For the past two days, a friend’s email with the unassuming subject line: “My depressive rant” sat in my inbox. When I finally read it tonight, I told him that the only thing that depressed me about his story was the knowledge that, even if I spent the rest of my life before a keyboard, I could never write a story as good.
The author wishes to remain anonymous, but kindly allowed me to share his story.
One of my favorite stories—Las Naranjas de Joaquín Molina written by my friend Luis at Boiling Frogs—begins: “There are stories that demand to be told.”
Jungle King is one of those stories. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
When I was 14 years old (back in the ‘70’s), I had a paper route in North Haven, Connecticut. Perhaps I was 15. I can’t truly recall. The forty-odd papers to be delivered each day taught me to serve customers, get up on early on weekends to work in sometimes inclement conditions, and enjoy the jingle of quarters in my pocket.
As a kid, I had many excellent opportunities for dispensing these quarters. The ceramic piggy bank with the pink cork sporting a small brass ring was one. Though perhaps not my favorite. Sorrentos Pizzeria another. But after all, a kid knows he’ll get free food at home. Again a second choice. Then there was AMF lanes up at ‘The Mart.’ This was at times viable, but it was quite a way to haul on your ten speed between fast-moving cars, and you could get all the way up there only to find the lanes were full and the pinball machines occupied. Older guys with leather jackets and cigarettes would pile a couple rolls of quarters on the edge of the machine as a sign to runts such as myself to take a hike. My favorite place to lose those quarters was Bill’s variety. It was close to home, run by a friendly if under-achieving store owner who sold cigarettes and soft drinks and maintained a couple pinball machines for the passers-by.
Bill’s shop was the first place where I as a customer experienced that look of a proprietor who is glad to see you and your money walk through the door. The doctor doesn’t count. They can read your name off a chart and your parents were there and paying the freight to the extent there was freight to be paid. But Bill learned our names and welcomed us with an understated nod. My favorite pinball machine was FreeFall. The graphics were of a sky diver or two sailing over chequered agricultural fields with an old fashioned airplane banking out of sight. One can only assume the plane had dumped us in flyover country and left us to our own devices. It helped add to the sense of expectation and adventure these amazing amusements managed to supply through the haze of smoke where they were normally used.
For 25 cents back then, you got five balls to flip and spin around the table top. The object was to depress a series of flags (drop targets) and some rollovers which, when all touched off, would create a condition called WOW when extra balls could be earned and beaucoup points. The joy of this game was achieving the free balls. Some kind of clapper inside the machine would snap against the casing of the unit creating a solid loud sound. Such achievement for a young soul.
The other machine, a good one but easier to beat, was called Jungle King. I would play this while waiting for Freefall to open up. The truth is, I might never have actually figured out all the levels to Jungle King. Either way, I must have spent hundreds of dollars on these two contraptions. Bill had a reason for liking his teenage clientele. We were respectful, dependable and cleaned-up enough that I doubt we deterred other customers from stopping in. Perhaps we even lent a certain energy or aura of bustle that might have been good for business. Afternoon upon afternoon as I recall. The competition was pretty healthy. We would try to beat one another’s high scores and practiced the sort of braggadocio which in this day is termed ‘trash talk.’ Sometimes a new kid would come along and show us how it was really done.
We had unwritten rules though. You could put up three quarters at a time then someone else put a quarter above yours on the glass and you would let them have a chance. The thing is if you ‘tilt’ a pinball game from that era you lose the rest of the game. 25 cents down the hatch. Sometimes on the last ball you’d get a little more aggressive wiggling the machine because after all it was your last ball anyway and you wanted to achieve a new high score or earn a ball before this one drained. The draining or saving a ball hung on a knife edge most of the time and gave focus for our adrenaline and best efforts.
One day when I showed up and greeted Bill, I noticed guys goofing off at the Jungle King game. Nothing strange except that the studious attention to the second by second successes or failures of the guy at the flippers was gone and replaced with a casual goofiness. More oddly, Freefall was not being used. Hmmm. As I approached the Free Fall game a guy said “Don’t waste your money.” “Why? Is it broken?” I asked. “No this one is.” Confused because Jungle King was being played I must have made a face. Obviously my friend was enjoying my ignorance. “The machine keeps giving free games” he said. Just wait and play this and save your money.
Any other day I’d have been delighted to pay 25 cents to play Free Fall with no competition for replays. But now I was perplexed. I honestly can’t remember how many times I played thinking about playing Jungle King for free. The guys started getting a bit rough with Jungle King. But the guy playing Jungle King didn’t really care if he tilted. Without the great equalizers (cash money) it was pretty hard to decide when your turn was really up. The broken coin processor on Jungle King had pretty much destroyed the atmosphere down there. Apparently the technician had been called, but it wasn’t clear when he would show up.
When I came the next day, the Jungle King game was smashed. It had been vandalized when I wasn’t there. The same guys who had so devoutly fed it money only a few days earlier had turned on it, having lost all respect. Bill turned out to be too weak to have us kicked out of his shop or shut the thing down—and the goofiness had escalated. Tilts ever more aggressive. Battles for access to the flippers rougher and rougher and unbounded by cultural norms or force of law. Apparently, the technician had been called, but did not arrive in time.
Soon after this Bill’s variety closed down. I never heard what happened to Bill. A nice guy of the variety that always finishes last, a heavy smoker, unwilling or unable to control his own assets.
This entire suite of images and memories flashed before me when I woke from fitful sleep this morning. Two dominant parties in American politics squared off yesterday. And regardless of how objectively ridiculous this sounds, I believe in some ways they have done so for the last time. Jungle King is broken and some bad actors have gotten hold of the machine. They aren’t ever going to let it go. Don’t bother putting quarters on the glass. They are no longer coin of the realm. They have figured a way to by-pass the coin op. For a dozen reasons I’ll not review here, one party tilted, but did not lose this game. No “game over” light to signal the definitive arrival of cold hard reality. The balls just keep coming. No technician ever arrived. No grownup called a halt.
So Bill, God bless you wherever you are. Thank you for your little shop. There I learned that I’d rather play Free Fall for a quarter and even wait my turn than play Jungle King forever for free. It’s a lesson that has escaped us in the aggregate and the vandals are at the flippers.
The integrity of worthy human activity has a certain tension about it. Balancing bank accounts. Tuned cello strings. Toned athletic muscles. Tight tolerances in engineering design. By all accounts the natural feedback loops and dynamics of things should have led to a different result yesterday. I accept the fact that they didn’t. It has been a long time coming. The river has been crossed. More than half the people want to be fooled all the time.
The mission of a Christian Soul is to love. And in this respect, nothing has changed. God has granted us a target rich environment. Blessed be the Lord.
P.S. Just because I know that 51% of you are stuck on asking such things, the ‘Jungle King’ was a white guy.