Be warned, this story is a little bit ugly and long. It comes from my memory so it might be a bit imprecise, but it is true as memories can be.
The True Story of How I Acquired My Super Nintendo
It was the Summer of 1991, the recession and heat were going strong in Southern California. I was 12 years-old, and my family was really poor, we shared one bedroom. Let me be clear, this was not a one bedroom house or apartment; it was one single room, which was a small half basement room under my aunt house. It was so small we slept on bunk beds, me on the top and my parents on the bottom. My parents did not get along with my aunt, so that meant if we needed a bathroom or dinner; we need to go next door to my grandmother’s house, as the door to the upstairs was always locked. My grandma's house was no great refuge either, but she at least tolerated us enough to let us use the bathroom and kitchen, and she did let us have the room, as she owned both houses. Prior to this my parents and I had been living in a Motel 6; I considered our current lodgings a large step down.
One good thing about my grandma having a stable residence was that my Nintendo Power always had a destination to be delivered. I had been reading for months that the SNES was finally going to be released in North America sometime late summer or early fall, and man oh man, I just had to have it. The unfortunate reality was that my parents were never going to be able to buy me one, as neither one of them worked, both having lost their jobs the year before.Their recreational drug use had increased to become hardcore drug use and you might think I could have asked my grandma, but I also could have also tried to wring blood from a stone for all the good that either would do.
Knowing my situation was pretty bleak I decided rather than cry about it, I should do something. I started reading the Pennysaver and the want ads in the paper hoping to find someone who needed an odd job or two done that a kid might actually be able to do. I also went to all the neighbors asking to wash cars and mow loans. At the end of June I stumbled across an ad looking for kids 13 and up who wanted to make some money. I decided to call and lie about my age, I mean really anyone hiring 13 year-olds probably wasn’t looking too hard.
The company called itself Junior-Careers (Here is a good article / story about this place http://www.
kellydessaint.com/tag/junior- careers/.). Seriously this job was even shadier than it sounds. What it boils down to is this, Junior Careers made its money by using lids to sell Candy door to door. They relied on desperate kids to look desperate. The more helpless and lost you looked the better it was for them. You would get dropped off on a random street corner, most of the time not in the city you lived in, and walk up and back stopping at every house on the way trying to sucker kind hearted people, who felt bad for you, into paying too much money for a shitty box of candy. The candy ranged from $3 to $5 a box, and for each box sold would net you a commission of 80 cents up to a dollar, they did not give an hourly wage. When you finished with your block or whatever area that had been predetermined, you would then go to a wait point and hopefully the van would come back and find you. Remember this is 1991, cell phones and pagers aren't really a thing, and even if they were, any family that let their child hock candy for this organization probably wasn't providing one.
When I called I obviously didn't know any of this, but even if I had it probably wouldn't have stopped me. I spoke to a guy named Ron, and within 2 minutes he told me I was hired, asked my address, and told me I started tomorrow and he would be there at 3pm. He didn't ask my age, my story, I don't even know if he asked my name. At around 3pm the next day, some burly, unshaven, dirty shirt wearing, fat white guy with pit stains pulled up to my house in a windowless white van and honked twice. I told my parent the night before I got a job, oh and they were just tickled, funniest shit they had ever heard. "Who the fuck hires a 12 year-old?" my dad asked. Dutifully I told him "Junior-Careers of course", and pretty much recited the ad in the paper which stated "it was an organization to help kids stay off the street and make money for school". They didn't really care and offered no further resistance. At the time I didn't realize how odd it was to be kept of the street by essentially being put on the street.
I stayed on with Junior Careers until early August and only stopped then because I was going to Northern California for my annual visit to my cousin’s house. I didn't make much money. Part of it was the fact that the job wasn't designed to make me money, some of it was my newness and inexperience, and another part was the inefficacy of it all. The job didn't start until 5, but you were picked up at 3 because picking up all the other kids took time and so did driving to, which ever city you would be selling in. I would work from 5 to 8 or 9 in the evening, out in the dark standing on corners, no flash light, no phone, and not much in the way of safety. Nothing ever happened to me aside from a scuffle, and two thefts (which came out of my earning), but I was lucky. I later heard horror stories about kids who were abducted raped, beat up, and ever manner of unseemly horror that falls in-between. I think I worked a total of 6 weeks and I was doing it 4 and sometimes 5 nights a week. I had almost $700 by the time it was over. I loved watching that mound of money grow, I was going to buy a Diamond Back mountain bike, a Super Nintendo, and probably have enough for 2 or 3 games. I couldn't believe it, I felt so lucky. I decided that I would take 50 bucks with me to my cousins, which would ensure we could buy candy and rent movies and games for the whole three weeks I was there. It was the best kind of summer trip, we had more soda, candy, games, and R rated movies than two 12 years-olds had any right to.
I came back home with a good deal of regret in my heart, I was jealous of the very stable life my cousin appeared to have. I often wished I could stay at his house forever, but alas my parents wanted me back, for reasons that I assumed were more property based rather than those born out of paternal instinct and caring. I had taken great care to hide my money before I left, I had cut a hole in side of my mattress that faced the wall and tucked the money into a bag and stuffed it as far in as my arm could reach. I waited to do this until both of my parents had passed out below me watching, shitty reruns on the TV while their cigarettes smoldered in over full ashtrays. A normal kid would entrust his hoard to his parents, but I did not trust them, they had grown more than desperate, and when I left I was the only person in the room with a job.
Every quiet fear I had was realized the moment I walked into our room. I went right for my stash and my father just sneered at me. "What are you hoping to find in there John boy?” he mocked. He only though he knew what I was hoping to find. He thought I was hoping to find money, but I was looking for my summer dream, for a child's trust in his parents, for safety, to know that I was wrong to worry, for reassurance. What I found, was my fear made real and an anger and anguish I had no place to put. My father looked at me and told me the following: that I was his son and that any money I made was his money, that the fact I tried to hide my money and never gave it to him was wrong and ungrateful, and that I was an asshole and should be ashamed. Also I believe I was told to quit my effing sniveling and get outside. I can't confirm that last part, I was in the full grip of rage by then and all I could hear was my blood in my ears and the inner scream that I was letting loose inside my head.
I paced around the property for a few hours trying to get a grip on myself, trying not to let myself dissolve into tears and admonishing myself for the tears I had already let spill out of me. School started in two weeks and I needed to do something, I needed to keep my head and make a new plan. My dream of buying a bike and playing the Super Nintendo until school started was dead, I had to acknowledge that and move on. Night settled fully into itself and my grandmother told me to get inside and stop stalking around the property. I was too angry to go to the room, so I instead left the property and hiked up a hill to a set of three sandstones that sat high on a hill and overlooked the railroad tracks and all of Simi Valley. It was a truly good place to sit; you could see the stars and all the lights in the city. The only noise came from the bugs or occasional train that rumble through, rocking the hillside as it went. It was a peaceful place made for soul searching. I didn't know it at that moment, but in the summer of 1992 this would be my home for 6 weeks. I stayed on those rocks all night; wishing on stars and hating my parents.
That morning I had an early breakfast with my grandmother and then called Ron to see if I could work the remainder of the summer. As it was 7 am and Ron, who was clearly a drunk, was not awake. I resorted to leaving him a message on his answering machine that told him I was ready to come back to work and would be ready at three. I managed to mostly avoid my parent, only speaking to them enough to convey I was going to be gone all evening. I didn't tell them I was going back to work, but I am sure they guessed. As luck would have it Ron would arrive promptly at 3pm and my return to Junior Careers was confirmed.
I worked until school started, and when I was done I was more than happy to walk away from that job forever, turns out forever would only be 9 months. While I didn't make enough to buy a Super Nintendo in that two weeks I was actually really close. My birthday wasn't far away either; it was just about a month until October 11th. I would finally be a teenager, the big 13. With this big birthday I was hoping that I might get enough cash to finally buy the SNES. Having one bought for me was still out the question, but hoping for enough cards stuffed with 13 dollars in them wasn't out of the question. If I got enough of those I would be able to swing it. After the disastrous end to August the end of September was actually looking really good. My dad got a job, no one more shocked than me, and it looked like we were going to get an apartment of our own. I told my parent's if we could only afford one room I would be fine sleeping in the living room, that would seem like a grand villa compared to what we had endured for the past 14 months.
Somehow we got a two bedroom apartment at the Meadow Wood Apartments, my parents on some combination of HUD and my Dad's salary we able to swing it. I was positively dancing; my soul hadn't felt this light since time out of mind. I hadn't had my own room in years; I didn't know what do with myself. With my Birthday now less than a week away my mother approached me to discuss what I wanted for my Birthday. I wish I could tell you that I was a good enough kid to not want anything, and to understand the delicate situation my family was in, but I wasn’t. I was 12 going on 13 and all I wanted in life at that moment was a Super Nintendo. I told my mother with all the enthusiasm a 12 year-old can muster, how I had worked the last two weeks before school and how I had saved my money again. I told her how I nearly had enough and that all I wanted was a little bit of money to put towards it. My secret hope, the one I only let slide into my mind in quiet moments before sleep, was that I would get enough money to buy an additional game too.
My mother, explained to me that she felt bad for what happened before, but told me that the money my father took helped them get this apartment, that made me feel a little better about it, but I was still pretty sore over the whole event, and my father and I had not yet full repaired that rift. She asked me if I understood, I said yes. What else could I say? My mother then offered the olive branch. She told me she would take my money and that for my birthday she would pay the difference between what I had, and what it cost to buy a SNES with Super Mario World. In my mind all was forgiven, I was overjoyed. I quickly pulled out my stash of 186 dollars and passed it to my mother.
The 4 day wait until my birthday was maddening, I counted every minute twice. Finally it came, and it had the double pleasure of being a Friday and the day my school observed Columbus Day. A three day weekend seemed like all the time in the world for a newly christened 13 year-old to play Super Nintendo. My mother told me we had to wait for my father to get home before we could do anything, so I waited some more. The clock sluggishly moved from minute to minute but eventually time moved enough to allow my father to come home from work. I was told we were going to have dinner, and after dinner there was to be a small cake, as we were going to my grandmothers the following afternoon for a more proper party. My impatience was plan on my face and could no longer be stifled. I blurted to my father that “I wanted to open my gift before dinner” and “that I was tired of waiting” and “I had earned it”.
This was not my best moment, I was overcome, frustrated, and tired of waiting. My father rounded on me quick as a snake. He had is face an inch from mine, his index finger extended and thumping me in the chest. He was yelling and spitting with each word. “Did I think that he was going to let some ingrate 12 year old tell him when or how we were going to do anything?” I piped up that I was 13, and his retort was perfect and without hesitation, “Who the fuck cares?” Sadly the answer to that question was apparently, no one. I was told to get to my room and stay there, and if he heard me cry, he would come in there and really give me something to cry about. So I went to my room and happy birthday to me; no dinner, no cake, no SNES.
What I had not realized at the time was that I had been duped. My parents never planned on getting me a Super Nintendo, they took my money and flushed it down a needle. I was just another tool helping them get their next fix. I do not regret giving the money to my mother, you might read that and think me foolish, but without the ability to trust in others you will never make it through this life, it's just too hard. I have regret over what happened but it is based on my mother’s actions not mine. Every son should want to trust his mother, and in a perfect world would be able to. The next day at my grandmothers just added to what was absolutely the worst birthday I ever had. I got a few cards with a little bit of money, my loving grandmother bought me a box of cereal, yes cereal, and my aunt gave me a used Dodger hat that I was obligated to put on, regardless of the fact that I was not a Dodgers fan. My older sister was a no show, and how could I blame her for missing this awesome party? The cake was white and coconut frosted, which is fine if you like that, but I don’t like white cake or coconut frosting.
Time marched on, steadfast in its slow moving slouch. I endured the party, but I wasn’t really present. I heard people telling me “I should be in a better mood”, and that “I was a teenager now and I should act my age”, and some commentary on “how ungrateful I was”. I have never been ungrateful, so hearing it for the second time in less than 24 hours snapped me out of my daze. I remember standing and confronting everyone. “What should I be grateful for? Is it this cake that I hate, or this hat that hate? Maybe I should be grateful for this family?” I stopped myself before I added "that I hate", threw the hat on the ground in disgust and marched off to the car, got into the backseat and did not speak another word for nearly two days.
The long weekend passed and finally I was able to escape my bedroom, and go to school. Monday morning came and I crept out of the house without incident, I made my way to the city bus stop and waited for my carriage to arrive. I would say school is the last place I wanted to go, but it actually it ranked as third least appealing places to go; just beating out my grandmothers and my parents’ apartment. My reasons for disliking school were not anything out of the ordinary, it was 8th grade and I was in Junior High and that was enough.
The school day was uneventful, but like all school days for me I couldn't wait for it to end. I made sure to catch the late bus home, wanting to spend as little time locked away in my room as possible. I wasn't grounded, I was just angry. Anywhere in the apartment that wasn't my room meant I could possible see my parents. I couldn't look at them, the very site of them made me ball my fist, clinch my jaw, and grind my teeth. I hated everything about them. Try as I might I could not shake that feeling, something between us had finally broke and it was irreparable.
Walking the long parking lot to the back of the complex, I got a pleasant surprise when I found my Aunt Carol parked and waiting for me. Normally a visit from my aunt was carefully arranged beforehand, by her, to minimize any chance of her running into my father. My Aunt Carol is my dad's sister and was at that time my favorite aunt. She was the cool aunt who took me to movies, gave me too much candy, bought me comics, and made sure every birthday I got a twenty dollar bill, and every Xmas I got a Nintendo game. Her arrival was the first pleasant thing that had happened to me in four days. If you recall one of those 4 days was my birthday which made it seem that much worse and her being there that much better.
When I approached the car she rolled down the window and told me to "Get in", no greeting just "Get in". Her tone worried me; I figured she must be angry with me, even though I didn’t feel like I had done anything wrong. I think this feeling of worry is the exclusive domain of all children who are spoken to in raised firm tones by an adult. My assumption was that she talked to my parents and they had lied to her and twisted the story as to cast blame my way.
I slide into the passenger seat aunt’s car narrowly avoiding the stupid auto seat belt. As great as being right is, this is a moment I would have loved to have been wrong. My aunt is a no bullshit kind of lady, she will tell you what’s on her mind and she won’t soften the blow to make you feel better. Knowing this I was not surprised when she asked, “Why were you too big a cry baby to talk to me on your birthday?” The look of withering contempt I gave her pulled the wind from her sails because she came up short. I think she expected to see shame on my face, a boy too old to cry caught in the act. She started again with a noticeably different tact, “What happened on your Birthday?”
I started from the beginning, telling her all about Junior Career, the SNES, and the theft of my money, not once but twice by my parents. During the telling I did feel shame, and I fell into tears a few times. The tears magnified my feeling of shame and stupidity, I knew my aunt was not into crying children so I tried to keep it together, but I couldn’t, I was at my breaking point. My father would often tell me that my aunt was the High Queen Ice Bitch, and he wasn’t exactly wrong. Her patience for my blubbering and inability to get my story out was at its end. She shushed me and asked me one question, “What do you want me to do about it, Johnny?” I had my answer ready; I told her I wanted to leave, that I would rather be anywhere else. I swore if she took me I would be good, I wouldn’t ask for anything, I’d do anything. In that moment I would have sworn any oath, told any lie, and broken every promise I had ever made to be taken away. It was not to be, I mistook her statement as a question. She said she couldn’t take me, that it wouldn’t be right and that I was just going to have to get through it.
My conversation with my aunt degrades from there into incoherent sobs, the self-pity I felt in that moment still stings to this day. I was coming unglued, I could feel my inner steel go thin and papery, it was no longer strong enough to hold me together. The next month would be one of the darkest times in my life. My self-esteem would dip to lows I didn’t know I had, I didn’t recognize myself, physically or mentally. The strong sturdy material I though made me who I was had eroded. I had become a shapeless, purposeless, thing. In this wretched time of my life I gave real consideration to suicide. I wish I could say what kept me from it was the last remnants of the steel that once made me strong, but in reality it was fear. Fear based on long discarded Catholic teachings. Fear of the pain. Fear of doing it wrong and surviving. Whatever happened I didn’t want to fail and be institutionalized or live a life physically maimed. I am thankful that I never had access to a gun during this point of my life; the ease at which I could have made a fatal error is staggering.
My older sister is the one who finally stopped me from circling the drain. She is as unlikely a savior as you can imagine. Megan was 21, married, and had a nine month-old daughter. She shared a house not just with her husband and daughter, but with 3 and sometimes 4 roommates. She worked on and off and her husband did construction, which due to the recession wasn’t a great field to be in. Megan fled my parents at 16 years-old; she went out the window of her bedroom one night and never returned. We knew she was okay, she kept in touch, but my parents never tried to bring her home. I never blamed my sister for leaving and in all my life, I have never asked her why she left, I guess I never had to.
One day in early November my sister came to the door, I was relieved. Not to see her specifically but to see anyone. My parents hadn’t been home in what was two days. It wasn’t an unheard of amount of time for them to be gone, but it was worrisome. Turns out my parents had found their way to jail. Apparently a couch fell off a truck they were driving behind and they hit it pretty good. The impact caused them spin off the road and crash into the side of a mountain. They had minor injuries, my mother had broken her arm, but both would be fine. What wasn’t fine was that my parents were both loaded on a multitude of drugs when the police arrived at the scene. After they were treated they were taken directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200 dollars. In that two day span no one came for me, not police, not CPS, not a soul. I went to school both days and nobody so much as blinked at me.
My parent used their one call to try and persuade my grandmother to post bail, it was a big no go, so they were going to have to see the judge and hope for the best. It did not go well, but it could have been worse, they both spent the next three months in jail. Some how in all of this I was never mentioned, no one ever asked where I was. My grandmother obviously knew I had to be somewhere, but she never came for me, and she never called anyone. If my sister hadn’t stopped by my grandmothers to give her a quick visit with the baby, who knows if she would have told anyone?
My sister took me from the Meadow Wood Apartments and I would never return. I would only live with Megan for 8 months but they were absolutely paramount in my healing and rediscovery of self-worth. My sister and I never got along when we lived together as children, and this second go round was no exception. We fought a lot, but I needed that, I needed someone to lead me into a fight, to rekindle the fire that had been lying dormant inside me. I don’t know if she did it on purpose or if it was pure happenstance but I will always be grateful.
I did get a Super Nintendo that year, my Aunt Carol who I hadn’t yet forgiven for stranding me with my parents sent a card for Xmas. She lived at the other side of town, so clearly she wasn’t ready to see me yet either, be it from guilt, shame, or disgust. The card arrived a week early and had 3 crisp One Hundred Dollar bills inside. Not willing to make the same mistake for a third time, I immediately got on my brother-in-laws bike and pedaled down to the local game store, the Game Exchange. I walked straight to the counter and asked for a Super Nintendo. The shop keeper, a pudgy guy named Al, told me I was lucky they had just gotten some in. I left the shop with a brand new SNES and a copy of Final Fantasy 2, the bulk made it impossible to ride home, but I was content to walk.
At the time I thought that this was my finest hour, and that the pendulum of life had finally swung in my favor. Alas, as all pendulums are want to do, it swung back the other way. By June of 1992 my sister could no longer afford to keep me, we were evicted from the house we were living in, and in an unlikely turn of events my grandmother agreed to let me sleep on the couch at her house. The peace between us would only last a few weeks. I was cast out of the house, and told I was dead to the family. I lived on the rocks above the train tracks for 6 weeks, in that span I had managed to get back in touch with Junior Careers and resume my life as a candy con man. In my 6 weeks of homelessness I did have brief interludes as a normal boy, where a friend who lived close by would let me stay at his house while his mom and dad were at work. We played my SNES endlessly, and if nothing else it gave me a place to shower and stay out of the heat. From this point on my life would get better, not in a single leap or bound but in the steady upward thrust of switchbacks. It did of course have lows left for me to traverse, but that is the nature of life and it never went as low as the fall of 1991.
I know this tale seems sad, but I can tell you, now more than 20 years removed from all of this, I have no regrets. My life is now better than I could have ever imagined. I served in the military, graduated college, have a game collection I enjoy, unbelievably good friends, and a wife I don’t deserve. The indignities of my childhood seem a pitifully small price to have what I do today. If I had not gone through all of that I never would have made it here. Life isn’t always an easy journey, but when it’s hard you must keep going. The dawn of every new day takes you closer to a new beginning, if you stop you will never arrive.
PS: While I have lost most of the things I owned in life prior to the age of 14, I have somehow managed to hold onto that Super Nintendo, it is one of the the last relic from that part of my life.