Going to “The Computer Center” to Check Out Some Games

A screenshot of “Baja Buggies,” the first video game I was desperate to purchase for my Atari 400 home computer. (Screenshot by Jack Szwergold; Taken May 13, 2018)

Weeks would pass and slowly some of my friends would end up getting computers as well. It seemed weirdly coincidental at the time but, in retrospect, Atari was making a big “educational” push in the burgeoning personal computer market so these so-called “computers” were being marketed as a smarter/more thoughtful alternative to video games to the “educated” parent. And some of those people were friends of mine.

But one of the worst things about having a computer like that in the 1980s is very few retail stores sold software or hardware for them. I was lucky since the same Atari joysticks that were used on the Atari 2600 could be used on an Atari 400 and other personal computers which meant I could buy replacements at local toy stores and such. But that was about it.

Anyway, some friends of mine told me about stores in “The City” (aka: Manhattan) that sold software for Atari computers and I was excited. They told me about all kinds of cool games and stuff that were up for grabs and I wanted to check them out. So I got the address of one of the those computer stores and convinced my dad that we should plan a trip to check it out on one of his trips to “The City.”

The store was near the Empire State Building and was called The Computer Center. The shop was small, but neat and had all kinds of different home computers on display… Including the Atari 400 and Atari 800 as well as Apple computers and other stuff.

Instead of shelves, racks were filled with sturdy zip-lock bags filled with software on cassette and disk with a little cardboard display illustration on the front of it. I didn’t know what many of these games were, but I was happy to browse and see what was out there. And as you can tell from the zip-lock bag description, a lot of these early software companies were truly D.I.Y. affairs where one or two programmers would make a game or some other software, dupe disks and cassettes on their own, print out their own instructions, shove them in a bag and call it a day.

But among all of the games and such on the rack, one specific game caught my eye: It was called Baja Buggy. It basically was an independently produced bootleg clone of the Atari arcade game Pole Position. But instead of driving a Formula One car around a paved race track, you drove a dirt buggy in some kind of race around a desert landscape.

I wanted it, but it cost $29.99. Which was way out of the price range of my $2 weekly allowance and limited savings at the time. So I looked at the package and tried to figure out how I could get it.

The next week my dad wanted to head to “The City” and asked me where I wanted to go. The Computer Center! I said. “But we were just there last week? Why again?” he responded. “Because I want to,” I replied.

So we negotiated some kind of a compromise to meander around and check out the deals at Gimbel’s and Macy’s in Herald Square first and then go to The Computer Center later on if and when we had time.

When the weekend came, we headed to Herald Square on the D train and — as we were traveling — my father casually mentioned we were going to The Computer Center first. “Why?” I asked. “Because your brother wants to see the place,” he said.

I didn’t know what to make of it since my brother never really joined us on trips like this. But if my brother was showing up, he was showing up and that’s that. My brother was 20 years older than me and was — and still is — a stubborn pig and saying “No!” to him was never an option since only meant he would still show up but be more aggressive and nasty about it.

So when we got off at 34th Street, we headed to The Computer Center and when we got there I immediately made a bee line straight to the rack of software that had Baja Buggies and stared at the packaging again. The price was still $29.99 but my desire to own it was as strong as ever. Only this time my brother Ben — who had shown up in the store on his own — came over and leaned in to ask me about it.

After I explained what the game was to him he simply turned to me, grunted and shouted, “That’s stupid!” at me and then added, “You can program a better game!”

I was stunned, baffled, confused and frozen. My brother had still not gotten me this “magical” BASIC cartridge he and his wife would not shut up about. Yet somehow he was judging the games I — a 14 year old — liked and somehow thought I could just magically snap my fingers and program games despite doing nothing with this “computer” other than play the small handful of games I owned at the time.

Our father — who was wandering around elsewhere in the store — heard the shouting, ran over to us and started to argue with my brother in one of the family languages that wasn’t English. Was it Hebrew? Was it Polish? Was it Yiddish? I didn’t know. I just knew I couldn’t understand it since it wasn’t English — the only language I knew at the time — and when a language shift like that happened in a family conversation it often meant the discussion happening in front of my face and ears just wasn’t my business… Even if I was somehow the topic of the conversation. Which was all a bit upsetting. But when the dust settled in this case my brother managed to calm him down a bit.

When my the both of them stopped talking, I was feeling a tad better but still felt a painful rawness in my skin. I was scared. Here I am 14 years old walking around with my older brother — who is 34 years old; 20 years older than me — and being put in this position to defend my desires and feelings to this supposed fully grown man. He could never just nod and say something polite and neutral. With my brother it was always polarizing, condescending violence if someone presented something to him he didn’t like.

I wouldn’t say the violent outburst was a big scene since maybe only a handful of of other people in the shop noticed this minor, bizarre domestic dust up. But as a 14 year old kid who simply wanted to share what he enjoyed with a family member who — I believed at the time — respected me, it was awkward and embarrassing at best.

So we all walked around The Computer Center some more — and I took some mental notes on the games and companies that made them — and then we all went our separate ways; my brother headed to his home in Washington Heights and I went window shopping with my father at Macy’s, Gimbel’s and whatever discount store caught his eye along the way.

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An acute perception does not make you crazy. However, sometimes it drives you crazy.

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Jack Szwergold

Jack Szwergold

An acute perception does not make you crazy. However, sometimes it drives you crazy.

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