Caine Monroy is applauded by his father, George Monroy, far right, and filmmaker… (Christina House, For the…)
There's no sign of Caine Monroy's game arcade when I pull up to his father's Boyle Heights auto parts shop. The 9-year-old is taking his show on the road, enjoying the perks of becoming a viral video star.
He and his dad will be at the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco this weekend, so Caine can explain to geeked-up science fans how he turned a bunch of cardboard boxes into an elaborate arcade and social network phenomenon.
"They sent a 17-foot semi truck and loaded everything up," Caine's father, George Monroy told me.
Next, Caine's headed to New York City, for a meeting with an arcade company. "He's booked for the next three months," his father said, amazed by the notoriety.
Caine hit the big time by happenstance. A young filmmaker stopped at his dad's shop, looking for an auto part. Amazed by Caine's collection of taped-up boxes, rigged with calculators, tchotchkes and cheap prizes, he posted a video that has drawn more than 2 million views and made it cool to be Caine's customer.
It's impossible not to be moved by the story and the video: a resourceful kid, a labor of love, a gem on a gritty boulevard.
But what struck me was not just the adorable boy, but the father on film taking all this in — with the sort of detached bemusement and good-humored tolerance that had me wondering:
What did this guy do to get such a great kid?
It's too late for me to get parenting help. My children are grown.
But those with younger kids might learn something. Instead of summer camp and tutoring programs, Caine got long hot days at Dad's body shop.
"I didn't have a baby sitter," Monroy said. His wife works at a restaurant; his two older sons are teenagers. "So Caine goes where I go." And while Dad works, the boy has to amuse himself.
What grabs me in the video is a single tale: Caine asks his dad to buy a mini arcade game, where a claw is maneuvered on a chain through a slot to pluck a prize from a toy-filled box.
That request would have had me reaching for my wallet, feeling guilty that my child was hanging around my work yard, stuck in such an uninspiring environment.
But Caine's father waved him off: Build it yourself. So Caine did — with a hook, a piece of yarn and a cardboard box, and a track cut through the top.
It's amazing what our children can do when we let them think for themselves.
Monroy says Caine came wired that way. His oldest boy, a college student, is a book worm and sports fanatic. The middle one, 15, is a budding entrepreneur. He created a website in sixth grade "where he sells anything in our house that isn't nailed down."
Caine is a middling student, his father says. "He'll have a book in front of him, but his mind is always so busy, he can't concentrate to read."
But he's always been good with building blocks. "Even when he was little, he'd rather play Legos than watch TV."
"We'd go to the mall and he'd come back and start building it with Legos. 'Here's the above-ground parking. This is the restaurant. Here is where the people are going to sit. Here are the palm trees on the walkway.'
"He's a little different from other kids…. He's not into the Internet and video games. He likes experiencing things. Everything's an adventure."
And when he has an idea, Dad says "Let's go." Hiking, horseback riding, a day trip to the Hollywood sign. Family finances are mostly lean, so they don't travel or go to amusement parks. A big vacation is a week in Palm Springs, where Monroy's father has a house.
Monroy, like Caine, was the youngest of three. His father was a business owner: used car lot, junk yard, auto parts shop.
When Monroy was in junior high, he said, "I'd be over at my dad's lot, washing cars all day. Not by choice, and not getting paid." At 16, he worked the junk yard in Rialto, "without knowing what I was doing or anything.
"I was just sort of left to figure things out by myself," he said. I guess that's where Caine gets his resourcefulness.
He showed me a sampling of Caine's inventions, from before he was a video star. Like the pushcart he made from a cardboard box and a skateboard salvaged from Grandpa's junk yard.
He loaded it with bags of chips and bottles of water, and made little signs with prices on them. "He goes pushing this thing up and down the block."
For his dad, "it's kind of embarrassing. I'm supposed to be a businessman here on Mission Road. They're going, 'Hey, this guy should be giving his kid money when he needs it, instead of sending him around to sell chips and water.'"
Like most parents, Monroy promised himself that his children would have it better than he did. "When I was a kid, I had a lot of ideas, a lot of 'crazy' ideas, my family said. Everybody'd tell me to shut up. 'Your brother's older, he knows more than you.'
"I got pushed aside all my life. I wasn't going to let that happen to my sons."
If Caine is amazed at his arcade's success, his dad is shocked that people have started looking to him as a sort of parenting guru.