As someone who doesn't do well with change, yet somehow constantly initiates it, I've been having a hard time with my move to San Francisco. On a recent visit home to D.C., people asked me how I liked living here. Everyone expected me to talk about how awesome it is, and were visibly surprised to hear me say I miss Washington. But I do miss it. I miss warm summer nights. I miss thunderstorms. I miss going out on U Street and Adams Morgan. I even miss the DelMarVa beaches, with their middling scenery, humidity and cheesy amenities.
Since getting here six months ago, I've made several shoreline visits: Baker Beach, San Gregorio, Ocean Beach, Stinson, Limantour, Half Moon Bay. All are indisputably beautiful, in their own way. Many tend to be windswept and sparsely attended; only one of the above (Stinson) has a snack stand and enough population density that you can smell the suntan lotion in the air.
It is breathtaking and amazing to stand on all of these beaches, but I was missing a certain kind of experience. "Is there a beach that's warm, full of people and cheesy? Like, with a boardwalk? Does that exist here?" I asked. "Sure," I was told. "Santa Cruz." We set out on Saturday, and were there within 90 minutes.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, first things first, is not a boardwalk. It is a cement-based amusement park that, unforgivably, serves only Pepsi products. It was not the string of stores and treats that I grew up on at Rehoboth Beach. On the other hand, it was a filming location for The Lost Boys, and it's a bunch of junk food and rides and video games next to a beach, which is almost never bad.
Going to the boardwalk is a sacred summer ritual for me, not least because it is a time to reconnect with the arcade. Many hours of my childhood were happily spent either in front of a Namco machine or our Nintendo console at home, which is why I have the knowledge base required to find videos like this one highly amusing, but couldn't tell you where Turkey is on a map.
Thankfully, Santa Cruz had its share of arcades; and thankfully, the sparse lighting in arcades makes it harder to recognize that the person hunched over Galaga while frantically cursing and banging the "fire" button, or entering her initials into the QBert player hall of fame, is a 35-year-old woman. I can spend hours in those places, and it's worse now that I have discovered a new kind of game.
There were at least three different types of drum simulation machines at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, something I'd never seen before. One of them, DrumMania, is from the makers of Dance Dance Revolution and has the same format: the screen dictates your moves as the song plays, and evaluates how well you manage to execute them (in this case by striking drum pads rather than stepping on a platform). I liked this game because at the right setting, it mimicked my real-life drum lessons, where I only play one or two elements at a time and get praised for my progress.
Another arcade featured MTV's Drumscape, a simulator that simply allows you to play along with the hit of your choice until the time runs out. It has more electronic pads and sounds realer. As I was contemplating whether or not to try it, some kid who looked to be about 9 years old sat down -- with his own sticks, not the ones attached to the machine. It was on.
He played along to Queen's "Under Pressure." My jaw dropped, and a crowd gathered behind him as his little arms flicked this way and that, banging out fills and flying from pad to pad as if he had come out of the womb percussing. People applauded when he was finished. He walked away as nonchalantly as if he had just finished peeling an orange.
It wasn't until another kid sat down (one who sucked) that I could work up the courage to try the machine. I waited the amateur kid out. Then I waited for the arcade staff to fix the bass pedal when it broke. My companion was getting restless, having played all the skee ball he could play. "I just want to get one turn on this," I said, feeling embarrassingly needy and serious about it.
Finally, I got my turn. I had already decided I would play along with "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns n' Roses, since I couldn't find any Prince. I started spinning through the song choices, using the drum pad. Where was GnR? A time counter told me I had 30 seconds left to make my choice, as I continued to scroll through songs that I didn't know well enough to play. "I can't find Guns n' Roses!" I exclaimed, and tried to go back to the original menu. Instead, I inadvertently made a selection: Aaron Carter.
"Noooooo!" I yelled. "No! I didn't pick Aaron Carter! That's not what I want!" The Backstreet Brother blared deafeningly from the machine as I sat there. A few people were behind me, either watching or waiting to use the machine, but I was too ashamed to turn around. All I could do was try to play, but I didn't even know the song, was too unskilled even to bang out the right song selection on the pads, much less a real beat. It was too much: Somehow, openly standing in front of a Ms. Pac Man machine for up to an hour and trying to get past the banana level was OK, but my internal barometer said that drumming along with an Aaron Carter song in public was taking it all too far. I gave up the sticks in the middle of the song and walked quickly away from the machine while the amateur kid seized the opportunity to get back on the machine and suck some more. I went back to the other arcade and played another round of DrumMania ("Perfect! Great! Perfect! Perfect!") to console myself.
That's the trouble with video games: I'm now more interested in getting another turn at DrumScape than I am in my next lesson in front of a real kit.