Friday, January 22, 2010
Games A La Mode, Part One
Spring 1973. Age 16.
“Savoy Truffle” The Beatles
“Pinball Wizard” The Who
The best way to make a Lime Freeze is to put two generous scoops of Lime Sherbet in a blender, add a teaspoon of corn syrup, and pour in a bottle of lemon lime soda (something like Sprite or Seven Up, whatever is available in your neighborhood). Blend it all together and then pour into a tall glass. Add a straw or a spoon, whichever you prefer.
The secret was the lemon-lime soda. Most places that served Lime Freezes used soda water. I knew this because I worked for a Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream store. We used soda water for the customers, but when we, the Baskin-Robbins employees, made a Lime Freeze for ourselves, we used Sprite.
Our store didn’t sell soft drinks. Next door was a gas station with a soft drink machine that sold bottled sodas. The bottles were lined up vertically. Each bottle was tilted downward at a forty-five degree angle, their necks peeking out through metal collars that kept them from falling out of the machine. Putting coins in the machine triggered something in the bottle’s collar so the customer could then pull out their desired soft drink.
I worked at night when the gas station was closed. My fellow night shift Baskin-Robbins employees was a long-haired redneck named Sam. He showed me how to get a free soda from the machine. We walked over to the gas station with a bottle opener and a large paper cup. Sam popped the cap off a Sprite and the forty-five degree angle tilted the bottle enough to pour its contents into the large paper cup.
Baskin-Robbins was my first job and already I was learning petty larceny. In the beginning, I liked working for Baskin-Robbins. I could eat all the ice cream I wanted and my fellow employees were always teaching me things like how to steal from soda machines. But then, the owner started harassing me about the length of my hair. He wanted me to cut it buzz-cut short and I kept inventing excuses for why I hadn’t been to the barber. The joy of free ice cream only lasted a few weeks. Digging the scooper into hard frozen tubs and constantly washing sticky multi-colored patches off my arms made me sick of the stuff. Even the smell of ice cream made me queasy.
I went to Eastgate Mall on a Saturday with my best friend Jesse to check out a new store he’d heard about called “Games a la Mode.” In the middle of the store was an ice cream stand with a wraparound counter and swivel counter seats. Pinball machines, foosball tables, air hockey tables, and assorted arcade games like Pong, Asteroids, and Gun Fight surrounded the ice cream stand.
I was beating the snot out of Jesse at air hockey when I noticed that most of the customers were rednecks I recognized from school. It was okay to call them rednecks because they identified themselves as such. They tended to come from lower income homes. They didn’t dress or wear their hair any differently from me. They were just very vocal about their hatred of anybody who wasn’t white and Christian.
Jesse wanted ice cream, so we grabbed a couple of empty seats at the counter. The girl who waited on us was a cute blond with a vacant stare. She wore the standard soda jerk uniform; an ice cream stained apron and a paper cap. I had one just like it at home, but with a different logo.
“I want a lime freeze,” I told little Miss Soda Jerk. “But before you do, tell me how you make it.”
“Two scoops of Lime Sherbet in a blender, then add some soda water, blend it together, and pour it into a cup” she explained. “Why? Is that not the right way?”
“It is if you want a boring Lime Freeze,” I said. “Would you be willing to make it my way? I promise, it won’t cost Games a la Mode any extra.”
Little Miss Soda Jerk was intrigued. Making the lime freeze became a game. I led her step by step, adding the corn syrup to the lime sherbet and then finally, the secret ingredient; Sprite instead of soda water. When my lime freeze was ready, she asked if she could try it.
“Of course,” I said.
Little Miss Soda Jerk took a ladylike sip and said, “This is the best lime freeze I’ve ever tasted.”
I was enjoying my lime freeze when I noticed that a man sitting at the end of the counter was watching me. He had short red hair and looked to be in his early thirties. He wore a short-sleeved dress shirt, slacks and a clip-on tie. The way he was staring at me made me think maybe he wanted to taste my lime freeze too. That was too bad. He would have to get his own.
“Excuse me,” he said, “where did you learn to make a lime freeze like that?”
“It’s no big mystery,” I said, “I work at a Baskin-Robbins.”
He came over and sat down next to me.
“My name’s Earl,” he said, “I’m the manager of this store. What’s your name, son?”
“Tell me something, Mickey.
How much does Baskin-Robbins pay you an hour?”
I told him exactly how much I was making. I didn’t think to exaggerate the amount, because I didn’t realize I was negotiating for a new job.
“I’ll give you a dollar and an half more an hour to come work for me,” Earl said. Two weeks later, I was working at Games a la Mode.
As I worked there, I got to know Earl. He was a great guy. He was a devout Baptist and his kindness toward the rednecks was not part of some business plan, he really wanted to know the people who hung out in his store. Earl taught the redneck’s ringleader how to play chess. Earl organized Sunday afternoon football games for the rednecks. He invited me to join them and play. The rednecks didn’t like me being there until they found out that I was brutal on defense. When I tackled somebody, they ate dirt.
Earl’s wife, Nancy, was a sensible woman with short blonde hair and freckles. She was the classic girl-next-door. Earl had a set of business cards printed up that read: “FREE. One Pair of Space Hot Pants to the Girl with the Ass that’s Out of This World.” He gave one card to Nancy and tossed the rest into the trash.
Games a la Mode was a retail experiment. The theory was that kids love ice cream and kids love arcade games. If you put the two together, twice as many kids will show up.
Games a la Mode was the brainchild of Bresler’s 33; Baskin-Robbins’ main ice cream competitor. While Baskin-Robbins offered 31 flavors, one for every day of the month, Bresler’s had the courage to go that extra mile by adding two additional flavors.
Games a la Mode attracted plenty of kids. They just weren’t the kids Bresler’s hoped it would attract. The rednecks adopted Games a la Mode as their unofficial hangout. They ruined the place. They hung around for hours without buying anything. They came in drunk and had loud drunken arguments. They sold pot behind the pinball machines. I can remember at least two occasions when I was working a night shift and about fifteen cops rushed in, shut the place down, and busted the rednecks for drugs.
Earl dealt with the rednecks by trying to be friends with them. The rednecks, in turn, took every advantage of Earl they could. The rednecks didn’t abuse Earl deliberately; guile was just a way of life to them.
One day, a redneck guy walked in with his arm around his redneck girlfriend’s shoulder. They wore matching flannel shirts, and while her worn jeans were ripped off at the thigh to make them into shorts, his pair had holes worn out at the knees. The redneck guy led his redneck girlfriend over to where Earl was sitting by the ice cream counter.
“Hey, Earl,” said redneck guy, “Cindy here needs a job.”
Cindy couldn’t seem to get her mouth to close all the way. She stared at Earl like a frightened kitten.
“Sure,” said Earl, “when can you start, Cindy?”
“She can start today if you want her to,” said redneck guy.
“That’s all right. Monday will be fine.”
Cindy left with a new job without having to say a single word. I worked a shift with her the next week. She ignored customers and spent most of her time doing her nails. The only time she showed any signs of life was when one of the redneck guys would tell her to get them something.
“Cindy, make me an ice cream cone,” they said. Or, “Cindy, refill my soda.”
Cindy would do as they asked and never requested payment. As time went on, I discovered that, except for myself, all the employees were redneck girlfriends who did no work and gave free stuff to their redneck boyfriends.
My righteous indignation would not tolerate such bullshit. I explained to Earl what was going on behind his back and suggested he fire the redneck girlfriends and hire some real employees. Much to my surprise, Earl took my advice and the next day, he fired all the redneck girlfriends. I knew I had impressed Earl by showing him all the stuff I had learned at Baskin-Robbins, like wrapping cones during slow periods and the best way to prepare a banana split. I didn’t realize I had impressed him enough to take my advice.
Games a la Mode was left with three employees: Earl, his assistant manager, and me. Between the three of us, we had to cover every shift, seven days a week. This went on for weeks. I made a lot of money, but I never had time to count it.
To be continued.