Crispy Gamer

The Jones Report: A Holiday Story to Warm Your Damn Heart

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After graduating from college, I moved back in with my parents and got a bartending job at a rundown lakeside resort called Pfohl's Beach House on the Eastern shore of Oneida Lake in Upstate New York.

Pfohl's was a miserable operation in the summer months with it's faux Reggae theme parties and "2-4-1 shooters" vibe. But in the winter, with snow drifts so monstrous they threatened to consume the building and the nearby lake frozen solid, it was beyond depressing.

I remember getting into an argument one night with this young couple who'd brought their baby into the bar in his carseat, set the carseat on top of the bar, then asked me to set them up with a bucket of O.V. Splits. I refused. They got hot around the collar and finally left.

I hated bartending.

The place was managed by a gaunt man named Bob. Bob was in the bar every night from 4 p.m. until 2 a.m., hawking over me. The only nights Bob wasn't there were the nights when he went to have his hair permed. On those nights, I had the place to myself.

I was saving money at the time to move to Chicago in January, to start my real life. (Note: January is not a good month to move to Chicago, as I would soon learn._ I combed the Want Ads in search of a second job. That's when I found the ad for the mall Santa Claus.

I got hired at the Penn Can mall. A newer, fancier mall WITH A WORKING CAROUSEL had opened a few miles away, so everyone went to that mall. No one went to Penn Can mall. It was on its last legs. The mall's fountains were dry. Lights were burned out. Some of the shops in the malls' nether regions had been vandalized.

Between Thanksgiving and New Year's I reported to the mall dutifully each morning at 9:30 a.m. for my shift. I dressed, then was escorted out to my little wooden house, where I sat reading videogame magazines all day.

Occasionally a child would come by, and he might cry or pull my beard, or ask me for a Fisher Price this or that. "OK, sure, just BE GOOD," I'd say. That's when the parents would snap a picture of me and the child together, capturing us in this moment for all of eternity. It makes me feel strange to think that there are literally hundreds of photographs in people's homes at this very second of me as Santa and strange children.

At the end of the work day, around 4 p.m., I'd leave my hut, then pass the second shift Santa in the hallway. We'd always say hello to one another, but since he was always dressed and I was always dressed, we never knew what the other actually looked like.

After work, sweaty and miserable, I'd drive my Toyota to the nearby Toys R Us and look at videogames. The Sega Game Gear was big that year. They were retailing for some ridiculous amount of money; $150 or something in that range. I was earning money--for chrissakes, I was working two jobs!--so I figured I deserved one. I bought one, along with a tepid version of Madden, then felt terribly guilty about the purchase. Wasn't I supposed to be saving my money for Chicago? Wasn't I supposed to be growing up and leaving games behind altogether? Goddamn it, why am I not a more serious person?

The Game Gear ate through AA batteries--three at a pop, I believe--like I go through popcorn at the movies. The GG's screen was backlit, which seemed like a damn miracle at the time. I bought a few more games for it--I couldn't help myself--and suffered untold amounts of guilt--gaming guilt; consumer guilt--each and every time.

Each morning I'd wake up early in my old bed in my parents house, just to get in a little Game Gear action before I had to drive to the mall and change into my Santa Claus outfit. I remember those morning so vividly. I could smell the breakfast my parents were cooking downstairs. Our house was heated with a woodstove, so I stayed under the blankets for warmth.

I was at one of those in-between places in my life--not here, not there--(and this certainly wasn't the last of the in-between places for me) and as usual, gaming was a significant part of it.

I was terrified of what came next. I didn't know what would happen to me in Chicago, but I was pretty sure some of it, maybe all of it, would be terrible. Those morning represent some of the happiest gaming moments of my life. In some ways, I wish I was still in that bed, in that house (which is long sold now), under those blankets, with snow falling outside my bedroom window, feeling safe and warm, with a Game Gear in my hands.

Of course, if I'd never gotten out of the bed, there's no chance in hell I'd be writing this story right now.

So I guess it's a good thing that I got up.

I guess.