Cyber cafes -- new turf, same old battles

It's not hard to imagine what Professor Harold Hill would have said upon entering the dim recesses of Cyber HQ in Eagle Rock. "Trouble, with a capital T and that rhymes with C and that stands for computer game."

What is hard to imagine is the antecedent throng, hanging on his words with appropriate theatrical gestures and then providing the necessary chorus and footwork. Because the only sound in the front room of Cyber HQ on a recent Tuesday afternoon was that of 28 hands playing over 14 keyboards, keys ticking like an army of mice scurrying through the walls, up and over the rafters.

The light was blue and flickering as it does in the jellyfish room of an aquarium, and it took a few minutes for the eyes to adjust, to note that every computer was occupied, that there were people waiting at a table and on a couch in the next room and that all of them but one were male.

In the front room, players wore headsets, but from behind a closed door to the right of the check-in desk, the muffled sounds of war soaked through. "Fire in the hole," a prerecorded voice yelled as bullets zinged and things exploded. "Fire in the hole." This room is called "the cave" and here another 14 computers were at full volume, all of them occupied by boys and young men. The cave is dark and smells darkly of black rubber flooring and a bunch of boys in close quarters. There are fluorescent stars and planets on the walls, and on the screens terrorist and anti-terrorists fall to the ground dripping raspberry-colored computer blood.

"Sure, I'm a Space Invaders player, mighty proud to say, I'm always mighty proud to say it. I consider the hours I've spent with a joystick in my hand golden, help you cultivate horse sense, a cool head and a keen eye. But just as I say it takes judgment, brains and maturity to score in a high-level game of Pong, I say that any boob can take and blow up a town in CounterStrike." (With apologies to Meredith Willson.)

Cyber HQ, which opened in November, is one of the latest in a chain of establishments that have many folks up in arms. Fights and shootings that originated among patrons at cyber cafes in Garden Grove, Northridge and other cities have led many city leaders to call for restrictions. In some places, cafe owners are required to hire security guards; in others, IDs must be checked to ensure that no one is breaking curfew.

Under threat of a lawsuit, the Garden Grove City Council recently loosened regulations that would have required, among other things, that the cafes keep logs of customer names.

Ariel "Armond" Pagtakhan knew all of this when he decided to open Cyber HQ. Two years before, friends of his had tried to get him to go in with them on a cafe in Northridge. He declined, but when he saw them make their original investment and then some in less than a year, he changed his mind.

In fact, when Pagtakhan was applying for the various permits, he says, at least one official exclaimed, "Oh, man, not another one of these. They're going up everywhere."

In fact, there are two other cyber cafes within walking distance, but Pagtakhan says his business, which peaks after school and on weekends, is very good.

"I make sure I know all the kids by name," he says. "I want it to feel like a home away from home."

And once one gets over the shock of the darkness and the sound of distant but constant explosions, of the almost exclusively male silence and the flying fingers, it begins to make sense. At any time, in any place, there was always one kid with the coolest bedroom or basement, the kid with the pool table or the pinball machine or the first video game.

And that is where everyone went, for hours, for days. At any time, in any place, there was also the local hangout -- the diner, the pool hall, the arcade, the mythic soda fountain -- where kids could escape parents or empty houses, teachers and responsibilities, where kids could say what they wanted to say, do what they wanted to do even when that wasn't anything much.

"Never mind getting dandelions pulled or the screen door patched or the beefsteak pounded, never mind pumping any water until your parents are stuck with a cistern empty on a Saturday night. And that's trouble, yes you got lots and lots of trouble."

"I think that anything that keeps kids off the street and out of trouble is a good thing," says Pagtakhan. His 17-year-old son, who helped him set up the business, is working behind the counter; his 7-year-old son is watching while a 9-year-old friend tries to master CounterStrike. "Here there are no cigarettes, no drugs, no alcohol. Here the kids come to be with their friends."

It is not the sort of place a mom or many other grown-ups would probably care to spend a lot of time, neither is it first choice of most parents for their children's hangout. We all want our kids to be playing endless games of back-lit baseball or tennis, getting fresh air and roses in their cheeks while they build tree forts and take bike rides through adventures as imagined by Steven Spielberg.

And probably the kids in Cyber HQ, whose ages range from 7 to thirtysomething, do some of that too. There are scooters and skateboards and bikes parked just inside the door, and if a couple of kids take their hands off the keyboard only to break off another piece of Nestle Crunch Bar or take a swig of Sprite, none of them looks unhealthy or even fat.

If you close your eyes and forget about the screens, the sounds you hear are those of the ages. Male voices, broken and not, exclaiming in frustration and shouting in triumph and all those sounds of battle: the guns, the bombs, the falling towers.

A generation ago, two generations ago, boys made these noises themselves as they scrambled for position behind woodpiles or sat hunched over a bit of paper, scribbling the withering cross-fire of a particular battle. Instead of staring at screens, they gazed into the middle distance as focused and unreachable as if they were wearing headsets or they stared at the family room floor, positioning and repositioning soldiers for hours at a time.

Boys, and some girls, have always played war. It will take a lot more than a few curfews or regulations to change that. In Cyber HQ, and in the cyber cafes around the city, kids are only doing what they've always done. Only the resolution is much better.

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