In the halcyon days of the 1990’s, there wasn’t a better place to grow up than in Pasadena. My memories of those hallmark years of pre-teen ignorance and hot-piss angst play out like an urban callback to Frontierland: all the threat and possibility of a legitimate cityscape, though too removed from anything resembling real civilization to be truly dangerous. Colorado Boulevard was where we laid scars into the asphalt with our first cars, where we would get lost in the dusty and dusky aisles of Cliff’s Books, and—whenever one of our score would decide that it was time to spread their raven-feathered wings and take flight into the world beyond the San Fernando mountains—it was inevitably where the last nights of reverie took place.
The main drag bears little resemblance to the charming eyesore that sliced through the city’s guts back some twenty-odd years ago. In its sodium-lit heyday, the bones of Route 66 was little more than a scattering of porn theaters and dime-rate motels; hookers lingered around the light cast by hollowed-out storefronts, and only the cholos and townies would take to the night for cruising and bragging rights. I remember slouching low in the passenger seat of my pops’ Cadillac, shallow breath fogging up the cool glass of the windows as we would idle through their numbers, taking in the shadowy figures and the stripped-down neon as it all rolled past. My dad was (and is) a free-range son of a bitch, and was completely undeterred by the dirty threat of taking the long way home on most nights wending the entire family through the worst stretches of the boulevard with a cocky elbow slung out over his open window… Exene strapped into her baby seat and my mom breaking in with the occasional comments on the things she’d see.
There’s too many stories to squeeze into a simple straight-shot of orgiastic remembrance, when it comes down to coming up in Pasadena. Instead, the best that I can manage is to rip it up into small, yellowed strips and try to share it in a kind of due process… starting with a word on the arcade culture of the early 1990’s.
This is one of those things that you simply can’t explain to anybody who wasn’t there, shoulder-to-shoulder with the era. The idea of a video arcade is something so firmly entrenched in the gung-ho, gut-it-out mentality of being young and shit-dumb that it doesn’t compute with the generations that came after it. The inherent con of forcing kids to pound their allowances into glorified games of chance* is only laid bare in the hindsight of a youth movement which has been raised on the entitlement of consoles… and trying to explain the Christmas-morning feeling of walking through the door of your local gaming dive and seeing a fresh new Street Fighter 2: Hyper Edition cabinet has absolutely zero currency, even in nostalgic terms.
Once upon a time, bragging that you knocked down a round of Turtles in Time with your three best friends—and only spent twelve dollars in doing so—was the closest our lost-cause era came to sharing war stories. These days, it just gets you funny-ass looks and the occasional giggle.
But that’s neither here nor there, really. Between the lines and grooves of bloggeral exists the ability to spout off poetically about shit that has absolutely no worth in the real world; and as such, I’m compelled to throw out a few footnotes to those gaming dens of the Rose City yesteryear: the source of endless daytrips, lost allowances and—for many of us—the closest thing that we had to a church life.
The Western Arcade
1500 Block – Colorado Boulevard
The so-called “Arcade Alley” consisted of about three linear miles of raw asphalt, wherein the majority of Pasadena’s gamer havens were located. The first—and cleanest—faced by any eastbound driver was the Western Arcade, located smack-ass across the street from Pasadena City College. My memories of the Western are fairly tactile: the fact that its crowd consisted of the wash-off from the college meant that it was mostly filled with older kids and their girlfriends, all bathed in the shallow blue overhead lights that made the place visible from two blocks in either direction. The Western was a token-op joint, but did have the distinction of offering customers five plays per dollar… a nearly unfathomable selling point for any thrifty pre-teen.
My pops and I would usually wind up at the Western after eating at Cameron’s Seafood restaurant, or the nearby Yoshinoya (Then a relatively novel two-shop operation which had yet to blow up into a west coast institution). It didn’t have much in the way of games—as a reference, the place only took up the lower half of the building pictured above, forming a kind of “horseshoe” that incorporated the now-separated storefronts—but they did have this bizarre lounge upstairs. It wasn’t a bar or a coffee shop, but it had a series of couches and tables that were always packed with the aforementioned college kids; I only ventured up there once or twice, but to this day, I have no goddamned clue as to what the deal was. I’d vote for the opium den franchising, but the revenue from that would have probably led to the Western surviving for a bit longer… as even its primo location led to its demise in 1988, the first of the “big three” to bite the bullet.
The Star Arcade
2723 East Colorado Boulevard
Alright, two things about this fucking place:
Adin: I do not recall a single instance wherein I went to the Star after dark. Seriously. For the better part of the late 80’s (and the entirety of the 1990’s), this section of East Colorado was a cultural toxic waste outflow; the one place where the hookers and smack-jabbers still held sway, all set up across the street from the Pussycat Theater**. During the daylight hours, the barren strip-mall charms of the surroundings kept things at a relatively slow burn… but any time after dusk? Fuck it.
I’m inclined to believe that my pops’ fascination with the Star was due to the fact that you could play their sit-down cockpit version of Road Blasters for a quarter (Everywhere else would go for the fifty-cent gouge), and the appeal of the dump being so tiny that our trips there seemed to always be of the short and sweet variety.
Dva: Similarly, I do not remember ever seeing a single employee in that place. The other arcades all had their machine-minders and change jockeys, but the Star resigned itself to two coin dispensers, and… not a hell of a lot else…. which is slightly ironic, considering that the neighborhood probably should have justified the hiring of at least two on-duty bullnecks at the door, strapped with batons and Kevlar-plated tactical vests and willing to beat six kinds of shit out of anybody who tried to kick the machines or ask for a refund.
Trie: (Bonus Round) A slightly amusing addendum to the above, by the by: when the Star finally did close its doors—which occurred, ironically, after the area began a renaissance of sorts, and actually attracted some decent business and foot traffic—the storefront wound up housing something called “The Pasadena Blind Company.”
The “business” which occupied said storefront literally consisted of double-layered Venetian blinds (always pulled), an industrial-quality layer of tinting on the front door, and a shoddy printout of “Store Hours” which never seemed to actually be in any kind of effect. The place was there for five or six years, though I never saw a single person enter or leave; as such, the only logical conclusion as to what in the fuck was going on in there probably looks a little bit like this…
And on that note… there’s still one House of Coin-Op Worship to cover, but it practically demands its own, separate post. To be continued, present-like.