Zen Arcade
by Michele Christopher

We had a general theme of arcade games in our mind when we had our team meeting deciding on the editor's picks column for this weekend. So we figured what the hell, let's make this easy. Arcade memories.

Thing is, Turtle and I both had wild and crazy weeks. He had a big interview. And landed the job. I was pushed out of my job and into another. Kind of stressful, but everything worked out for the best in the end. I think. But no matter how good things turn out, the stress kind of killed us. We are exhausted. So we're thinking, how are we going to write our usual amazing, killer stuff if we are so mentally tired? And that's when it hit us. We already wrote about this stuff! Both of ours were posted a while back, so maybe a lot of you haven't read them yet.

Michele tilts first:

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. Which made it exactly the kind of place I wanted to be.

As soon as we stepped inside my brain went into sensory overload. The smell hit me first; cigarettes, pot and teenage sweat all mingled together. That sounds nasty but it’s really a powerful, enticing aroma to a 13 year old who was already dabbling in the dark side of suburbia.

The noises. The clacking of pool balls as someone yelled “break!” Dings and whistles coming from the mess of pinball machines that lined the walls. Bikers cursing. Quarters jangling in the pockets of Levis. Fists banging on plexiglass as a machine tilted. And David Essex's “Rock On” on the jukebox. The combination of those sounds and the smells was intoxicating. Overwhelming at first, but so intoxicating.

This was my first time in the Palace and, I have to say, the sensory overload, plus the bikers looking like they were about to start a brawl with some potheads, made me a little nervous. So instead of digging for some quarters and trying out a game, which is what I wanted to do so badly, I kind of just hung back while Gina made her 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 showing Shampoo. We watched Warren Beatty, naked on the floor and humping the daylights out of 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 sounds played in my head. Pinball machines. Quarters. Rock On. That place was beckoning me like the sea calls to a sailor. Or something like that.

I went back with Gina the next Saturday. This time, I brought quarters. While Gina flirted with her dealer, I made the walk toward the machine in the far corner, toward the thing that haunted my dreams the entire week. It loomed there like a god calling me into its temple. Or maybe it was like a monster luring me to its lair. I stopped. Stood in front of it. Sucked in my breath and admired the beauty that was the Bally Wizard. Pinball Wizard. Tommy. Ann Margaret with her legs spread on the backglass. Tommy.

I hesitated for a split second, then put the quarter 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 first loud ding when the ball rang up my first score, I was obsessed.

My fingers worked the flippers as deftly as Gina’s fingers worked rolling joints. I moved back and forth, 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. A girl’s gotta have goals in life. Some of my friends wanted to discover a cure for cancer or find life on Mars. I just wanted my name written in magic marker on top of that piece of paper. I’m pretty simple like that. You want a higher education? Rip it up. I just wanted a high score.

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

Going with Gina on her Saturday deals wasn’t enough anymore. I started walking to the Palace after school. If Gina wouldn't go there was always someone else willing to hang out and watch me play pinball with me instead of going home. I’d bribe them with a couple of cigarettes and the promise that there were older, hot guys/girls there. We would throw a few quarters into the jukebox (three plays for twenty five cents) and play the same tunes over and over. Black Betty. Trampled Underfoot. Slip Kid. Have A Cigar.

Sometimes I would ask my mother for a ride to the library and when she pulled away after dropping me off, I would duck out the door and run across Front Street, straight to Pinball Palace. I mean, mom never wondered why I went to the library so much because, despite what you may think you know about me, I was really a bookish kinda kid. I liked to read. I didn’t really like lying to my mom, though. Catholic guilt. It wears you down. So I rationalized my lying by, well, justifying it. See, I wasn't out on the streets doing drugs - no respectable 13 year old considered pot a real drug - and I wasn't out getting pregnant like Mrs. Winslow's daughter. I was just playing pinball. Besides, I kept a copy of The Chocolate War tucked into the back of my jeans. Sometimes I read while waiting for the Bally Wizard to free up. So I wasn’t totally lying. Right? That Catholic guilt. It’s still there.

My trips to the Palace got less frequent as the weather got cold. No one wanted to walk that far, not even for a bribe of a cigarette, a few quarters and a slice from Pizza King. Once in a while we’d 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 adrenaline rush as I stared down the Wizard. Ann Margaret with her legs spread.

They closed Pinball Palace before the warm 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. Well, yea. Not to mention my allowance. But hey, it was my choice. I kinda liked having my soul eaten away by the Bally Wizard and Grand Slam and Atlantis.

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. I was an addict looking for a fix. I needed it. I craved it. I played entire games of Grand Slam in my head, complete with tilts and free balls and high scores.

That summer, my parents decided I needed an “attitude adjustment” and pulled me out of the "terrible" public school system. Catholic high school would surely lead me on the path to a righteous life. I would make new friends. Better friends. Friends that didn’t reek of bong water and hang out in pinball places. Friends who wore skirts and ties and gave their quarters to the collection basket instead of jukeboxes and games.

So the new school year starts, I make some friends and mom and dad are happy. I’m staying after school to study and umm...attend chapel.

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. highscores.jpgI had a following. I was the Pinball Wizard. 7-11 wasn't quite the same as Pinball Palace, but Kevin had his portable cassette player and we listened to Thin Lizzy and Wish You Were Here while I worked the flippers. Every day. Bell rings. Class dismissed. Walk across street. Smoke joint. Drop quarters. Special when lit!

Pinball eventually gave way to other video games. Asteroids. Galaga. Space Invaders. Arcades started popping up everywhere. My pinball skills were ancient history. Nobody cared about the high score taped the Bally Wizard. There were aliens to fight. Spaceships to pilot.

I’ll never regret all those hours and quarters spent feeding my pinball frenzy. Learning the exact angles of each machine, getting a rush when my name went up on the high score chart. Those were good times. My mother told me that I was wasting away my life playing those games, that I would never get anything useful out of it. Hah. What does she know? If it wasn't for those quick reflexes and the incredible hand-eye coordination I developed at Pinball Palace, I wouldn’t know the joy of kicking my kid’s ass at Street Fighter. -M

Turtle is next.

I need a job. Dammit. I'm broke. I need something easy to find. Bands were just starting in our neighborhood and strings don't grow on trees. Plus, I needed a job cause the summer was boring. I wasn't one of those kids who ran out and played in the water. If it didn't have to do with beer or a skateboard, I'd be sitting in front of a TV or in some warehouse packed with mics running thru guitar amps. Well, running thru them till the guitarist got there and bitched at us for using his equipment. Guitarists are sucky little whiny bitches when it comes to that stuff. "You are gonna blow my amp! Stop it!"


But I needed something to do. Sitting alone in a garage playing for four or five hours a day gets old. Especially when you suck balls on bass. Everyone was working at one place. Well, what the fuck. Let's get a job, turtle. Might as well.

It really wasn't that bad of a gig. I was working in an arcade. Giant one. White pants and blue shirt. Fixing arcade games that had broken to keep them running. Which I really think is kind of illegal. Having a kid work on a busted board while he doesn't even have his driver’s license? Is that legal? Many hot wire burns later, I figured out it wasn't legal, but the damage had been done. But, I learned I could work with an iron and put these things back together. One of the machines that constantly broke down was an old set of Skeeballs. I always had to pull out the boards and work these back together. One thing I always noticed was the amount of change that was in there. In the machine. My friends were all about stealing the quarters, but I never did.


Maybe once.

Or twice.

But that was over soon. My fingers were burned and my pockets full of change every night. Wait. I just said I didn't do that. Well, hell. You caught me. Or rather, they caught me. Pretty soon, because of my fuck off attitude I was pushed out in the heat. Given a new shirt. A Camo style shirt, and told to go work in the tanks. Out there. In the heat. Past the carnies. Past the kiddie pool with beer cans floating in it. Out there.

Where I was sent to work was supposed to be a punishment. But it seemed like heaven to me.

The Tank Ride

This was one of the most popular rides and one of the few at the park more dangerous for employees than patrons.

In a chainlink fence-enclosed area, small tanks could be driven around for the proper fee for five minutes at a time, with tennis ball cannons that enabled riders to shoot at a sensor prominently mounted on each tank. If hit, the tank stopped operating for 15 seconds, while other tankers often took advantage of the delay to pepper the stricken vehicle with more fire.tankride.jpg

Visitors on the outside could also join in the fun through less costly cannons mounted on the inside of the fence. When workers had to enter the cage to attend to a stuck or crashed tank, which usually happened several times a day, they were often pelted with tennis balls from every direction despite prohibitions against such behavior that could result in expulsion from the park. It is not known if this resulted in any serious injuries, but it made the tank ride the least popular place to work in the park.

Well fuck yeah!

About 20 of these tank like things. One passenger would be in a turret on top. The other would be below driving them. The gun shot tennis balls. The tennis balls went fast. The tennis balls hurt. The driver of the tank would have just a basic peddle. Back and forth, and a wheel to turn the damn tank. Six of these would go out at a time and shoot at targets on the others riders tanks. When the target was hit, the tank would stop for 15 seconds. But they could still fire their tennis balls. At us.

Oh, what glorious days! When people would ram each other after we told them not to, we had to come running out with a baseball bat to whack the side of their tanks to stop them from moving. Catching a high-powered tennis ball in the face and pulling some asshole kid out of the fucking gun and putting his face in the dirt. Parents yelling at us to stop stop hurting their kids when my face was full of welts. Oh, fuck you.

Oh yeah. The dirt and dust. On weekdays, no one would show up for hours. No customers. No kids. I backed my CRX into the tank area in the shade and drank beer with whomever I was working with. Cranking the stereo thinking this isn't such a bad gig. We were drunk the whole time. Dust flying and the stench of carnies.

If you guys don't know, carnies have a tendency to do a lot of meth and they like beer. So we became friends with them. Duh. The exciting world of the carny! I learned many things about that lifestyle. How to cut speed while you still can weigh it down so you can put some in yourself and still make a profit. I learned about the "Jesus Key." If you don't know, the Jesus Key holds the track together on those mini roller coasters. That key was the only thing keeping you from meeting Jesus.

Carnies are funny.

But anyways, every day tanks would stall and I had to work on them. To get them running again. So people could ram each other. So I could get hit in the face with a tennis ball. So I could drink beer. Maybe this job kind of sucked.

The dust blocked up the air filter. Everyday I had to pull an air filter off, park the tank and dump gas on the filter to clean it out. sviairfilter.jpg But, there was one thing. I had to pull it off and put it on the ground. The air filter would be dead for about five minutes before it was dry enough to be useable again. Then I could put it back on and be good to go. Exposed for five minutes. Those little bastards shot the shit out me while I just waited for it to dry off.

My last day working there, I threw a filter on. Just after it was cleaned. Still too wet to get oxygen to the engine. The engine started but stalled. Friday night. Kids waiting on me. I popped the back compartment and grabbed it off. I was going to run it without the filter. I know that's bad but we were in a bad situation. We only had five tanks running and the line was long. Tennis balls shots beside me. Filter still covered in gas. I pull it off. It stays on. The gasoline had made it slick. Too slick too pull off. Fuck that hurts. I look down at my thumb and see the bone in my hand.


This sucks.

Keep in mind that this was well before I learned how to stitch myself up so I was kind of scared. I could see the bone. The outer metal ridge on the air filter had torn straight into me. Really deep. I took my shirt off and walked into the main arcade. Walked up to the deli. Shirt wrapped around my thumb. Blood coming out everywhere. I grabbed a coke and sat down while the deli girls freaked out after they figured I wasn't joking around.

The Manager was called.

Asked me if I could finish my shift. The deli girls looked at her in shock and explained what had happened. She looked at me and said...

"Well isn't that nice. Can you finish your shift?" - T

So those are our arcade memories. The other two editors, Finn and Baby Huey, will have theirs tomorrow.

What about you? Got any good arcade memories?

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