Having just returned from the arcade with his father, Aaron bounded up the flight of stairs that separated our apartments breathless and eager to report on the newest game cabinet on the arcade floor: “You’re this yellow mouth guy in a maze and you have to eat all these pellets and there are ghosts chasing you and if they touch you die but if you eat these big pellets the ghosts turn blue and you can eat them but it only lasts for a little while and then they start chasing you again!” Jealous that I had not been able to share in the video game nirvana, I feigned only a mild interest. He was talking about Pac-Man, of course, and based on his opinion of the game, I couldn’t wait to play.
I don’t recall the details, but it’s likely I met Aaron racing our big-wheels up and down the sidewalk in the neighborhood. I like to imagine connecting over our mutual transportation preference, kicking the tires and talking shop, “She’s no Green Machine, but she’s all mine.” Every kid wanted a Green Machine, but no one in the neighborhood seemed to have one.
After my parents’ separation my mother and I moved from our house into an apartment in a four family house owned by Aaron’s grandmother half a block away. Aaron’s grandparents lived on the ground floor, and Aaron and his parents lived in the unit just below ours. They invited us in and treated us like a members of the family, making this difficult time a lot less scary for me.
Aaron, a year older than me, was always a step ahead in kid knowledge, experience, and wisdom. We both attended school in the same tiny brick building our fathers had attended, just one street over from where we lived. Often he’d prepare me for, or tease me about, what to expect during my coming school year, having just experienced it himself. Days after school were spent at Aaron’s in the care of his parents as I waited for my mother to get home from work or school. I was happy to be there as we were always well occupied. We’d hang out in in his room thumbing through comic books or Bantha Tracks, Newsletter of the Official Star Wars Fan Club. We’d listen to records like Devo’s first album or pretend to get the jokes on his dad’s album of Cheech & Chong’s Greatest Hit while marveling over his swaying stacked collection McDonald’s Happy Meal boxes. It was at Aaron’s that I’d first experience cable television, opening me up to viewing options far beyond what the UHF and VHF frequencies of my television would permit. We experienced the early broadcasts of MTV and Nickelodeon, watching things like Pinwheel, Danger Mouse, and You Can’t Do That on Television. The first time that I would experience a Star Wars film outside of a movie theater was in Aaron’s living room when it was first broadcast on HBO. Both only children, we were surrogate siblings to each other who raced home after school for these moments.
Being an obedient child-consumer of the late 1970s and early 1980s, I had my share of toys, most impressive of which was my Star Wars collection. However, my favorite toys lived at my dad’s, out of my reach during the school week (this would later remind me of a kid boasting, “I have a girlfriend, you don’t know her though, she lives in Canada”). The disparate toys and one-off action figures that lived with me at my mom’s during the week were no match for Aaron’s collection. He had the best stuff, like Playmobil and Lego sets. He had Micronauts, Power Lords, Rom: Spaceknight, and Pulsar: The Ultimate Man of Adventure—the latter being a favorite of mine with his visible pumping circulatory system. We’d play with Aaron’s nearly life-size Shogun Godzilla launching its fists at the giant Rodan toy. He even had rarities like the Elastic Casper the Friendly Ghost and Stretch Octopus, both from the Stretch Armstrong species of toys. I was once allowed to borrow the Stretch Octopus overnight, but only after employing the oft heard kid logic, “C’mon you get to play with it all the time!” This plea also worked for getting turns on the Atari. Later, Aaron’s shelves would become populated with armies of G.I. Joe figures and Transformers and I was covetous of them all. Aaron was the kid who got Hot Wheels, Transformers, and Laser Tag; I was the kid who got Matchbox, Gobots, and Photon.
Not unlike the little brother, I’d sometimes receive hand-me-downs from Aaron. While recovering from a major hip surgery that left me bedridden for an extended period, Aaron’s father installed their old Pong unit on a television set in my bedroom. When I’d recovered, I’d be back with Aaron in front of his television playing Atari, but during my convalescence, Pong was a perfect remedy for the boredom. It was also from Aaron that I’d received my first bicycle, a red huffy that he’d grown out of. In addition to the gift of the bike, Aaron’s father offered to teach me to ride, patiently jogging along with one hand on my back as I wobbled down the street trying to balance myself. I recall the day I felt his hand l let go as I rode off by myself; that first sensation like flight. These gestures were very much appreciated and are among my fondest memories. In those days, Aaron’s family truly felt like an extension of my own. We were inseparable. Come Halloween, we’d coordinate our cheap Ben Cooper costumes, me playing the Stormtrooper to his Darth Vader. He was the big brother I never had.
One evening as we headed to Papa Gino’s for dinner, we rode in the back seat of my Mother’s Buick Skylark, with our mothers in the front. Aaron and I inspected the file cards on our new G.I. Joe figures having just come from Kay Bee Toys—likely a consolation prize for behaving while clothes shopping with our moms. He’d gotten Rock N’ Roll, the G.I. Joe Machine Gunner, and I’d chosen Gung-Ho, The Marine with the tattooed chest. Aaron read his figure’s file card aloud, excited by a particular detail, “Rock ‘n Roll was a surfer in Malibu prior to enlistment. He was also a weight lifter and played bass guitar in local rock bands.” He pronounced bass like you would when referring to the fish rather than the guitar. “It’s pronounced base guitar” his mother corrected. “But it’s spelled B-A-S-S, like the fish!” Aaron argued, being new to the concept of the pesky heteronym. Consequently, I’ve since learned that our respective G.I. Joe figure choices on that day in 1983 foreshadowed aspects of our future-selves; Aaron now plays bass guitar, and I have a sizable tattoo on my chest.
We found ourselves in the tutelage of his mother regarding pronunciation on another occasion. When committing some of our favorite words to paper, we snickered at one particular selection. Looking over our shoulders at what we had written, Aaron’s mother chided, “That’s not how you spell fart, it’s F-A-R-T!” Having not yet seen the word in print, we’d spelled it phonetically. In this case, as spoken by two natives of our southern Massachusetts town, phonetically meant that we had spelled it F-O-T. “Why is there an R in fot! We say fot, not faRRRt!” we argued, over-pronouncing the R.
Those formative years living above Aaron helped define me. In them, I learned to ride a bike, discovered a love for video games, sci-fi, fantasy, toy collecting, and mistrust of the English language that persists in my adult life. As a result of my childhood hip surgery, I was left with a weakened leg and was never much for athletics. In Aaron, I was lucky to find a brother geek who would prefer a game of Yars’ Revenge or Berserk over kickball. At the age of eleven, I moved away from the apartment above Aaron, first to live with my dad at my grandmother’s house two towns away, then to Connecticut with my mom. Aaron and I gradually fell out of touch.
I still collect toys, comics, and ephemera from my childhood. I regard my collection as an anthropological treasure from the epoch in which I was formed. I recently realized that many of the items on my want list were things that I experienced at Aaron’s house; artifacts from his childhood. Maybe it’s nothing more than collecting items that escaped me as a child, though fear it’s more of an attempt to connect to an archetypal happy family that I once perceived. Aaron’s parents have since divorced, marring my naive idea of a perfect family (but now I know, and knowing is half the battle). It doesn’t change my want for a Rom: Spaceknight, or Pulsar action figure. They are preserved relics of my long lost childhood, trapped in amber, or more appropriately mint on card.