Saturday, June 26, 2010

pinball astrology pac-man blues – a coin op amusement arcade interlude

Silver Shack Haunts Me Still


Battleground Drive was where you’d find me after school when I was in the 3rd and 4th grades. I stayed with this lady named Mrs. Green next to a duplex where a girl a year younger than me, Shelly Davenport, lived. We’d play behind the houses in the woods where someone kept beehives or at the pond just beyond Mrs. Green’s backyard fence. I’d dream away my afternoons waiting for my father to pick me up. Time moved slow and sweet even when Shelly and I were getting yelled at by motorists for throwing gravel at their cars or when I broke her skateboard. She threw at me as my father picked me up and yelled that I should pay for it. My father told her she shouldn’t have let me ride it and we laughed as we checked our empty pockets.

One day Mrs. Green’s son stopped by with a new motorcycle. I talked him into giving me a ride on it knowing my parents would have never allowed me. I jumped onto the back and away we went roaring down the street. It was so cold. Now I knew why motorcycle riders could wear leather jackets in the summer. We hit Broad Street and went by the place where Murfreesboro’s first mall was being built. Dirt was piled up between huge yellow machinery just waiting for the future to begin.

main story:

The mall was called Stones River Mall and it was anchored by Kmart which had no entrance to the mall section which ran along past it and then made an L bend to a Kroger store. It wasn’t really a mall. It was more like a strip shopping center that just happened to have a roof over the frontage area. No matter, because I loved the place. It featured a Wal-Greens that had these little mechanical bar entrances that we loved opening and closing. There was Readmore Books which is where I got my addiction to rock and roll magazines. Port o’Call Records provided me with records I still own. And then there was the Silver Shack.

It was a cramped and small game room filled with pinball machines, video games, and other amusement devices along two lengthwise walls. It was a dark cave illuminated by the spectral glow of LED’s amidst a symphony of analog bells and beeps. When you walked in there was the pinball games to the left and video games to the right stretching back towards the infinity of the back interrupted by the odd machine like the horoscope scroll machine which I also loved. There were so many times I begged for the money just to get a Sagittarius scroll even though I barely read it later. It was the mere idea and look of it I loved.

The horoscope scroll was a mere pop cultural artifact compared to the main draw of the Silver Shack. I saw my first Pac Man game there, but this was nothing compared to my unbridled lust for the game of pinball. This was what I saved my quarters for and what I devoted myself to mastering. When I first began to play I was terrible. A few hits from the flippers which I would flip both at the same time – a couple of targets dropped – some play from the bumpers – lots of noise signifying nothing – and then maybe I’d be lucky to get a match. So my dollar of two worth of quarters didn’t last long. This was a blessing in a way. It gave me the time to watch guys play that were actually good at pinball.

No matter how much I might have wished to see cute girls lined up to play pinball, apparently the movie Tilt which featured Brooke Shields as a precocious silver ball playing genius was pure fiction. So I observed surly pimple faced teenage boys and grown up men as they pushed and shook the machines without tilting them. I saw how they would work the flippers and learned tricks on how to stop the ball cold or hand it off from side to side. I figured out that it was wise to understand what each bumper, target, or lane did in the game. I learned how the scoring progressed per machine and how to light up the “specials” and win free games and earn extra balls. Really good players would eventually get bored or just have to go and they would give their games they had earned to me and I could play for free while I improved.

I got better. I got much better. The Silver Shack cave wasn’t enough. I hit the other game rooms in town looking for the best tables. I would search out pinball machines in tiny markets. Once while visiting downtown Nashville on Lower Broad I spied a pinball machine in a storefront. I went inside and dropped a quarter in and began playing. Soon a grungy guy told me I had to leave. I hadn’t even noticed that I was in the lobby of a peep show place. My favorite pinball machines over the years were Kiss, Evel Knievel, Playboy – which I could flip the score over on, Mata Hari – another one I could flip, Pin Bot, Eight Ball Deluxe, Black Knight, and Flight 2000. I took my cue from The Who and I tried to play them all. Bally machines were my favorite, but Williams tables were futuristic, fast, and fun. Gottlieb one’s always seemed slightly second rate and there weren’t very many Stern made ones around, but if it had a silver ball and flippers I was ready to part with my quarters.

Time has not been kind to pinball games. Video games and computers have put paid to them. The Silver Shack vanished many years ago and the original Stones River Mall is just another standard strip mall. My babysitter Mrs. Green’s house is still on Battleground, but the pond and wooded area behind it are now just rows of houses. So the beat of time must go on as Joe Strummer sang and most of the pinball games (classic Williams tables recreated) I play are on a Nintendo Wii. But I still search for the real ones and every now and again I stumble upon one sitting in a dusty corner of a truck stop or market or sometimes find an actual row of shiny ones in an arcade and I’m immediately in a place of joy and discovery amidst a remnant of golden youth and Silver Shacks.

I snagged the photos from the Internet Pinball Database.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Minimal Vibe

There are moments when I think that a minimalist life would be right. I feel like jettisoning my possessions. I could paint the walls pure white and live in a Lennonesque mansion of my own mind. I would go back to my record store clerking days style when I would wear Doc Martens, jeans and a thrift store work shirt every day. Then I would bask in some version of the eternal sunshine of a not quite spotless mind.

I could drift away from complexity and vanish into the singularity of brevity. I think deeply about this and then balk and resist. I like my books, records, old Creem magazines, and guitars. I get a kick when I come across the box with my old rock 'n' roll and skateboarding t-shirts. Another box of jumbled up junk that should be thrown away yields up small memories that will make a dead past come alive. It seems I need the surface of my life to be choppy, with my mind racing from thought to thought in a random way, for there to be calm waters beneath.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Smoke Up Johnny!

It’s October 1981 and I could use a cigarette. There would be just enough time before bus 49 arrived at the junction of Sunset and Kingwood Drive for me to walk down to Jerry's Market and buy a pack of Marlboro Lights and some baseball cards. I could light up on the walk back and deeply inhale the black death into my 15 year old lungs. When my high school freshman year had begun in 1981 the older smokers at the bus stop had made fun of me because I was only puffing and holding the smoke in my mouth, but now I was a fully fledged member of the teenage nicotine lung ring. My old comic book geek friends from my Mitchell-Neilson Elementary days who rode the bus would only stare in horror and shake their heads when I reached for my lighter.

It would be easy enough now to state I started smoking in order to look cool and be more adult, and this suffices to a point. There was also the need for acceptance with the sort of older teens that could make your life a living hell if you weren't in their good graces. I wanted to be, yearned to be one of those sulky long haired boys huddled with their girlfriend in the smoking area of the school grabbing a quick puff between classes. There was the exulting aura of rebellion (it never smelled smokier) that firing up a cigarette imparted. Unless you thought too hard about it and then all of my adult relatives came into view smoking their cigarettes and they didn't seem much like rebels. Looked at this way lighting up was just as contradictory a state as being 15. The reason I kept smoking for years was simple. The nicotine rush had hooked me.

I was telling somebody the other day that I used to smoke and they didn't believe me. It's true I protested. Even though I can't stand the smell I still crave cigarettes. Pleasure synapses fire up in anticipation just by my writing this post. I smoked from 1981 until the mid 1990's. A recitation of brands would go like this:

pilfered Merit's from my mother who was just about to quit smoking when I started

Marlboro Lights which was the consistent brand I would return back time and time again

Camels which I would buy out of the cigarette machine at the fire hall in front of Mitchell-Neilson where they were ridiculously cheap – funny how easy it was to just sneak in there back then

More's the long cigar like cigarettes


Newport menthols which made me sick at the Tom Petty show in 1985

Carltons which were like smoking paper (I was trying to quit)

Lucky Strikes when they came back

Pall Mall

Benson & Hedges

and finally several years of smoking clove cigarettes

The new smokeless zone we all live in is nice in some ways. I like not smelling like smoke after dining out. It is undoubtedly a healthier place. Yet it is also a less free world in which we live. I still remember when the smoking ban hit M.T.S.U. and my major adviser at the time Dr. Frederick Crawford was denied his pleasure of smoking his pipe in the halls between classes. He raved about it to his Western Civilization class I was taking as this ban was not due to a governmental wide edict, but due to one student complaining. This was followed up by an outburst about the Chinese which had something to do with why he risked his life in the Korean War only to end up in a country where a gentleman couldn’t smoke his pipe.

The governmental edict was coming and soon the adult world resembled my high school years with the grown up’s crouched together furtively grabbing a smoke outside before going inside. They didn’t look cool. They just looked sad and addicted. I quit for good in the middle of the Nineties. I did like my mother and just stopped. I still miss the nicotine sensation even if all of the glamour and mystical cool was always false. The truth is the main reason why I smoked was because isn’t a cigarette the most marvelous prop.