Good Times

Reliving the decade we never had

I missed the '70s. Culturally speaking, my folks were still grounded in the idealism of the 1960s, determined to find themselves or create new selves if they didn't like what they found, and there was no TV. Not to say they were opposed to television; it just didn't fit within the context of communal living, gurus, art galleries, tai chi classes, experimental film, modern dance, foreign countries, “happenings,” red-light parties, and/or marijuana cultivation in the wilds of the Oregon mountains. So what I gleaned of popular culture (and the savory rapture of barbecued chicken) came via sleepovers at the homes of “straight” schoolyard chums, which is probably why I feel dizzy with pleasure entering the apartment of 33-year-old Jennifer Mendieta.

“It's cozy and cheerful,” says Mendieta, “and funny. It's hard to take things too seriously when you come home to this.”

Opening the front door is a bit like crossing the threshold of someone else's childhood memory.

Black velvet paintings, lava lamps, shag carpet, beanbag chairs, and little disco balls are just the beginning. The shared flat is filled from nook to cranny with the ephemera of my lost era. Farrah Fawcett smiles down from the wall in an unironic way, along with Isaac Hayes and Al Pacino. There's a beat-up Big Wheel at the top of the stairs, a chain of mood rings hanging from the bathroom mirror, a spread of Mad, Teen Beat, and Life magazines on the coffee table, toys on every shelf in every room, a row of candy-colored cereal boxes lining the kitchen walls — Sugar Smacks, Count Chocula, Franken Berry, Honeycombs, Boo Berry, Froot Loops — and lunch pails over the stove — Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, Gilligan's Island, The Electric Company, The Osmonds, The Bugaloos.

I admit to having never seen The Bugaloos. Mendieta's eyebrows raise and furrow in a sympathetic way, as if to say, “I feel your pain; I don't understand it, but I feel it.”

“And I only tried Sugar Smacks for the first time two years ago,” I say, forcing the reality of the situation into the sunny, talking-toad reality of her kitchen. “I've never had a Franken Berry.”

“OK, to start with, we can remedy that situation right now,” says Mendieta, pulling a box from her pantry. “There's a Web site called Franken Berry Fanatics where you can buy a lot of the harder-to-find sugar cereals like Boo Berry. I mean, you can't eat this stuff every day, but it's fun to have around.”

Mendieta pours me a bowl of Franken Berry and I watch the milk bubble up through the cereal, the artificial colors swirling off the marshmallow bats, slowly staining the milk a pastel hue. I dig in, feeling the rush of corn syrup, dextrose, gelatin, Yellows 5 and 6, Red 40, and Blues 1 and 2 course through my veins. I'm excited. I'm happy. I'm ready to play games. Mendieta smiles and leads me to the living room, where one of her housemates has set up a Matchbox car racetrack.

“It's nice, we all get a kick out of this stuff. It makes it easy,” says Mendieta, taking Hungry Hungry Hippos and Winky Dink down from a shelf. “Our new roommate Josh [Crowgher] prefers the edgier, more adolescent edge — you know, Iggy Pop, the Clash, Alice Cooper. But it all fits together. We're all children of the '70s, so it all works. I'm the only chick I know that collects, though.”

I scan the shelves — Scooby-Doo figurines, Archie and Jughead, the Wacky Races board game, Gumby and Incredible Hulk stretch dolls, Isis and Kiss dolls, the Play-Doh Fun Factory, Charlie's Angels dolls, the Kool-Aid guy, a framed photo of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. Mendieta shuffles through her CDs and cues up “Jungle Boogie” from a Kool & the Gang record represented in vinyl over the doorjamb between Helen Reddy and the Ohio Players.

She puts on a video of H.R. Pufnstuf with the volume down.

“Total saturation,” she says with a wink.

I notice I'm sweating a little.

We play tiddlywinks, but I find the game too slow and methodical for my present mood. Slapping the Hungry Hungry Hippos is much more my speed.

“Want another bowl of cereal? Maybe a Pop-Tart?” asks Mendieta. I nod, and after a minute she appears with a bowl of crispy nuggets floating in chocolate milk and a warm sugar-iced pocket. Despite a slightly queasy feeling, I munch them down, using them to fuel my Rock Em Sock Em Robots tourney. Mendieta doesn't stand a chance. I am unstoppable. Sweating, and trembling slightly, but unstoppable.

“When your roommates come home, we should play Twister,” I suggest. “And Clue.” Fifteen minutes later, I'm passed out on a green beanbag chair having psychedelic milk dreams.

“You're going to be late for roller disco,” says Mendieta.

“Auntie Em, is that you?” I mumble.

“You're going to be late for roller disco,” repeats Mendieta. “I wish I could go.”

It's like a dream, except I feel like hell — exhausted, cranky, sugar-saturated, and in no mood for disco. Still, you only get to revamp your childhood once every few months in this town, so I pull on my denim jumpsuit and white platform boots and head out to Oakland's Dry Ice Roller Hockey Arena, but there is nary a halter top in sight.

“The game just ended,” explains David G. Miles Jr., the “Godfather of Skating,” who first brought music to the Sunday skate in Golden Gate Park in 1979. “Come on back in a while.”

Following a rumor, my photographer and I head over to Alameda, trolling four quiet blocks around the intersection of Santa Clara and Webster in hopes of seeing evidence of Lucky Ju Ju (, a room housing a private collection of 20 1970s pinball machines, offered for free play every Saturday night by Michael Schiess. But the streets are mute; Alameda is not giving up her cache of disco-era diversions easily. Just as we are about to admit defeat, a large man with a big dog, an iron cross T-shirt, and a matching cap cheerfully points us in the direction of a nearby parking lot.

Following the muffled sound of surf music and ringing bells, we slip through an open doorway into a tiny storefront obscured entirely by band fliers and posters, into the land of Lucky Ju Ju.

“Initially, I got interested in collecting pinball machines just for the artwork,” explains Schiess, who teaches a class called “Interactive Kinetic Art and the Pinball Machine” at the Crucible when he's not freelancing for the Exploratorium, Chabot Space and Science Center, and Ned Kahn Studios. “Every machine has a theme and a story. I wanted to repaint and retheme them. Then I realized they are a great way to teach people about electricity and electronics. They're so fun and simple.

“Now I want to open a little museum that traces the history of Alameda through the pinball machine. Before the Navy came in, Alameda was like Coney Island. There were roller coasters and arcades and Ferris wheels. But, for now, I do this every Saturday.”

As we talk, the small room slowly fills with people from around the East Bay, who wave hello and drop donations in a jar to help pay for the rent and electricity on the space. Some of them just bring beer, which they deposit in the cooler alongside the chips and homemade guacamole Schiess supplied for the night.

“Folks drink beer in here, so unchaperoned kids aren't allowed,” he explains.

Unchaperoned adults are quite a different matter.

“I can't think of anything more fun to do on a Saturday night,” says Jem Gruber, singer for the East Bay band Cleve-Land, who tracked down Schiess when he decided to buy a pinball machine.

“I would've gotten totally ripped off if it weren't for Schiess,” says the 35-year-old Gruber with all the enthusiasm of a devotee. “I fixed up the machine I have, and it's rockin' out in my basement, but I still come here because it's a nice little social scene. Just like arcades in the old days.”

None of Schiess' pinball machines — El Dorado, High Hand, Scuba, Jack in the Box, Royal Flush — was produced after 1979, and they all have the smooth, uncomplicated feel of those early games.

“Take Scuba,” says Schiess, pulling back the plunger and sliding his fingers over the flipper buttons. “It's such a fluid machine. I have it set on a slow play, so it feels like you're playing underwater. No specials, no bonuses, just short flippers and the ball. It puts you in a certain frame of mind.”

“It's the swoosh and glide and the music, and you just feel like you're on top of the world,” says a gal in sequins and bell-bottoms as she adjusts her roller skates.

In the rink, a man in a purple pimp coat and two women in halter tops sail past, while “Dancing Queen” blares over the sound system. Four skaters use the center circle to practice a dance routine that even I remember from back in the day, as a very funky Santa tries on some break dance moves.

While the Dry Ice Roller Hockey Arena could do better in terms of lighting and décor, the 60 skaters who have turned up to roller disco like it's 1979 have more than made up for the shortcomings with fancy threads and fancier footwork. I smile, the effects of cereal psychosis vanishing with every rotation of the wheels.

“Roller disco is going to make a comeback,” assures David G. Miles Jr.

At least for the night, I agree.

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