The following is from Drew Nellins Smith’s novel, Arcade. Smith’s essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in many places in print and online, including The Believer, Tin House, Paste Magazine,The Millions, The Daily Beast, and Electric Literature. He lives in Austin, TX.
I saw people mentioning it in the personals online, but I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know places like that existed. In the Missed Connections, there were ads that made clear that men were having sexual encounters of some kind there, in what I pictured as a Wild West of promiscuity. The ads said things like, “The XXX place west of town. We’ve played out there before. This time you came in wearing gym clothes. I had to get back to work, or things would have gone further. Tell me what you said about my shirt so I know it’s you.”
In a few posts, a particular highway was named. I drove out looking for it one Saturday afternoon, feeling adrenalized and nervous. I had probably passed the place a hundred times without noticing it. Aside from the red “XXX” mounted near its roof, it was an anonymous-looking building clad in corrugated metal. It could have been a hastily-erected industrial shop, or one of those oversized reworks super centers on the side of the highway that are only open a few weeks of the year around the Fourth of July and New Year’s. It looked like the worst possible place to shelter during a tornado. It would have been safer in one’s car.
Pushing the door open, I felt the arcade’s cool air against my face for the first time. I walked in wearing earphones, nodded at the clerk, and began looking around in a tense and jittery parody of “playing it cool.” There were neatly organized racks of movies and a strange glassed-in room filled with lingerie.
I pretended to browse porn DVDs while trying to get my bearings. On either side of the main room were shadowy hallways, but from within the fluorescent brightness of the store, their darkness hid everything. The sounds of porn drifted out, sometimes momentarily blaring as though piped through a bullhorn, then receding quickly. There were things that looked like metal detectors at the entrances to the halls.
I read the signs everywhere. There were some by the front door that said not to enter if you were offended by nudity or material of a sexual nature. There were signs that prohibited food and drink, cell phones, and cameras. There were signs that said not to smoke in the building unless you were in a designated smoking area. On the things that looked like metal detectors, there were signs that said no one could enter a hallway unless they had purchased tokens at the counter. Several signs obviously made in Microsoft Word announced that if one purchased two videos, a third at the same price could be had for free. “Note:” it read, “this only applies to movies $24.95 and under.”
Like a casino, there were no windows or clocks, and there were cameras everywhere. It seemed like more cameras than should have been necessary for a pornography shop, even a relatively large one.
At the front of the store, near the counter, were the magazines. Not the usual ones like Penthouse and Hustler. They carried off-brand publications I had never heard of. Then there were toys and lube and condoms and cock rings and blow-up dolls that were obviously a joke, and expensive ones that obviously were not. There were rubbery flesh-colored mounds made to resemble a woman’s hips, as if her legs had been chopped off just a few inches below her pelvis, and her torso had been cut off just below her belly button. All that remained were her rubber hips and orifices. I once saw a clerk moving them around, and recognized their true heft in the way he lugged them from place to place like sandbags.
I took DVD cases off the shelves and examined their front and back covers, wondering if I was in the wrong place. I didn’t know what I was looking for, what would prove this to be the locale about which I had read. I noticed the other men in the store wandering, looking at me, looking at one another. They would emerge from one of the hallways, peer around, then walk into the opposite hallway or back into the hallway from which they had just emerged. Some of the men were attractive, or anyway they had that quality I like. Most of them looked serious, as if conducting the gravest business at this porn store on the outskirts of town. I observed everything, attempting to go unnoticed in the section marked “Big Tits.”
The clerk watched me. He was in his mid-thirties and wearing a fedora. He looked like a pornography director himself, with dark, lank hair that fell down either side of his face. He gestured for me to remove my earphones.
“Do you need help with something?” he said across the store.
I walked toward the counter, which was on a raised platform two or three feet above the level of the rest of the building. I gave him a confused look and said, “I don’t think I do.”
“Are you sure?” he said. “Maybe you should buy some tokens. For the booths.”
“The booths in the hallways.”
“Oh. How much are tokens?”
“Four for a dollar. Three dollars minimum.”
“That sounds fair,” I said, “I’ll take three dollars worth.”
“Good man,” he said.
I gave him the cash, and he slid a pre-counted stack of 12 tokens from the countertop into his cupped hand, passing them into my up- turned palm. I pocketed them without so much as glancing at them. I went to the head of one of the hallways. There, inside a plastic wall-mounted case, twenty or so DVD covers were on display. The case was locked with the kind of tiny padlock most commonly seen securing the pages of a young girl’s diary. Most genres of pornography were represented in the case, broken into three main categories: straight, gay, and transsexual.
I reached into my pocket and felt the bulk of the twelve coins. I separated one from the bunch and rubbed it between my fingertips as I stared up at the DVD cases behind the acrylic panel. Finally, I lifted my hand from my pocket and I looked at the token for the first time. Brass and lightweight, about the size of a quarter. On one side, a topless woman was pictured from the waist up. “Heads I Win” it read. On the opposite side, a naked woman’s rear end. “Tails You Lose” it said.
I didn’t even want to spend them. I wanted to have them as a souvenir. I wanted to frame them and hang them in my apartment. I wanted to pass them out to people I knew. If I had never seen one before, it was a safe bet none of my friends had either. Did they have these tokens in the top tier law schools where my friends learned their trades? In doctoral programs? In office buildings? Did they have them in the Montessori Schools where the teachers of my friends’ children encouraged the discovery of varied interests and intelligences in settings that promoted free play and exploration? No, they didn’t have them in those places. But there I was. I had them.
Standing in front of the display of video covers, looking up from the token in my hand, I noticed another sign. This one laminated and also apparently made in landscape mode in Microsoft Word, read: “This is not a Safety Zone. No standing for prolonged periods.” I put the token in my pocket with the rest and entered the hallway through the things that looked like metal detectors. They didn’t register my passing in any observable way.
It was a dark corridor, a hall of doorways leading into about twenty booths, each a little larger than a powder room in a sub- urban house. But the walls of the booths weren’t made of drywall like a suburban bathroom. They were made of the same material as the cheapest furniture from Ikea or Wal-Mart: particleboard covered in plastic veneer. There were no doorknobs. The doors operated against the creaking of springs, which kept them shut. Above the doors, red circular lights were mounted. About a third of them were lit.
There was another sign in the hallway, this one announcing prohibitions against standing, loitering, and lewd behavior. It stated in capital, underlined, enlarged letters that visitors must insert a to- ken in the coin slot upon entering a theater, thus keeping the light outside of the booth lit for as long as they stayed inside.
I pushed into an empty booth and engaged the barrel bolt lock behind me. The room was dark, navigable only by the faint light of a video screen set into the wall, just below eye level. Two black vinyl benches took up most of the floor space. They were bolted to the ground and set perfectly parallel to one another, just a foot or so apart, like pews, where two rows of people could sit looking at the screen, on which the words “Drop A Token In The Slot” blinked. There was a coin slot lit red from within, the type found in video games, that you can press to get your quarter back when something goes wrong. I reached into my pocket for one, then deposited one of my souvenir tokens into the narrow hole.
The screen screamed to life that first time, as it almost always did, with the volume as high as it could possibly go. It was doubly shocking. The noise was startling, of course, but also, like most people, I had very little experience with pornography at high volumes. I pawed at the big, dimly glowing volume buttons mounted on the wall between the token slot and the video screen, lowering the volume until it was silent. The only remaining set of buttons were the same type as the volume controls, glowing plastic circles, bright green and labeled “Vid +” and “Vid –”. I tapped “Vid +”, and the video on screen changed from a graphic scene of a woman having sex with a man to a graphic scene of a woman having sex with five men.
Scrolling through the options, I understood that the videos playing in my booth corresponded with the DVD cases on display behind plastic outside the hallway. They were never in precisely the same sequence as in the display case. I checked.
I sampled the videos, watching mere seconds of each before advancing to the next, when the video stopped abruptly and returned with no warning to the default screen. “Drop A Token In The Slot.”
Things were permitted there that were not permitted inside city limits. Smoking indoors, for instance. Most of the customers were men, though I saw straight couples there on rare occasions. I saw transsexuals. Always male to female—“M2F” if you’re looking for one online. Once or twice, I saw single women there, but they spoiled the mood a little. I assumed the women who showed up alone were sex addicts. It goes without saying that a great majority of men are sex addicts, or would be if they could manage to get laid. Usually, the straight couples at the arcade just browsed the racks of DVDs or looked at vibrators and lubricants together. The woman would giggle, and the two of them would talk in low tones, the man’s voice pitched high, as if he were interviewing a child. You like this? You like that? Rarely, they would venture into the video booths, which was when things could get interesting.
Single men appeared to peruse the shelves of videos, but most of them were faking. They were just waiting to see who came in the door, occasionally jingling the tokens in their pockets so guys knew they weren’t really exploring Indian porn or Japanese porn or any of the other ethnicities represented on the wire metal racks around which the best view of the entrance could be had.
On either side of the main room were two dark hallways lined with viewing booths—a smoking hallway and a nonsmoking hallway. The corridors were U-shaped and ran parallel on opposite sides of the shopping space. If you entered at the front, you’d walk down the length of the corridor and exit at the back end of the store, emerging into the well-lit emporium, where you could pretend to look at DVDs for a while, or make your way to the opposite hallway to see what was happening there. Or, if you preferred, you could retrace your steps back down the same hallway through which you’d just passed to see what, if anything, had changed since you walked down it a few seconds earlier.
Things that might have changed in the interval:
1. Someone might have exited one of the viewing booths. So there might have been a new guy, a guy you hadn’t run into before, walking through the dim light and the bleachy, musky air towards or away from you. If someone had exited, and you liked what you saw, you could walk towards him and look at him, or you could stay put and look at him as he approached you. And if you looked at each other in a certain way, then you might go into a booth together and put a token in the slot, and pick a movie that would play in the background for sixty seconds while the two of you shared the space in whatever way you chose.
2. A red light might have come on outside one or more of the booths. A red light lit up when the booth’s occupant dropped a token in the slot, thus starting a movie and signaling to the other visitors that the booth was occupied. If you liked, you could walk up to the door and press against it. If you found it locked, you continued walking as if nothing had happened. If it was unlocked, you could enter and see what the booth held.
3. A red light that had been lit before might have been extinguished, signaling that the movie had ended, leaving the booth’s occupant(s) with a few options:
a) He/they/she (in order of likelihood) could drop another token in the slot to get the movie started again.
b) He/they/she could exit the booth.
c) He/they/she could stay in the booth without dropping a token into the slot, which was against the rules.
The building was a catalog of potential partners, all moving in circles and lines and figure eights, from booth to booth, hallway to store to hallway. I was part of the catalog too. I looked at them and determined whether or not they were what I had in mind, and they looked at me and saw if I was what they had in mind, or whether I was close enough.
As a kid, everyone at my school was immensely impressed by a nearby restaurant renowned for employing an unusual gimmick for summoning wait staff. It involved utilizing a miniature flagpole with which all the tables were equipped. In order to capture the attention of your server, instead of waving your arms or crying waiter! across a crowded room, you sent a starched and scaled-down Mexican flag to full mast. It was my impression, even at that age, that the wait staff at the Mexican food restaurant suffered abnormal and excessive visits to their various tables, given that the control was so pleasurable and clear-cut.
Sometimes, like the waitresses called to refill half-full bowls of salsa, you ended up with people you wouldn’t normally have considered, just because they had own a flag, and you didn’t have anything more pressing to do at the moment.
I heard stories from my father and aunt about their high school days in the small Texas town where I grew up, and where they grew up before me. When they were young, all the high school students hung out at the town square, flirting and talking and showing off their cars. There were all these stories about things that happened there, pranks they played and songs they turned all the way up, who was smoking cigarettes and who was making out or leaving to go make out someplace else.
It seemed like somewhere other than the place where I was growing up, another world where there could exist this semblance of nightlife. I envied everyone who got to experience it, for having something to do in that town where I didn’t have anything. Even my cousin had hung out at the town square when she was in high school, and she was only nine years older than me. Somewhere between her youth and mine, the practice fell out of fashion.
Reading about the XXX place in the Missed Connections ads had evoked visions like those I’d once had of weekend nights at the town square. I pictured men leaning against their cars, smoking, combing their hair in rear-view mirrors, checking one another out, talking casually as if nothing might happen or everything might happen.
I imagined something secret, but also right out in the open for people who took the time to look into it or join, like Freemasonry or the Elks. When I discovered the arcade, it was sort of like that after all. I couldn’t believe it.
From ARCADE. Used with permission of Unnamed Press. Copyright © 2016 by Drew Nellins Smith.