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From Issue #15 April 25, 2013

Mechanically Attached

A coin-operated museum proves common ground between a litterateur and a geek.

By Morgen Jahnke Twitter icon 

Nestled among the chocolate and fruit in the Easter basket he had surprised me with, a roll of quarters seemed out of place. “Laundry money?” I asked my then-boyfriend. Joe smiled. “They’re for the Musée Mécanique.” I grinned too. Although we’d only been dating a few months, he knew me well.

Our previous visit to the museum of antique automata and carnival games had ended in disappointment. We hadn’t brought any coins, and had to be content to look at all the wonderful machines waiting to be set in motion. We waited for other visitors to feed in coins to watch them perform. Thanks to Joe’s gift, the next time we would be prepared. I couldn’t wait to make the articulated horse gallop, to bring the opium den to life, to watch tiny farmers toss tiny bales of hay with their tiny pitchforks. “When can we go?”

At that time, in the late nineties, the museum lay tucked away in the basement of the Cliff House restaurant, at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. If you didn’t know it was there, you would have had to venture behind the iconic building, perhaps to visit the giant camera obscura perched on the cliff edge, to happen upon it. On first entering, you might notice only the oppressively low ceiling, a general dinginess, and the lack of direct sunlight. But spend an hour or so inside, and it transforms into Ali Baba’s cave of forgotten treasures, gleaming in the low light.

For a cost of one quarter, you could test your arm strength, get a love prediction, have your fortune told, or provoke Laffing Sal, the grande dame of the place, into noisy guffaws. Sal is a giant marionette, a relic of the defunct Playland at the Beach amusement park, from which many of the games and machines had been rescued. She has a cackle that could split wood.

Perhaps you fancied a boxing match between dueling pugilists whose paint had worn through to the metal beneath from the glances of their innumerable bouts, or maybe you’d like to peek into the wooden box promising “XXX Old-Time Movies,” fully knowing they held little that could shock a modern viewer. There was something so over-the-top and a little bit naughty about the place, and we both loved it. But not for the same reasons.

Data and decay

He was an avowed computer geek, and I was smitten with poetry and 19th-century novels. If he was digital, I was analog. Our first email correspondence left him baffled by my terseness. It was a new medium to me, and I used it sparingly, but he wrote epics. He lived his life online — found his friends, his colleagues, and fellow travelers that way — but the Web was utterly foreign to me. He was ahead of the curve, and I had my feet firmly planted in the past.

Since childhood, he had taken apart any gadget he could get his hands on, to the consternation of his parents and to the detriment of the gadgets. My girlhood was spent imagining the worlds I read about in books and collecting random, wonderful things — rocks and shells, coins and jewelry.

At the Musée, Joe was drawn right away to the workings of the machines themselves. They were magical in how they were put together, the ingenuity on display. I was spellbound by the traces time had left on each tiny figure, in awe of what had not been lost in all those decades of use.

Then, and many times since, he has teased me about my “love of decay.” This is the name we give to my obsession with the morbid, the ugly, and the just plain old: monumental buildings, ghost towns, ancient ruins that I find absolutely thrilling. Time rakes over them and yet elegantly exposes what within them is essential and well built.

To my geeky beau, it was the future that promised renewal. He wanted to be Captain Kirk, exploring the farthest reaches of the universe and finding the secrets to existence. He loved the search for the new and unknown, and his mind went forward to possibility, not back to the past.

Opposites interact

What we found at the Musée was something we were both passionate about: ideas. We both saw the human mind at work behind the clever machines, although we asked different questions about what we saw. Joe wondered, then and now, “How does it work?” My refrain: “What is the story?” If he marveled at the ingenuity of the design, I was in awe of the history of the object.

And so we met in the middle. As Joe (now my husband) wisely points out, I may like ice cream and he may like chocolate, but we can enjoy chocolate ice cream together. What did it matter that our enjoyment came from different sources? Strength comes from being fully ourselves without negating what our partner treasures. We chose not to simply agree or to ignore our differences, but to take a middle way.

And as our relationship went on, we were delighted to find more and more examples of what the Musée promised that we each loved — from movies to books to food to places — and that we could learn to love as the other did. Thanks to my influence, my husband admires things as disparate as California ghost towns, sun-dried tomatoes, Patagonia, and European art house films. Thanks to his, I have embraced Las Vegas, Umberto Eco, iPhones, and email. He still has no patience for poetry, and I still find the minutiae of technology boring, but we can agree that Starbuck is a kickass pilot and that Don Draper can mix a mean Old-Fashioned.

Back to the future

“Let’s ride the train.” My son’s face lit up. He was nearly two and couldn’t resist the chance to climb aboard the bright blue engine, laughing as it jerked and bumped him around.

We had traveled a long way since our early days in San Francisco: three international moves and the birth of a child had taken place since we first set foot in the Musée. Now back in San Francisco for a visit, I couldn’t resist bringing our son to the Musée while Joe was occupied with his work at that year’s Macworld conference.

But while we had been on the move, the Musée had as well. In 2002 it hit trouble: the National Park Service, which owned the Cliff House and was thus the museum’s landlord, decided to embark on an ambitious renovation plan. The Musée would have to vacate its space while the work was going on, and had no guarantee it could return once the renovations were complete.

Fortunately, when the citizens of San Francisco heard about this plan, there was vigorous public outcry, and a renewed interest in the goings-on at the Musée. The authorities got the message and got to work coming up with a viable plan. Before long, the museum moved to a new location, in the tourist-heavy area of Fisherman’s Wharf.

So my son and I found our way to its new location, in the cavernous belly of a dock warehouse smack dab in the middle of Fisherman’s Wharf. My old friends were waiting for me — Laffing Sal and the fortune teller, the mechanical horse and the battered boxers. They were the same, but it was strange to see them in their new home, in the sunlight, with space between them and room to walk all the way around them. My son didn’t know the difference. He squealed with glee as we fed our quarters into the carnival display, as the circus performers bobbed up and down on their high bars, as the Ferris wheel turned and jiggled the tiny riders.

Since his earliest days, he has disliked staying still. He has always had to be on the go and would complain if we stopped pushing the stroller or carrying him around. He loves things in motion — cars, trucks, trains — and automatons certainly fit that bill. It was incredible to see him experience the Musée on his own terms, finding his own reason to adore the place. If my husband looked to the future and I looked most often to the past, he was all about the present moment, the now of everything.

As I looked around again at the old beloved machines, I realized that seeing them in this new setting hadn’t diminished their beauty. Although every scar and every chip in their paint was made more visible by the light flooding in, the light also revealed their essential strength and timelessness. As with the museum, so with any healthy relationship — the shine may wear off, but what is most important remains. And in our case, the choice to meet in the middle, to keep asking our questions and to keep looking for those answers together, is what endures.

You can see an array of pictures of the museum’s attractions in a Flickr photo pool.

Illustration by Naftali Beder.1


  1. Naftali Beder is an illustrator living in Astoria, New York. His drawings have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and PLANSPONSOR among others. His work has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators and American Illustration. He graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2010. 

For the past 10 years, Morgen Jahnke has written for the Web on a variety of topics, from taxidermy shops in Paris to introversion. She is currently working on her first novel, a historical epic set in Nuremberg, Paris, and Saskatchewan.

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