Photo by Tenaya HillsAs a young boy from the Inland Empire, I first learned how the monetary system works at the Balboa Fun Zone. It wasn't the bayfront Ferris wheel or famous ferry boats or chopped nut-covered Balboa Bars that unlocked the secrets of simple economics. It was those dark dens of diversion known as penny arcades. Yes, we had arcades in San Bernardino, too. We weren't that backward. But it wasn't until fleeing to the Balboa Pen with my parents one summer day to escape oppressive heat, smog and rednecks that I discovered arcades that actually rewarded work (game play) with compensation (tickets) redeemable for goods and services (toys). Who knew there was something to receive for pointless toil other than the gratification of having your initials logged as top point-getter on Starsky and Hutch pinball? The Bay Arcade taught me the value of one's reward depends on the amount of compensation earned. It taught me the amount of compensation earned depends on the difficulty and mastery of one's task. It also taught me I could earn more by simply dumping an endless stream of change into their cock-a-doody machines for hours on end. Unfortunately, I did not have much change or time, since I only had a couple of dollars in my pocket and would eventually be dragged back to Smog Berdoo, so when I noticed the Skee-Ball spitting out strings of tickets longer than the hair flowing down to Cher's ass crack, I found my task to master. After struggling the first couple of rounds, I got myself in a groove that had Bay Arcade tickets pushing across the stained carpet and out the door. When my two bucks ran out, and I had not yet secured enough tickets to win something other than a crappy toy that would bring sneers even to the chintzy prize packers at Cracker Jack, I learned the principles of investment. In other words, I hit my mom up for more change. When that source ran dry, it was off to a bigger financial institution. By the time I'd played the last coin my dad gave me, I found myself with hundreds and hundreds of tickets that indeed brought me greater rewards: twocrappy toys that would bring sneers even to the chintzy prize packers at Cracker Jack. However, instead of blowing my wad on a comb and eraser, I kept my tickets for another visit, hoping to build toward a dust-covered catcher's mitt on the out-of-reach shelf behind the prize counter. Thus, I'd learned a valuable lesson in saving in a down economy. Unfortunately, my parents never brought me back to the Fun Zone. They probably grew tired of being hounded for spare change. Or maybe they figured I didn't need any more valuable lessons in gambling.
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Balboa Fun Zone, the boardwalk along Bay Avenue from Main Street to the Balboa Ferry landing, Newport Beach. Balboa Fun Zone Co., 600 E. Bay Ave., Balboa, (949) 673-0408.