Walking down the southern end of Mott Street - a stretch lined with cheap-toy traps and Chinese restaurants of varying quality - is a fairly unremarkable experience until the sidewalk is suddenly packed with grungy and very loud teenagers and young adults loitering in front of a prominent "No Loitering" sign.
The tourists who make it this far - almost to Chatham Square - will find themselves tiptoeing around the pierced and the eyelinered, around the goths and the hip-hoppers. The biggest of the group turns to his friend and says, "He literally picks up his own life bar and beats you to death with it, son!" Around here, the talk inevitably turns to games.
It is Friday night at the Chinatown Fair video arcade, one of the last of the traditional arcades left in the city. Inside, it's hot and sweaty and the walls are blood-red. Amid the kids and the trash-talking and chaos, an older Chinese man stands quietly in the corner playing Jr. Pac-Man.
"Friday is the night, it's packed," says Travis ("Just Travis"), 30, a dreadlocked paralegal who lives in Harlem and said he has been a regular at Chinatown Fair for seven years.
"It's an old arcade, more for the hard-core gamers," he says above the sounds of punches, kicks and car crashes coming from the machines. "Everyone here kind of knows each other. Kids come here from all over the city." When he was younger and lived in the Bronx with his parents, Travis says, he traveled an hour and half to get to Chinatown Fair "to train."
In 2005, there were 44 licensed video game arcades in New York, according to the Department of Consumer Affairs; today, 23 survive. With the expansion of interactive online gaming, video game action has largely shifted to the home.
"Arcades are an anachronism now," says Danny Frank, a spokesman for the Amusement and Music Owners Association of New York. "They exist only in shopping malls."
Chinatown Fair has become a center for all the outcasts in the city to bond over their shared love for a good 20-punch combo and "old school" games that more popular arcades don't stock anymore - the classic Street Fighter II from 1991 and King of Fighters 1996, for example, as well as Ms Pac-Man and Time Crisis.
Travis facilitates an introduction to one of the best gamers in the arcade, Yipes, a k a Michael Mendoza, a chubby 23-year-old from Washington Heights with a wispy goatee and a bushy afro-ponytail sticking out under his beanie. "The competition is real good," says Yipes. "I would say it is the best in Manhattan. And it's a good hangout. You got games, the people, cheap food around the corner."
Yipes, who wears baggy jeans and has wooden crosses slung around his neck, points out the various factions that make up the arcade. "You have your DDR clique," he says, referring to the sweat-soaked boys and girls who favor the game Dance Dance Revolution, as well as "your racers, your fighters." Indeed, most of the teenage males were huddled around a stack of the newer Street Fighter IV machines.
Yipes says he is going to a games tournament in New Jersey the next day and can't stay long, but a few minutes later, he's furiously playing Marvel vs. Capcom 2. A sign above the game says: "Play at your own risk - no refunds."
One person is recording video of the fights in the games to post on YouTube. The players take the games seriously, but the mood is usually more about camaraderie than cut-throat competition. Benjamin Valle, 19, a college student from the Bronx, explains that rather than the usual arcade policy where the winner keeps playing, most players at Chinatown Fair stay on for a maximum of three or four games. "Usually, you run out of money by then anyway," he adds.
Several employees identified a Pakistani man in his 70s named Samuel as the owner. He says he has been in the business for almost 30 years but then refuses to talk any further, saying he is too busy. Samuel, his thin hair combed over as he leans on a metal cane, is an incongruous sight in a place filled with such youthful energy. At one point a tiny girl rushing toward the dance machines almost knocks him over, without even looking back. Like a tortoise, he centers himself and moves on to his next task.
On Fridays and Saturdays, the arcade stays open until 2 a.m. After midnight, there are more kids with backpacks outside and even more copious smoking.
Sanford Kelly, 22, from the Bronx, looks relaxed in thick glasses and an all-black ensemble. "I'm basically the best guy on the East Coast right now," he says.
Mr. Kelly is a professional gamer; he lives off the earnings of playing (and winning) in tournaments across the country. He is talking to a white-haired man in a Harlem Globetrotters jersey, Jake Morris. Mr. Morris's son, another hard-core gamer named Lincoln (a k a Dragon), is around the corner by the Bowery avoiding his dad. Mr. Morris, 57, says he had heard that Mr. Kelly was blacklisted from a recent tournament, apparently because he had won so many times that others felt it wouldn't be a fair fight.
"I read that on the blogs," he says, sympathetically.
A few days later, Mr. Kelly was sitting in Chinatown Fair in the late afternoon, taking on all comers. The arcade is much quieter by day, mostly attracting students from the neighborhood. "It's certainly different from Friday nights," Mr. Kelly said dismissively, typing into his mobile phone and looking unimpressed. He says he likes to help the younger players improve. "They call me Sanford Sensei," he says.
Behind Mr. Kelly, a girl asked her friend if he was going to play. He looked hesitant. "I haven't played in, like, a week and a half."
Despite its appeal to the hard-core faithful, Chinatown Fair has been feeling the industry's pain. Travis says that a tournament at the arcade was recently canceled because of low turnout.
"Now, you can play a million people from all around the world," he says. "For me, it's not the same as playing face-to-face. The young'uns may not care, but I do."
Back outside, Yipes is smoking a cigarette in the hot summer air. "Last of a dying breed," he says, looking up at the faded sign of the arcade. "It's not sad, it's a reality."
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