It’s Friday night on the corner of 16th and Valencia in San Francisco’s Mission District. Shops are closing up and folks that live out here are settling into vacant doorways. The traffic on the street sounds frustrated; revving, waiting, and beeping as the last of the commuters surface from the BART station and breeze by.
Most of them don’t even notice a man in a poofy red and white mushroom hat, sorting through a tangled web of colored wires and extension cords.
Fueled by magic
They don’t even notice when he sets down four metal folding chairs, creating a makeshift living room at the sidewalk’s edge.
They don’t even notice when he hoists up a big old-school tube TV and slides it across the roof of his car. They might not see it yet, but his unassuming hatchback is undergoing a transformation.
In a matter of minutes this 1991 Honda Accord Wagon will have another TV up on the roof, and those will be surrounded by a collection of classic gaming consoles. There will be flashing rope lights strung around the perimeter, wires carefully woven in and out of its barely cracked windows, and specially made signs duct taped in place to conceal how it all works.
It’s a secret, but rumor has it, the car’s fueled by magic.
This mobile retro street, known as Mo Gamin, is owned and operated by Mo Ford. “It's not really the car that people pay attention to,” he says, “it's about the games!”
Mo has a lot of games. But every night still starts with the same classic crowd pleaser: Mario Kart 64.
As soon as the game boots up, people stop giving Mo weird looks and start paying attention. Within minutes, three young guys roll up, looking to play.
“Yo boss, you got the Mario Kart?,” says Dakota Smith, a regular on Friday nights.
Tonight he’s psyched to introduce his old college friends, Nick Simpson and Spencer Lam, to the Mo Gamin experience.
As the three of them race down a multicolored track suspended deep in the dark of space, I ask Dakota if he remembers the first time he came across Mo and his retro-gaming car.
“Oh hell yeah! It was literally outside Dr. Teeth. It was a Wednesday and this guy had this whole van and I was like ‘what's going on with this van?!’ It's got all the lights, it's got all the sounds. And then next thing I see he's got an N64 hooked up to his car and I said where do I hand my money to?"
Good old-fashioned racing
Back on the screen, classic video-game characters such as Luigi, Toad and Bowser dodge banana skins and struggles to catch up with each other. Their real life counterparts are leaning so far forward in their rickety metal folding chairs that the back legs are lifting off the sidewalk.
Passersby linger and crowd around, vibing off the collective nostalgia, but the guys are too absorbed in the race to notice.
It’s pedal to the metal and thumb to the controller.
Luigi hurls a green shell that hits Bowser — and with the finish line in sight, Toad takes the lead and Dakota wins the race.
Dakota says that besides winning, just playing the game together is an “ideal childhood dream right here. And this guy, he provides it, throughout the whole S.F. area.”
Dakota’s right –– Mo and his car get around.
Monday they’re at Milk Bar in the Haight, Wednesdays they’re outside Dr. Teeth on 19th and Mission. Thursdays they inch down the block to Beauty Bar, and then Friday and Saturday you’ll find them right here, outside Bond Bar on 16th and Valencia.
In a way, Mo is like a real life Mario with a healthy dose of MacGyver on the side.
Got a clogged pipe, a broken light? By day, Mo makes his living as a handyman. By night he’s using those same problem-solving skills to turn a jalopy into a sentimental street arcade — and bring back childhood memories.
Mo’s memories mostly revolve around the original Nintendo Entertainment System, and games such as Duck Hunt, Super Marios Bros, Punch Out, and Contra.
Yet regardless of what generation you’re a part of, or what system you grew up on, Mo wants everyone to have the same feeling when you see his setup: That sharp and sweet pang that hits when you see something from your childhood out in wild adult world.
If you’re “walking up the street and see Mario Kart, and that’s what you played as a kid, you’re gonna sit down and play, cause it’s only three minutes,” he says. “Three minutes to bring back a childhood memory — and that’s what I call priceless.”
He means that literally, as he doesn’t put a price tag on Mo Gamin. It’s always free to play. He only asks for a tip or a donation for gas to get home, and be back out here again the very next day.
If there’s anything left over, he invests in more games. People are constantly requesting old favorites, and some of them are hard to find.
One of the reasons Mo wants to provide everyone with the games they loved is because he remembers what it was like when he was a kid growing up in the Bayview.
It wasn’t always easy to get your hands on a controller and just play. Not everyone could afford the games.
Eventually Mo’s family did get an NES, and Mo says he “didn’t want to go to school. I didn't really want to do anything but play video games. But when your parents are smarter than you, they can take one wire or they can take the whole game, you gonna get up and go to school.”
Of course, now Mo stays up all night playing video games, so I asked him what his family thought about that. He says, “they think it’s great. I’m not breaking the law, I’m not going to jail, I’m not taking nothing from nobody, all the establishments that I park in front of, they all know me by first name. They all love me.”
Jerry Muhammad, the bouncer at Bond Bar, says having Mo and his retro gaming car parked right outside the bar has made checking IDs a lot more entertaining.
Jerry says he’ll see “full grown adults walk by and freak out ... It's good to see something positive out here, it brings a new light to the city and the area, and it's just a positive upbeat atmosphere.”
Later in the night, as revellers spill out of the bars and scarf down Mission street dogs, Giovanna Lopez stumbles across Mo Gamin. She was supposed to be catching up with friends at a bar down the street, but she just had to stop and check it out — even if she didn’t have anyone to play with.
“This is a great idea. It’s our childhood,” she says. “It brings back all sorts of people, like anybody who's ever played this game, and it's not just one race or one color or whatever; anyone plays this game.”
The future of Mo Gamin
Mo really wants to expand the Mo Gamin experience so even more people can play. Right now, he’s trying to raise money to level up. Eventually he’d love to have a whole fleet of retro-gaming buses.
Until that day comes, you’ll find Mo and his hatchback out here continuing to do what they do best.
“When you find something you like to do you keep at it,” he says, “and that’s what I found that I like to do: hang out and play video games and bring childhood memories back to people.”