This nondescript building, sitting on the corner of Highway 52 and Fishkill Hook Road, has the distinction of being my very first Arcade.
Naturally, it hasn’t been an arcade a very, very long time. I doubt it stayed an arcade past 1983, in fact. In the interim 30 years, it has served a bunch of purposes (I believe it did real estate, and maybe some other lawyerly duties), and now rests in the same space as a used car lot. In the harsh daylight, it’s more of a barn than a building.
It holds a minimal amount of space, is made of the flimsiest of wood, and has very little recommending it.
But in my youth, this was the first time I encountered anything like an arcade. And it was magical.
This dates back to the era when the formula for making money off of arcade machines was a simple one, and skirted every zoning law and building requirement a town might have. Very few small towns were prepared for the idea that a person would have no restaurant functions, no bar, and certainly nothing that required a specific cash register, but instead they would fill a simple room with machines that took quarters and didn’t give anything tangible back. It enabled arcades to place or infest themselves into locations that otherwise had no useful purpose, that were low rent, and blown up bright with signs and glowing inhabitants for everyone to see. Municipalities were caught flat-footed, and the resulting protests and drive to have them removed has left battle-worn scars and legal tangles that persist to this day. People ask why there aren’t more arcades out there, beyond the obvious ‘fad’ trope everyone comes up with. It’s because, by and large, they are illegal or prohibitively expensive to license. Pop-up arcades like this one are the reason that situation exists.
My strongest memories playing here would be at night, and was a function of my parents bringing me by. I’ve had trouble guessing my age, but if it wasn’t in the single digits, it was certainly 10 or 11. In the present this building appears to have an office set up, but at the time that I was there, I doubt it even had the second floor, and if it did, somebody was probably holed up in there. I remember the use of Christmas lights, some amount of neon, and the darkness, always the darkness. This place is summer to me. It’s moths in spotlights in the parking lot. It’s warm breezes and faces coming in and out of shadows. It’s opportunity and it’s the magic way that we can set up a world with just there merest waves of our hands.
Here is why I have been working on a documentary about arcades for the past couple of years: there is nothing unique or special about this building. Really, seriously, nothing special. But shoving 15 or 20 machines into it, stringing up some brightly colored lights, and staying open late hours, turned a summer night into an otherworldly, amazing experience. Just like an amazing recipe can be split apart into the components that made it up, you can do the same with an arcade like this and never get at the heart of what was going on. I want to make a film that captures this.
It was here at this arcade, for example, that I encountered a machine so weird, so unusual, but I remembered it for years afterwards without understanding what machine it was. It was Space Wars, and to my reduced height and innocent eyes, it looked as much of scientific experience as anything I dreamed of. What it was, actually, was a machine just a few steps away from mainframe and old-school hacker culture, pinned down with a coin slot and presented with the most direct of fanfare. You can be sure that when I saw this aesthetic and approach later in home computers and networked technology, I plugged myself right into it.
Besides this arcade, which remains unnamed and unknown to me beyond my fuzzy memories, there was also the Dream Machine in the Dutchess Mall in Fishkill, New York. I stopped by and took a picture of where it used to be. The image is much less inspiring.
The arcade would have been roughly located in front of the boxes in the center of the photo, maybe 100 feet closer than the black fence. Not exactly the best memorial. The arcade and the mall are now a long-gone endeavor replaced with a Home Depot.
On the large building to the left, you can see a scar where the mall entered one of the anchor stores, The large department store was named Jamesway and the deteriorating front door feature still strikes terror.
(I found this Flickr set of photos of the area, where the atrium still hung off this dead department store, and a few other features remained.)
The Dream Machine, unlike my other first arcade, was a chain that extended down into New York from Massachusetts, and had many multiple mall locations. As a result, the space and darkness aesthetic was much better implemented, and the sense of entering an interesting and engaging world was even stronger. That said, the arcade was staffed by relatively indifferent people, compared to the hungry entrepreneurs running the arcade in the barn.
One of the employees of the dream machine wrote an enjoyable reminiscence on this page.
I can’t overstate how much these arcades formed me as a person. It is one thing that have an interest in technology and home computers, and it is another to face what are obviously computers of incalculable power and beauty, with brightly colored sides and glowing screens that promised so much more. The years have allowed all the secrets of the creation of these machines to be picked apart, and even re-created on simple devices of today. But that moment, when you walked into a pantheon of godlike boxes, you knew you were entering something truly special.
If I can capture one small percentage, some misty shadow of the magic of what these things were, then this documentary will definitely be worth it.
One other thought: There are plans under proposal to knock down my first arcade’s building, and replace a number of the structures nearby with a gas station. I’d bemoan this destruction of my childhood memories, but the fact is that the story of Hopewell Junction and Fishkill and the carving out of its heart on the altar of “progress” is neither a unique one or a useful one when talking about the events of decades ago. But rest assured, there have been layers upon layers of free-wheeling development of the area, ensuring that within my lifetime, I’ll barely recognize a tree, much less a structure. Mabuhay.