One of the coolest attractions in Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco is the Musee Mecanique. It doubles as a museum of coin operated games and as a fully functional arcade, as each of the games have been restored to their original playing condition, and as long as your supply of quarters last, you can actually play them. The pieces range from player pianos and other mechanized carnival attractions from the 1800s all the way up to the 1980s video game explosion, with titles that made my wife and I nostalgic for our early years, when we were newlyweds and when she was nearly unbeatable at “Space Invaders.”
We’d just eaten lunch and were strolling down the Wharf when we stumbled upon the museum. We stopped and played for a while, Pac Man and Ms. Pacman and Asteroids before finding the Space Invaders game. Deb became engrossed in it, while I quickly crashed myself nearly out of quarters on the various car racing games they had. With only a dollar’s worth of quarters left and Deb returning to her championship Space Invaders form of thirty five years before, I left her and began wandering thru the other sections of the museum.
I wounded up in the part of the museum dedicated to the oldest attractions, the mechanized player pianos and baseball games and the recreations of late nineteenth to early twentieth century life. The biggest of these attractions was the mechanized farm, spread out on a four by six foot platform, with little wooden figures representing different people all set, once you put three quarters in, to come to life and perform different farm activities. For example, in one corner some brawny men were loading bales of hay onto a wagon, while in another a logger with one of those long crosscut saws had a tree about halfway sawed thru, while not far away another worker was tending to the remains of a stump he’d apparently just dynamited. The whole thing was very primitive and cute, exuding a quaint charm and some real artistry in the images of people, animals, and the bucolic rural countryside they inhabited.
I browsed for another ten minutes or so until I thought Deb would have finally run out of bonus Space Invader plays and went to get her. She wasn’t at the Space Invaders game where I’d left her, and I didn’t see her light gray jacket anywhere amongst the crowd that now occupied the 1980s arcade section of the museum. I searched on through the rest of the museum to no avail. She was undoubtedly looking for me, too, two moving targets unintentionally moving in the same speed but opposite directions. I stopped by the pinball machines and waited, figuring it shouldn’t be more than a couple of minutes until she finds me.
I waited for ten minutes to no avail. I resumed my search for her, starting again by the Space Invaders game and ending by the pinball machines. Nothing. I waited there for another five minutes. The late afternoon crowds were intensifying, getting bigger and louder, consuming more and more of the museum’s floor space, making it even more difficult to locate her in her light gray jacket, but I still pressed on. After a half hour had passed, I went outside on the concourse, figuring she must have left by now, tiring of the crowd inside, and would be waiting for me out there.
I was beginning to panic.
After about ten minutes looking for her outside, I went back into the museum, figuring she must be somewhere amongst the crowd.
Finally, I came to the mechanical farm again. I just happened to look down and there, about halfway between the logger with his cross saw and the woodsman with his dynamite, I saw another miniature wooden figure I hadn’t noticed before.
She was wearing a gray jacket and had shoulder length brown hair. Her clothes looked much more modern than the other characters. As I looked closer at the unmoving figure, there was no mistaking it for my wife. The woman I’d been married to for more than thirty five years was now an inanimate wooden figure in a nineteenth century replica of farm life.
I looked around, making sure no one could see or hear me. “Deb,” I said, just louder than a whisper, “can you hear me?”
There was no response from under the glass covered diorama. Looking around, I gently tapped the glass above her, but there was no response from any of the miniature wooden figures, including my wife. I quickly fished in my pocket for quarters and found I had only one left. It took three to bring the diorama to its mechanical life, so I quickly exchanged the five dollar bill in my wallet for twenty more quarters.
When I got back to the display, everything was in motion. A young couple, twenty-something years old, had put money into the machine and were at the opposite end of the display, smiling as they watched the charming reproduction of farm life come alive. I quickly found my wife and now she was moving, mechanically, backwards, backing away from the worker, who was carrying a stick of dynamite and running toward her. He was making up ground when the logger, cross saw in his hand, suddenly moved off of his track to intercept the dynamite guy who was now in full pursuit of my wife. Then the action stopped, the time allotted by the three quarters the young couple had deposited having expired. I looked up and they were gone. I quickly reached into my pocket and put in three quarters.
The action resumed where it’d left off, with the guy with he dynamite in pursuit of my wife, in the heavily wooded corner of the display. Just as he was closing in on Deb, from behind a tree, where he’d been hidden from the woodsman’s sight, the logger appeared, and with the element of surprise and his long crosscut saw, eviscerated the woodsman, cutting him in half. Bright red paint bled from the two halves of what used to be the woodsman. Then Deb fell into the logger’s arms and they embraced, the logger still holding her as the time expired
I didn’t know what to make of it all. On the one hand, I was appreciative of the logger for saving Deb’s life, and more than a little jealous of him as he held my miniaturized and wooden wife in tiny arms that bulged with muscularity.
I put another three quarters in and watched closely as my wife and the logger kissed. I pounded on the display glass, yelling, “No! No, no!”
Suddenly everything went silent. I was still screaming when of the museum attendants approached me. I was sprawled out over the glass, watching as the logger took my wife’s hand in his. Then the time expired with the logger and my wife walking out of the woods, stopping just before reaching Main Street, and I became aware that the scene had changed, from the farm that it’d been up until that point to a small town.
The attendant said, “Sir, I have to ask you not to lean on the glass.”
I stood up, straight and tall, and told the attendant, “My wife is in there.’
“In there,” he repeated. “In the game?”
“Yes! I know it sounds crazy, but there she is!”
“Where?” he asked, looking around.
I pointed to where my wife had stood with the logger. She was still there but now she was wearing a wedding gown and the logger was wearing a tux. Somebody approached and started putting quarters in. I yelled for her to stop, afraid that the next thing that’d happen when the action resumed would be the wedding.
“Make him stop!” I yelled at the attendant. ”We’ve got to get my wife out of there!”
“Call security,” the attendant told a second attendant who’d emerged on the scene.
But the attendant didn’t stop the man from putting in three quarters, and the figures lurched into action. In a far corner of the display a miniature 727 flew in and landed on an airport runway. Then the plane un-boarded, the first three passengers being tiny replicas of my three adult children. They hailed a cab and got to the church just in time to see my wife and the logger exchange vows, just before the security guards put me in the strait jacket.