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Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned Playing Donkey Kong

Updated: May 5, 2022

Life Lessons from Fries with Grandpa at the Road Runner Cafe

Did you ever wonder why the good memories from your childhood seem more vivid than the traumatic ones? Well maybe not for everyone, but in general I believe our traumatic childhood experiences are the ones we bury and block like blurred black and white photos from the 1930s. While the pleasant experiences are the ones we burn into our brain, like a vivid polaroid stuck to our amygdala. It makes sense. The trauma is damaging and cruel. It informs on our current decision making and emotional responses, without us even realizing it. It festers until we are ready to face it. Trust, facing it is a lot of work. I myself have not even begun to do the work to face those demons and free them from my psyche. I’m like the poster child for repressed memory therapy. Look for my photo on a milk carton with the caption “Missing - Traumatic Childhood Memories. If you see or hear any signs of crying or random acts of emotional outburst, please Call 1-800-THE-RAPY”.

The pleasant memories, however, are clear as day in our minds. Those trips to a theme park or a big movie night, with a bucket of buttered up popcorn, and a giant coke. We were so joyful in those moments as kids, I don’t think we realized they would also be with us for life. I would like to think that if we had the chance, we would go back to our child selves and show them the good stuff and inform them to use the power of those memories to process through the bad stuff. And hell, since we missed the chance then, we might as well do it now.

One of my favorite positive memories from childhood were weekday trips to the Road Runner Café in Rutherford, New Jersey with my grandfather. What a cool place. It was in a circa 1950s main street strip of stores and restaurants, the kind that were typical of suburban towns on the commuter train lines from New York City. They were the precursor to the malls, filled with independent shop owners selling clothes, toys and household goods. The Road Runner was where you went to lunch or dinner while shopping. It was a basic single-story brick building with big pane glass windows across the front and a cedar shingle awning hanging over them. At the top of the awning, were giant script letters that wrote out “The Road Runner” and the quintessential image of the Looney Tunes character rising from the middle like a caricature of a phoenix. They served juicy burgers and fries and had all kinds of good soda selections and amazing onion rings. They also had a ton of pinball machines and 1980s style stand up arcade games that you could play for a quarter. I loved watching the Road Runner outsmart Wyle E. Coyote on TV, and the trips to the Road Runner Cafe were just icing on the cake.

My Grandfather and my Aunt

My grandfather would often pick me up from school during the week, as he had retired from being a New Jersey Transit bus driver and was pivotal in my upbringing. Having grown up without a father around, and a single mom that was working as much as she could to support us, it was nice to have “grandpa days” after school. He did it to help my mom out with childcare, as she would still be working when school let out, and was happy to do it. He was a tall and bulky man. A looker in his day for sure, and he had this sweetness to him that made it very easy to be around him. I cherished the time together, because he was basically my father figure, and it wasn’t until much later in life, I realized he was filling a void for my development, something a young boy could never recognize. Rutherford, New Jersey was the town he had grown up in and he would smile as he shared the history of that little place and point to spots along the main street where he often got in a trouble as a kid my age, teaching me lessons of what not to do to stay away from the consequences of my actions. His nickname for me was “Keitherconsequences”, a poignant memory I have never forgotten. He started calling me that when I would get myself in trouble, doing something he told me not to do. “You make these bad choices Keith, and there are consequences”, he said once, after I snapped a purple azalea bud that had a bee in it and got stung. Of course, he told me not to do that, because there were always bees, but I didn’t listen. Bad choice. Consequences. New nickname.

The drive from my school to town was only three miles, but as a child it felt like my whole world. A giant space in which I lived my life, like I “killed it” in SimCity and someone 3D printed it. The route would have us passing through the small New Jersey towns, on the main thoroughfare connecting them. Each of them a microcosm of their own culture and people. Following the commuter rail train along, house after house, small shop after small shop. Seeing them fly by and imprinting them in my brain. I can still see those streets. Only now driving through it, it would all seem so small.

Grandpa would steer his car under the train trestle in Rutherford, make a hard right, and then drive through the circle, and edge down Main Street. I always knew the circle meant we were going to the Road Runner, and I would start to tingle with excitement. “Are we going to the Road Runner, Grandpa?”, I would ask, clapping my hands together and bouncing up and down. “Yes, we are Keitherconsequences”. “Would you like to get some fries?” Grandpa would ask. “Yes, totally, Grandpa…and can I play Donkey Kong?” Now, if the Road Runner was already “da bomb” for its food, the place was awesome because of those arcade games. My absolute favorite was Donkey Kong. I was obsessed with it. The music, the sound effects, being little Mario’s champion to save his girl from the ruthless Gorilla…it was a goal, a quest, a purpose…and…I sucked at it. Grandpa would give me one quarter to start and say “make it last”. I’d run up to the machine, drop my quarter, get my mind all set on “sticking it to the Kong” and then climb up my first latter and get wacked by a barrel. One guy, gone. Second try, a little further up the girder, bad jump…hit the barrel. Second guy, gone. Third try, climbing jumping, even getting my first hammer and crushing some barrels, only to have one drop on my head. Third guy gone. Game over. 3 minutes later.

Saddened, but determined I’d run back to my grandfather sheepishly, trying to look cute to get some guilt money. “Grandpa, can I have another quarter?”. “Did you lose all your men that fast, Keitherconsequences?”, he would say. I’d get a big frown and say “Yes, but I want to try again, I know I can do it”. He would reach into his pocket and pull out another shiny quarter and hand it to me. “Make this one last a little longer”, he would say.

And…back to the game. I’d strut up to that machine, barely able to reach the joystick, this time resolute in my success. First guy, gone. Barrels, hammers, bad jumps, second guy, gone. Closer to the Kong this time, but still missed a barrel with the hammer, and third guy gone. Game over. 5 minutes later. One could consider that progress, I guess.

Back to grandpa I would go for another quarter, trying my cute look another time. It usually worked, but when I reached $1.50, six tries, he would cut me off. I’d throw a little temper tantrum and sit at the table and huff and puff, happily eating my fries and drinking my coke, but still devastated that I could not try again. I remember one trip, I pondered my fate, sitting there with no financial means of my own and I turned to my Grandpa and said “One day grandpa, I’ll have my own money, so I can play all the Donkey Kong I want, over, and over, and over until I win. I’ll have all the quarters in the world.” All this while crossing my arms defiantly and convincing myself I had taught grandpa a lesson for once.

The funny thing is looking back on that memory, as I often do, I see how much I was learning about life in those moments. Dodging barrels to avoid the dangers, the emotional hardships, jumping over them when I needed to, realizing that I can only really get past them by smashing those barrels with a hammer. Climbing ladders, as a struggle to move forward and get higher and higher. Chasing the ultimate goal of defeating Kong and getting the girl back. The prize. The allusive win. All of it an allegory for life. And more still the teachings of financial prudence and patience from my grandfather, as he smiled at my defiance, marveling at his grandson declaring a wealthy future even when he knew we all were struggling with money and my mom was barely making ends meet at the time. So much imprinted in my brain about the challenges of life and the things that we need to overcome and the importance of knowing when to stop, take a breath, step back, strategize. Wait.

After finishing my declaration of independence that I could play arcade games for life, my grandfather just smiled. “You finished with your fries, Keither?”, he asked. “Yes”, I would say. “Ok, time to go, you can try again next time. Six more tries and you will only get better at each time” he said, encouragingly as he cleared the trays from the table and threw out our pile of burger and fry wrappers typical of joints like the Road Runner. “Just think about what you can do differently next time. Try something new when we come back next week”, he said and winked at me. “Now get let’s get in the car so I can take you home to Mom”.

On the drive back, I sat in the car quietly. Watching the little microcosms go by. Deep in thought. Yes, he was right. I could come back next time and try a different move, a new tactic, a change in the way I approached the game. My views, my emotions. Life. And then I would get to Kong.

That day certainly was a positive memory imprinted on my brain. One of my favorite Polaroids. I learned so much and learn even more now when I look back on it, especially about myself. So many life lessons in one short experience. Challenge, patience, prudence, determination, resolve, haste, budgeting, self-awareness, failure, redemption, healing, nurture, love.

So, you see, it is true. Everything I ever needed to know, I learned from playing Donkey Kong with my grandfather, at the Road Runner Café, in Rutherford New Jersey. I know each of you have your Donkey Kong, your Road Runner, your grandpa... Cherish them, embrace them, learn from them.

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2 commentaires

Your mom was an incredibly strong woman Keith. Thanks for sharing more about her.


Such a great story Keith!

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