‘The claw is our master’

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

The penguin sat atop a veritable iceberg of stuffed animals outside the Chinese restaurant. Penguins can’t smile in the wild, but this one grinned like a Cheshire cat under the bright lights of the machine.

I’ve always had a thing for penguins. Perhaps I’ve just got a soft spot for any awkward misfit with hidden talents. I’ve also got a long history with the claw machine.

No, I’m not one of those guys who lays down a paycheck dragging everything out of the prize cache. But I have a very distinct memory of a particular claw machine at a laundromat near the apartment where my wife and I lived when we were broke. It paid out like the roulette wheel at Rick’s Cafe in “Casablanca,” larding the coat pockets of attractive young refugees with vague accents. In our case the accents were Minnesotan.

As bad as the political climate might be in America, there’s a good reason most of us plan to stay. Is there anything more American than waiting to go inside a Chinese buffet that serves pizza and donuts, feeding money into a machine that guarantees you nothing? For fun! I could move to Sweden, but I would miss this.

Expert claw gamers know the secret. They set the claw so that only one grab out of ten uses enough tension to lift a prize. All grabs in between are feckless. You might as well be setting your money on fire. This too reminds of real life. America is a claw game in which some win prizes and the rest serve as suckers for the people who own the claw game. Don’t like it? Be more like the guy who won the teddy bear, less like yourself.

PHOTO: Peter Fletcher, Flickr CC

Sure, for just $3,500 you could buy a claw game of your own. But all I’ve got in my wallet is four singles and a receipt from the Chinese restaurant. So, we take our chances. And that is the American way.

On the day I saw the penguin in the claw machine, the family gathered ‘round. This perky penguin was perched perfectly. Easy get, might not even need the grabber if I could sweep it toward the gaping maw of the prize door. The children heard the legend of the old claw machine from the laundromat. They knew they would soon witness a grown man hunting a stuffed penguin.

At first the claw game wouldn’t take the dollar bill. Perhaps this machine, like a buffet patron, was just so full of money it couldn’t possible take another bite. So I went into the book store to get change. Something seemed ironic, me an author, walking into a book store not to buy a fellow author’s book, but to break a single so I could play long odds on a penguin. But I chose to bury this feeling deep down, seeding some future allegory.

I stretched before I inserted the quarters. Barked at the children to hush up, daddy’s working now. When the timer started I pushed the joystick forward toward destiny.

Alas, the joystick would not go more than halfway into the claw machine. The power cord wrapped around the crane, either by accident or cruel design, preventing it from going any further. After yelling and shaking the machine, time elapsed and the claw dangled down impotently, lightly brushing an unidentifiable pink creature.

It was over. I never had a chance. My sons looked down they way one does when you realize your father will never live up to expectations. We shuffled off to fill our faces under the dim glow of a TV screen beaming footage of the president’s latest shenanigans, no doubt long forgotten by the time you read this.

As the little green aliens in “Toy Story” once explained, “The claw is our master. The claw chooses who will go and who will stay.”

But one of these days we’re just going to bust that sucker open, aren’t we?

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. And I thought this would be a post about Baron von Raschke….

  2. Mike Worcester says

    Thank you for making me remember how many quarters I’ve sacrificed to The Claw Master…. :O. 🙂

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