GASLIGHT PINBALL by Peter Nolan Smith

Pinball was banned as a game of chance in New York City throughout most of the 20th Century.

In 1976 a pinball wizard proved the contrary to a courtroom by calling out his shots to the amazed judges.

The ace later acknowledged that his called shot was pure luck, however pinball machines once more populated amusement arcades and bars. Coming from Boston I had spent hundreds of dollars in the amusement arcades along Washington Street, honing my skills on the slanted playing field.

In 1976 I quit my job as a substitute teacher in Boston and moved to New York in a stolen car. I lived in Park Slope and ran the lunch at a gay restaurant near the UN. For being the waiter, cook, busboy, barman, and cashier from 10am-3:30pm, I earned about $50 a day.

After work I wandered over New York’s premier entertainment area. Times Square was packed with porno store, go-go bars, massage parlors, XXX movie houses, bars, and amusement centers, which were filled with good players. The best was a Frenchman. We competed head to head once a week. Michel had soft hands. His flipper work was extraordinary. He won most of the time, but not always.

Michel worked as a bartender in Park Slope. The Gaslight Pub on 7th Avenue had cheap drinks, a good jukebox, a few beautiful girls from the neighborhood, and a great pinball machine. It was also two blocks from the apartment that I shared with a gay jazz impresario.

The straight crowd at the bar didn’t like queers. James didn’t care whether they liked him or not. He was a drinker and bought drinks for the old regulars, who never questioned his largess, especially since I was friends with Davie Corr, an insane bank robber, who once robbed three banks in Flatbush back to back to back.

Whenever a stranger challenged me to a pinball game, Davie backed my play. A dollar for 1000 points. I sometimes won by 100,000. A c-note was a good money for a game of skill.

Michel and I battled regularly on SLASH. I maintained an advantage since he couldn’t leave the bar long enough to get into his rhythm.

One night I entered the Gaslight and ordered a Jack and coke. The men at the bar kept turning their head to the corner, where a dark-haired skinny girl with big breasts was bumping the pinball machine with her pelvis like she was on a burlesque stage. The brunette was wearing a band-aid of a mini-skirt and a skimpier tube-top showing skin was as white as a zombie. Stiletto heels made her my height.

Michel lifted his eyebrow and leaned over the bar.

“She had been playing like that for an hour.”


“Non-stop.” He motioned with his head to go play with her. She wasn’t his type. He liked black girls.

“Anyone play with her?”

“No one here good enough to beat her.”

“Thanks for that vote of confidence.”

At that time I had a theory that the way someone danced was the way they made love. Extending this hypothesis to pinball was a leap of faith and I asked the pinball player, if I could play a game.

“Pinball?” Her voice was pure Flatbush. She was a hometown girl.

“It’s the only game in here.” I slotted a dollar’s worth of quarters into SLASH. We played for a half-hour. I beat her by only thousands, since I was mesmerized by how savagely her hips thumped the machine. After the tenth tilt I risked a slap in the face and asked, “Do you make love the same way you play?”

“Only one way to find out.”

She drained her drink and took my hand. I waved goodnight to Michel. James was walking down the block with two tough boys. He was into rough trade. Seeing me with Fran he smirked at the both of us without saying a word. He knew better than to cockblock a friend.

Fran lived a few blocks away from the bar. She taught kindergarten. I told her about teaching in South Boston during the busing riots. Her school was in Bed-Stuy. Her pupils were good kids. None of them ever saw her this way.

“Enough talk about school.” She pulled me inside her ground-floor apartment and secured a series of locks. The windows were covered by heavy curtains. She didn’t bother to switch on the lights.

“I have a crazy ex-boyfriend. He won’t leave me alone.” Fran stripped off my clothes, then kneeled on the floor and shucked off my jeans. “You don’t mind if we do it on the floor. I like it that way.”

“Not at all.”

It took Fran three seconds to naked. She left on the high heels. They scraped over the wooden floor like spurs on a horse’s back. Her white skin was covered with baby powder and she left a trail across the room. Her pelvis was breaking my bones, but she wouldn’t let me go, not even when someone knocked on the door.

It was her ex-boyfriend.

“Fran, I know you’re in there.”¯ He called out her name and pounded on the door.

“Don’t stop. He’ll go away.” She humped upward with the same power as when she had been playing pinball. I was her SLASH and there was only one way for her to tilt me.

The ex-boyfriend left the front door only to bang on the window. The good kindergarten teacher whispered dirty talk in my ear and whimpered out a moan of release.

“That was good.”

“For me too.” It was more wicked and I had no intention of leaving her apartment, until I was certain that her ex-boyfriend was gone. We did it again.

Back at the Gaslight Pub Michel set me up with a beer. I was exhausted from the first, second, and third times. James was in the back with his boys. He pretended not to see me. The rest of the bar was drunk. I had been gone two hours.

“So how was it?”

Normally I never discussed the secrets of the bedroom with another man, however Fran and I hadn’t used her bedroom and Michel was a fellow pinball player.

“She did it just like she played pinball.”

“I thought so.” Michel winked at me.

Fran was back at the machine.

I went over to the pinball machine. My pelvis was bruised and my hands were weak. I tilted SLASH on the first go and that lack of skill had nothing to do with luck. Fran won with ease.

She was good at pinball, but better at another game and that was winning.

After all pinball was good a game of chance.

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