilt sometimes that you don’t contribute to society, that you enjoy your life as much as you do. (Everyone knows that real adults don’t have so much fun doing ordinary things, and you, poor fool, are SpongeBob Squarepants).
But all this guilt is just society’s poison coursing through your brain; it isn’t you. The things you want–really want, not just think you should want in order to be a real person–are not the things your culture wants for you. Popular culture doesn’t have many models for the kind of person you are. Spongebob is one, and there is another: the dark side of the moon, the foil to someone who is good and pure and arrogant and annoying.
“I am Lord Voldemort,” you think.