Hey. We’ve been through a lot together. I write the stuff, you read the stuff (or open the email and trash it). It’s a nice little set-up we’ve had for a bit. Sorry to say that this is the last weird upstairs for the foreseeable future, hence why I’m not publishing on my “usual” Wednesday (I say ‘usual’ because that was the goal, which I quickly botched). The thing is, and this is bittersweet irony at its finest, but my upstairs has gotten too weird.
The name “weird upstairs” stems from a text I sent in February 2018. I was asking someone if I was too much because our dynamic had gotten so fucked up that my headspace was also so disheveled. A weird upstairs. I thought it would fit weekly thoughts from a person who has a selective photographic memory that only fixates on the failure in hopes redemption is coming with the next bout of coping skills. The truth is, I’m failing to take care of myself. Redemption is far away. It’s time to declutter the attic, for real.
But with that said, let’s do this one more time.
I don’t have that many rituals, but the ones I do are the work of an expert masochist. James, I’m so sorry you’re like this for no reason.
Lately, I’ve been trudging my way, slowly and methodically, through Diablo III. That’s a game about crawling your way through the umpteen dungeons of Hell. I am nothing if not woefully unsubtle of the parallels I choose to draw for myself. And just like the oppressive darkness of that game’s universe, sometimes my own self-awareness muddies any stabs at progress. So it goes.
I have one ritual that I repeat over and over, though. It’s only repeated when necessary, just like breaking glass in case of emergency. It’s a pointless and entirely bonkers endeavor. There’s only a handful of used video game stores in Philadelphia, one of which is in South Philly. I vowed that every time I discovered that a day of my life could theoretically be the crowned my new worst, I would walk down to 9th and Washington and look for a copy of Tony Hawk’s Underground. The day I fish this perfect game out of the hit-and-miss resale river is the day that it’s all downhill from here. The worst would, in a perfect world, be finally behind me.
Here’s why this is as pointless as a sealed box of Ticonderogas. (It’s my last one. I get a few of these groaners.) I own a copy of Tony Hawk’s Underground for the GameCube. It’s next to my brother’s copy of Shrek Extra Large in my parents’ basement. (Side note: that Shrek game is rated T for Teen. What for? Who knows!) My brother and I played through it together—or rather, he played while I eagerly watched him stick the landings that my shaking hands couldn’t right away. This was a game with a Very Easy mode, a first for the franchise. But I left the steady hands to Sean. (That’s number two.)
Underground was released in 2003 at the onset of skateboarding oversaturation. The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater property had launched the eponymous Birdman into an absurd position of cultural influence. This is why every tweet where Tony Hawk acts like no one recognizes him in public is an insane bit of engagement alchemy. Like the TSA definitely knows you, dude. How many of your games had airport levels again? Underground did not have an airport level, but you did get to McTwist over a helicopter.
After four entries of “here’s a to-do list, go shred” mechanics, Underground opened up the series’ potential for level design that was more a love letter to skating at one’s own pace than an ode to workaholicism. For the first time ever, players could get off their boards, get grand theft auto sentences blissfully ignored, and link up with one of several real-world skate brands. The entire game revolved around an original storyline cobbled together from pro skaters’ stories, where a character you create is always in constant competition with New Jersey’s snottiest villain, Eric Sparrow. Spoiler alert: by the end of the game, you make Eric cry after punching him in the face. That is if you unlock the correct ending with the most justice.
I obviously don’t skate, but Underground is probably the most important game in my life, historically speaking. Sure, Pro Skater 2 has a perfect soundtrack (“No Cigar” still bumps) but Underground allowed me to assume a role I was never destined to fill in real life. That was my dude ripping up the bowls in Hawaii or getting stuck in Moscow. It was revolutionary, to have had space for dreams inside a purple lunchbox built by Nintendo. (Don’t get me wrong. GameCube is great. That controller was absolutely focus tested on humans. You need three hands to hold an N64 controller.)
Anybody can see I have an unhealthy relationship with nostalgia. It took my friend Sofia fourteen months of friendship to tell me that (hi, Sof!) and me several ventures, realized or otherwise, illegally named after Nintendo 64 ephemera to figure out that there’s a reason technology evolved past early 3D. My favorite book is one man’s thorough recounting of his first marriage, basically High Fidelity for a well-adjusted monogamist. As one coward Mark Hoppus once sang, “the past is only the future with the lights on.” Sometimes the fuzzy halo of what came before is more welcoming than the pitch-black after. But it can’t be where you live.
I could have just texted the guy who owns king video games (it’s typeset in lowercase on Google. In person, it’s called King’s Video Games and DVD’s.) His cell number is the one that pops up after a search. I’ve asked him about stock before (if you must know, it was a copy of Cooking Mama, sorry.)
I think that misses the point of the catharsis of walking down Broad Street. Thousands of people do it a day, and it’s an unremarkable journey. The city transforms between architectural modes as the blocks count southbound, past the arts district and Govinda’s vegan nuggets. Once I reach the Target, I know I have to turn left and I’m almost home free. It’s a chance for me to recalibrate, reiterate, refocus in the hopes some wonderful idiot sold off the best extreme sports game of all time. It’s a couple miles round trip, but it’s enough distance to get my mind right.
In the opening weeks of my life in Philly, the Eagles won the Super Bowl. The city has been running off the high of this win for two years. Uber drivers still talk about it like it happened last week. The pole grease may have crusted over, but the freaks still fly their flags. From the playoffs to the victory parade, it felt like an extended and communal baptism. One city under Big Dick Nick.
Broad St. was where it all went down. It was chaos, but it was surreal to have it unfold in my backyard. The last time I cared about football, Detroit hosted Super Bowl XL in 2006. My dad took Sean and me to the Renaissance Building and we saw the city transform for capitalism’s biggest day. (For you non-Michiganders, you can see the Renaissance Building on the front art for the deluxe version of Eminem’s Recovery. You’re welcome.) I wasn’t an athlete and the only die-hard Lions fan I’ve ever met is Keith from the emo band Empire! Empire! (R.I.P.), so I just took in the spectacle of watching people care about something, together. In early 2018, I was the fakest but happiest Eagles fan. Go birds.
These days, Broad St. is just the main drag here. Sometimes the Wheelie Kids cruise down on their bikes, sometimes there’s a mini-drumline snaring us all into oblivion. It’s quiet in the middle of a weekday after everybody’s lunch hour, and it’s almost like it’s just me out there. Philadelphia and I haven’t been the best of friends since I’ve changed addresses, but we have enough imagined dialogues on that walk. Take yesterday for example.
In 2017, Philadelphia had 1.58 million residents. With that number in mind, it would take 4,328 years to meet every person in the city at a rate of one new acquaintance per day. So obviously people don’t do this. They sequester off into their scenes linked by a common soundtrack or sports arena and they live in relative obscurity. Sometimes the city has a common rallying point, like Gritty or a blind allegiance to Wawa, but mostly, people leave each other be, unless you’re a racist Uber driver or something.
I haven’t been on social media in months so I actually don’t know what events go on in the city anymore. I commute to work, come home, start it over. This millennial monastic lifestyle choice has done enough for my mood. I don’t get irrationally angry at the dumbest shit, but I unintentionally isolated myself from everyone. I feel like an island that can’t reconnect. Maybe it takes a while to ease back into information overload. Maybe it takes a while to feel okay with what you’ve learned while being unplugged.
I called Philly home with my fingers crossed behind my back. It couldn’t live up to the hype I had unfairly gave it. I haven’t been able to see what it actually is, because there’s one thing uniting all these solitary THUGquests. The worst days of my life come when I forget myself in people and don’t have an escape plan. It shouldn’t be that concrete, but I am a stubborn, healing spacehead. It’s never been about the city. It’s been about me, and the failures to be present that have me walking towards 9th and Washington, hoping a game that gave nine-year-old me brilliant clarity might spell the same seventeen years later.
There’s probably a reason king video games never has this game in stock. Eric Sparrow will antagonize you some other time. In the meantime, stop antagonizing yourself.