Giveth; Taketh Away

I remember the first time I played Super Nintendo.

It was my cousin’s basement — dimly lit, lined with old 70s carpet, that musty basement smell. The only bright spot was the television, up against the wall, under a window covered in foil. And there — its grey box, its purple buttons, its single small red light, looking out at us as if from a science fiction movie — was a Super Nintendo. It was beautiful. It was the only thing that mattered.

May 2024: Giveth; Taketh Away

  • “A Reckoning” — Owen
  • “Some Faces” — Bauhaus
  • “Kyanite Toothpick” — Aesop Rock (w/ Hanni El Khatib)
  • ”Dysphoria” — killusonline
  • “Good Things” — Rival Schools
  • “Not But for You, Bunny” — Sidney Gish
  • “Baby Roe” — Ani DiFranco
  • “Rawnald Gregory Erickson the Second” — STRFKR
  • “REEKYOD” — Madlib (w/ Black Thought & Your Old Droog)
  • “Roygbiv” — Boards of Canada
  • “Krazy Krush” — Ms. Dynamite
  • “I Said Goodbye to Me” — Harry Nilsson
  • “Tomorrow is My Turn” — Nina Simone
  • “Rigamortus” — Kendrick Lamar
  • “Red Sector A” — Rush
  • “New Sensation” — INXS
  • “F-Zero — Mute City, Big Blue, Port Town” — Entertainment System
  • “Help the Aged” — Pulp

Listen on Spotify. Listen on Apple Music.

We played all night. Super Mario World. F-Zero. Pilotwings. I was bad at some of the games and good at others, but we didn’t care at all. We were experiencing a new generation of video games. A new phase of life.

At the center of all of this was my cousin, a year younger than me — maybe a hand-me-down sports t-shirt; definitely a mop of unkempt hair. And while I said the only bright spot was the television, there were, in fact, two more — his eyes, glowing from the screen, gleaming with pride.

In the world of middle school interpersonal politics, there’s something incredible about being first. I still remember the feeling of walking into the local Video Mania and seeing a brand new copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 just a few days after its release — never rented, never played — and as the afternoon turned into evening and further into an impromptu sleepover, we turned the day into a study of every game mechanic. Of every level, of every weird quirk. Of what we could tell people at school on Monday, of what it would feel like to be first.

This Super Nintendo — this was my cousin’s chance to be first. I don’t know how he ended up with it, and I know other kids grabbed one when it came out. But this was his one true prize — the one thing he could cherish. This was his first trip into the world of pricelessness — in his mind, nothing compared to having that video game system in his control.

He was in love with the Super Nintendo. We all were. It was a flash of inspiration.

This isn’t a story about video games, though. This is a story about having something taken away.

# #

There’s no metaphor to this story, though you can shape it to what you want: the fight between native reservations and ranchers, the plight in Gaza, capitalism, whatever. The truth is, I don’t know why I’m writing this.

I don’t know why I’m finishing this, I should say. I started it ten years ago. It’s been a draft in a folder since then — popping up only just a few days ago as I searched my computer for a Super Nintendo ROM to put on my phone. Aerobiz Supersonic, of all games! And, just like that, this draft popped back into my life.

The real truth is that this story is embarrassing to me. This story is one of the things I still feel bad about, one of the things that would come out during therapy if I had the guts to go to therapy. It’s stuck back in there, deep, deep deep deep, and while I don’t think about it daily, and I certainly don’t think it’s shaped much in my life, it’s still there, and it’s weird.

And, so, I should probably finish it.

# #

We were a poor family, and because of that we were a little behind on trends.

Not drastically behind, and I can confidently tell you that I didn’t know we were a poor family. I knew that I couldn’t get everything I wanted, but every once in a while things would come through. For instance, it took me a while to finally get my hands on a Nintendo Entertainment System. (In the meantime, I was the last kid playing an Atari 2600, and I loved every minute of it.)

We got an NES late, but I was thankful, and it became a part of my thoughts for every waking moment.

My cousin’s family was poorer. I didn’t know this as a fact, but their house — constantly in disarray, outdated and fading, falling apart at the seams — left me understanding there was a difference between our kind of “poor,” where we had everything we needed and a little of what we want, and their level of “poor,” which saw the definition of “need” become a bit tighter. A bit thinner. Where “want” wasn’t necessarily in the picture to begin with.

Which is why the Super Nintendo was such a big deal. Growing up without privilege makes any semblance of normality a big deal. For a few moments, we can get excited that our lives are finally lining up with the ones in the commercials. There was commonality. To me, my Nintendo wasn’t some wild dream — it was an eventuality, but on an extended timeline. I still had dreams, I still had hope. For my cousin, the Super Nintendo was legitimacy. It was a key to a different life. This sounds dramatic, but it’s not far off: first a Super Nintendo, then the world.

For this reason, I never felt jealous of my cousin’s Super Nintendo. It was just a thing he had that I got to play with every once in a while. I was going to get one someday, I was sure. It’s just a matter of when.

And two weeks later, that “when” happened.

# #

Poverty — the lack of money, security, and consistency — makes everything feel like a crisis, to the point that crises become commonplace and desensitized. So, when my uncle ran out of money, he looked to the one thing that still had value.

I don’t know how my father got roped into it — whether my uncle asked for money and my dad asked for collateral, or if my dad intervened knowing that if my uncle sold the Super Nintendo to a pawn shop, it would never come back — but my dad bought my cousin’s video game system. He bought it under one condition: when my uncle could wrangle up the money, he could buy the Super Nintendo back from us.

It was irrelevant to me, because it was my turn to fall in love. And I did. I saw the system as mine. I played it with the passion of a thousand nerdy suns. Much like with the Nintendo, it took over my every waking thought. Now it was my turn: Super Mario World. F-Zero. Pilotwings. I still wasn’t very good, but I got a lot better. Everything felt a lot better, and I never once thought it would change.

Why would it? I — we! — never thought my uncle would come through. We never thought we’d have to hold up our end of the bargain, that this was ours. It was mine.

But he did hold up his end of the bargain. A month or so later I came home from school and my dad said he had bad news — that he had to sell back the Super Nintendo. My uncle had actually gotten together enough money to buy it back. He unplugged it from the television, put it back in the grocery bag it had arrived in, and I never saw it again.

I was furious. I was furious at everything. I was furious at my uncle, completely blown away that he would buy the system back, that he would reverse everything that I had come to love. I was furious at my dad, who had been an absolute hero, who had brought this dream into the house — he gave it to me, and then took it away. I was furious at the entire world to be honest — what right, who could do this, and on and on and on.

Who were they to take this away? Who were they to rob me of this?

What kind of person takes a video game system away from a kid?

Oh. Right.

# #

My uncle’s actions led to my father’s actions, which led to my actions — my outrage, my indignation. My uncle fought to make things right and my father fought to break things gently and I fought to understand why life could be so unfair.

And my cousin sat in that basement, waiting for that Super Nintendo to come home.

The three of us made assumptions during that time, and we were completely unprepared for them to be proven wrong. I assumed I’d be keeping the system. My father assumed my uncle wouldn’t come through. My uncle assumed his son wouldn’t be affected. I was mad and angry and I blamed everyone involved, a middle school brat fighting the feelings of an immature prefrontal cortex. My anger was outsized and, eventually, embarrassing, but it was all real.

I didn’t talk to my cousin much once I hit high school. His dad and my dad worked through an on-again, off-again relationship, and for the first few years of one of those “off-again” periods, I moved on with my life. I started a job at the local Best Buy, taking care of the video game section. I went from being on the outside to someone who brought home every video game experience at a healthy employee discount, who messed around with games behind the scenes, who had moved into a new level of legitimacy — job, girlfriend, a rarely-running Volkswagen Beetle. Who had left those days in the musty basement behind.

That was the end of the story, except it was clearly still there. I’d forget it for years, until it became one of those lingering, nagging thoughts that pop our heads at three in the morning. I might have been in college, or back in Sioux Falls starting a career. I don’t remember when it started returning, from time to time, but it returned — a deep feeling of shame, of finally understanding the dynamic and how unfair it was for both of us, but especially for him. Especially for my cousin, the kid who, for a short time, and not for the last time, had a big piece of of his world ripped away. A piece of normalcy.

And I wished I could say something. To absolve myself, I guess, of a feeling he never probably even knew existed.

But I couldn’t. I can’t.

I can’t, because he’s not around. We didn’t talk much, and in high school we lost touch nearly completely. And then, one evening, while I was at work, I got a call from my dad.

I don’t know the exact details, but I know I had probably just straightened out the Super Nintendo games.

My cousin had died in a car accident. He was 16.

It was the first funeral I remember. It was my first time as a pallbearer. It was uncomfortable, and all I wanted was for it to be over. I didn’t know at the time, but there was probably still some deep-seated guilt, some nagging feeling that things weren’t quite finished. And what still sticks with me is that he never knew, and I never had a chance to get it off my chest.

Anyway, I guess that’s my answer. I guess that’s why I figured I should finish this.

I hope he’s still at peace. I hope someday I will be, too.

This was lovingly handwritten on May 30th, 2024