Netflix’s Stranger Things 2 is the hot binge-watch of the moment. It’s set in 1984 and full of spooky music and monsters. But for me, the scariest creature in Stranger Things isn’t a slimy denizen of the alternate dimension. The biggest monster in Stranger Things is the 1980s itself.
We’re accustomed to viewing the decade through the lens of kitschy nostalgia, all leg warmers and Devo, an era of cheesy innocence before the ’90s. Well, Stranger Things might belong to the fantasy genre, but its depiction of the ’80s is relentlessly realistic. And the ’80s weren’t cheesy. They were just gross.
I’m as guilty as anyone of romanticizing the past, but Stranger Things makes me wish I could’ve grown up now rather than in the secondhand-smoke and bully-filled dirty arcades of the ’80s. Today we might have internet addiction and ISIS, but at least we don’t have ugly wallpaper. As Stranger Things reminds me—with a persistence that is causing me post-traumatic stress disorder—ugly wallpaper was everywhere. And that’s just a minor thread in the crap tapestry that was 1984.
Consider arcades. I’d say the show is actually generous on that front, since the arcade is depicted as a fun social place with games that have unreasonably good graphics. The reason you’d go to an arcade, though, wasn’t because it was a great spot to meet your buddies. You went to an arcade because that was the only way you could play video games. So if you wanted to play Pole Position, you had to get your parents to drive you into town and drop you off at a dark room in the back of some other business. They may as well have been leaving you at an off-track betting parlor.
They’d then go grocery shopping or whatever while you tried to ration your quarters and maybe play a few games without getting in a fight with the menacing kids who always lurked around. What a great concept: I’m going to hand my kid a bunch of money and send him to a dark room in the back of a drugstore and hope he’s still there/alive when I get back in an hour. In my local hangout, two kids named Rex and Frankie were ever-present, ready to abruptly yank the wheel on Pole Position if I didn’t bribe them to go away. When I finally convinced my parents to buy an Atari, it was the happiest day of my life. I could now play River Raid without worrying about larcenous coin slots and purple nurples. These days, the only reason arcades exist at all is because they’ve morphed into ticket-spitting casinos for children. The last time I took my kid to Dave & Busters, the pit boss comped him a steak dinner to keep him playing Big Bass Wheel.
Yeah, you say, but couldn’t I have just gone to the arcade with my friends? No, I couldn’t. Because in the ’80s, nobody could find anybody. Say I called my friend Joe to go to the arcade. I picked up the big ugly rotary-dial wall phone, hoping I wasn’t interrupting my neighbor (because we actually had to share a phone line) and I called Joe’s house. His mom would answer and yell for him. But she wouldn’t get him on the line because he was playing with power saws out in the garage or rode his bike to the Canadian border or had his leg caught in a bear trap in the woods. There was no way to know where anyone was until roughly 2002.
And even if she could find him and we agreed on a place and time, we still might have missed each other because—get this—nobody knew what time it was. You had a ballpark idea, sure, but unless you were actually driving past a bank, you had to trust whatever clock was nearby and all the clocks were different. The only people who actually knew the time were the telephone operators. So you could ask them, if you had access to a phone. Which you didn’t. I mean, you could try a pay phone, but then you’re down a quarter for the arcade.
In the ’80s, everybody was chain-smoking and eating Steak-umm. The cars were slow yet dangerous. Kids wore the same clothes all the time because a back-to-school outfit at the mall cost $900. There was no way to answer the simplest of questions—you just argued and didn’t know. I once had a school principal bar me from going on the only class field trip of the year just because he didn’t like me. I had to sit at school all day, alone. And he could get away with that, because how could I tell anyone? They wouldn’t let me use the phone.
The only upshot of the ’80s is that we didn’t know how shoddy and mean things were at the time. And that should give hope to anyone who’s filled with anguish over the present. Things tend to get better, in ways we can’t imagine. Hopefully, my kids will look back on the twenty-teens and feel total revulsion at our gruesome existence. Stranger things have happened. ◆
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