Saturday mornings in the summer mean only one thing in my hometown. The Flea Market! In the early morning twilight you can watch the trail of rusting pick-up trucks and panel vans as it snakes its way though the neighborhood. The weekend safari leads to the abandoned drive-in at the edge of town, a vast asphalt jungle where the natives assemble to barter their trinkets and treasures.
Many come to spend the day browsing, some come looking for bargains, others just want to get a little exercise and greet the neighbors. But for me, the flea market is a more serious affair. I study the flea market. Intensely. I monitor its vital signs as if it were one giant, living organism. I know the location of every vendor, the kind of wares he is likely to bring, the time he arrives, the color of his shoes. It is all meticulously catalogued in my journal. Like a trained commando preparing for a mission of life and death, I pore over every page the night before I launch my assault. The tiniest detail is studied and re-studied until finally, as if by branding iron, it is seared into my brain. It may seem obsessive, but experience has proven time and again that it is the only way. The discipline is vital to the success of my personal mission, the importance of which cannot be overstated. I collect classic video games.
I was rifling through a box of Atari 2600 Commons, my mission well underway, when my concentration was broken by a peculiar, almost mystical sounding voice.
"Ahhh, it is Atari that you seek?" came the voice from somewhere behind me.
I turned around to answer. Strange. Nobody there. "I'm hearing things!" I was beginning to regret hurrying off this morning without breakfast. "Better make a quick detour to McDonald's and get a bite to eat..." I thought. Then, turning my attention back to the box of video games, "...just as soon as I make my find." That, after all, was the whole reason I had missed breakfast in the first place. Another night of tortured sleep from worry over whether I would ever make another 'find'. My restlessness had caused me to oversleep my alarm by 10 minutes. Delaying my mission, of course, was unthinkable. Breakfast was dismissed.
"Ahhhhtaaaahhhhreeeeee" the voice beckoned again, drawing it out this time as if it were a Buddhist chant.
That shook me. Damn! SumGuy was here! SumGuy, at last, had tracked me down and now he was taunting me. Hiding and taunting me. It rankled me to the core. I snapped myself around to confront my tormentor. And just as promptly, I did a double take when, at last, I spied him.
Now, I have seen my share of creepy, smelly and unclassifiably odd looking creatures through countless flea market soirees over the years. But this guy was STRANGE! Strange like the time I was driving along the freeway one Super Bowl Sunday. It was the middle of the day; I had all 6 lanes to myself; there wasn't another car in sight. In the endless stretch of roadway that lay before me I could see everything. Potholes, raised reflectors, exit ramps, a pedestrian bridge, a toilet. Huhh? A toilet? There it was! Right in the middle of the carpool lane. It was standing straight up as if it had been bolted down onto the highway — not a scratch on it. It was as oddly out of place as...well, as this guy standing right in front of me now.
He was a distinctly swarthy looking gentleman, an anthropologist's nightmare, possibly of Polynesian origin. His deeply carved features removed all doubt he was a child, despite the fact that he stood no more than 2 feet tall! He was the type of person whose age is impossible to guess. He may have been 40, but he could just as easily have been four thousand years old. He glared at me with a menacing, wooden expression. For some unimaginable reason he looked vaguely familiar.
"It IS Atari that you seek." This time it was not a question.
"Umm. No," I denied instinctively. "I was just lookin' for some 8-tracks for my old tape deck. Gotta look really hard to find any nowadays. They are getting..." I let the sentence die right there in its tracks. The intensity of the little man's stare made it clear that he wasn't buying a single word.
Then it hit me. I realized why he looked so familiar. "Bira Bira?" I asked myself, incredulously. "Oh, man!" I thought. "I must be delirious. I better make that burger run right now!"
It was Voltaire who once said that if God did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent him. Perhaps this might explain how the legend of Bira Bira was born. It is a bizarre mythology, completely unknown outside the eccentric inner circle of the most ardent classic video game hunters. But to his desperate core of followers Bira Bira is worshiped as a deity, the patron god of Good Luck. Belief in Bira Bira, it is said, leads the faithful to the secret hiding places of the rare Atari video games that they seek. But woe be unto the Unbelievers! For they shall be cursed with the Great Drought, an agonizing stretch of weeks, even months, where good video game 'finds' are impossible. His most zealous believers carry idols of his likeness with them on the hunt. The sacred idol is a carved wooden figurine. The resemblance that it bears to the strange little man who now stood before me was positively spooky.
I felt stupid. I was uncertain whether I had actually spoken the preposterous name. Bira Bira! If the little man heard that he would assume that I was either a horrible bigot or a raving lunatic. But did he hear it? No. I was safe, I convinced myself. Even if I had said "Bira Bira" out loud it could not have been more than a whisper. Surely, the silly name was drowned in the outdoor din of flea market hawkers and hagglers.
"No!" the dark little man thundered his reply. I am Bira Berra. Bira Bira is my brother."
His answer startled me, bursting my little bubble. This Bira Berra character was either a lip reader or a mind reader. Either way, he had me completely unnerved.
"This cannot be happening!" I screamed inside my head. "No way! He's a myth. There is no Bira Bira! He's just a cheap piece of tiki kitsch that some yo-yo brought home from a Club Med vacation, a cheesy wooden idol that somehow got twisted into a whacked out pseudo-religion by a demented band of feeble-minded video game addicts. And, now he's supposed to have a brother? Scratch Mickey D's. I gotta get out of this heat right now and down a few cold ones over at Millbourne's."
"You are one of the Unbelievers." Bira Berra boomed in a cold, condemning tone. "How foolhardy! Have you not made a meaningful 'find' since March? Perhaps it may be next March before you make another!"
"How did you know that!" I demanded. And, he was right. The last ER cart I found was some 5 months ago, back on March 22 according to my journal. I was in the grips of the most demoralizing drought of my video game collecting career. But that is the sort of obsessive-compulsive statistic I dare not share with anyone. How could this stranger have known?
"Like my brother" he answered without being asked, "I, too, possess vast mystical powers that are beyond your understanding."
I shook my head. I couldn't believe that I was getting suckered into this conversation. It was a tight rope walk, a stretch between the surreal and the insane. A scene out of an old movie, Ghostbusters, flashed in my head. I tried to dismiss the thought, but the mischievous hand of Fate decided that today was the day to crawl up my shorts and goose me. I couldn't help but ask.
"Are you a god?" came my inane query. The deadpan seriousness of it was a marvel to behold.
"No! Bira Bira is a god. Bira Berra is simply 'enlightened'. I can enlighten you too, but only if you believe. Believe in Bira Bira and trust in me, Bira Berra."
I burst into tears of laughter at this revelation. "You mean to tell me that your brother is a god and that you are some sort of...Swami? Ha ha, haha ha!" The crackpots you meet at the flea market! We were beginning to draw a crowd. I moved on to the next flea vendor stall. The curious, dark little man followed me.
Neither his story nor his stony stare ever wavered. "Not a god. Not a Swami," he explained as we walked. "A Yogi I am. I can show you the path to enlightenment, but you must believe. Enlightenment will reveal the secret hiding places of the rare electronic antiquities that elude you."
"Right. You're a Yogi." This was not just absurd, it was pure lunacy. Why was I still talking to this wing nut? I must have been desperate for conversation.
"If you're a Yogi, then I'm Joe DiMaggio!" I quipped.
Bira Berra's diminutive stature had its advantages. My sarcasm sailed harmlessly over his head. But to far greater annoyance, my outburst appeared to have taken the opposite effect of what I had intended. His harsh demeanor softened noticeably. A knowing twinkle glinted in his once piercing eyes. His wooden face became that of an elderly man privately savoring a cherished memory, too advanced in age to summon a smile.
"Tell me great Yogi, brother of Bira Bira or whoever you are. I believe!" I laced my words with the most venomous sarcasm I could conjure. I hoped that this time he would get the message and just go away. "When, O Mighty One, will this great drought of mine finally end?" I beseeched. (And I don't beseech all too often, let me tell you!)
"It's tough to make predictions," the Yogi replied, "especially about the future."
Huhh? I gathered from his confused answer that he must not have understood the question. Of course! How stupid of me. How was he going to know what I meant by 'drought'? Collector lingo. Usually, I don't let that sort of thing slip out in public, but this guy had me completely unglued.
"I mean, I'm in a slump," I explained.
"What kind of slump, Joe?"
"Ben," I corrected. "You know. March 22. That slump."
"Slump? You ain't in no slump. You just ain't hittin'."
Was that a Bronx accent I detected? Nawww. Where did that come from?
Well, true enough. I just wasn't hittin', that's all. I suppose a slump is what you make it. When I took a moment to consider the meaning in his words I discovered that they were even a bit uplifting. Enlightened? Hmmm. Maybe he does possess some kind of strange wisdom. I decided it wouldn't hurt to humor him a little. I let the odd little man tag along as I combed the rest of the flea market.
He followed me dutifully but wordlessly as I passed the next 50 or so vendors. But I did not find a thing. Not a Combat nor a Pac-Man in sight.
The scorching heat of the noonday sun made burning coals of the tar black asphalt underfoot. The day was a trial by fire. Grueling heat and growling hunger conspired against me, muddling my judgement. "I will not stop for food until I make my 'find'," I solemnly vowed. The Yogi munched on a corn dog. Soon, he led me to a vendor stall with a large display table. It was surprisingly well shaded. I leaned to rest, escaping the maddening rays of the sun. Delirium gave way to frustration.
Sensing I needed encouragement, Bira Berra offered another pearl. "Ninety percent of video game hunting is mental," he said, "the other half is physical."
What was it about this guy? Everything he said had a peculiar ring of truth to it — obvious but insightful, intelligent yet sublimely stupid. It was getting on my nerves. I was about to shoot back with something truly inspired like "Gee, thanks math whiz!" But before I could get the words out, Bira Berra had already applied the physical. He overturned a towering box of old cassette tapes. Herb Alpert & the Tequila Brass, The Mellow Side of Manilow, Throbbing Gristle's 20 Jazz Funk Greats — they all came cascading onto the table in a clattering, cacophonous tribute to the richness of our musical past. The months they spent warping in the sun, no doubt, enhancing their listening quality.
As I motioned to upright the box that now lay fallen on the table, a fleshy blur shot out from behind it. I heard the squishy thud of a chili cheeseburger hitting the ground as a massive paw clamped a gorilla grip around my forearm. My gaze climbed a hairy, sweaty arm, following it upward to the seething face of the flea woman who owned it.
"Those tapes are very valuable collectibles" she snarled with a fury that far exceeded the crime. "Ten dollars each!"
Ten dollars each! I nearly choked. Those things would be here for another 20 years at that price. I started picking up her nasty little 'collectibles'. The grip she held on my arm was most persuasive.
"You will pick up every last one of them!" she screamed at me, punctuating her command with a final, violent jerk of my arm before finally letting go. Four gargantuan red welts, outlined in sludgy burger grease, sprang up on my aching forearm.
Who was this beast of a woman? I could not recall having seen her before. Could she have really been that bent over those ridiculous 'collectibles'? Or was it the spilled meat sandwich that sent her into such a rage? I wasn't quite sure. But there was one thing she made perfectly clear. Here in the junkyard jungle she was Tarzan, Lord of the Tapes.
I threw a pair of her 'collectibles' back into the box with unconcealed contempt.
"Watch what your doing!" the flea beast bellowed angrily. "Just you watch it!"
Without missing a beat, Bira Berra chimed in with more of his sanguine wisdom. "You can see a lot by watching," he said to me.
I don't know which needle dug deeper into my skin, Tarzan's ten dollar tapes or the Yogi's latest "wise" crack. I glanced across the table to witness the flea beast scavenge the remains of her burger from the ground. A single oink was all that betrayed the silence as the greased carrion slipped down her gaping maw. My stomach made a fist. I decided to vent on Bira Berra instead.
"Thanks, Swami," I said acidly. "You can see a lot by watching! I can SEE that you are a pigmy idiot!"
Surprisingly, Bira Berra took no offense to my thinly veiled barb. Instead, he merely pointed to the heap of cassettes that still lay on the table. I had missed them before, but now they were plainly visible. Half buried, in the middle of the pile, were two Atari 2600 video game cartridges!"
The glint of the sun off their silvery labels momentarily blinded me. When my vision returned, I thought that the rest of my senses might abandon me as well. There before me lay, not one, but two of the rarest, most sought after Atari cartridges of them all. My hands trembled as I reached out to touch them. Quadrun! A great light shone down from the heavens. Mangia! I could feel my weight dissolving into electrified vapor. A choir of angels sang an excruciatingly joyful hymn inside my head as I gazed through tearing eyes upon the twin Holy Grails. I wept.
In that moment my assessment of Bira Berra made a complete 180. The little irritant had gone from antagonist to hero with but a single gesture. In my exhilaration, I lost touch with all that was around me. I shouted his praise. "I believe! I believe! Bira Bira, Bira Berra! I Belieeeeeeve!"
The flea beast reared her head and blinked at me as if I was totally insane. Then I could hear the unmistakable clickety-clack of an invisible cash register as dollar figures were tallied in her head. Her darting eyes rapidly measured the value of my attire, the freshness of my haircut, the extent of my dental work.
"Ohhhhh, there they are!" she cried theatrically at last. "I have been looking all over for these babies!" She snatched the game cartridges from my hands. "This group, um..." She shot a glance at a label. "...SpectraVision," she continued, "they only ever recorded these two albums." Without further hint of hesitation, she proceeded to spin a fantastic yarn about how she knew the lead guitarist for SpectraVision personally and how she craftily employed her feminine wiles to seduce the two tapes from him. It was hucksterism's finest hour! Her oily lies flowed effortlessly and with unabashed conviction. It was a command performance that would have made the President of the United States, himself, stand erect and take notice.
My mouth hung open. I was dumbfounded. Totally, utterly blown away.
"Very limited production," the beast rambled on. "Very rare! These tapes will cost you..." she paused to pick something from an armpit, "...twenty dollars," she finally announced. No sooner than she said it, I made an unconscious motion for my wallet. It was an imperceptible gesture, a mere twitch. I could not have moved more than a millimeter, but it lit up her radar like an incoming SCUD. "Each!" she snapped. I cursed myself in silent.
She flicked her fingertips suavely. An unidentifiable mash went 'splat' on Bira Berra's forehead. She shifted her eyes his way. "Or, you can have them both for nuthin'," she offered, "if you want to swap me for that there tiki doll of yours. Heh, heh." Bira Berra gave her the evil eye. The force of his glare rocked her backward on her heels, silencing her. She employed a thumbnail as a toothpick, awaiting my next move.
From what murky abyss, exactly, did this creature slither forth? I had not thought it possible, but the woman was as grotesquely crude as her brutish exterior suggested. It was a testament of will that I had held my tongue.
Now, I have never paid $20 for a used Atari video game in my life. Never! Not even for an ER. The beast was either blessed with uncanny powers of intuition or she was simply mad as a hatter. Given normal circumstances, I would have sparred to the death haggling that price in half and more. But today, normal circumstance lay somewhere on the other side of the looking glass. For the games she held at ransom were not merely ER, they were clear off the scale. My will to haggle had been nuked into oblivion. Add in my chivalrous desire to bid adieu to the lady of such humbling elegance and you get the picture. The twenties shot from my wallet so fast that the motion created twin sonic booms. If you had blinked, you would have missed the greatest slight-of-hand ever performed.
I kissed my 8-track tapes as I bolted from her presence.
"Woohoo!" I screamed, leaping into the air in unrestrained exhilaration. I was Dan O'Brien, standing high upon the Olympic platform. The grueling decathlon, at last, had been won! Flush with victory, I thrust my arms to the heavens, proudly waving The Gold to the thundering adoration of the stadium crowd. It was an eternity wrapped inside a minute. But the minute did end. The deafening ovation subsided, the rainfall of confetti settled, a ring of frazzled bargain hunters looked at me askance. And like the grating drip of a leaky faucet, Bira Berra clapped in sarcastic solitude.
"SpectraVision," I blurted lamely. "I got their only two albums." I lowered my head and stuffed the video games into my pockets.
Thrilled though I was to have snatched gold from the clutches of the beast, my lack of recollection had me deeply concerned. Both the woman and her stand were drawing one huge, mysterious blank. Just where was it that I had I been? I flipped through my journal, but it was no help. The strange site apparently was making its debut. I glanced back at the stand. My eyes followed a gaudy plastic totem pole, upward to the thatched bamboo awning that overhung the main display table. A simple, wooden sign hung from above. 'The Reef Store,' it read. I made a note in my journal.
"And now, the offering please," Bira Berra commanded as we walked off with the booty.
"Whaddaya mean, 'the offering'?" I looked at him suspiciously.
"You must make a sacrifice to prove that you are a true believer" he answered ominously.
"You're crazy! This is a once-in-a-lifetime find! Besides, didn't you say you were not a god? Bira Bira is... maybe. But not you! Just what kind of a scam are you trying to pull here, Yogi?" Circumstances had been driving me to the brink all day. I was livid.
"I will see to it that the offering is to Bira Bira. As I have said, you must believe in him and trust in me."
"I can't do it!" I cried. "The sacrifice is too great! These cartridges are easily worth ten times what I paid for them. To me, they're worth far more than that. I'm only human. And dammit, so are you! Can you honestly say that you could make a sacrifice like this? What would you do if you found, say, a million dollars and you knew who the rightful owner was? What would you do, O Enlightened One?"
"If the guy who lost it was poor, I'd give it back."
"But this is a once-in-a-lifetime find" I whined. "THE HOLY GRAIL! I've only ever had four, maybe five once-in-a-lifetime finds in my life!" Oh my God! Now he's got me doing it! Suddenly, I was scared.
"Is it your wish that those two carts be a last-in-a-lifetime find as well?"
His threat was transparently obvious. It was with agonizing reluctance that I surrendered my two trophies. The Yogi's hands never moved. On contact, the video games vanished as if they had simply blinked from existence. Was this all real? Had I actually held Quadrun and Mangia in my own two hands? I was beginning to doubt my own faculties.
We moved from stall to stall, scouring the black topped terrain as we went. But there was not so much as a trace of another video game cartridge to be found. The day grew long, the vendors had begun boxing their wares and loading up their vans. I had to make my 'find' and make it fast if I wanted to avoid the inevitable closing stampede for the exits. In my desperation to find something, anything of value, my eyes landed on a box of baseball cards. It was an old but treasured hobby of mine, the one I enjoyed before video game collecting had consumed my life and devoured my soul. I started thumbing through a stack of the baseball cards.
Bira Berra looked at me severely and said, "If you don't know what you're looking for, you'll end up with something else."
"You're right," I sighed. I dropped the little deck of baseball cards I had been thumbing through. Slowly, I turned and walked toward the exit. But then I noticed that Bira Berra had lingered back at the stall. I ducked behind an illuminated display of Beanie Baby tag protector protectors to observe him unseen.
Bira Berra's eyes made a furtive scan of his immediate surroundings. When he was satisfied, he rifled through the very deck of cards that I had abandoned a short while ago. He found what he was looking for and purchased a single baseball card. My suspicions returned, this time with a vengeance. He's no Yogi! He must have planted those two Atari carts back there. And Tarzan was in on it all along. What a slime ball! He's buying MY find right now from under my nose!
"What did you buy back there?" I accused him the instant he caught up with me.
"Just an old baseball card. Nothing special." he answered rather suspiciously. "For a friend."
I caught a brief glimpse of the baseball card before it blinked out of existence to join the two Atari carts that had gone before it. It looked old, maybe from the 50's. Maybe older than that. The ballplayer was wearing pinstripes and held a catcher's mask. That's all I managed to see. Guessing from its age, though, it was probably quite valuable.
"There will always be mysteries in life that are better left unexplored," the Yogi warned me.
I saw right through his smokescreen of mystical mumbo-jumbo. "I don't think so, Pinochhio! I'm on to your little game. Gimme back my Atari carts!"
"I cannot do that, Joe. The sacrifice is complete. Bira Bira has them now. Do not lose faith. Great finds await you!"
"Like that baseball card you just bought? Right. Yogi, you're nothing but a two bit con artist! I demand you give me back my ER's and that baseball card. Your game is over! And, the name is BEN!"
"It ain't over till it's over!" Bira Berra chirped, almost as if he could not help himself.
"Oh, I'm gonna plaster you! You crazy, word-twisting pigmy demon from hell!!!!"
Bira Berra's eyes slammed wide. "YOU'RE CRACKERS!"
It was a minor thing, really. But it was the straw that broke the camel's back. The horrors of the day swirled inside my head: the skipped breakfast, the phony Swami, the flea beast, the heat, the sacrifice, the lies, the scam, the endless twists of wisdom. An angry head of steam had been roiling inside me, steadily building all day long. The critical limit had now been reached. The pressure cooker was about to blow.
"It's over, Birra Berra! The cartridges. NOW!" I grabbed him by the throat. I shook him violently.
"Save your strength!" he begged me. Then came his final prophetic words. "You have to give 100 percent in the first half of the game. If that isn't enough, in the second half, you have to give what is left."
With my hands now firmly clenched around his throat, I swung him like a baseball bat. I hammered him into a speaker post, one of the army of rusting iron soldiers that stood faithful watch over the long defunct drive-in. I paused a moment to savor the sweet ringing sound it made before I continued with my rampage. Then I smashed him into the asphalt. I swung again. Smash! Again. Smash! Again. Smash!
"No." I shouted to answer his final convolution of logic. "That's the old ballgame!" And with a final, mighty blow I silenced Bira Berra forever. The deathblow was like an explosion. Kaboom! It shattered him into a thousand tiny little splinters. It jolted me out of bed, thrusting me into heart pounding consciousness.
I wiped the fever sweat from my forehead and felt my neck for the little Bira Bira good luck charm that I faithfully wore to bed each night before the big flea market. But all I could feel was a stinging line of pain in the back of my neck. Bira Bira was gone! My sweat broke anew. Frantically, I ransacked the bedding. Nothing. I scanned the room.
I spotted his remains on top of my dresser. Apparently, in the throes of a terrible nightmare, I had torn the little Bira Bira idol from my neck and hurled him across the room. My dresser top, my showcase, is where I display my most prized possessions — rare Atari cartridges, rookie cards of baseball legends and the like. Bira Bira had crash-landed into my little shrine.
I raced to the dresser to survey the damage. My heart stopped. Bira Bira had disintegrated into a mangle of pulp and splinters. I identified him from the neck chain that was still attached. A pair of Atari video game cartridges lay on the ground at the foot of my dresser, bowled over by the path of the fateful missile.
As I bent to retrieve the video games — I could not see their labels, they had fallen face down — an eerie precognition made me shudder. It was inexplicable how I knew without looking, the titles of both games. I am not a psychic, but I knew. Some vast mystical power beyond my understanding had granted me foreknowledge. With mounting dread I turned the cartridges over in my hands, and at once my worst fears were confirmed. I winced in agony. Quadrun! Mangia! Hideous gashes scarred the faces of what only the night before were flawless, pristine labels. Dark traces of fresh sawdust peppered their wounds.
I nearly shrieked when I spied the plastic shrapnel that lay in a sprinkle on the carpet. Just a few feet away from me lay the gruesome remains of a SnapTite baseball card holder. Oddly, frighteningly, the baseball card it once contained was nowhere to be seen. It was as if it had simply...blinked from existence! I felt the skin on my back go tight, constricting in spasms to the rolling tickle of perspiration. Frigid beads of dew, like garden slugs, crept trails down my spine. I could feel my weight dissolving into electrified vapor.
A bloodcurdling scream announced the final discovery of my missing Yogi Berra rookie card. I found the card pinned to the wall, impaled by splinters that were once Bira Bira. The jewel of my collection hung in horrifying crucifixion, suspended by the cursed needles of voodoo unknown.
That's when the dream hit me — in all its haunting detail. It blasted into my consciousness, instantly, like instructions loading from a video game cartridge. I fell to my knees in a flood of tears and uncontrollable shaking.
A moment later my wife appeared beside me, placing a comforting hand on my shoulder. "What's wrong?" she asked me in soothing, dulcet tones.
"It's d�j� vu all over again!" I sobbed. "It's d�j� vu."
"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."
"Slump? I ain't in no slump. I just ain't hittin'."
"Ninety percent of baseball is mental, the other half is physical."
"You can see a lot by watching."
When asked 'what would you do if you found $1 million?' Yogi responded, "if the guy who lost it was poor, I'd give it back."
"If you don't know where you're going, you'll end up somewhere else."
"It ain't over until it's over."
"You have to give 100 percent in the first half of the game. If that isn't enough, in the second half, you have to give what is left."
"It's d�j� vu all over again!"