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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Pinball Demons

I’ve had a few addictions in my life. Nasal spray comes to mind, as does caffeine in various forms. But none was more compulsive than playing pinball.

I started in seventh grade, when school and I parted ways to mutual accommodation: My teachers hated me as much as I hated them and being apart was satisfactory. I would stop at the nearest bar/café/store with pinball machines and taking advantage of the 5-cents-per-play bonanza, I’d get some coins and play all day.

Literally. I’d get to the machines at 7 AM and play straight through until 4 or 5 PM. As I improved, I could challenge other players and win free games, money or even lunch. As my reputation grew, I’d have to handicap my play to find any takers, usually by me playing only one ball versus my opponent’s playing 2, 3, 4 or even 5 balls. I won far more often than I lost, but every loss was an inducement to rage.

There were times when I shoved machines across the room, bouncing them off walls, counters, other machines and even people. In one raging fit, I cut the cords on all six machines that had somehow managed to defeat me that day. I once kicked a machine so hard that I staved in a side panel and exposed the coin box, filled to the brim with quarters and nickels. I took the box out, plunked it in front of the bar’s owner and walked out.

Weekends and school holidays became nightmares as I simply couldn’t control my need to play. I’d stumble around, wondering who was playing what machine, recalling all the nuances each machine had in flipper strength, tilt potential and scoring spots. I even built a home-made version, with a large board, assorted hardware pieces, a steel ball I’d yanked from the innards of a machine I’d wrecked and my sister as scorekeeper.

At night I’d dream of playing, sometimes reliving moments of victory, but more often focusing on moments where I’d failed. One recurring nightmare sickened me every time: Needing only 100 points to beat a particularly loathsome bastard, with the ball on my right flipper, I flicked it carelessly up the middle, aiming at nothing as anything it hit was worth 100 points. It hit a rubber post that bounced the ball straight down and through my flailing flippers for no score and defeat. I’d never lost to him before and he refused to play me again. I’m still angry.

If school led me to pinballs, school led me away. More exactly, college did. One morning, seeing the most popular pinball place empty, I crossed the street to the local college. I wandered around until I found a classroom, sat down and listened to a lecture on Spanish literature. I was hooked.

My routine became playing pinball for some extra money then wandering the college’s classrooms for any class that caught my fancy. Soon I skipped pinball entirely. The possession faded until the sounds and lights lost their fascinating magnetism.

But ever so often, the rhythm and pulse of guiding a steel ball through high-scoring paces thrums in my mind. It was control where once I had none other; a challenge that was clean where others were dirty. It was rare moments of excitement in a world full of dull pain. It was an addiction…and maybe a cure.


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