Literature, Memoir, recent, Top Stories

The Man at the Arcade

It was March, 1987, and I was 15 years old. I was in the arcade on Wilson, in Uptown, Chicago, asking for quarters. I’d only recently been released from the mental hospital. I didn’t know where my parents lived.

That morning, I’d made my way to the 51st Street Elevated, where I climbed the back of the station onto the platform and caught a train to Loyola. There I met up with some friends. I had new friends at the group home, but I didn’t like them as much as my friends on the North Side.

That doesn’t explain how I arrived at the arcade on Wilson, though. Why Wilson, and not Dennis’s place on Clark Street near the 24th District? Maybe I had a meeting with my caseworker at the Department of Children and Family Services office, or something like that. We’re talking 32 years ago. Maybe it wasn’t March. Maybe it was April.

I asked a man for a quarter and he said no. The guy kind of sneered at me. He had a meanness to him. So I asked someone else. Then the man approached me and gave me a couple of quarters and watched while I played Frenzy. I was terrific at that game, outrunning the stick-figure robot killers and racking up extra lives.

It seemed odd that the man decided to give me the quarters. What had changed? When I finished the game, he asked if I wanted to get high and I said sure, and we drove down to the lake.

He had an unremarkable face. He asked about my school and where I lived, and I explained it to him as best I knew it. I’d left home and lived on the streets. Then I was arrested. By that time, my father had moved, and I didn’t know where, so the state took custody of me. After a suicide attempt, I spent three months in a locked facility. And now I was out, and living with a bunch of other wards, all of us ineligible for foster care because there was something wrong with us. We got in trouble. We stole. We were violent. We didn’t do well with authority and we weren’t grateful to the people who did their best to help.

I’m speaking in generalities of course. It’s a spectrum.

I don’t remember the man’s name but let’s call him Bobby, even though he looked like a Wilbur. He was probably 40 or 50 years old. Bobby talked about his time in the military. He said, “I’m not gay,” then offered me $20 to masturbate in front of him.

I must have looked confused, because he tried to explain the request. He said he used to masturbate with his friend when he was stationed overseas. It made him comfortable. It was either important to him, or he thought it was important to me, that he was not a homosexual. Was he telling the truth? I’ll never know.

We were sitting in the car, parked out near the edge of the pier. The tide was in, and the waves crashed against the rocks. No one in their right mind would jump in the lake when it was like that, yet people died every year. It was dusk and the sun was taking its time tucking itself in for the night.

I thought about his offer. Twenty dollars was a lot of money—though my friends had started robbing houses, and they were making a lot more than that. In a fistful of years I’d be stripping in the gay clubs along Belmont and Halsted. So really, what was the big deal? But I shrugged and said no, I didn’t think so, and he drove me home.

I was home on time and didn’t say anything to the staff in the office by the entrance, sitting near the notebooks they filled in at the end of each shift. That night, there was something of a party upstairs. Maybe it was another another night, but why split hairs? I was only in that place for six horrific months before they kicked me out, and I ended up in a different group home on the North Side, near where I grew up. No more climbing onto trains.

In our little party in Dante’s room, we drank Southern Comfort, strong whiskey cut with syrup, and my roommate CatEyes gave me my first tattoo, a large blue dagger on my left shoulder. The other kids shot dice, gambling everything they had—t-shirts, shoe laces, bubble gum—the bric-a-brac of our transient lives.

I was terrified of CatEyes, but that night we were friends. And he really did have the most beautiful green eyes. His body was like a sculpture—short and muscular, with a little trail of tight curly hairs below his navel. He was 18, already an adult. He didn’t even have to pretend to go to school. He had a job and was working on a general-education diploma, which I sometimes helped him with.

Craig was tripping on acid. The staff downstairs wouldn’t come upstairs alone, and there was only one staff member on duty overnight. It was anarchy in the best and worst ways. It was a party that could turn into a gang fight. I was always a minority. There just weren’t many white kids in Chicago who weren’t eligible for foster care.

At one point, the carpet caught fire and jokes started. The fire went out. Craig let everybody know his girlfriend wasn’t caramel, she was chocolate. In the morning, I tried to wash off the tattoo, but it wasn’t going anywhere until I covered it with a larger tattoo a week before my 18th birthday.

I don’t know what made me think of Bobby, the man in the arcade. I was exposed to lots of sexual predators in those years. Nine months before meeting him, I went to a hotel room with a couple of homeless guys to meet a man in a dress and a wig. He wasn’t interested in me, though; they’d been wrong about that. So I did some of the coke and laid back on the couch while he felated one homeless guy, and then the other. Then he ran away across the motel parking lot.

My childhood was filled with strange rooms and stranger’s cars.

What I’m wondering now, in 2019—during a time when we seem to have divided our understanding of the world into good and evil, punishment and collaboration—is whether Bobby thought he was a good person. What did Bobby really want? If I had masturbated for him, would it have made him satisfied. And for how long? Did he have a plan for making himself happy that went beyond that moment? I’d like to tell him, if he’s still alive (which would make him over 80 years old), that he didn’t traumatize me. The whole thing barely registered.

The thing is, the world in 1987 didn’t make any sense to me. I was a kid stuck in a state system. People came and went. You formed alliances to stay safe. Adults tried to fill the spaces, but all they offered were moments before they disappeared. I didn’t trust any of the social workers, or teachers. People were unfair. Every time I got put in an institution, no one seemed to know when or where I was going to next. Sometimes, it seemed like the world was against me. But when I did finally get the chance to read all those carefully kept files, my overwhelming impression was that they—the social workers, guardian ad litems, judges, teachers and volunteers—were trying their best.

In 1987, I was 15 hanging out in an arcade. There was a grown man who’d come in alone. There were parents with children and kids my age in groups. Everybody was looking for something in all the frantic lights and noise of that panicked place.

Though nothing happened at the beach, a crime was committed—solicitation of a minor. Does that make Bobby a monster? Every day it seems like someone names a monster and invites us to participate in their revenge against the person who took something from them that they can never get back. But I’ve met very few monsters in life. And, as far as I know, Bobby wasn’t one of them—even though I could turn him into a monster very easily. I don’t think he was trying to harm me, and I have no reason to believe that he took pleasure in the suffering of others.

It’s taken me 32 years to unlearn the lessons beginning in the weeks, months and years after I got out of Bobby’s car. Everything I felt about the world that night was essentially correct. An outsider is always an outsider. Don’t go in the water when the waves are taller than the trees. The glass ceiling is never far away; it covers you wherever you go.


Stephen Elliott is an author, editor, activist and film director. His work for Quillette includes the article How An Anonymous Accusation Derailed My Life. Follow him on Twitter at @S___Elliott. 

Featured image: Photo of author, center. 


  1. Well if the author’s question is “is Bobby a monster”? then my answer is he sure wasn’t a saint. He was out to exploit the author and whoever else was vulnerable for his own pleasure. So, yes, he was a monster. I do at least appreciate the author being honest about having a messed up childhood. I think a lot of people who have a safe, sheltered existence don’t really realise how weird and complicated life and people can be. But moral relativism can also blind one to things. Bobby was a hunter out for prey. Compassion is good, but sympathy for pederasts is pushing it.

  2. I hitchiked across the country a number of times and was often picked up by men who wanted sex. I was 18, so older, but came from a traditional background and didn’t even know what “gay” meant. But I knew they were up to no good after the first few miles, and got them to drop me off. Some became angry. But I knew I wasn’t gay or interested. I would’ve liked some of the women who picked me up to offer that, but they were mostly interested in talking and companionship and as I recall some even let me drive their cars. This was back in the seventies. What do I think of those guys? They were hunters, for sure, looking for fresh meat. They were also held back in those days because to be gay was to be a pariah. I recall thinking that I was extremely glad not to be that way. Now, I can understand their desperation. As Kapeth says, moral relativism can lead to the rationalization of all sorts of actions, which were once considered part of the seven deadly sins.

  3. Jesus Christ. You’d think after a life of group homes, foster care, and stripping this guy wouldn’t still be such a naive rube. There’s no way to discern what this obvious predator’s intentions were. He could have just wanted to watch a tug (doubtful, that was his opening gambit)…he could have wanted to forcibly rape the author and leave his dead body in a dumpster.

    FTR I was also a homeless street kid, but in the mid 90’s. Predators flock to these groups of vulnerable kids and are constantly trying to pick off the meek and gullible ones. I never met a predator I didn’t tell to fuck off, but I witnessed many other kids fall for obvious ruses like “a warm place to stay for the night” or “some money to ‘just take pictures’”.

    As I was reading I had a suspicion that the author was possibly trying to excuse “Bobby” because he is also trying to currently excuse himself for the same behaviors or desires.

    What a weird article.

  4. This was very well written up to the end. I’m left confused why the essay turned into “Is Bobby evil?” Why are we supposed to care? We can’t know and the question is moot. This Bobby did what he did, and who knows what happened for the rest of his life.

    Meanwhile, we do know something about the author, you know, the subject of the essay. We learn about his very troubled life and how alone he was, and I wanted to read more. He seemed to have an exceptionally rough start and I was curious to see how he got to the point where he was middle aged and writing exceptionally.

    Then all of a sudden an incident in his life that can’t possibly match probably the 100 of other disturbing incidents he must have gone through, many worse, suddenly became the focus of the story, but worse, we are supposed to wonder if it all meant whether this random person we don’t know and can’t know (and neither does the author), is evil and a monster. Why? How would this matter anyway? So let’s say, “Yeah Bobby was a monster!” So what? What does that have to do with what the author’s life and experience? (I myself had a very crappy childhood so I don’t mean this in the sense of being dismissive of his experences. On the contrary.)

    The author finishes with: “It’s taken me 32 years to unlearn the lessons beginning in the weeks, months and years after I got out of Bobby’s car. Everything I felt about the world that night was essentially correct. An outsider is always an outsider. Don’t go in the water when the waves are taller than the trees. The glass ceiling is never far away; it covers you wherever you go.”

    This seems very forced. None of these lessons seemed to be what he ‘learned’ from this random potential pedophile who ended up doing nothing, and who he never saw again. Here’s what I wonder: Is the author perhaps completely repressing his very disturbing childhood so he can focus on a very minor character within it? Is he forcing this disjointed conclusion because he himself is still disjointed (understandably)? Or does he feel pressured somehow to come up with a Pollyannish focus on one of the least disturbing of the disturbing aspects of his life - a pedophile who never did anything - because he feels readers don’t want to read the other far more disturbing aspects? And is this why we have this tacked-on ending?

    Regardless, I hope he author writes another essay telling us how he got from point A to point B, where he is now. It doesn’t have to be uplifting. But he’s survived, and he’s a strong writer, which, given the circumstances, is pretty impressive on its face.

  5. Something that has always bewildered me about the modern fad of making monsters of people who break always-evolving rules of attitude or behavior: it’s a hideous crime if it happens outside of the home, but violations that happen inside the home are often shrugged off.

    I was repeatedly sexually assaulted at the age of 5 by a friend of the family; I was abandoned by my father after my parents’ divorce; I found out in my mid thirties that he wasn’t even my father and my parents had known my entire life and had withheld that information from me; I was abused emotionally and verbally by my mother. Result: Yawn. It’s my job to reconcile all that on a personal level, figure out how to love and trust and have a normal relationship, and no one particularly cares, not that I expect them to.

    Louis C.K. talked some grown women into voluntarily being in the room while he masturbated, and it’s some headline-making, horrible scandal indicating serious victimhood and a ritual defenestration of the ‘perpetrator.’ I don’t understand why this, and other in my opinion relatively minor errors in judgement that constitute the metoo movement, is considered an example of a social emergency while people like me and the author have had these experiences which we managed to just get over and move on from.

  6. I totally hear you! I have the same experience. Some of my own crap: My father raped me for seven years, my mother knew and looked away, my ex husband then went on to abuse me emotionally (I was a piece of shit, useless, ridiculous, and so on) and then raped my sons but the divorce court didn’t care about that (despite my son talking about it to the non-confidential therapist; she just quit as opposed to reporting it).

    The world’s reaction is also a big yawn. Then I read people freaking out over voluntarily watching a grown man masturbate as though they had no feet to walk out of the room with, and the most horific thing in the world is a man - gasp - ejaculating on his stomach.

    It seems to me that there are two big messages here:

    1. The only thing the current world cares about now is the narrative of intersectionality. If you are in a collective that is ‘oppressed’ and then the ‘oppressor’ of that collective does something, anything, no matter how minor, that you are troubled by, that is huge news. A man masturbates and the contemporary “feminists” (who have made the movement a Victorianesque infantilization of women and a concurrent pathological fear of male sexuality) act as though this were the worst thing in the world because it illustrates their own warped view of the world, at least it can be made to seem to illustrate it.

    2. The main movers and shakers of the new intersectional movement are upper class white people who have very limited, if any, experiences with actual suffering and struggle. They have been so cushioned in their lives that they really think that a man winking at them is like a rape. They have to reach to the bottom of the bottom of the barrel to find a single story that can be made to fit their narrative if they close their eyes enough. For instance, an upper class Black friend of mine, in her 50s, has jumped on the ‘oppressed’ narrative. Since she now must post anything supporting that and ignore anything contradicting that, she is now posting any racism she’s experineced. The trouble is, she hasn’t experienced any. She had to literally reach back to her college years and a single roommate who had said she was “articulate.” So in order to place herself in the collective Victim Privileged Group, she had to go back 40 years to a very minor incident that - at most- was an 18 year old kid saying something insensitive. That is supposed to have impacted her 4 decades later. Worse, people responded to her post by affirming how horrible the racism she had experienced was.

    While these upper class people are pretending to suffer from their intersectional first world horrors, real people are actually suffering. People are getting raped, being victims of vicious racism, and so on.

    But more than that, if your suffering doesn’t fall into the category, as mine and yours don’t, then they literally could not care less. This is why the SAT’s proposal to include “adversity” without really meaning ‘adversity,’ but instead meaning "falling high up on the victimhood hierarchy’ based on your group identity. So if I were applying to college now, I would be more ‘privileged’ than a prince from Saudi Arabia who has an allowance of $2000/week and who has had a fabulous childhood (this is actually a person one of my kids knew in college btw). Indeed, there wouldn’t even be words for what I went through. I just have to suck it up.

    Which is fine with me. I should deal with this individually. My suffering should not be compared to anyone else’s. No one should be called an evil monster as that solves literally nothing and is rarely true anyway (indeed it actually makes the abuse more possible, as people then look for abusers who appear as Evil Monsters, which is never the case and allows sociopaths to hide their intent far easier.)

  7. I agree with you completely about the ‘‘first world problem’’ nature of most whining by ‘‘victims’’. However, I have one question: is there an ‘‘upper class’’ in the US where this no aristocracy or landed gentry? I would have thought upper middle class was aboout as high as you can get in a republic.

  8. The US has a very small “upper class”, but not in the sense that it exists in the UK and Europe.

    We have no hereditary aristocracy recognizable at a national level, but some cities and counties have defacto internal hereditary classes where local political and business interests tend to concentrate in the hands of a few families stretching back several generations.

    These are aristocracies of a sort, but if one is the scion of a family who has dominated a county in Alabama for four generations, this will mean nothing at a party in New York. Once returned home, however, almost everyone you meet on the street will either work for you or one of your family members, and there will be some forelock pulling.

    Income does allow one to affect the lifestyles of the upper classes of Europe, but I respectfully disagree with Dcl that a half-million to a million a year in earnings from one’s own labor is sufficient to socially elevate someone in the US to the same level as a sound family tree in Europe. No one addresses a hedge fund manager as “M’Lord.” Whereas in London, even a penniless viscount will be welcome in some of the best homes.

    I would have to say that the Kennedys are a peculiar exception to the “no upper class rule”, though, largely due to a continuing fairytale spun by the news media for the purpose of ad revenue.

  9. Unlike the intellectual masturbation of some of the authors ( and commenters), Quillette has an article about actual masturbation. Keep up the good work!

  10. I appreciate the shout out but I didn’t say a half million was like gentry. I said a billion was. I get the feeling sometimes that people here don’t read fully what people say, and just zoom into a few sentences and then extrapolate, sometimes incorrectly as here. Maybe I’m guilty of the same thing, I don’t know.

    Anyway, I was responding to his question, if there was an ‘upper class’ in the US. This question was in response to my own post which tossed around the term 'upper class." My answer is yes, we have an upper class.

    I wasn’t saying half a million is like a hedge fund manager, nor was I saying we had a class system as in the UK where you have hereditary titles. I was simply trying to respond to his question about my post. I couldn’t tell whether this was a facetious question as it is patently obvious to anyone living in the US that we have classes based largely on income/investments but not entirely. It can also be based on your prestige and standing, which includes the Kennedy family as you point out, but also particular careers, eg the intellectual professorial classes which are often (not always) linked to upper middle class values even though their salaries are not upper middle class. These social classes are less intransigent than in other countries, but the classes are still very important as it is likely you will remain in the class you were born into for a variety of complex reasons.

    As a side note, this is one of the things non-Americans don’t get about America from movies that an American can tell class instantly in many cases, and after a brief interaction in most other cases, based on their accent and clothes and the house and health and appearance and weight and their education and so on (all these things combined, not in isolation). We don’t like to talk about social class and the intersectional movement ignores it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. But we don’t have landed gentry per se. We do have some families that are high enough on the class strata that they function as gentry in everything but title. For instance, one of my friends’ in-law is a billionaire, from one of the wealthiest 400 families in the US. He doesn’t work, never has. His father is the banker. But he has a very big influence across the globe through philanthropist work. This is like gentry in that his name alone opens doors, they sit on influential committees, and he and his wife are recognized pretty much anywhere.

    However, we also don’t have rigid class distinctions and regard every person as having dignity, and will talk across classes more readily than some other cultures I’ve been immersed in. At least, that’s my impression. For instance, when I lived in the UK, the porters and cabbies and similar workers thought I was jeering at them when I asked them a question starting with “Sir.” For us, it’s a sign of respect that means “You have dignity regardless of your class.” But at the same time, I’ve noticed that because we like to imagine ourselves as purely meritocratic, the upper and upper middle classes - who can land jobs and internships via their cronies much much more readily than regular middle class or working class shlump - downplay or ignore the role their connections make as they’re so used to them they think everyone has them (I think).

    This is a much longer more rambling response than I intended but there you go.

  11. Strange story. Not entirely sure why the author wrote it.

  12. I’m not entirely sure it’s to excuse himself, in light of the interview with the woman who had the illicit tryst with Roman Polanski at 13 years old. In her case, she seems to think that if she considers Polanski a monster, she is being forced to take the narrative foisted upon her by the district attorney, and quite frankly, society at large. If he is indeed a monster, that makes her a victim, and she refuses to be defined as such. Perhaps the author is trying to forgive this individual so he doesn’t have to feel “tainted” by sexual abuse,which is understandable given the widely held, though not entirely false, notion that men who have endured it in their youth are likely to dish it out as adults.

    I find Mr. Elliott’s statement I don’t think he was trying to harm me, and I have no reason to believe that he took pleasure in the suffering of others, to be really intriguing, since it is almost verbatim what Miss Geimer stated in regards to her incident with Roman Polanski.

  13. It seems that even as adults, they are not allowed to assume agency over their childhood experiences.

  14. I really see where the author is coming from with this. When I was 15 and staying in a Spanish youth hostel an older man (30s?) started touching me sexually after the lights were out. I went along with it for a good while and even kissed him, which I didn’t enjoy, and when I indicated as much he stopped. Now, I’m not sure what the law was then in Spain, but it’s highly probably that he broke the law. It’s also obviously not the kind of behaviour I would recommend! And my experience is doubtless very different to other people’s in somewhat similar situations. But here’s the point: I had breakfast with the guy the next morning and didn’t feel any animus at all. I never really thought twice about the episode. It didn’t affect me at all. If I had the chance to punish that guy for what he did, I wouldn’t.

  15. Seems to me there are two articles here which both lose out by being mixed together. First is the compellingly written personal story, and the second is an exploration of how we define monsters, how much nuance is possible in the space between good and evil, in the context, I suppose, of current cancel culture.
    The second is a fascinating discussion, and the Bobby story can certainly highlight some aspects- can a single act make a person evil in their entirety, if the act is sufficiently evil? How do we gage that? Does intent matter? Do we take into consideration the apparent choice he gave his victim to accept or reject his criminal solicitation? How much does the impact on the victim matter? If the victim didn’t really care, is the act less evil? Do we regard some actions as objectively evil, regardless of the victim’s point of view?

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