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Scoring Video Games at the Flea Market

Life lessons in economics and happiness, shaped by scoping out discounted games from the flea market.

Above image courtesy of the Aquaduck Flea Market, formerly the Aquaduct Flea Market.

Though it may seem silly, I find the ease with which I can buy video games to be a useful metric of my success as an adult. The frictionless access to digital storefronts and the spending money to use on them has not always been available to me.

Before I had a career; before much of my schooling, before my independence—both personal and financial from my parents—I had to make it through the patience-testing, dream-deferring purgatory of my childhood. And if you were to boil down all those frustrations, all those pipe dreams and one-dimensional fantasies, you would find no better microcosm than my Saturdays spent at the flea market.

When my brother and I were younger, a considerable chunk of our Saturdays was spent making the trip down from the Bronx to the Aqueduct Flea Market in Queens with our mother, who had a stall selling the sample dresses she'd buy in bulk from department stores around the city. For our part, my brother and I would help carry then assemble metal pipes and heavy tarp into the makeshift canopy under which she worked.

The gleaming carrot responsible for rousing us from our Saturday morning stupor was the prospect of exploring the limitless expanse of weird and delightful misfits and junk vendors that composed the market. For my brother and I, the most sought after destination of all was the used video game vendor; a short man with a plain expression who stood behind colorful, densely packed rows of games, and who infrequently appeared at various spots around the market like some traveling merchant dragging a trunk full of shrink-wrapped splendor.

Above: flea market video from YouTube user Mike Mania.

This vendor was the terminus of a long loop which we'd feverishly cycle throughout the day. First, we would find a game we wanted—studying all sides of its jewel-case—then we'd run back and beg our beleaguered guardian for the necessary funds. Invariably, we would be told to wait. If it was a tough week for our mother, like if too many of her customers thumbed through her merchandise but left empty-handed, or if the deadline for paying the lease on her lot-space was near, we might have to wait the interminable stretch of a week, perhaps longer. But if she was having a good day, if her stock was hot, her inventory blown through like it was this season's line instead of several years past, our salvation would arrive at the end of the work day.

Yet even this wasn't the only obstacle in our way. The end of the day at the flea market wasn't an exact measure. Sure, the gates would shut after sun-down, but the vendors might leave earlier; if they weren't terribly busy, for example, or if they wanted to beat traffic. So the string dangling the carrot was a fragile one and prone to snap at any moment. To us this was deeply unfair. After all, we might sprint back to the video game vendor's former location only to find a vacant lot strewn with the day's trash, our pent-up anticipation settling like lead on our limbs.

In order to avoid this outcome, my brother and I had a number of methods for reconnaissance. If one of us had to watch the clothing while our mother went off on an errand, the other would take the trip alone. Sometimes we'd be allowed a lemonade or a greasy gyro from the food trucks, and would make sure that our route back led us past the game stall. This was all to ensure no one had beaten us to a particular game we had set our sights on. 

As the day wore on, our range of exploration narrowed and our focus became ever more vigilant.

As the day wore on, our range of exploration narrowed and our focus became ever more vigilant. We had seen the plastic frog swimming frantically in its tub, the knock-off Simpsons attire, smelled the incense, and touched the African idols. The bounty of such a market—located at the nexus of every ethnic group and enclave that called New York home—meant nearly endless distraction for a couple of boys who rarely ventured outside their own neighborhood. But being those boys, the joys contained within a brand new game overshadowed everything else.

The final test of our patience would be on those days when our exhausted mother would demand that we help her take down her stall before she'd give us the money to buy the game. Naturally, she wouldn't take her pipes down until the day was near finished, which would endanger our carefully laid plans. Not to mention, this was a task that required the both of us, so we couldn't even send one of us off to scout. In our feverish imaginations, we saw that fickle video game vendor shrugging his shoulders, gazing around and saying, "I guess no one wants to buy my video games today, better pack it up."

"No!" We'd scream, internally, while unscrewing pipes from their fittings and folding tarp. If only he could sense us, get an impression of our desperate yearning from across an ocean of dismantled tables and boxes half-filled with shower curtain rods and moth-eaten books.

If we were lucky, he'd heed our silent call. Or, alternatively, if our mother was unlucky with sales and decided to close shop early, we'd have time to spare and our vendor would still be open. Financial concern found no purchase within the tiny spheres of our comprehension.

We couldn't conceive of why my mother—who had her hands full enough with taking care of two kids while my dad worked late nights—would even need to work at a flea market. As children we could only go where we were led and build structure out of the spaces where we wound up. The fantasy, formed around the consumerist obsessions of two boys raised watching Saturday morning television, demanded a goal, a destination, a way to feel like we hadn't just spent a precious Saturday staring listlessly into space while tucked between the folds of discount dresses.

As children we could only go where we were led and build structure out of the spaces where we wound up.

With the car loaded, our mother would play the final joke on our spiraling folie à deux. Our mother was born in Tunisia, a small country in North Africa famous for its bustling souks, so she was a born haggler. We, being criminally soft American children, had to be taught the ways of negotiation and so she'd only give us a portion of the listed price for the game we had chosen. We'd have to haggle for it, and our success rate at haggling was not a point of pride in the family.

The essentially zero-sum strategy she taught us was to present a crisp 5 dollar bill for that coveted 10 dollar game and claim it was all that we had. If denied still, we were to walk away, engaging in a game of chicken—matching their desperation against ours. But if everything thus far hasn't already made a convincing case, we were usually the more desperate ones.

Suffice it to say, nine times out of 10, it was our mother who had to come over, impatient with our ineptitude, and badger the vendor into relenting as the sun sank below the trees and the market tucked itself into trucks and vans. My inability to haggle has been a constant source of shame, if jokingly leveled, that I have yet to live down. My mother's family grew up in the desert, among camels and sheep. Their skin is hardened and strong, impenetrable enough for anything; impenetrable enough so that mine would never have to be.

The moment of joy came during our ride home, driving down Grand Central under the wispy trails of jetliners landing at LaGuardia. First, we'd rip apart the cardboard and slide the cartridge from its stiff plastic casing to get a better look at the label art. Later on, we'd tear off the reapplied shrink wrap and pop open the jewel case, feeling the satisfying click as the disc separated from its fastener. We'd slide out hefty manuals with backstories, weapon and character descriptions, and control layouts.

Later, we'd slide out two-page pamphlets with health and safety warnings and little else. But our excitement was not diminished. In our hands, my brother and I had a source of happiness that bled pure and true through our imaginations. The game held promise of escape, of excitement, of worlds beyond the walls of our apartment.

I can't forget the roiling desire to escape, to be granted passage elsewhere, anywhere.

Today, I am lucky to have the economic freedom to buy the games I want, and games themselves have become detached from the demands of physical procurement. Gone are the flesh and blood vendors. 

The magic has all disappeared behind firewalls and digital storefronts. Still, I remain shaped by my youthful Saturdays spent at the flea markets where my mother worked. I can't forget the roiling desire to escape, to be granted passage elsewhere, anywhere. The same energy that drove us to hatch foolhardy plans, to count the hours, and to obsess over potential futures drives me now to challenge myself creatively and continue finding new goals in life to latch on to.

Anything, it would seem, to avoid the fate of the bored child, sitting in the back of his mother's station wagon draining the car battery, listening to Hot 97 as the clouds drifted slowly overhead.