"Play," my friend said pointing a long finger at the pinball machine.
It was a midweek afternoon at Duddington's downstairs bar. My friend happens to be about 6'4" and looks a boulder with a beard. He thinks he is Viking and sometime I believe him.
"Play," he said again, and it sounded like an Irish cardinal saying "Pray."
The machine was old and weary, on its last legs, all its glitter gone. It had lost its voice and touch. To play it was like getting a massage where you didn't feel a thing.
"Play," he said again.
What the hell, I thought, thereby breaking a vow I made when I first came to Washington from California more than two years ago. I hated the sight and sound of pinball machines, still hate pinball machines, but now its like hating someone you love because you can't help yourself.
I had vowed never to play pinball machines because they seemed like irritating toys. They interfered with other things, like talking sports or policies with your friends, trying to catch someone's eye across the bar or listening to "Midnight Blue" when you feel pleasantly lonely and remember better times.
Pinball machines just didn't seem like things serious bar people would be bother with. In California, as I vaguely remember, we did things differently. We played 97 different varieties of dice games or shot pool and pretended to be Paul Newman. We playes liar's dice for a drink or a buck from five o'clock until closing because that was the game though it was illegal. We all said it was like chess, convoluted, intricate, subtle and all that mostly we secretly enjoyed making each other feel stupid.
I thought I was above pinball machines.
"Play," my friend said.
I played. I think I got 34,000 the first time on a machines that gave you a free game if you broke 74,000 points. My exact first score is not burned into my brain, which I think is a saving grace.
"Not bad, turkey," my friend said. He got around 64.000 points and he kicked the machines.
Childish, I thought.
My next game, the ball went straight up and straight down in what I call a mime shot. The sound of silence, no noise, no points.
I kicked the machine.
Cut it out, I said to myself. This is ridiculous.
"Wanna," I said. "I'm not that good, yet."
The Yet should have worried me. Because I'm still playing. I'm just not that good yet.
As a matter of fact, I haven't gotten much better, but I am hooked. Apparently, so is everybody else in Washington, and probably Peking.
Pinball machines are bona fide fad now. Time magazines had a bit story with pictures in color. Penthouse did a detail piece on the sexual significance of the way men and women play the game or two in his California mansion. There is a big, garish picturebook full of pictures of nothing but pinball machines.
Pinball machines have come out of their carnival and penny-arcade closets and onto bars and homes.
Perhaps Elton John's "Pinball Wizard" and the rock opera "Tommy" had a lot to do with the coming of age of pinball machines. The fad is difficult to pinpoint in origin, but it's not hard to find. There are machines in such varied places as the Georgia Mafia watering hole Sarsfield's, to a gray, smoky neighbothood bar on Wisconsin Avenue to the back of the jazzy, dark and subterranean One Step Down.
The people who play the game are a disparate lot, even in s place like Duddington's on Capitol Hill. Baby-faces and crew-cut marines clutch the machines as if they were macjine guns, while legislative aides and lawyers unbutton their button-down shirts and starts a beginning sweat staring grimly into the neon lights.
Pinball machines are democratic. They cut across the ages. the sexes and the races, perhaps because pinball's game and a fantasy.
Even self-styled pinball wizards cannot avoid disaster on any given ball, and a so-so, mediocre player like me can have a super game with a little luck.
It takes no great strength, no great wisdom. The best player on Capitol Hill may be a small man who plays with bookish intensity. You don't have a musical earM or big hands, or good looks. Patience hepls, however, as well as a low frustration level, a degree of passion and a certain taste for the garish and loud.
Pinball machines look like mechanical clowns who put on their faces too fast. They are fantasy incarnate, somewnere between Frederick's of Hollywood and Marvel Comics. For examples, Duddington's sported three machines: the Argosy, Jungle Queen and Evel Knievel. The Argosy was brightly medieval, full of billowing sails and monkish figures. The Jnugle Queen is Sheenah and Anita Ekberg stuffed into a fourth of a leopard coat, the Amazon spirits looking enticing. The Evel Knievel machines about $1,500 and yet, according to Time, one of the top-selling machines, is more like a computer than a pinball machines. People in the business here tell me that the digital or computerized machine is the coming thing, adding that the standard price will probably be three plays for half a buck, double what it is now.
While the old daredevil himself peers down doing perpetual wheelies and surrounded by top-heavy beaties, the machine reels off points like a tape or a print out. It may be the perfect machine for Madison Avenue, Wall Street and the bureau cracy and perhaps the Nixon Administration. The biggest bundle of points pile up when you make the red-white-and-blue flipspers flap.
Just to look at the machine is to get an idea of the American Dream as an MGM musical. Sex, bonus points, Rockettes, shower of bells and jingles> instant motivation (double bonus when red light lit). Buried in there sonewhere is the nation that you too can win, that bells will go off in your life and you can get something for nothing if you only try. The nirvana of the free game.
Perhaps that's why pinball seems to arouse such extreme movements and emotional reactions. Players grip machines in bearhugs, hug then tenderly, approach with a position straight out of the Kama Sutra. They glower, they curse, they scream, they kick the machines, they jump and down. There are no expletives deleted.
Mostly though, it can be a kind of bliss.
I remember a time I scored 220,000 on the Evel Knievel machine, which was worth about teo or three free games. It was like scoring 20 points in the varsity basket-ball game, like kiss, like winning a raffle.
I beamed. It was nothing, I said. Son of a gun, I thought. Hoo boy, a winner at least.
I had two mime balls the next two-times around.
That's the way it is. Ishould have struck to liar's dice.