I’m 32 years old and feeling out of place in a dim, retro-themed bar in the gentrifying part of town. A wall of pinball machines in a back room serves as the establishment’s primary attraction. It’s a slow weeknight and plenty of the machines are not in use, which is a relief. I came to play.
An article that I ran across and can’t seem to get out of my head inspired the trip. According to the piece, pinball is in the midst of a revival, led by people my age. The author’s theory posits that my generation is rediscovering the allure of the game due to the vague but powerful collective memories of a world filled with big, tactile, inelegant, single use objects. By playing pinball, we rebel against the slick, flat, small, multi-purpose, ultra-powerful, touch screen version of modernity we’ve found ourselves in. That’s the theory, anyway.
There’s a problem, though, according to the author. Pinball machines are difficult and costly to maintain. Few people alive know how to get them back in working order when something goes wrong. As alluring as we find these giant orgies of lights and sounds and scores, we don’t have the skill set needed to save them.
I’m 6 years old and on vacation with my family, staying at a Best Western or some similar hotel. Family friendly, clean, but minimal frills and not too expensive. After plenty of childish begging, my father leads my younger brother and I to the hotel arcade. We don’t stay at many hotels. I wonder if they usually have arcades.
My father tells us he grew up playing pinball, which surprises me based on his lack of Nintendo aptitude. Soon after he starts the game, though, it’s obvious he’s told the truth. He plays for ages on one quarter. Somehow, he times the flippers to achieve the exact trajectory he wants from the small, weighty orb. A few times, I notice the ball heading straight down the middle, out of reach of the flippers. When he sees the trouble coming, he nudges the machine to force the ball back into play. “That’s what you call a tilt,” he tells us. “You have to be careful, though. Tilt too hard or too often and the game ends.”
I am eager to play, but I also know playing costs money, and I have some sense that we don’t have a lot of that to throw around. Wasting my father’s money makes me nervous and uncomfortable, feelings that amplify after each of my turns ends in a fraction of the time his did. I don’t have much to say after we run out of quarters and walk down the wide hallway back to our room.
I’m 16 years old and at an arcade in the mall that won’t be able to afford to stay open through the end of the year. Half the arcade cabinets don’t work, and there doesn’t seem to be any urgency from management to get them fixed. I’m here because a girl in my history class said she wanted to hang out, and I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go. I’m excited but uneasy with the notion that an attractive girl, one who looks like a full grown, real woman, wants to hang around me at all.
My trembling hands slap the buttons on the one functional pinball machine. Can this girl tell how scared I am of her? How uncomfortable and neurotic her very existence and mild interest in me makes me feel? One of the underdeveloped parts of my brain hopes my pinball score will impress her, that this is all going somewhere, that I’ll man up and do something, that me and this girl will have some kind of future.
In reality, the attitude I hope reads as casual, confident nonchalance is making me look rude, aloof, clueless. She’ll never ask me to hang out again, and of course I won’t ask her.
She’ll be dating a senior a foot taller than me by spring break.
32, the bar. I choose a machine and am surprised at how many quarters it costs to play. I set down my drink on a nearby stool. I hate ordering drinks — I always worry I’m inconveniencing the bartenders. I try to stick to simple cocktails so they don’t have to work too hard on me.
I press start.
The machine comes to life — flashing lights, bright numbers, springing bumpers. As I blow through my quarters, I realize, even after all this time, I’m still very much that child back in the hotel arcade. Uncomfortable with spending money. Awkward. Nervous. Clumsy. Anxious.
I understand, on some level, that I have changed. But that change feels surface level and external. Superficial. Everything else, the unfortunate core of who I am, is concrete, constant, real. I’m as clueless and scared and neurotic as I was in that arcade with that girl from history class who looked like a woman.
When this machine breaks, will there be anyone around who can fix it? How many games does it have left before it dies forever, or its retro charm wears off and it’s discarded?
My last ball drains through the middle of the flippers, out of reach. My father could have tilted the machine in time to save it, but I can’t. I lean over the machine, head hanging, eyes focused on the place where the ball disappeared out of play.
Will I ever figure out how to play this fucking game?