The Game Room in Rockville is a shopping plaza funhouse overlooking the Baltimore and Ohio railroad tracks on the eastern edge of Rockville Pike. From morning to night pinball and electronic games whir, purr and ring here in what a stranger might consider a fantasy land of green monsters and warring spaceships.
The teen-agers who regularly frequent the Game Room see the place differently. To them it is suburbia's wintertime answer to the fishing hole of summer.
To a teen-ager, hideaways like the Game Room are oases in a wasteland that is Rockville, Maryland's second largest city. Here is a town defined -- in the adolescent's mind -- not so much by its seat of government or population, as by its concrete crazy quilt of pikes, roads, junk food eateries, filling stations, and department stores -- all lumped together under some distinguishing antecedent to the labels "mall," "plaza", or "center."
To grow up here, to be born and raised in Rockville, is to suffer, enjoy and endure the peculiar nature of a strange place that is half-city, half-suburb. A childhood bicycle ride of only a few miles can lead to pastureland, while Washington is a half-hour bus trip south. mShakey's or McDonald's is probably only a block or two away, and there are parks in which to run.
When teen-age years arrive, Rockville becomes a restless place. A search ensues for some means to assert manhood, womanhood or independence. To own a car at 16 is true valor. To succeed inhigh school sports or academics is acceptably honorable. But to experience -- drugs, liquor, sexuality, something new, something different, something simply not Rockville -- is valued above all else.
Yet even with the assertions, the endless attempts to break away, the restlessness somehow remains. At 16 one is too old for many of Rockville's diversions, and too young to flee to freedom. So if drugs, alcohol, academics , and sports are distasteful or unwanted, or if sex is wanted but unhad, other means of escape are found, other ways to rest the heart and grasp some control over life, no matter how allegorical.
In short, there is the Game Room.
The last time Gary Geisler and Danny Wilkerson seriously argued over something was in August. Wilkerson knew a guy who said he could introduce them to a girl at a Rockville swimming pool who would be fun to know. Wilkerson wanted Geisler to come with him to meet the girl, but Geisler refused. She would be ugly, Geisler said, and he didn't want anything to do with an ugly girl.
After a lot of arguing and repeated appeals to Geisler's pride, courage and manhood, Wilkerson finally persuaded his friend to accompany him. They went to the pool and sure enough the girl was just about the homeliest they had ever seen.
"I took one look, grabbed his arm and made a beeline out of there," Geisler said. "A lot of the stuff we try turns into total failure."
That day, and practically every day for the last two years, Geisler and Wilkerson ended up at the Game Room.
They are 16 years old, juniors at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville. They do not excel at a great many activities that their peers might admire. They have tried marijuana and don't like it. They have tried liquor and gotten sick. They are too light for football, a little too short for basketball and limit their athletic endeavors to neighborhood sandlot games. Geisler is a C student in school, Wilkerson makes B's, neither of them own cars or even driver's licenses and as for sex, well, they didn't want to talk about that very much.
As Wilkerson put it, "A lot of girls don't want very much to do with you unless you're really good looking or have a car."
They are both enrolled in a work-study program at school, which allows them to take three mornings classes and to spend the rest of the day working. Geisler worked for awhile for a rug merchant until he got laid off. Wilkerson worked as a bus boy until he quit last week. So the schedule they have engineered for themselves actually is a legal way to play hookie in the afternoon -- at least until they are able to get other jobs and fulfill the yearly requirement of 450 work hours.
Not a bad form of assertion, especially considering that both of them abhor school. They have broken away a bit from the regimentation that governs Rockville's restless; broken away enough to dream of being free.
Their lives, of course, parallel those of their peers. Each Friday and Saturday night, they join other boys at Congressional Plaza Skating Rink, to look over cars and girls, and to view the weekly post-midnight drag races on the Pike. A lot of teen-agers hang out at McDonald's up the road, and Shakey's is a good place to go to as well, especially if that "all you can eat for $3" deal is on.
Sometimes they show up at Dogwood Park after dark for beer and marijuana parties with their schoolmates, but even there they admit to feeling a little alienated."We don't smoke at all," Geisler said, "and we aren't what you call good drinkers."
So they always return to the Game Room, Rockville's asphalt answer to the fishing hole. Once they enter the door they change from commoners to kings. Wilkerson, who has spent as much as $30 a weekend here, is an expert at Targ, an electronic chase game. Both of them are so good at Silverball Mania that they take turns winning the maximum 10 credits on the pinball machine.
In Rockville, with these two, there is no better place to discuss philosophy because here Wilkerson and Geisler definitely are in control, at ease, secure in their element. Ask a bizarre question such as "what is your philosophy of life?" here, and Wilkerson, a thin, redhead, will be the one to thing thoughtfully for a moment, while his dark-haired friend will continue intently with his game.
"A few weeks ago," Wilkerson said, "a teacher asked me to write a paper on that, you know, what is your philosophy of living. I thought really hard about that one, but I couldn't write the paper. Rockville isn't the kind of place you ask questions like that. You just live, day to day."
Rockville, for a teen-ager, is so boring, Wilkerson said, "you wake up in the morning asleep." He smiled when Geisler admitted that he had lived in Rockville all his life.
"You've lived in other places?" a visitor asked.
"Yeah," Wilkerson replied, punching the silver ball into a bonus bumper. "Wheaton." And Washington? Washington may as well be Hoboken as far as they're concerned. Neither of them have been to the city in several years.
"All that's there is the museums," Wilkerson said. "It's either that or get mugged."
They met two years ago when Wilkerson's family moved into a house a few doors down from Geisler's on Le May Road. Wilkerson, son of a Rockville carpenter, and Geisler, whose father works for AT&T in Washington, discovered an immediate common interest in dirt bikes, a teen-age fad that began in California a decade ago and crept its way to the east a few years later.
A dirt bike is an extremely lightweight bicycle with thick rubber tires that can be used for acrobatic stunts. The first time Geisler and Wilkerson saw each other was at Twinbrook Elementary School one afternoon, when both found themselves doing the same stunts, such as "duck walks" and curb jumping, on their $300 machines. Last summer they conspired to build a race track in Rock Crest Park. Four times, they dug up mountains of dirt and constructed beautiful, symmetric jump platforms. Each time the park department smoothed it over.
The bikes also are a source of mild disagreements between them. While Geisler considers the sport a pastime, Wilkerson takes it very seriously, subscribing to the American Bicycle Association Monthly, Bicycle Motocross Association Monthly, and BMX Magazine, as well as participating in motocross competitions in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia, where he placed first out of a field of 35 riders last summer. Reading, school, drugs, alcohol and even most girls do not excite him, but bicycling does.
"In the summer," he said, "I live for my bike. I don't know what I live for in winter."
Geisler would like to live for a car or even a driver's license, if his parents would let him get one. "Monday morning, when everybody gets back to school," he said, "people talk about two things -- how high or drunk they got over the weekend, or their cars. Every time I go to the skating rink on the weekend and those turkeys are talking about their cars I'm sitting there saying to myself, "Just wait . . . just wait until i get mine."
In the meantime, Geisler and Wilkerson dream together. Two months ago the lease on the house Wilkerson's parents were renting, ran out, and they moved into a temporary residence. Wilkerson moved in with the Geislers, and the two teen-agers drew up vague life plans. Wilkerson thinks he would like to join the Air Force one day becuase he sees a kind of hazy similarity between aeronautical electronic games at the Game Room, which he loves, and what he imagines Air Force life would be like.
Both would like better to become truck drivers, steering loads of cargo back and forth across the country. As Wilkerson put it, strafing one monster with an electric photon and burying another in a green hole, "It'd be cool to get away from here."
After the last spaceship was eliminated, the last comrade saved, and the last pin ball played, the two took their bikes, hopped a curb, rolled down an embankment across the railroad tracks and up the other side, homeward, until tomorrow, when the search would start anew.