Sunday, November 11, 2012

Story as a Pinball Machine


There are times when your attempts to forge and craft stories reminds you of the obstacles, pitfalls, and frustrations of playing a pinball machine.  The more you consider the analogy, the more it holds resonance for you, taking you back in time to your pre-teen years, and the hours you spent at Miller’s Drug Store on the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Fairfax Avenue in mid-town Los Angeles.  Those hours were spent watching your father, who seemed to have a magical touch with such new machines that were brought in to Miller’s.

You did not know the term “revenue generator” then.  You did know that the nickel to play the machine had relative values for your father and for you and your sister.  A low-end-of-the-scale cigar, a Creamo, could be had for a nickel.  Your father was a cigar smoker, his sights and tastes higher than the Creamo, but these were not the easiest of times.  A nickel was the price for a rectangle of ice cream about two and a half inches by four inches, covered with a crunchy chocolate icing, and mounted on a wooden stick that reminded you of an anemic tongue depressor.

This adventuresome presence in your life was called Milk-Nickel.  It was sold from refrigerated trucks that roamed the neighborhoods of the city with what seemed to you an eerie prescience of when you, your sister, and your chums should crave ice cream.  On rare occasion, when you’d eaten down to bare some of the Milk-Nickel stick, the magical word “free” appeared, meaning the stick was your currency for a free Milk Nickel.  In that world and that time, having two free sticks gave you a sense of invulnerability, of the power of riches.

That was an enormously different Los Angeles than the one you visit on occasion now, clogged with vehicle traffic and in its own supportive analogy, as complex and mercurial as the pinball machines your father played.  Pinball machines were different then as well, radiating a retro charm, with obvious traps to avoid and special, bonus point mazes and targets which sounded bells and buzzers, adding the score in tens and twenties as opposed to the electronic inflation of sounds and numbers in today’s machines.

Your father could and frequently did win enough free games to cause you to be the messenger bearing the news to your mother that dinner would have to wait.  Sometimes your father’s skills were so great that you were sent home two or three times with the news that Jake was on a winning streak, and at least twice in your memory, your father was sent out into the night at eight o’clock closing with two or three Roi-Tan or Perfecto Garcia cigars in mitigation of the number of free games still on the pinball machine.

At the time, you had no real feel for the descent his fortunes had taken, bringing him to the Depression Era budgetary choice between a cheap cigar or no cigar at all and several moments worth of being in perfect harmony and coordination with a small, mischievous part of the universe. Often his reward to you for the time spent watching him without being a distraction was a nickel for your own weakness, the Milk-Nickel.  That was welcomed, but even then, the sight of him, reaching that scoring groove that sent the free games counter climbing, was worth more.

Those visions of him were your first real awareness of him as a man of technique and concentrated effort, of a graceful power and subtlety, and you quite began to love him. Later, you pieced those memories and times into a cobbled awareness that it would take more than a Depression economy to stop him.

When you play a pinball machine these days, it is more for the nostalgia of Jake, hunched over the machine, his hands alert at the side flippers, confiding secrets to you about how much body English this particular machine would take before sounding that off-key groan signifying TILT and the peremptory end of a game.  Even when technique is high and graceful, loss is a resident factor.  Loss and TILT are only momentary challenges.  So long as wire coat hangers could be sold, ten for a nickel, or bottles returned, or some unanticipated turn of grace, say the discovery of a coin or two in the cushions of a sofa, there was always the potential of a new game.

Gravity is a factor in story.  So are the hazards of over-explaining, self-indulgent description, and point-of-view violation.  Controlled motion is everything, but controlled motion requires practice and patience as well as coordination.

Sometimes, you use a bit too much body English, and then you hear the mocking equivalent of the TILT warning, announcing the game is over, the draft is spoiled, and you’ve nothing for it but to start again.


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