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.
As soon as we stepped inside my brain went into sensory overload. The smell hit me first; cigarettes and pot and teenage sweat swirling together in the dank heat of the Palace.
The noises. The clacking of pool bools as someone yelled break!; the dings and and whistles of the twenty or so pinball machines that lined the walls; the cursing of the bikers at the pool table; the jangling of quarters in the pockets of Levis; the fist banging on the glass as a machine cried out TILT! It was all underscored by Led Zeppelin’s Trampled Under Foot shouting from the jukebox, and the combination of those sounds became my own Pied Piper, begging me to follow.
I was hesitant that first day and just hung in back of Gina while she made a 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 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 next Saturday, Gina took me with her for another buy. This time, I brought quarters. While Gina flirted with her dealer, I made the walk towards the machine in the far corner. The Bally Wizard.
I slowly 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 the lady in the school office worked the typewriter. I moved this way and that, 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.
Gina had to drag me out of the Palace. Even when my quarters ran out, I wanted to stay and watch the masters play, the guys who turned over the numbers on the scoreboard, the guys who could smoke and drink and play at the same time.
And then it wasn’t just Saturdays anymore. I started walking there 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. We would throw a few quarters into the jukebox (three plays for twenty five cents!), and play the same line up each time. Led Zeppelin. Todd Rundgren. Deep Purple.
Sometimes I would ask my mother for a ride to the library and when she pulled away after dropping me off, I would run across Front Street and duck into the Pinball Palace. I rationalized my lying. I wasn’t out doing drugs – no respectable 13 year old considered pot a real drug, not when the bad kids were doing angel dust – and I wasn’t out getting pregnant like Mrs. Winslow’s daughter. I was just playing pinball.