Trading Video Games with Beven



Neighborhood: Brighton Beach

It was 1982, and I was in junior high school. Beven was a new kid, and I didn’t know him besides seeing him in class. He seemed OK, but quirky. Like the way he carried himself, the stains on his clothes and — most notably — the odd, beat-up briefcase he had with him at all times.

While the rest of us had basic kid backpacks,  Beven came to class with a dark brown leather briefcase that looked like it had been found on a pile of trash. Its frayed seams made you wonder if the leather was real or something fake.  Whenever he came to class, he’d nonchalantly place it on a desk, pop the clasps and open it up to reveal… a pile of papers and school supply crap. He liked to use legal pads instead of regular notebooks, but that’s another story entirely.

Anyway, in class one day, a friend and I were talking about trading video games. I was getting into some new stuff I had read about in magazines, Caverns of Mars, Defender and other games, but didn’t know where to get them, so I was asking around.

Beven overheard the conversation, came over to our desk and said hello to my friend, who he knew,  and we were introduced. “If you’re looking for games, I have some,” he said as opening his battered briefcase to show off an oddball pile of seemingly randomly ordered floppy disks.

“Check this out!” he said as he passed me a 5 1/4-inch diskette. The label had messy scribbles on it, and when I said I couldn’t read it, he rifled off a list of games that were on the disk and said, “I can sell them to you. Three games for $10.”

I looked at the disk and looked at Beven, and said, “Bullshit. We should just trade.” His face had a forced “shit eating grin” to which he added a simple and disarming salesman’s laugh.

“So, you want to trade? Well, what do you have?” he said. Before I could say anything, my friend interrupted and said, “Jack’s got lots of stuff! You should invite him over.”

I did have cool stuff, but I was by no means an “elite” pirate. I just had the basics everyone wanted: crappy Pac-Man clones, Adventure International text adventure games and so on. But I agreed to come to Beven’s apartment “sometime,” and we left it at that.

A week later, I was playing and copying games at my friend’s  and he asked “Hey! Did you ever trade with Beven?”

“Nope, I don’t even know where he lives,” I told him.”

My friend said he lived just around the block and suggested we go over that afternoon. Before I knew it, he was on the phone to Beven.

Instead of going to his apartment, Beven came over to my friend’s house, bringing with him his beat-up briefcase filled with floppy disks. He again tried to sell us video games.

“Dude, we’re not buying your games. You can just copy ours. Get some blank disks and all is good,” I said.

Beven looked through his briefcase and said, “I don’t have any blank disks here. But I have some at home. I can get them.” Instead, my friend said we should just go over to Beven’s place. And that’s how we ended up there.

His family was in a pre-war tenement, like the ones that pretty much everyone in our Brighton Beach neighborhood lived in. But his apartment was weird. It was really dark and was packed with busted or dismantled furniture.

“Sorry,” Beven said as we made ourselves into the apartment, “My dad refinishes old furniture, just walk over there,” he said, directing us to an improvised desk that had once been a dining table, near the entrance to the kitchen.

We made our way through the piles of junk and saw a small TV set connected to an Atari 800 with an 810-disk drive on the table. The chairs near the computer setup were a mishmash of what had previously been junky dining room furniture. We each picked a chair and sat down.

“Who’s that?” said some young kid’s voice coming from deeper in the apartment. It was Beven’s younger brother Douglas.

“That’s Jack and Matt,” Beven said. “We’re going to trade games.” Douglas slowly came over and checked us out. Beven was a disheveled and scrappy kid, but Douglas was even messier with visible dirt on his face, dried up snot under his nose, and a huge rip on his stained white t-shirt.

“Hey!” said another voice coming out of the kitchen. It was Bradley, the middle kid in the family.

Unlike his brothers, Bradley was somewhat presentable. He wore a flannel button-down shirt tucked neatly into his pants. But he was odd and twitchy in his own way. Matt and I had met Bradley before in the neighborhood playground. He was cool enough, but was always a bit uncomfortable in a way that seemed to imply “Can you believe I was born into this shit?”

“What do you got?” Douglas said, as I opened my crammed carrying case of disks. “I’ve got Caverns of Mars, Pac-Man and Donkey…” But before I could say another word, Douglas shouted DONKEY KONG!!!

“Wow! Donkey Kong?” said a woman’s voice coming out of the kitchen. It was Beven’s mother who looked like she had just got up from a nap, “You want that Douglas?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Okay, no problem… You got it!” I said.

Everyone stopped talking and stared at me. Apparently, the entire family expected some extended negotiation connected to this.

“What? You’re just gonna give it to us for free?” Beven’s mom said to me,

“Why not? Just give me a blank disk and it’s yours.”

Beven was nervously eyeing his mom while trying to find a blank disk in the pile of crap on the kitchen table.

“Really? Just like that Jack?” she said in an intimidating way, with her hands on her hips. It was strange and awkward. The family matriarch just standing there, staring and giving me, a 14-year-old kid, the 3rd degree because I was willing to give her son a copy of a video game for free.

“Okay, if that’s what you say, Jack,” she said. “You have a disk, Beven?” to which he responded, “I’m looking! I’m looking!”

“I want to play Donkey Kong!” Douglas whined as he looked at my pile of disks.

“We can play it while Beven looks for a blank disk,” I said.

I shifted in the rickety kitchen chair, stuck in the disk, turned on the Atari 800, and the TV, and attempted to get the setup ready for Douglas.

“Hello!” said a man’s voice coming from the front of the apartment as we heard the door open. ”Beven’s got some friends over?” he added. It was Beven’s dad — sweaty and panting , and  carrying an old headboard.

Beven introduced us, and I shook his father’s hand. He was smiling but red faced and exhausted; he was wearing a wife-beater t-shirt, wool pants and some leather dress shoes that had seen better days.

After shaking my hand, he went over to hug his wife. As she moved towards him and in front of the table lamp, my friend and I could see she wasn’t wearing anything at all underneath her dingy, pink nightie. You could see the silhouette of her body through the light, but it was as far from an erotic as one could imagine. As she turned to us and asked if we wanted a snack, I saw a huge stain on the front of her nightie near her waist.

“No thank you. We already ate,” I said as the computer finally loaded Donkey Kong.

“Here!” I said to Douglas as I gave him the joystick to play.

“Wow! Look at that,” Beven’s dad said as he peered at Douglas playing the game. “You have fun now, I gotta work.” He moved towards the front of the apartment, grabbed some rags and a bottle of something, sat down, and started rubbing what was in the bottle on to the furniture.

He was stripping paint from the wood and the fumes were so intense that I started feeling dizzy. Nobody else seemed affected, so I spoke up and asked Beven’s mom if she could open the kitchen window. “Oh, okay Jack,” she said again using my name as if it was a stick she was using to poke me

After she opened the window, it became easier to breathe. “Thank you,” I said as she looked over towards the washing machine.

“Hey! I forgot to start the wash,” she said as she opened and closed the lid to the machine, turned a knob and started it up. The kitchen lights dimmed briefly as the machine started up, but the computer kept running.

I turned back to Beven, Douglas, and Bradley to see what was up in our little video game world. Beven had finally found a blank floppy disk, but Douglas continued playing the game, and all three of them stared at the screen.

Some time passed and we all played for a bit. Things were calm and friendly until the washing machine started suddenly knocking back and forth. The lid was opening and shutting, but everyone seemed to be ignoring it.

“Douglas!” Beven’s mom shouted from the hallway, “Go and sit on the washing machine before it spills.” Douglas was happily playing the game and I could see his face tighten.

“Douglas!” she shouted yet again. And with that Bradley unceremoniously grabbed the joystick out of Douglas’s hand.

Douglas sat catatonically for a few seconds, his face growing redder and redder. Then he stood up and started crying. He climbed onto the top of the washing machine and sat on top of it as his mother had demanded.

“Douglas!” she shouted once again to which he shouted back, “I’m sitting on it, mom!”

I looked at him on top of the washing machine as it shook back and forth. The lid was closed. No water was going to spill out, thanks to Douglas’s efforts, but he was crying, and his limp legs were gently shaking back and forth with the motion of the machine.

Turning back to the computer, I watched as Bradley tried to play Donkey Kong. He stunk at it, even worse than Douglas, but didn’t get upset about it. He also didn’t get upset at his brother crying on the top of washing machine. Neither did Beven or Matt. Or their dad who was wiping the wood with turpentine.

“Here!” Beven said giving me an old floppy disk. “Copy it on this one.”

I poked Bradley to get him to stop playing and copied Donkey Kong  and a few other games   and gave the disk back to him.

“Thanks! You want stuff? I can give you some new games when I get them,” he said, “And then we can sell them to the other kids.” He still didn’t get that it was simple enough for me to copy games for free. But I responded, “Okay, when you get some new ones.”

“Deal,” he said enthusiastically as he took the disk from me and put it back into his pile of disks.

His mom came back into the kitchen as the sun was setting and turned on the light.

With the bright light of a bare, circular florescent light shining, I took in the kitchen scene: Douglas, red faced and sobbing on top of the vibrating washing machine, and next to him his mom standing in her dingy and transparent pink nightie.

“You want some dinner, Jack?” she said as she opened the cupboard. “Nah,” I said, “It’s getting late and I gotta go home.”

And with that I started packing up my stuff. Beven’s dad finally stopped stripping the furniture, came up to us and looked on the screen. “You get some good stuff today, Beven?” he asked.

Nobody really acknowledged that we were leaving, so my friend and I slowly walked to the front of the apartment, opened the front door on our own, and said goodbye to the whole family.

They all waved back, including Douglas, who was still sitting on top of the washing machine as it shook back and forth, as we closed the door and headed outside.


Jack Szwergold is a skilled web developer who has worked for Artforum and the Guggenheim Museum. He founded the Onion’s website in 1996 and currently works for the New School.

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