Our games are everywhere. Some of them are big, and some are small, and certainly some are rigged, which is what I’d always thought about the one that challenges you to operate by means of a lever, a mechanical claw that lurches around in a plastic booth and looks as if it might descend, pick up a colorful stuffed animal, and drop it into a chute, from which it would slide into your hands.
These arcade-type games are not limited to arcades, and the other day I encountered one next to the cashier’s counter at a restaurant on an interstate highway in Maine. It seemed a cruel thing, because any poor clown taking his family into the place for bad food served indolently would have to walk his kids past this game at least twice, and all of them were sure to want to operate the claw, which is what the little blond girl, maybe two-and-a-half years old, wanted while I was standing nearby.
“OK,” her father said, and my spirits sank. Now would come failure. Certainly the father and daughter would be able to maneuver the claw into the vicinity of the animal the little girl wanted –- a bright yellow dog, as it turned out -– and just as certainly the claw would let slip the dog before it could be coaxed over to the spot above the chute that would have delivered it into the little girl’s hands.
As father and daughter pushed and pulled the lever, the father trying heroically to guide without taking charge, I looked at the cashier. Her eyes were sad. She knew what was coming.
“I should have a box of stuffed animals behind the counter, so I can give something to the kids,” she said. “They never win.”
“Doggie,” the little blond girl said.
“Hold on,” the father said.
“But I never remember to pick up the stuffed animals,” the cashier said.
“Daddy!” shouted the little girl.
“You got it!” her father said, and then again, because I don’t think he could believe it, either, “You got it.”
As if operating according to some impossibly humane impulse -– impossible for a mechanical claw, certainly –- the machine had dropped the yellow stuffed dog into the chute, down which, smiling eternally, it slid.
The little girl and her father caught the dog together before it could hit the floor.
“Go show mommy,” the dad said.
“Mommy!” shrieked the child, racing back into the restaurant.
The father looked astonished, but no more astonished than the cashier.
To no one in particular she said, “That was good.”
This program aired on November 4, 2010.