Posted on September 5, 2012 by Blane Bachelor
When anyone tells me they’re planning on visiting Fisherman’s Wharf while in San Francisco, I have to bite my tongue to keep from blurting out, “For God’s sake, WHY?!?” I’m not trying to be critical (for a change), but there’s no questioning that it’s one of the most touristy spots in the city, with oodles of shops selling tacky tchotchkes, generic chain restaurants, and an ocean of fanny packs.
In short, a San Francisco resident telling a tourist to check out Fisherman’s Wharf is like a New Yorker touting the virtues of Times Square or an Atlantan sending her out-of-town guests to Underground Atlanta. You lose your locals-know-best credibility faster than blackjack chips in a bad night at the tables.
But (there’s always one, isn’t there?), I may be changing my tune regarding Fisherman’s Wharf as of late, thanks to my recent visit to the Musée Mecanique – an old-school arcade of sorts, housed in an old warehouse on Pier 45, and by far one of the coolest, quirkiest things I’ve seen since living in San Francisco for a year. (And if you know anything about San Francisco, that’s saying a lot.)
Touting itself as “one of the world’s largest privately owned collections … of coin-operated antique arcade machines in their original working condition,” the Musée Mecanique is a lot of things: slightly creepy, sometimes inappropriate, and ridiculously cheap (most games cost just a quarter). In other words, it’s just my kind of place.
From the minute you walk through the doors, it’s obvious Musée Mecanique is a far cry from the manufactured crap that defines the rest of the Fisherman’s Wharf. There are more than 200 antique arcade games and musical instruments, spanning the delightful (Whac-a-Mole, which my eight-year-old nephew showed a remarkable skill at) to the weird (cowboys ripping a barrage of farts around the campfire) to the downright disturbing (a man who appears to be half-holding, half-mounting a baby — seriously, his expression says it all — and the French Execution, which is at once macabre and mesmerizing).
And, because most games, even the more modern ones — Ms. PacMan and Space Invaders are just some of the offerings from the video game heyday of the ’80s — cost just a quarter, and there’s no admission fee, Musée Mecanique offers an excellent way to spend a rare cheap afternoon in notoriously expensive San Francisco.
Chris, my brother and his family, including my nephews, ages 8 and almost 4, and I popped into the museum on a whim a few weeks ago, and I had a harder time leaving than the young ‘uns did. I kept sneaking back in for another photo or two, and then I’d see another freaky-fun game or machine, pop in a quarter, and go back in time for a few moments, imagining all the other people who’d done the exact same thing 20, 30, or 50 years ago: watched a swaying buffalo or farting cowboy or gotten love advice from a ceramic genie.
And when I gripped that steering wheel of Pole Position II, memories of my childhood came flooding back, of a week spent with my grandparents at a Thousand Trails campground when my brother and I became so good at the game, one of just two in the rec center, that we’d always score high enough register our initials, thumping them into history, however temporary, with a few pumps of the accelerator.
(I managed to get a high score that day at Musée Mecanique, too, and had just as hard a time getting my initials right as I did 25 or so — good grief, I’m old — years ago. That steering wheel is slippery as ever.)
Watching my nephews whack away on the moles and yank that steering wheel all over the road and stare with furrowed brows at at least one scene I probably shouldn’t have put a quarter into, I saw the essence of this quirky little museum: the ability to turn all of its lucky visitors, no matter what age they are, into giddy, curious kids again, with just a handful of coins and their promise of escape into a wild, often weird world.
So there you have it: my hearty recommendation for a visit to Fisherman’s Wharf, where the Musée Mecanique will more than make make the touristy shops and restaurants and overstuffed fanny packs worth the trip.
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