It’s amazing how a place could be the source of so many memories, especially when that place is a mall. A dead mall.
By the time I had moved away from Fishkill, NY in the late 1980s, the Dutchess Mall was already “The Dead Mall”; the superior and awesome power of the South Hills Mall of nearby Poughkeepsie, which was many times bigger and had started to suck other smaller plazas into itself, ensured that it would never again get the critical mass it needed to survive. Once, however, it thrived handily.
Conveniently located by Interstate 84, Dutchess was a short car ride both from my original home in Hopewell Junction and from the condo complex in East Fishkill we moved to after the divorce. I had to beg for a ride from my mom to go there, and it was not a case of it being a place I could go hang out at via a short walk or skateboard ride; to go there was an event. To me, it was the Biggest Thing Ever, both in terms of size and grandeur.
It had two anchor stores: a Macy’s (later Jamesway) on one side and a Service Merchandise on the other. In between was probably something like 25 stores, ranging from such steadfast mall fixtures as a Radio Shack, Spencer Gifts, to a 4-screen movie theatre tucked in the back. It was where I got my taste for a drink called an “Orange Julius”, which was sold at the mall from an odd little space, and which had a logo of a devil sitting on an orange which is long since gone from that franchise. Most importantly, The Dutchess Mall had an arcade. My arcade, the one from which I form probably 70-80 percent of what I visualize a “videogame arcade” was and should always be. It’s where I first saw Frogger, Zaxxon, Atari Football, Hercules, Donkey Kong, Fire Truck, Xenon… probably a dozen others that I encountered, during that true golden age of video games when it felt like every game was completely new, nothing was cliche’, magic factories in faraway lands producing these incredible boxes of fun waiting for my quarters and my time…
As an aside, It is quite amazing that I can sit and really see, with sparkling clarity, the first time I encountered many of the classics of video games. The place in Poughkeepsie I was standing at when I saw Food Fight. The Ground Round restaurant I stumbled around in and found Ms. Pac-Man. The Nathan’s hot dogs in Yonkers New York that was probably the largest arcade I ever set foot in, where I saw test versions of games that disappeared forever, and others that ultimately went everywhere like Q*Bert and Crystal Castles. I am there, right now, as I speak of them, a crazy little kid with really big messed hair and ill-fitting clothes, loving these games.
The other huge draw for me was the Service Merchandise, which was located on the opposite end of Dutchess from the arcade. Service Merchandise was one crappy enterprise, obvious to me even at that young age. But one thing it did have was home computers for sale. Lots of them. The computers were in a sort of electronics-and-complicated-crap section of the store, near the mall entrance but away from the jewelry and accessories sections, which I think is where they made most of their money.
This was more than a store. This was my lab. My mother could not afford a home computer in that period, and it would be 1981 before I had an IBM PC dependably at my father’s house. So from 1979 to 1983, Dutchess was how I experimented with all the other brands of home computer that were out there. It’s where I saw the Atari 400, that odd membrane-keyboard laden alien workpiece, and the laughable but fascinating Timex Sinclair. It’s where I saw a TI 99/4a play the cockroach game, where I could leaf through all the different software for sale for these brands, and where I could dream of owning them all. The marketing was designed to attract forward-thinking families and businesses. I was, whether they planned this to be the case or not, absolutely hypnotized and fascinated with it. When the Atari’s packaging made promises, I believed those promises. When the signs above the TI told you it was capable of so much power, I crackled with that implied power. I was indoctrinated into the dream, utterly and completely, and I’ve not woken from that dream yet. When I do, that’s how I’ll know I’m dead.
Obviously, all of this wraps into the work I’ve done as a nostalgia and history person, scrambling around and trying to capture as much of this history before it disappears under our feet, yesterday’s news, last decade’s thoughts.
The Dutchess Mall is slowly disappearing now, with the center of it flattened and replaced with a Home Depot. The portion of the mall that had the arcade is now gone, ripped down and turned into blacktop again.
What got me thinking about this is that there’s a new documentary that’s come out called Fish Kill Flea, which takes place at the husk of the Dutchess Mall, where until recently, there was a flea market that ran inside the old Service Merchandise. I have no doubt this film has it’s own merits and pitfalls, but I know that I will be the first in line to buy a copy of it on DVD; just to see people walking around the room that held my original home computer dreams makes it an instant win. The name of the documentary plays off the town name (Fishkill) which means “River of Fish”. (Kill is dutch for River). I’m sure it’s weird for people to see that name; for me, it’s coming home again.
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