LONG BEACH — At a time of day when most students are buried in their schoolbooks, David Warner heads for liquor stores along West Anaheim Street to polish his skills fighting video warriors.
As the 14-year-old zapped green-fatigued electronic soldiers with a simulated Uzi-type submachine gun, he explained that he drops as much as $20 worth of quarters each day in video games like "Mat Mania" and "Airwolf" after he completes two hours of eighth grade at a nearby continuation school.
He keeps his tattered yellow school identification card in his back pocket for quick presentation in case police officers or store clerks ask why he is not in school.
"I think they're doing it for their own fun," he said of the constant police checks.
Four or five of the about 30 youths taken into custody every school day for truancy are found loitering around video games, said Dick Vander Laan, spokesman for the Long Beach Unified School District.
At the peak of the video-game craze in 1982, the City Council passed a law aimed at keeping children away from the mesmerizing machines in liquor stores during school hours. The city prosecutor says the law is probably unconstitutional and the police chief thinks it is unenforceable.
City Councilman Clarence Smith said last week that he wants to take the law a step further by banishing video games from stores that sell hard liquor.
"There is no problem with kids wanting to play the games," he said. Children belong on playgrounds or at home, he said, not hanging around liquor stores.
Smith's interest in the issue has reopened an examination of the problem by the City Council Quality of Life Committee. If nothing else, the result may be to put the city's video game law on sounder legal footing.
Or it may be wiped off the books entirely. City Zoning Administrator Dennis Eschen said one option that will be presented to the committee in about a month would be to strike the ordinance if it is found to duplicate truancy laws.
Police Chief Lawrence L. Binkley said in a recent memorandum that the current law is ineffective because it is vaguely written. For instance, it does not include video games among the "amusement devices" it seeks to regulate, he explained.
Vander Lans said he does not think the law is constitutional because of a provision that includes an ill-defined prohibition against loitering near a video game machine. He said the law does not state how long or how near one must hang around the machine before it becomes a crime. Despite the weak law, liquor store owners and managers say they try to chase school children away from video games during school hours.
A warning sign to students is posted at Cedar Liquor where Warner was playing. The liquor store and others in the neighborhood are near the continuation school that Warner attends and George Washington Junior High School.
Cedar Liquor managers enforce the rule in an effort to cooperate with police, said Mike Middleton, operations director for Jaygo Inc., which owns the store and six others in Long Beach.
"Basically, in all of our stores, even though they don't push it on us, we try to keep the kids out" during school hours, Middleton said.
A block south on Anaheim Street at Eddie's Liquor, owner Fong Nguyen said he keeps his three video games unplugged during the school day to prevent truant youngsters from playing them.
Lack of Recreation
Councilman Smith said his 6th District in the central city has the biggest problem with youngsters frequenting video games because there is a lack of park space and other recreational opportunities.
While acknowledging Smith's concern, Rosie Bouquin, capital projects coordinator for the city's Park and Recreation Department, said that nearly $1.5 million is being spent in the western part of the city to expand and improve parks.
Admiral Kidd Park in West Long Beach is undergoing an $819,000 expansion and renovation, she said.
More than two acres are being added to Martin Luther King Jr. Park near Alamitos and Orange avenues, and security lighting and building improvements are being made at MacArthur Park, along Anaheim Street near Orange Avenue.
"We're intensely interested in trying to help these areas," Bouquin said.