The big story in the local news this week is about a nine-year old boy in East Los Angeles, California, who, equipped with an enterprising spirit and a strong work ethic, had endeavored to create an arcade out of cardboard boxes and strapping tape. He built it last summer and named it after himself: Caine’s Arcade. While his father was in the back room tending to his online auto parts business, his son was peddling for arcade customers outside the storefront. It took him a long time, but he finally lured in a customer, and that one customer happened to be a film maker who thought the cardboard arcade so charming that he asked permission from the father to make a short video about it. He also decided to post the video online and organized a flash mob to show up on a sunny Sunday morning in October to patronize the arcade. Now, this boy–selling $1 and $2 tickets for various tries at his games–has earned over $150,000 towards his college fund while his father looks on in amazement.
I’m pretty amazed, too. Frankly, I could use a little of that monetary serendipity; my savings account is looking a little thin lately. But really, I’m touched that a child these days is still playing with cardboard and tape and the ever-elusive thing called an imagination. I’m also dismayed that imagination is such a novelty that a nine-year old building stuff out of cardboard boxes makes it on the evening news and earns the child a small fortune.
I hate to say, “I remember a day when . . .” but I do remember a day when we kids played with mud, cardboard boxes, rocks, sticks, and anything else we could get our hands on to create some pretty cool things. Things like: soapbox cars made from old wooden crates, scrap wood, and lawn-mower wheels; motor bikes fashioned from bicycles and lawn-mower engines; and forts or houses made from the empty cardboard boxes of a refrigerator or washing machine. It was not unusual at the time to find such forts in backyards, underground in some desolate woods near home, or up in the trees. We also made elaborate towns drawn with chalk.
What was that last one, you ask? Chalk towns?
Yep. When I was a little girl in suburban Long Island, New York, about the same age as this boy, my neighborhood friends and I would draw an elaborate town in chalk that stretched down half of Russell Avenue and took a right turn onto Leroy Avenue where, one time, it extended almost as far as Helena Avenue. I’m terrible with estimating distance, so I can’t tally up for you just how far that was, but let me tell you, it was a huge length of road. We’d all gather up our stashes of bulky, pastel chalk sticks and head for the asphalt street, squat down and start drawing. It was a full summer’s day effort. This was no stick-figure drawing. We girls were the primary artists, and we were pretty good.
We’d start by plotting out the major buildings in our town… the A&P supermarket, the U.S. Post Office, the Savings and Loan, the dry cleaner, the church, the school, and the police station. Around that we drew in a roadway system of two-way roads about a foot-and-a-half wide per lane that could accommodate a Stingray bicycle. The roads were marked with dividers, stop signs, caution signs for curved roads, parking spaces for various businesses, and strip-mall parking lots with space-saving angled parking. When we finished we had an elaborate road system on which to ride our bikes where we could obey the rules of the road, using the appropriate bicycle hand signals, of course. As if that weren’t enough, we’d then enlist all the other kids with bicycles to join in and role-play as a member of the new town. The kids who didn’t have bikes were invited to “work” at one of the many establishments in town, choosing amongst bank teller at the drive-thru bank, secretary at the school office, gas station attendant, and cashier at the supermarket. Everyone became a part of a fully-functioning town.
We’d load up the supermarket with fresh produce–pears fresh off the tree (snagged from the house at the corner of Leroy and Helena) and any snacks we could round up from home. These goods were “sold” at the supermarket and packed into paper bags for transport in our “vehicles.” At 4-way intersections where there were no traffic lights or stop signs, a traffic cop would direct us through the intersection with a wave and a smile. We’d pretend dress up for church and would drive to Sunday mass, greeting the priest when we got there. We’d order a hamburger and small vanilla shake at the Burger King drive-thru (no attendant necessary here, as we spoke to the voice box to give our order).
We were blessed on my block with a large number of kids to play with. When we drew these chalk towns, it was a community effort. Everyone contributed in some way or another. There were a few of us driving the original design, but once we got going, it was our collective imaginations and willingness to believe that fueled its success. We played in our chalk town for days on end, until the rain came and washed it all away. Then we’d start all over again.
There was not one day in the summers of my youth that I was bored. The fanciest things we had to play with were our bicycles, chalk, and maybe a basketball that we also used to play kickball. Sometimes we just played on a sheet of white plastic with colored circles on it, still known today as Twister. The rest of the time, we played simple lawn games whose rules were handed down from generations before–games like leap frog and red-light-green-light. We played “chase” using the wooden fence at the Heiligs’ house as home base; we hung upside down from the lowest branch of their huge oak tree and tried to outdo each other by flipping off backwards and landing standing up. We traversed the tops of fences for as long as we could manage like they were tightropes. And we created amazing towns out of chalk. Never in a million years would I trade in the times I spent down the block in an uneventful little town in the suburbs of New York.
As I watch news videos updating me on the success of the nine-year-old cardboard arcade king of East L.A., I notice his reaction to the reporter’s inquiry of what he thinks about the big response. “All right, I guess,” he says. He thinks it’s kind of cool, but really doesn’t understand what the big media fuss is about.
What is it about? Is imagination a lost art? Are people aching for the simplicity of an earlier time when computers and electronics didn’t rule our world? The only thing that would have made this nine-year-old’s project even nicer would’ve been if he had a bunch of friends helping him out. I’m happy for that boy, but I’m also sad that he, like many others his age, spend a lot of time alone. Thank God for imagination. And thank God for special people like the film maker who wanted to make this kid’s day. I just wish our society would take heed and realize what we all have been missing.
As many Americans struggle with finding work in these difficult times, they are focused on getting back in that game known as the rat race. You know the one… where they put you on a treadmill, dangle that dollar bill in front of your nose and tell you to run. We are laden with devices and gadgets meant to free up our time but all they do is speed up the game and increase the amount of time we are expected to play. Believe me; I’ve got my eye on that prize, too. But I suspect there are a lot of people like me who are also seeking that organic something that makes us feel alive: being creative; doing our best work; being part of the community; being of real value to ourselves and those around us.
We are compelled to do our best and I truly believe we are at our best when we get back to basics, when we do what we love, and when we get involved with other people doing the same. I think Caine has reminded us of that. Are you paying attention, America?
Good luck, Caine, and good luck to all you out there trying to find meaningful work.
God bless and be well.
And now, for your viewing pleasure, check out the video about Caine’s Arcade: http://cainesarcade.com/
AND FINALLY: Caine also has a facebook page now (search for Caine’s Arcade), and I’ve noticed that a few kids have sent in videos of their own cardboard arcade games. What a relief to know there are parents out there encouraging their kids to do without the electronics. There is an effort now to keep raising money and to award other children who are creative and have an entrepreneurial spirit. As for me, I truly think children should have minimal exposure to electronic games through to age 13 to allow imagination and creativity to run wild. THEN, let them get involved with the other cool stuff they might need to advance their technological skills, if that’s what they aspire to. But to steer kids immediately into electronics does them a disservice. With that kind of narrow distraction, they may never find out all the other things they may be good at, not to mention they might miss out on the best years of their lives. That’s just my 2 cents. 🙂