Next door to our new apartment was the Thurman Market, a mini-mart on the corner of 26th AVE and Thurman Street in northwest Portland. The store’s rear exterior wall was about fifteen yards from my backdoor making access to candy and video games tremendously tempting but it simultaneously sucked because I never had much money. In 1982, our neighborhood mart had three video games. Space Invaders, Tesla, and a new addition called Donkey Kong.
Now, Donkey Kong was no ordinary game. It had Mario, sprinting, hopping, and climbing in a run-and-jump format that nobody had seen before. Rich sound effects and aggressive music were masterfully synched to colorful graphics and combined to form a mesmerizing and hypnotic analog fantasy in my seven year-old mind.
I was stone cold Donkey Kong fiend when my first quarter hit that bright orange slot. My addiction was strong and I was determined to play more but the problem was I never had more than a dollar at a time and the beast would smoke four quarters within only a few minutes. In order to maintain my supply I’d toss our apartment like a druggie looking for change. ??
I looked everywhere, in the couch especially. I’d look under the sofa, within the cushions, and inside the hide-a-bed frame. Once I exhausted that source I’d move on to our home’s closets where I’d search old coats, pants pockets, and unused purses. Once my funding from the closet was extinguished I’d move onto our kitchen and desk drawers. I was chasing the dragon and could never find enough to meet my demand.
??After weeks of scurrying through every nook and cranny eventually my mother’s home went completely dry of pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. The only place I could get change was in the bottom of my mom’s daily purse and that’s how I kept feeding the addiction. For about a week, Donkey Kong had turned me into a purse-robbing fiend who would rob his own mother for the rush.
One morning Mom came to me and asked, “Would you put a load of my laundry in the wash before you go to school?” She sat her large triangular shaped wicker basket filled with clothes in front of me. When I looked down I saw that the basket top was open and exposing that it was fully prepared with soap and close to a baker’s dozen of quarters. She continued, “Just leave the basket, soap, and the rest of the change in the basement and I’ll put the clothes in the dryer later”.
The washing machine was only a dollar to both wash and dry so this seemed like a perfect opportunity for me to re-up. The basket was a bit too heavy for my eight year-old body so I snatched the woven wooden handle with my right fist, used my elbows hip as leverage, and side-angle backpacked my mom’s clothes to the apartment’s basement laundry room.
Once inside the dark and mildewed basement I loaded the machine meticulously picking through each article of clothing making sure that there were no whites mixed into the basket of dark clothes. I was literally frightened that if one mistake were made it would open the door for the hellacious wrath of my mothers tongue once again.
Fear was attached to doing laundry but not taking the extra quarters. I left just enough for mom to dry her clothes, put the rest in my pocket, and started my one block walk to school. My memory of that school day was one of pleasure. It was a great day all-around and capped off at the end with the students decorating the classroom and scrambling around having fun. The anticipation of playing Donkey Kong probably elevated my mood and I couldn’t wait to drop some coins in the machine.
Then I saw mom walk into the classroom. She walked up to the teacher’s desk and had a brief conversation. She turned to me and said, “Kevin, we need to go home so make sure to grab your backpack.” I grabbed my belongings and felt great about leaving school early. “Man, what a great day, I can’t wait to play video games.” I thought to myself. We walked back home together and once inside the joy was replaced with the repercussions of my choices.
This was an intervention. “Kevin, what did you do with the rest of the quarters I gave you for the laundry?” she asked. I replied, “I left enough to dry and kept the rest.” She said back, “What were you going to use the quarters for? Where are they? Give me the rest of the change back right now!” I reached into my pocket and handed the money and told the truth. “I wanted to play Donkey Kong and buy some candy, and since there was money left over I took it.” She then revealed her scheme.
“I noticed about a week ago change was missing from my purse so I left the extra to see if you’d take them. You do not steal from your mother! Do you here me Kevin?” I was scared as shit and felt immediately remorseful. She kept going, “Look, you’re going to have to write a letter admitting what you did and read it in front of your last period class. ” My fear was confirmed and I broke down in tears. “Noooooo! Mom, I’m sorry, please nooo! I don’t I don’t wanna do that”.
I hit rock bottom. The thought of having to admit to my schoolmates that I stole quarters was shocking and didn’t feel anything like therapy. That night I was forced to sit down and detail what my addiction had lead me into. Terror ripped through my body and that emotion transmuted into teardrop stains embedded onto my confession speech. The next morning the terror became anxiety as I imagined the embarrassment that I would suffer. I knew that I could be judged for being a black thief and a discredit from my race. From first period to my last class I felt terrible.
Eventually my last period came and I had to give my speech. Our teacher prepped the students for my confession and then I walked to the front of the class. I muttered contritely, “I stole quarters out of my mom’s purse so I could play Donkey Kong.” The kids erupted in laughter. I was trembling from my nerves but I continued, “I took them from the laundry basket instead of leaving them for my mom. She caught me and made me write a letter to read to you guys and I promise I’ll never steal again. I’m sorry and I take responsibility for my actions and it won’t happen ever again. I promise”.
The sound of the kid’s laughter continued and penetrated my mind with a sense of relief and joy. I was understood and not judged by my peers and that was a comforting feeling. With tears running down my face and snot coming out of my nose I left the front of the class and sat down in my chair with my cohort still giggling wildly. They were laughing with me and not at me. Looking back I can say that my addiction had been cured that day. I haven’t stolen anything since my confession speech so the intervention was successful.
However, I wonder if there were any unintended consequences. I remember this story so vividly because my mother entrapped like a rouge cop, labeled me a thief, and shamed me in front of my classmates. She didn’t care about the pennies, nickels, and dimes in the apartment. She only cared about the quarters in her purse. Why? Why didn’t she tell me to stop taking quarters and trust that I would self correct? Why did she have to go to such extremes with a little kid who wasn’t known to get in trouble?