Pinball Wizard

I was about 13 years old when I first entered the Palace. I was a tag-a-long to an older friend who was going there just to score a nickel bag.

Pinball Palace was a small, almost hidden place, tucked between the Jerry Lewis Movie theater and a specialty bra shop. From the outside, it looked forbidden and dangerous, two things that combined to point a beckoning finger at me.

Gina opened the door and I followed, knowing that this was exactly the kind of place my parents warned me about.

As soon as we stepped inside my brain went into sensory overload. The smell hit me first; cigarettes and pot and teenage sweat swirling together in the dank heat of the Palace.

The noises. The clacking of pool balls as someone yelled break!; the dings and and whistles of the twenty or so pinball machines that lined the walls; the cursing of the bikers at the pool table; the jangling of quarters in the pockets of Levis; the fist banging on the glass as a machine cried out TILT! It was all underscored by Led Zeppelin’s Trampled Under Foot shouting from the jukebox, and the combination of those sounds became my own Pied Piper, begging me to follow.

I was hesitant that first day and just hung in back of Gina while she made a deal with guy at the change counter. When she was done, we went behind the movie theater, smoked a joint, and then snuck in the back door of the theater. They were showingShampoo. We watched Warren Beatty, naked on the floor and humping the daylights out the poor girl underneath him and all I remember is a person was watching them through a window and said something like “Now that’s what I call fucking!” Gina sat gaping at the screen, taking in every word, every movement, probably taking notes in her head, and all I could think about was going back to Pinball Palace.

The next Saturday, Gina took me with her for another buy. This time, I brought quarters. While Gina flirted with her dealer, I made the walk towards the machine in the far corner. The Bally Wizard.

I hesitantly put my money in, knowing full well that I would become addicted to the flashing lights and turning numbers. The quarter dropped. I hit the reset button. The silver ball popped into place and I slowly pulled back the lever, feeling the resistance of the coiled spring. I let go. The tip of the lever and the metal ball connected and as that ball went around the curve on its journey towards the playing field, it took with it my grades, my social life, my allowance. From the initial loud ding when the ball rang up my first score, I was obsessed.

My fingers worked the flippers as deftly as the lady in the school office worked the typewriter. I moved this way and that, swinging my hips and nudging the machine a little to the left, a little to the right, careful not to piss it off enough to make it tilt. My eyes darted between the ball and the scoreboard and my heart skipped a beat as I saw the paper taped to the top of the glass with the high scores for the week listed. My name would be up there one day. Yes, it would.

Gina had to drag me out of the Palace. Even when my quarters ran out, I wanted to stay and watch the masters play, the guys who turned over the numbers on the scoreboard, the guys who could smoke and drink and play at the same time.

And then it wasn’t just Saturdays anymore. I started walking there after school. If Gina wouldn’t go there was always someone else willing to hang out and watch me play pinball instead of going home. We would throw a few quarters into the jukebox (three plays for twenty five cents!), and play the same lineup each time. Led Zeppelin. Todd Rundgren. Deep Purple.

Sometimes I would ask my mother for a ride to the library and when she pulled away after dropping me off, I would run across Front Street and duck into the Pinball Palace. I rationalized my lying. I wasn’t out doing drugs — no respectable 13 year old considered pot a real drug, not when the bad kids were doing angel dust — and I wasn’t out getting pregnant like Mrs. Winslow’s daughter. I was just playing pinball.

The frequency of my trips to the Palace waned when winter dug its heels in and no one wanted to walk that far. Occasionally, we would get a ride to the movie theater and slip inside the Palace instead. Each time I walked through those doors was like the first; the smell, the sounds, the pumping of my adrenaline would all be new again.

They closed Pinball Palace before the good walking weather came back. Neighbors were complaining. Community action groups were picketing. Churches were praying for the souls of the kids caught up in the glare of those flashing lights. They claimed Pinball Palace was a haven for dirty, unkempt teenagers who cursed and drank and smoked. It was stealing the life and soul of the community’s young adults.

And then, it was gone. I cried, I mourned, I laid in bed at night, my fingers twitching to imaginary flippers, the game playing out in my mind. We had to find another place.

That summer, my parents sprung the news on me that they were taking me out of the “terrible” public school system. They didn’t like my friends. They didn’t like my attitude. Catholic high school would surely lead me on the path to a righteous life. I would make new friends, they said, friends that wouldn’t drag me to those filthy pinball places, friends who wore skirts and ties and gave their quarters to the collection basket instead of machines.

By the end of the second week at the new school, I had made a few new friends just like my parents wanted me to. Mom let me stay after school each day and take the late bus home, assured that I was sitting quietly in the cafeteria with my new virtuous friends studying and doing homework.

Not quite. See, the 7–11 across the street from school held a deep dark secret in its back corner: a Bally Wizard pinball machine. My new friends, who hated ties and skirts and hoarded their quarters like gold, would watch me play for hours each day, taking bets on whether I would break the high score or not. I had a following. I was the Pinball Wizard. Catholic school was working out just fine.

Sure, 7–11 wasn’t quite the same as the smoke-filled palace. But Kevin did bring along a portable cassette player each day and we listened to Genesis and Zeppelin while I swished and swayed and occasionally tilted.

Pinball eventually gave way to other video games; Asteroids and Galaga and Space Invaders. Arcades started popping up everywhere. My pinball skills were no longer celebrated, and I quickly became a has-been, a thing of the ancient past.

I never regret all those hours and quarters spent feeding my pinball frenzy. I never regret the time spent learning the exact angles of each machine, or feeling the excitement when my name went up on the high score chart.

I visited the Pinball Museum in Las Vegas this past weekend, over 30 years after my initial fascination with the games. Almost all the old games were there — the Who’s Pinball Wizard machine, KISS and Twilight Zone and Elton John’s Captain Fantastic game. I got ten dollars worth of quarters and hit the Who machine first. At the first drop of the first quarter it all came back and I closed my eyes for a second, putting myself back in front of the Bally Wizard at Pinball Palace. I pulled the lever back, felt the spring hit the ball and as the lights and sounds went into action and I furiously hit the flippers, I was in my glory. Three seconds later, the ball was sinking out of sight between the flippers. Apparently I no longer had the magic. All those quick reflexes, gone. I played the ten dollars worth of quarters on various machines and had a great time doing it, but I realized you can’t go home again.

I watched a kid — maybe twelve years old — stick a quarter in a shiny, new Game of Thrones machine. His father watched him as he worked the flippers, the kid’s face full of concentration and determination. There was a whole row of brand new games, pinball machines based on current movies and bands and sports, all with little kids playing them, taking in the sights and sounds the way I did all those years ago. The father smiled at me while I watched his son play. “Passing the torch,” he said. I smiled back. It was good to see all the new machines, good to see pinball still alive and well, kids enjoying the games. There aren’t a lot of arcades out there these days and there are certainly no dank, smoky Pinball Palaces, but I have a glimmer of hope that the art of Pinball isn’t quite dead.