Those of you who live in the continental United States can partake in something wonderful: the coveted road trip. Here on the tiny Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, the farthest you can go is about 105 miles from coast to coast, which may not sound like much. Once you take the horrible roads here into account, though, you’re looking at about a three-hour ride from the town I used to live in out to the greater San Juan area. Assuming you’re in a half-decent car, you could probably shave off half an hour from that total, and having the street light fairy watching your back makes it even shorter.
It’s nothing like heading out to L. A. from a humble start in Queens, or anything like that. Back in 1992; however, San Juan was in a galaxy far, far away and we were about as distant from it as humanly possible. At the time, all the more decent game stores (EB, Toys ‘R Us, etc) were only found in the Metro area, leaving the rest of us islanders with few options.
Which is probably why I didn’t hesitate when a friend of mine suggested we make the trip in his car. There we were, Willy and Angel, two diehard Genesis fans, Nester the stoner (married to my ex girlfriend’s cousin), and myself; just hanging out in front of the local fast food place waiting for the last of our little group, José, to get off work. Not much to do on a Saturday night in our little town, and usually three guys, a few games, and a pack of smokes was about as rowdy as things got. Nothing about that particular evening was special, and our conversation about how awesome Streets of Rage 2 was had reached a fever pitch when Nester made a startling observation.
“You know, Toys ‘R Us in San Juan closes at midnight.”
Willy and Angel, who had been going on as though they were the hosts of a ghetto version of Gaming Crossfire, stopped talking and looked up at him.
“What?” Willy inquired, not as much because he hadn’t heard Nester, but because he failed to see the relevance to the topic at hand.
Nester, leaning against the railing that went down the stairs from the sidewalk to the restaurant’s entrance, glanced over at him. “They close at midnight, man. It’d be cool to head on over and see what they’ve got. Maybe we’ll find something decent to buy. Besides, there ain’t nothing else to do.” The typical silent, anti-social, metal head type, Nester hardly ever spoke, unless it was about music or to occasionally complain about his wife (who was definitely something to complain about). It was even rarer that he had a half-decent idea, and I had to admit, this didn’t sound too bad. I almost felt like a witness to history or something.
Everyone just sat silent and thought for a minute. We all had to buy our games from the local video store, and the bastard who owned it would only sell after he made his rounds to the other stores in the region. Being the big distributor for the area gave him something of a large head, and he thought it was cute to make us wait for our games. A trip to San Juan was like going after buried treasure. We had all talked about it before, but no one had ever actually decided to go through with it.
“Dude,” I said, as the lights from the restaurant went out; José was on his way out and already had a lit cigarette before he was even out the door, “You thinking about going?”
Nester didn’t even blink. “Why not? It’s only eight o’clock, which gives us enough time to get there and look around for a bit. We grab a bite to eat on the way back and get home before one.”
Despite the source, it sounded like something worth pursuing, and fun to boot. The only trouble was that Nester was the only guy with a large enough car, and it was a ’78 Nova that appeared to be held together with bubble gum and paper clips. José had a car of his own, but it was in no better shape and barely sat four people.
Taking off his work shirt, José sat down on the steps. “If you drive I’ll pay for gas,” he said, taking a long puff of his cigarette. Willy, Angel, and I just looked at each other.
Nester smiled. “Done.” He headed over to his car and started to go through the glove compartment. At that moment, José stood up and quickly moved toward the sidewalk. His wife had come by to walk him home, which not only made things difficult for him, but also put our gas money in danger. He was a smooth talker, though, and immediately pleaded his case to his wife, who wasn’t the most gamer-friendly of spouses (surprise!). While this was going on, Willy looked up at me and shook his head. “We’re screwed if he can’t convince her to let him go.” Angel nodded in agreement.
“Well, I only have about eight bucks on me, plus my credit card.” I answered. My Master Card was so maxed out I recoiled every time I used it, expecting it to burst into flames. Angel stated that he had about eleven dollars to his name, and Willy came in at just under seven. Together, we had more than enough for gas and some eats, but not enough to really make the trip worthwhile.
At that moment José came up to us. “I can go, under one condition.” he said, “My wife has to come along.” This was more of an unconditional surrender on his part than a compromise, but he did have more money than all of us combined, so…
Nester headed towards his car. “So let’s go then.”
We all took a surprised look at one another as we got up. It was decided, then. We were going to San Juan, a city of 1.4 million people, not all of which were very nice after dark. At least there wouldn’t be much money to steal. José and his wife got in the front, while Willy, Angel, and myself piled into the back seat. As I sat in the middle, scrunched between two of the biggest Sega fan boys alive, it dawned on me.
What the hell were we doing?
This was the kind of trip you didn’t want to make during the day, let alone at eight o’clock at night. I had no money for games and barely enough for a burger and soda. What was I doing sitting in this junk heap with all these people? I had barely formed the thought when Nester started up the car and took off. My heart sank a bit as the car pulled away from the curb. There was no turning back now. For better or for worse, I was stuck on this trip until the end.
Thankfully, things were pretty uneventful all the way to San Juan. Just as we were entering the metro area, however, Nester decided to share a minor little detail with the rest of us.
“Oh man, we ain’t got no gas.” He was smiling as he said it.
José looked over at the gas gauge. It was scraping the E’s ass in a big way. “Find a gas station. We don’t want to get stuck out here at night.”
Nester was still smiling. “I don’t know where we are, man. I think I took a wrong exit somewhere.”
Great. Our trip was rapidly deteriorating into a Latino rendition of Gilligan’s Island and the Skipper here was laughing it up. It served me right for trusting a stoner hippie. Nester was apparently still enjoying the situation. He couldn’t stop smiling. “We’re gonna be fucked if we don’t find the exit back onto the freeway.”
“Find a fucking gas station first.” Willy snapped.
While all this was going on, mind you, José’s wife was deathly silent. Through the rear-view mirror, I could see the scowl across her face, and it was enough to make me glad that I was sitting directly behind her.
“Dude,” José knew better than anyone what that look meant. “find a fucking gas station already.”
We must have driven around aimlessly for close to fifteen minutes, trying to find any place that was open. Until a few years ago, most stores in Puerto Rico closed their doors at five in the evening (now they’re open to a naughty seven at night!). Remnants of the old Spanish culture are not very friendly to young people out to buy video games, and just when we all thought we’d spend the night sleeping near the side of the road, we finally found an open Shell station.
José looked back and spoke to us as Nester filled the tank. “This guy’s a fucking idiot, waiting until the last minute to get gas.” He looked over to his wife, who’s scowl had deteriorated into the Face of Death, and then slowly turned back around. “Shit, I’d better get something out of this,” he muttered to himself. Toys ‘R Us was one of the few stores left that sold Turbo Grafx-16 games and accessories, and José was the group’s resident Turbo nut. Somehow though, I don’t think there were enough games in their warehouse to make up for the amount of time he was about to go without sex.
With our tank full, we headed back out onto the highway. Nester suddenly remembered where he was and got us back on track to Plaza Las Americas (largest mall in the Caribbean), where Toys ‘R Us was located. We finally pulled into the parking lot at about 11:15. Neither Angel nor Willy had any intention of buying anything; they’d merely come along for the ride. I too, had come for the road trip, which left only José and Nester to do any real buying. I guess it was best that way, since one had done all the driving, and the other had put his marriage in serious jeopardy. They needed a purchase more than any of us did.
As we entered the store, I couldn’t help but feel a bit more positive about things. There was something about a Toys ‘R Us that just wiped away your worries and problems. At the time, it was truly paradise on Earth for children, even those in their mid twenties. There were plenty of Genesis, Sega CD, SNES, and Turbo games for sale; even a few NES titles could still be found. José quickly grabbed the last copy of Bonk’s Revenge and, having found what he was looking for, spent the rest of his time in the store buttering up his wife. Willy and Angel jumped back and forth between the Genesis and SNES games, comparing titles and prices. I stayed with Nester, who was taking an extraordinarily long time to pick something out. The Genesis section was slim pickings, and most of the newer titles were sold out.
As he scanned the display, a powerful silence permeated the aisle, which made me a bit uncomfortable. The place was about to close and here was Nestor, waltzing around the game aisle like he had all the time in the world. He seemed to live in his own little reality, and didn’t really care what others thought or felt. But then, my ex-girlfriend’s cousin Carol had hooked up with him because of his long hair and love of death metal, not for his intellectual prowess. He was taking his time, looking back and forth over the Genesis titles displayed on the wall in front of him. The whole set up didn’t make matters any easier, as Toys ‘R Us’ game display are meant to deter theft, not help with purchasing decisions.
By the time he finally picked something, the manager was giving us the “hurry the hell up” look people get when they want to close up shop and get home for the night. “I think I’ll go with this,” Nester said, taking a ticket from the overstuffed pouch. The price read $69.99.
The game? Raiden Trad.
Now, everyone has their personal tastes in games, but I draw the line at a $70 copy of Raiden Trad. It’s not that the game is bad (though there are better ports out there), it’s that it just isn’t that good. I tried to convince him to pick something else, as what I had played and seen about the game showed it to be mediocre, at best. I argued that he should wait until it drops in price, and instead buy something that he wouldn’t be able to find outside of the San Juan area. He should go back to Isabela with a true gem; something to really cherish.
Nester, of course, would here none of this, and was intent on making his purchase. He took the ticket to the register and paid. José was just behind him, having appeared to have worked things out with his wife, who was actually smiling now. We left the store and tried to reach a consensus about where to eat. None of us had much money, but instead of choosing something simple, like Wendy’s, Nester decided he wanted Pizza Hut.
“But we don’t have enough for that,” Angel protested. Nester argued that we could all put our money together and order a large pizza. José’s wife agreed, which was actually the first time she said anything to anyone other than her husband. José had to go along with his wife, obviously, and since he and Nester were the ones who put this trip together, they got their way.
We crossed the street to the mall and made our way into the restaurant, which by this time was the only thing open in the building, along with the arcade. I made it clear not to choose anything with anchovies or peppers and went with Willy to play a few rounds of Street Fighter II while we waited for the food. When it arrived, we all sat down to eat. I should have known I was screwed when the pizza was placed clear on the opposite side of the table.
The thing about Pizza Hut pizza back then was that a large pie didn’t really seem all that, well, large. The amount of slices was correct, but the pie itself was darn small. Nester, who gave a whopping $3 for the food, immediately grabbed the largest slices for himself, followed by José and his wife, leaving the crusty little leftovers for the rest of us. Needless to say, Willy and I were pissed. I had spent my last amount of cash on the pizza and pitcher of soda, only to watch the stoner gobble it all up.
When the last pieces were gone, most of us were more than ready to leave. Nester, on the other hand, was just getting comfortable. “What’s the rush, man?” He said, leaning back to stretch in his chair.
Willy glared at him. “We have a three hour ride ahead of us, and it’s after midnight. We’d better go.”
Angel sighed loudly and I couldn’t help but chuckle. “You ate most of the pizza, you leave it.” I told him.
“Fuck that,” he said, and walked towards the door. We all just stood there, mouths agape. What the hell was this? He drove here, true, but it was his idea to begin with! He had eaten almost all the pizza for next to nothing, and now he was skimping out on the tip?
To our surprise, José’s wife opened her purse and pulled out three one-dollar bills. She pinned them under the pitcher of soda, shaking her head in disgust. “What a dick head,” she muttered, and walked to towards the door, José in tow.
I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. It’s funny how things work out. The guy with the good idea almost strands us and then eats all the food, while the one we thought was going to ruin things actually made the funniest comment of the night. As we got into the car, I laughed again, this time out loud.
“What’s so funny?” Nester spoke into the mirror.
“Nothing,” I replied. He shrugged his shoulders and started the car. Some time later on the freeway, Willy leaned over and asked me what I had laughed about.
“Well,” I told him, “he may have eaten all the pizza, but at least I’m not the one who drove eighty miles and paid $70 for Raiden Trad.”
Then it occurred to me, I had come eighty miles to pay eight dollars for a single slice of pizza and a glass of Coke. Suddenly it wasn’t so funny any more.
Yeah, sometimes road trips suck.