I can’t remember the first time I tried to be cool and fit in, but I do remember the first time I thought I was actually pulling it off. I was ten or so and we were visiting family. I’m the youngest of eight grandchildren on my dad’s side so, at the time, I was always the youngest within most groups of relatives. On that night my brother, who is four years older, and cousins were going for pizza and my parents forced them to take me along.
It was my chance to hang with the big kids and I resolved not to act like I didn’t belong. We arrived and I was immediately distracted by the pinball machine. I’ve always loved pinball machines. In fact, one of my dreams (and my wife’s nightmares) is to have my very own pinball machine at home. The flashing lights and the thump of the ball off the bumpers gets my heart racing every time and that night was no different. I really wanted to play that machine.
Since I didn’t have any money, I asked my brother for a quarter so I could play. He quickly agreed (probably to keep me out of their hair for a few minutes). I dropped the quarter in the slot, pulled back the plunger, and sent the ball careening into the field. I quickly lost my first ball down the drain because, well, because I wasn’t very good. I wanted to play for several minutes, if only to show the big kids I could handle myself at the pizza place pinball machine.
Someone stepped behind me, but my brother set another quarter on the edge of the machine as he walked by. If you weren’t around the arcade culture of the early eighties, you may not know that it was common practice to claim the next game by setting a quarter on the cabinet. It was necessary to claim a game because groups often formed around players, especially good ones, to watch the game in progress. It was a great system because it let the player know, without too much distraction, that one of the spectators wanted a turn. You could also claim a second game for yourself (but never a third, that’s just selfish) by placing your own quarter.
I considered the guy behind me and thought, sorry, you’ll just have to wait because I have another go. Soon after, my last ball drained down the outhole. I grabbed to quarter to drop in the slot. A firm hand gripped mine and forced me to put the quarter back on the cabinet. My brother hadn’t placed it there after all and I just committed a cardinal arcade sin. Deeply embarrassed, I headed for the table.
I heard the guy whose quarter I inadvertently grabbed mutter something about “king kids.” I had no idea what he was talking about because there didn’t appear to be any royalty around and I wasn’t feeling stately myself. I did understand the kids part though, and hoped no one at the table heard it.
I needn’t have worried because the table was far enough away that my group didn’t even see the quarter incident. As I sat down, the group laughed about some joke I didn’t understand. I, of course, laughed along with them a little too enthusiastically. I noticed the glances shot my way, and quickly shut up. Desperate to fit in, I decided not too say much at all (yes, shocking, I know).
The waitress came by and took my drink order, then asked my brother, “Does he need a lid?”
The conversation at the table stopped, the jukebox finished it’s record and didn’t start a new one, and someone must have tripped over the pinball machine’s power cord because it, too, fell silent. Somewhere in the distance a dog bark mournfully and every eye in the restaurant slowly turned and regarded the ten year old that wanted to hang with the big kids but was obviously so out of place that he might need a lid on his drink. Okay, so none of that actually happened, but that’s how it felt.
“I do not need a lid,” I asserted.
“Yes, you do,” my brother said, “You’ll knock it over.” To be fair, I was quite clumsy.
“I will not. I don’t need a lid. Lids are for babies.” Then I addressed the waitress, “I don’t need a straw either. I know how to drink.” Like a big kid, I almost added, but fortunately didn’t. I noticed a few of my dinner companions surreptitiously tap their straws. Guess I plucked a nerve.
My drink came and I took a sip without spilling a drop. I managed to blend in to the background noise by staying mostly quiet (still shocking) so I wouldn’t say something that would make me seem like the kid I was. I must have been doing a decent job because one of my cousins said something along the lines of, “Hey, he’s not that annoying,” to my brother. Then the pizza came.
I hungrily reached for a piece and knocked my nearly full soda over. Sticky carbonated, flavored water flooded the table and coated my hands. My face flushed. It was the second most embarrassing thing that’s happened around my extended family (the most embarrassing came a few years later when I learned A: what it meant to be “pantsed,” and B: that you should really wear underwear at family reunions).
I left the table covered in soda and shame and headed for the bathroom to wash my hands. The guy whose quarter I didn’t mean to take was still at the pinball machine. I did my best to be invisible as I passed by.
When I got back to the table, all hopes of somehow erasing the incident were dashed. In my absence, the waitress brought a new glass for me and set it at my place. A lid topped it and let everyone know that I might be hanging with the big kids, but I was a little kid. I sat down miserably and stayed silent the rest of the evening for a completely different reason. I also managed not keep from knocking this drink over, but the damage was already done.
At least they thought me old enough to unwrap the straw by myself.