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New Pair of Shoes

10/30/07 5:42PM By Philip Baruth
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(HOST) Commentator Philip Baruth’s daughter loves pizza arcades, but over the last five years Philip has seen quite a few of them go through a slow transformation - and not for the better.

(BARUTH) Back when my daughter was two, my wife and I used to stop at pizza joints, lots of pizza joints. Pizza joints are the only places that will take you in when you have a two-year-old, really, the only ones who will tolerate the screaming and the desecration of the sugar packets.

On one of these early outings, as Annika and Gwendolyn toured the perimeter, they stumbled onto something ground-breaking: a full-scale children’s play area, with a huge play structure, and almost every sort of kid’s arcade game you could imagine - Skee-ball, basket-ball, Whack-a-Mole, everything. And all of the games dispensed red tickets, one or two, and you could cash your red tickets in for candy and badly made toys.

Gwendolyn was enchanted - this arcade immediately became her favorite place in the world. And pretty soon our friends turned us on to others almost indistinguishable from it. Some places were bigger, or louder - and we tried them all - but none of them ever took the place of that first arcade in my daughter’s heart.

As she grew, Gwendolyn’s taste in games changed. Whack-a-Mole was out, and she began to favor a game that seemed fairly boring to me: you drop a token in the slot, and the token lands on a revolving wooden circle - if it lands on the green area that says "bonus," you win. Now, these green areas are small, and so Gwendolyn rarely won this new game, but when she did, she won really big: a bonus sometimes meant 100 or even 200 tickets at a pop. And the sight of a big winner standing by a machine as 200 crimson tickets spooled out onto the gum-stained carpet was more than my 6-year-old could stand.

Within a year or two, I noticed that the owners of several of our local arcades had replaced lots of older machines with these new games that operated on the same basic principles: passive games involving random chance and occasional big ticket pay-offs. That’s when it hit me: our favorite arcades had slowly transformed into gambling casinos, with different sorts of slot machines, but casinos all the same.

Gwendolyn went through her money much more quickly now, because there was no real game being played, not like Skee-ball. What passed for the game was over in as little time as it took the token to drop. When she’d gone through her last token, she’d come back to me with the anxious, worried look that marks big losers in the casinos.

The candy and toys the tickets buy now seem somehow beside the point as well. Gwendolyn still cashes in, but it’s clear that it’s the jackpot rush she really craves.

I’ve tried to phase out the visits to the arcades, but you don’t kick a habit that easily. And besides, I’m never going to be able to keep her away from this sort of thing altogether, not in twenty-first century America. After all, nearly 23 million dollars of Vermont’s general education fund came from lottery tickets in 2006. Part of that money finds its way into Gwendolyn’s school, every year. We’re all hooked, in that sense.

Still, it makes pizza arcade expeditions stranger than ever, these days. Because I feel all the time as though there’s something bold and interventive that I should be doing. But what do you do when baby needs a new pair of shoes - and she insists on gambling for them herself?

Philip Baruth is a novelist who lives in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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