In the early 1980’s, when I was a high school student in the small Upper Peninsula town of Menominee, Michigan, a vacant restaurant near the Wisconsin border was acquired by Bernie, owner of the gas station next door. He christened it "The Playground," acquired some of those newfangled video game machines, set up a snack bar with a chip rack, a microwave, and a toaster oven, and opened for business.
My younger brother and I (under the influence of too many Archie comic books) assumed this strange little joint was our link to fun and adventure, and we started hanging out there a few times a week. We didn't meet any new girls or get involved in any drag races, but we did get a memorable look at the operation, up close, in all its inept glory.
A portly, bucktoothed gentleman named Dennis managed the place, though that may be too strong a word. He spent most of his time complaining to anyone who would listen about his job, his family, and his boss Bernie. He'd stand indignantly among the piles of used napkins and crumpled drink cups. He’d pontificate endlessly about the kids who'd come in and mess up the place. Occasionally he'd pull out a broom and slide the dirt from one side of the red tile floor to the other, or push a mop casually through the melange of spilled soda, salt, and ketchup. But these initiatives were consistently ineffective, and customers were left to shoulder broom and dustpan to clear a few square feet for themselves.
Dennis commuted to his job from the neighboring town of Wallace, which was a good twenty minutes’ drive away. He was, we soon learned, a volunteer firefighter in his hometown. This meant that on occasion, Dennis would answer the ringing phone, exclaim profanely, shoo everyone out of the place, and close down. We'd watch his truck tear out of the parking lot and wonder whether the flaming structure would still be standing by the time he got there. Then we'd wonder whether he'd turned off the Playground’s toaster oven before he left.
The establishment's selection of arcade games was -- to put it kindly -- dated. The newest machines were Dig Dug and Ms. Pac-Man, each of which were a few years old at the time The Playground opened in 1984. The other games (like Space Zap and Warlords) were of late 1970's vintage and pretty long in the tooth by technology standards.
The candy selection was equally limited, but delivered good value for money, particularly the Ferrara Pan products like "Mike & Ike" and "Lemonheads." These slow-dissolving candies were favored because you could buy a box of them and nibble for days on end. They were also round, hard, and brightly colored, which made them great for pitching at friends. A piece of candy could be thrown back and forth until somebody stepped on it, ending the game and adding to the calorie-rich mess on the floor.
Vastly more interesting, though also limited, was The Playground’s "food" selection. The menu offered a broad variety of frozen foods -- burritos, ham-and-cheese sandwiches, pizza -- all ready for a quick warming-up in Dennis' aging microwave. When my brother and I happened to be the first customers in on a Saturday morning, we were often the beneficiaries of Dennis' kitchen experiments with new products. He'd heat something up and give it to us to sample; whether it was still frozen in the middle, or fried to a crisp, we gave him feedback and ate the evidence. It often took Dennis two or three tries to get his cooking approach nailed down, so on these mornings we ate like guinea pigs.
The ham-and-cheese sandwiches were most reliably tasty, with remarkably fresh-tasting bread, salty ham and creamy cheese that tended to leak out all over the place. Considerable care was required because the hot cheese was not unlike napalm -- if it stuck to your fingers or the roof of your mouth, a nasty burn could result.
An inexplicable customer favorite was the frozen pizza, which consisted of a little square of cracker-thin, cardboard-like crust topped with off-tasting tomato sauce, grainy artificial cheese, and shriveled toppings that resembled small insects when the toasting was done. But it was arguably pizza that we kids could afford on a limited budget, so the smell of it always permeated the Playground air on a busy night.
Since there weren't many places for teenagers to hang out in Menominee, The Playground attracted a diverse and patient crowd, but even so it survived for only six months. There were not enough kids in the neighborhood to sustain the business model, and the establishment’s unique character was not likely to inspire return business among the squeamish.
But to this day, every now and then, I hear the Dig Dug theme, recall the scent of scorched frozen pizza and smile.