Thursday, August 27, 1998

Superman Enclosures

Image: Phone booth transformed into an aquarium by artists Benoit Deseille and Benedetto Bufalino as part of the Lyon Light Festival in France.

Written for "The Unlikely Muse" Houston Sidewalk, 1998

In Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film "The Birds", Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hendren) finds refuge inside a telephone booth as vengeful birds pummel the glass enclosure with their beaks. This terrifying film moment-- with a telephone booth as a transitory safe haven-- has been imitated often in film and on television, including a recent X-Files episode ("Patient X") when Maria Covarrubias (Laurie Holden) is waylayed in a phone booth by a boy exposed to alien black oil.

From Superman's famous changing room to sexual turn-on, the telephone booth is a curious urban artifact-- a privately owned glass housing that provides silence, protection from the elements, reading material, a good view and a phone. Like a precursor to artist Andrea Zittel's self-contained comfort units, the phone booth is a type of functional cosmopolitan armor, purchased anonymously for five minutes with a few coins dropped in a repository.

Myrmidon Corporation on W. 20th Street in the Heights-- with hundreds of telephone booths stacked in their stockyard-- looks like a call box graveyard-- but this is misleading. These telephone booths (know in the business as "Superman Enclosures") are actually enroute to be sand blaster and painted for resale to the public. Most people in the market for refurbished enclosures are looking to make a few bucks by operating their own payphone business, but others have noticed the less obvious potential in these salvaged aluminum boxes. According to Robert E. Driver, Jr., President of Myrmidon Corp., creative citizens have purchased these enclosures for uses as varied as a private wet bar, a snake aquarium, a homemade smoker and a pool area phone. Driver says while he's heard of people surviving severe storms in telephone booths, marauding birds would be a first.

Saturday, August 01, 1998

Game Not Over

Written for "The Unlikely Muse"
Houston Sidewalk, August 1998

From the 'ping' of Pong to the 'bleep' of PacMan, the sounds and images of video games are the cherished memories of children born since the 1970s. Producing a pale-skinned generation with acute motor skills, beefy thumbs and the ability to "tune out" any peripheral activity, video games have had both their opponents (parents) and their champions (kids). Whichever side of the digital divide you stand on, this annual $10 billion business has left a lasting impression that has nostalgic young collectors paying top dollar for arcade dinosaurs like Asteroids, Centipedes, Defenders and Galaga.

Though determining the first video game is still an issue for heated debate, most experts will tell you it was either William
Higin-Botham's 1958 "tennis game" developed at Brookhaven National Laboratories, New York, or MIT graduate student Steve Russell's 1962 "Spacewars". In either case, an enterprising company named Atari took the ping pong ball and ran with it.

Today you can peek into arcade game history in the warehouse at Houston Game PCB Repair Center in the Heights, a specialized fix-it shop for wayward electronic games. Vazric Grigorian, the shop proprietor, has been "repairing boards" since 1974 when he was an electrical engineering student paying his way through school at University of Houston. Grigorian worked for a Houston-based company called H.A. Franz, a vending distributor that carried Atari's sought-after 'Pong' game. In the 80s, Grigorian worked privately as a "game consultant", researching new products and making recommendations to prospecting companies. Now with back issues of RePlay Extra piled up in his office, and hundreds of arcade games and their guts exposed in the back, Grigorian says confidently, "There's nothing we can't fix."

The tools of the game repair trade are similar to those of a TV repair shop: screwdrivers, soldering irons, oscilloscopes and volt meters. Mammoth green and silver motherboards are filed systematically on shelves while a few crouched over technicians peer into the bellies of Star Trek and Ms. PacMan. And just about every landmark game is warehoused in Grigorian's endless repository. A stroll down the peculiarly quiet aisles past Stargate and Space Invaders will leave you hankering for a roll of quarters.