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Had to be there: On a roll with Washington's skeeball set at Iron Horse Tap Room

United Skeeball brings together social leagues aiming for high scores as much as for friendly conversation.

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By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

This is the first in an occasional series in which Post writers take you on a tour of original places and happenings around the region.

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The skeeball zips up the 10-foot alley, pops up the lip and plunks in a hole. The score flashes red as a blue siren twirls and some chick who has had two Bud Lights too many raises her left arm in the air, clenches her fist, bends her knees slightly, leans back like she may engage a limbo pole that isn't there, and screams "Woooh!" The pattern repeats itself, over and over again -- quick motions, instant scoring, unbridled enthusiasm.

Zip, pop, plunk, woooh!

Zip, pop, plunk, woooh!

"Raaaaaape, muuurder: It's just a shot away, it's just a shot away," belts Merry Clayton, barely heard over the speakers in the basement of the Iron Horse Tap Room in Penn Quarter. Upstairs, outside, is Monday's mild evening, with its luxurious royal-blue sky. Beneath the ground, hundreds of 20-, 30- and 40-somethings play "adult skeeball," the archetypal Jersey Shore arcade game, in an odorless bar/rec room whose interior design could furnish a Broadway stage if the TV show "Taxi" were adapted into a musical. Motorcycles perch on beams near the ceiling. Oil drums are stacked in one corner. Racks of old tires are suspended in the stairwell. Signs for Shell, Firestone and 76 plaster the walls. It's petrolicious, in a tidy, nontoxic way.

Zip, pop, plunk, woooh!

The Empire waists and polo shirts cascade down the stairs. It's opening day for United Skeeball at Iron Horse, which has turned into something like a Chuck E. Cheese for adults. No one is unamused down here. If you're not skeeballing, you're gabbing. If you're not gabbing, you're drinking. If you're not drinking, you're watching the flat-screen televisions. An "NCIS" rerun airs, or a recurring commercial for the History Channel's new miniseries "America: The Story of Us," flashing shots of a derrick spewing crude and the Statue of Liberty under construction.

"This is hot," says a guy in a white polo, holding an IPA, commenting on a woman's skeeball accuracy but looking at the small of her back, where a tattoo is playing peekaboo from between her jeans and shirt as she bends into a windup.

Zip, pop, plunk, woooh!

"Damn, it feels good to be a gangster, feedin' the poor and helpin' out with their bills," sing the Geto Boys, vaguely, under the high-pitched chatter.

"Nice, girl!"

"Feel the rhythm!"


CONTINUED     1        >

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