With its rows of brightly-painted townhouses, rolling hills, and fog churning in every evening, San Francisco reminded me of a larger, exaggerated version of St. John’s. Like downtown St. John’s, it rewards pedestrians with a lively panorama of colourful architecture and charming neighborhoods. We spent four full days wandering the city, traversing just about every neighbourhood described in our travel guide. Avoiding the touristy areas at first, we eventually ended up among the gift shops and animated crowds of Fisherman’s Wharf, where we were lucky enough to stumble across the Musée Mécanique.
The Musée’s narrow rows of quaint wooden structures were almost a miniature version of San Francisco’s streets, and promised as much: numerous brightly-painted signs offered the thrill of racing simulations, baseball games, and other challenges in exchange for a coin or two. Plunking a quarter through a slot might cause an entire matchstick circus to spring to life, or an elaborate mechanical orchestra to launch into a tune. Other cabinets beckoned with darker fare, including several mechanical puppet shows dourly reenacting executions, and plenty of peepshows featuring hand-tinted photographs of scantily-clad models. A few machines offered the city itself: foggy vignettes of a much younger San Francisco, or worn stereograms of impossible devastation from historic quakes.
Both mechanical and electronic games had their place at the Musée, with video game classics like Pong and Pole Position adjacent to their penny arcade ancestors. In one corner a large cabinet with a steering mechanism allowed the player to wrench a tin car back and forth across a painted cloth road that scrolled rapidly, creating a twisting racetrack. I loved the tactile nature of the penny arcade machines; the tarnished buttons and quaint hand-painted signs, the creak, clack and clunk of convoluted wooden mechanisms, the hand-cranked peepshows. Even the dust covering the circus puppets made them seem more real. It is easy to imagine the maintenance required to keep such antiquated equipment in working condition, and the machines felt frail but cared-for; even Pong’s slowly wavering screen and primitive paddle dial lent the game an elderly tenderness. Such a sumptuous entertainment; compared to the full-course feast offered by Musée Mécanique, playing Tiny Wings on my iPod feels like swallowing a pill.
The Musée itself seemed strangely automated; though the aisles were crowded with visitors, I didn’t notice anyone who looked like an employee. Admission was free, though the coin-operated machines happily accepted cash. Appropriately enough, the “gift shop” was a vending machine near the entrance, dispensing booklets, DVDs, and other souvenirs.
My first video game system was an Atari 2600, with its eclectic assortment of controllers: two plastic joysticks, a pair of Pong paddles, a steering wheel, and a square pad with a buttons and paper overlays for each game. One of the paddle controllers snapped in two during a particularly epic game of Space Invaders, and my dad fixed it with an old thermostat dial, forever associating in my mind childhood video games with the phrase “comfort zone”.