Pinball with Old People

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One of my sisters turned 40 this week. That makes 3 of us in my family who are in our 40s. She celebrated with a small get together at a video arcade. I was never any good at video games, so the two hours I spent there hanging out with her, our brother and few other folks may very well have been the most time I have ever spent at one go in a video arcade.

Apparently retro video games are cool. Since I’m not at all sure how arcade video games have developed since the 80s and early 90s, maybe they’ve always been cool, but I was surprised to see games I remember from 20+ years ago. There was PacMan, Ms. PacMan, TRON, something called “Atari Star Wars” and Tetris. I was disappointed not to find Gauntlet, a classic elves & orcs fantasy shoot and run type of game that may have been the only video game I ever sought out and played on purpose. My brother, who is wise in the ways of video games, agreed that it was properly canonical and the arcade should have had it.

When we were kids in a Midwestern university town, there was a video arcade not far from our house called Pinball Pete’s. It was a second floor warren of rooms at the top of some rickety, dirty wooden stairs. It was dark, smoky and noisy. It exercised a mystical pull over a lot of kids, but my brother went through phases when he was almost obsessed. Unfortunately our father loathed Pinball Pete’s, and Dad didn’t do tepid emotions. If he disliked something, it was a fiery hatred with the heat of a thousand suns and the despised object was fraught with immorality in every aspect of its being. If I were to guess at a rational basis for his view of Pinball Pete’s it was that he associated pinball and games of that sort with gambling. To be fair, before it was Pinball Pete’s it was a dive called Mickey Rat’s and that wasn’t exactly a kids type of joint. But in Dad’s case, the problem was probably abstract. Gambling was not only generically immoral in his culture, but had bad history in his family. Also people smoked at Pete’s, which automatically made it a hive of scum and villainy. So whenever my brother would go to Pete’s Dad would have an overtop fit: drama, punitive threats that he was never going to carry out, followed by ponderous lectures. None of this made my brother less inclined to go Pinball Pete’s. After all, one of my Dad’s favorite occupations was telling florid stories about the various ways that he defied authority in his youth. So my brother hoarded coins and snuck off to Pete’s. And got busted. And there would be strife.

My sisters and I were never much drawn to Pinball Pete’s but I did feel a brief sensation that I was entering a den of iniquity when I arrived at Ground Kontrol, the arcade and bar we went to this week. Turns out, it doesn’t smell too bad on a weekday. There’s a bouncer at the door checking IDs. There’s a bar that sells decent craft beer on tap and in cans and a menu that meets the Oregon Liquor Control Commission’s exacting food service requirements (the minimum requirement of appetizers is supplied by multiple types of nachos. The required entrees include hot dogs). The mixed drinks are mediocre themed drinks with Midori or grenadine, called things like The Ms. PacMan. The gin & tonic is watery. I’m told they have themed music nights, but this particular night had a dj perched next to the curved stair case, playing techno from a laptop. The patrons are mellow, mostly white and some Asians, majority male, but not by a wide margin. There’s a high ceiling with blue neon lamps and the loud, steady “broush-broush-broush” made me think of the clubs in 90s movies where the vampires and Eastern European drug dealers were always partying. Actual pinball machines fill the balcony and there’s a bar area where you can sit at lighted tabletops and watch Goonies on continuous loop on the big screen TV.  Seriously, they were playing Goonies. With subtitles.

My brother and I opened tabs on our credit cards for our craft beer and nachos and bought drinks for the birthday girl. We had a discussion about where and how many times we watched Goonies when were kids, since we were its target audience when it came out. It led to a discussion of John Hughes movies, an obscure Scott Baio flick and Gremlins. Another middle aged member of the party commented he wanted to go back and see Lost Boys, the sexy-vampire-movie-for-youth-market that predated the techno-dancing goth vampires. I confessed that I had re-watched it myself recently and had even watched the 2008 version where the addled former child actor (the Corey who’s not dead) reprises his sidekick role, now as paranoid adult. As we sat we noticed a fellow at the bar who wore a black leather motorcycle jacket: the kind with the snap back lapels. It had “Judas Priest” written in uneven Gothic lettering with white paint marker on the back. My brother and I, who both worn such jackets with similar ornamentation in our youth, debated if this particular young man had even been born when Rob Halford came out of the closet. We concluded he’d been in diapers.

I kept with my past practice of mostly watching other people play. I tried one pinball game. My bro played several video games and I watched the pixels scurry around in two dimensions. My kids’ Minecrack is more fancy. Before I had to take my sleepy middle aged arse home, my sister, brother and I played a couple of rounds of Dance Dance Revolution. I went to my minivan, parked under a street light and was particularly impressed that when I left, I didn’t smell at all like an ashtray. Because of course no one was smoking in there. Ground Kontrol is in what passes for a seedy neighborhood in downtown Portland: Chinatown. I paused to take a picture of the “Hung Far Low” sign on a nearby building, to go with my picture of the clubby neon décor of the arcade ladies’ room. 1988 seems a long time ago.

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