Monday, March 28, 2011

Portland and the True Believer

Adam, a man of 29 from Minnesota, emailed me soon after I had posted my first advertisement for Portland People, writing fervently about a BarCade he frequents regularly.  I have met an inordinate amount of people who have moved to Portland from Minnesota in the last few years, and I have begun to wonder, do Minnesotans get some type of tax break for moving here?  Is there some refugee situation I am not aware of, or, have they all finally given up on the Vikings and decided to move to a place where the NFL does not hold sway?  As of yet, I have found no reasonable answer, so I am happy to keep myself entertained by asking these people, when I meet them, how that "Brett Favre thing" worked out for them.  It is enough for now.

For those of you who are unaware, a BarCade is an arcade where they serve beer; a simple yet brilliant concept which attracts Adam and those like him to spend hours and quarters losing themselves in the flashing lights and beckoning challenge to make it to the next level.  I had been to this place before, but never with a person with a passion for pinball.  In his initial email to me, Adam boldly stated:
Though the old school arcades have all but vanished, one place in Portland still holds the line. I go to church once a week, not in the biblical sense, but equally religious. Ground Kontrol... the alcohol-serving old school arcade offers me peace and solace in this world. Regarded as a "BarCade," Ground Kontrol provides all that a Portland man needs. Nearly 20 pinball tables become my scripture, while PBR and Frogger my communion. Some may applaud Portland for its hipster image, the food, the music. I applaud it for its life: The sights, sounds, and smell of the barcade.”

Pretty astounding, I thought, that one could get so much from beer and pinball, but, his passion was palpable in his email, enough to where I knew I would miss out on something if I did not go with him to this place he lovingly referred to as “Church”.

I arrived at 8, as we had discussed in our premails, (previous emails used to set up the event), and locked my bike to the blue rack out front.  As I walked in the door, a young man who appeared to my 41 year-old eyes to be no more than 15, carded me, addressing me as “sweetheart” in the most syrupy-sweet voice, that I almost slapped him.  It is distressing to me that I am offended by such things, but, sadly, I am, and this reaction confirms my suspicion that I have indeed become an old woman.  I looked around but did not see Adam; he said he would be wearing an old school brown Adidas track jacket and green Chuck Taylors.  To my amusement, there were quite a few other gentlemen, old and young, in track jackets of different colors, but, alas, I did not find Adam’s unique color combination in the gathering crowd, so I bellied up to the bar and ordered a bottle of Heineken; I was twelve when I drank my first beer, a Heineken, when pinball was entering its heyday, so I thought it suitable.

As I surveyed the scene, I got a text from Adam apologizing, saying that he had gone to the wrong address, and that he would be a bit late.  I had four quarters in my pocket and a cold Heineken in my hand, everything I needed, I figured, to entertain myself until he got there.  I looked around at the many video games on the first floor; Pac Man, Joust, Q-bert, Gauntlet, and the like, and then glanced upstairs, where all the pinball machines were kept.  I decided that since pinball is a bit more old-school, I would head up.  I climbed the blue neon-lit staircase and looked around, trying to find a good one to play; Star Wars Episode One was out of the question on principal.  Playing this machine would justify its existence, which I simply could not do.  There was a Simpsons pinball machine, a Sopranos, South Park, Terminator: Judgment Day, even a Demolition Man machine, which was being used to prop a door open with a chain.  I chuckled, remembering the line from that film, “Send a maniac (Sylvester Stallone), to catch a maniac, (Wesley Snipes)”, I guess, this time, the maniac was sent to prop a door open.  

Then I saw it.  As I cast my eyes upon the ruggedly handsome face of Indiana Jones and that magical whip of his, I knew I was home.  I put in the requisite two quarters to start the machine, then, grasped the pistol used to shoot the ball onto the table, and, slowly, happily, squeezed the trigger.  The theme was an ode to the first three movies; Short Round, Marion, even Indy’s dad were all there, inviting me to explore the wonders that would inevitably occur when I hit the ball into the right bumper, hole or ramp thingy.  There was even what I am assuming was a replica of the golden idol Indy swiped from the booby-trapped cave in one of the best opening scenes in any movie, EVER.   The idol would spin and spit out balls at seemingly random times.  In retrospect, I am sure the ball spitting was not at all random, but the excitement of the flashing lights, the shiny metal balls and the ringing bells distracted me from what was going on while I was playing.  Of course, I sucked, but somehow lucked into the machine giving me way more balls than a normal turn would call for.  By the time I had used them up, a bit of sweat had formed on my brow, and there were actually a couple of guys waiting to play.  Ah, the call of Indy’s World of Adventures, I don’t know a person alive who could resist.  As I stepped away from Indiana and his bedroom eyes, I saw Adam, wearing, as promised, his brown Adidas track jacket and green Converse.  A thin, dark haired young man with a beer in his hand and excitement in his eyes, I could tell he was looking forward to sharing this place with me.  It was then that the real adventure began.

It was starting to get a bit crowded, so he and I walked around the second floor as he explained to me what made a good machine, (a variety of holes, ramp thingies and extra ball opportunities), what the major pinball machine companies were, (Williams, Gottleib, and of course, Bally), and which were his favorite.  He lamented the fact that he had not been born at another time, either, he said, in the 1300s, or, thirty years earlier than he had been, so that he could have been around for the height of the pinball frenzy.  Then, with a look of horror, quickly followed by deep sorrow, he noted that his favorite machine in the whole world, Tales of the Arabian Nights, was not working.  For the rest of the time we were playing various other pinball machines, I would occasionally catch him glancing back at it, wistfully, as if hoping by some miracle, it had been fixed. 

Adam told me, while playing Bride of Pinbot, that this is where he could relax; that he found solace in the flashing lights, the ringing bells, the knock of the flippers against the ball and the ball against the bumpers. I could tell that talking to me was throwing his game off, but he didn't seem to mind, as if winning was not the point for this Pope of the Pinball Parlor.  As I watched him play, I wondered at how incredible it was that he could find peace in such a distracting place.  He then became philosophical and informed me that pinball machines were like women.  I honestly kind of had a feeling this was true, being a woman, standing there among these vibrant pinball machines, full of depth and complexity, I did indeed feel a certain kinship, an unnameable knowing, if you will, but decided to ask him why he thought this was so.  He told me, as he watched the ball bounce off the flippers, that much like women, pinball machines advertise themselves as one thing, but you really need to spend some “face time” with them in order to really get to know how they work.  What a strange coincidence that in this way, they also happen to be like men.  Something for everyone at Ground Kontrol, I guess.

We decided to go downstairs and try our hand at some of the video games.  I noticed immediately that it was much quieter on the first floor, though, not really quiet at all, actually just a little less violently noisy.  The floor was also more suitably sticky, much like the arcades I used to play in as a child.  As I said before, I am old, and the sights, sounds and smells of this place were really bringing it all back for me.  We wandered around until we found Frogger, Adam’s favorite video game, which, distressingly, was also not working.  Oh the humanity.  We played a few rounds of Burgertime together, at which he beat me, two out of three times.  We then wandered into a section where the old timers were: Defender, Asteroids, Tempest, and Galaga.   As my pulse quickened with excitement, he turned away, waving his hand, saying something about never having played “those games”, as if they were in some way dirty.  I asked, incredulously, how it was that he had NEVER PLAYED TEMPEST before, and, sensing the obvious challenge, he turned back, gleam in his eye, and invited me to play.  As I played, I excitedly pointed out why Tempest is such a wonder: the knob, not joy stick, not roller ball, the knob you turn in order to move your ship into position to shoot enemies in a tube-like environment which actually uses the illusion of space to add to the challenge.  I remembered vaguely that this was one of the first games to do that, and the hours I had spent in front of the screen with my twin brother, trying to avoid the spikes as I warped from one tube galaxy to the next. 

In that moment, with the taste of Heineken on my tongue, and the sweet memories of yesterday in my heart, I became one of the converted, and, with Adam, I marveled at the simple beauty that is Tempest.  As I watched Adam play, my mind drifted back to a simpler time, a time when I didn’t have the worries, fears and frustrations I now hold, a time when all there was, was kill or be killed.   Though Adam and I held this BarCade experience in high regard for two completely different reasons, I for nostalgic reasons, and him for communion, I now understood how the absolute focus and devotion to this endeavor could produce a Zen-like state, and began to see Adam in a completely different light, not as one to be tormented with jokes of Favre-ian atrocities, but one to be cheered, as he managed to strategically maneuver his way to third all-time high scorer on Tempest at my new favorite Portland Place, Ground Kontrol.


  1. Dude this is awesome. You put the reader right into the space with you guys and make all of us have a twinge of longing for the childhood games that carried us through.

  2. I think I can beat my Tempest Score... Lookout world, here I come.