For Every Vice in Vegas, There Is An Equal and Opposite Pinball Machine
In which the author leaves her interview subject, who appears to want to be left alone, alone.Art by Jamie Loftus Games Features pinball
The Pinball Hall of Fame is pushed off to the side of the city where, looking out of the tinted windows, you feel like you could be pushed into the corner of nearly any poorly ventilated desert town. For the better or worse luck of whoever’s opinion you’re going on, this desert town has the misfortune of being Las Vegas.
I’d made a point to walk there parallel to the strip to check out the portion of the city that wasn’t built on a five-inch-thick second sidewalk of caked tourist vomit, and found the same strip malls and Burger Kings that would populate anywhere, leading all the way up to the inconspicuous blacked-out doors of the Hall of Fame. This arcade could have gone anywhere, but it’s lucky for Las Vegas that Director of Things and Stuff Tim Arnold chose to put it here.
I like traveling alone. This is a statement that is hard to picture being said without its speaker’s nose pressed up against glass with tears in their eyes, refusing to blink and reveal that all they ever wanted was a buddy to share quips with on the plane, but in my case it’s true. Then again, that’s probably what that crying window pane faker would tell you, too. She’s making it harder for the rest of us, as long as she isn’t me, which I’m eighty percent sure she isn’t. You don’t have to believe me. I like buddies, but usually not for more than a few hours at a time, and I like planes, but honestly prefer the Greyhound. Something about secretly enjoying leaving a grease stain I didn’t know was lurking on the surface of my scalp and waking up to the smell of a stranger’s McDonald’s trash. Plus, it’s fifteen bucks each way. I like traveling alone. It gives you time to think about how you’re going to explain to everyone who’s worried that you’re withdrawing from the people in your life that you like traveling alone. Which, I have to say, I’m pretty sure I do.
Las Vegas is not an easy city to travel alone to. I had spent the previous night seeing a Britney Spears show and accidentally getting trapped at the afterparty for a senior citizen beauty pageant, and am about tapped out on the stimulation the city has to offer. I am not a gambler, or even a person who enjoys watching other people ensure that their children will never attend college. The Hall of Fame would have been on my list no matter what city I’d ended up in, though, like any low stakes place where the poor tourist children of Vegas are dragged during the waking hours before their parents ensure that they’ll never attend college after dark.
Tim Arnold doesn’t seem to like the kids too much, but he has a vested interest in their enjoyment of the space. The Hall of Fame owner is tinkering with the light board on the Shrek 2 machine the Saturday afternoon I walk in, still humming Britney B-sides with legs caked in desert sweat. Arnold occasionally scowls at a kid who runs past him too fast or reminds half-drunk afternoon tourists not to bang on the machines, for Christ’s sake. All of his interactions with people inside the Hall of Fame are based on necessity above enjoyment, but he’s very aware of where everyone in the room is for the duration of the three hours I’m there. When you’re in the drunkest city in America letting anyone into your life’s work twelve hours a day, you might get a little edgy, too.
It’s Arnold I’ve come here to talk to in the sort of kamikaze-style interview that indicates the writer in question didn’t plan ahead, but I decide to leave him alone.
Arnold is not being paid to be at the business he’s run for as long as I’ve been alive. In fact, the whole Hall of Fame is thick with the feeling that you’ve accidentally stepped into an eccentric’s basement, albeit one who has his collection open to the public for twelve hours a day. Instead, I pull a few bills coated in butt sweat from my back pocket and have them converted into quarters. I’ll use them all, and Tim Arnold will donate them all to the Salvation Army and a small band of local charities. After a few laps around the massive space, I decide to do what he’d rather I do—just play the fucking machines.
The first date I’d gone on in Los Angeles was to a barcade with a friend from college, one of those movie montage sort of nights where the person you’re there with will put their fingers on your fingers when you’re trying to get the flippers to knock a pinball into a clown’s mouth and it’s supposed to be romantic but really it’s just sticky, and you don’t kiss, and you go home early, and you somehow end up dating for three months anyway. Arnold’s machines are not soaked in pheromones in the same way—there’s plenty of square footage for horny adults in other areas of the city, leaving the room relatively empty of the petty vulgarity a few blocks down. It’s populated with hung over parents and people stationed at certain machines that are some mixture of a regular at the space (that’s the wiry guy at The Twilight Zone machine) or a sober uncle dragged on a vacation he never wanted to be on (that’s the heavyset guy at the Triple X machine).
I start in chronological order near the entrance, first putting a quarter into the late 1940s machine called Lady Robin Hood, a Gottlieb machine that was a massive hit when first released and features a number of bra and panties Robin Hood women who, no offense, could be taken out by one stray arrow due to their lack of gear and foresight. This is a common reality of Pinball World, though—the ladies who the machines are built around up through today’s movie tie-in systems are nude and violent in equal parts. The plunger on this machine is heavy, and knocks one of the five balls you’re given for a quarter into the playfield. There are a few dim lights attached to the sides of the machine, but I’m bad at this and not fun to begin with, and I lose quickly.
There’s Arnold again, talking to an employee I later learn is a volunteer for a moment before strapping on his headlamp, the same kind that old time-y prospectors use, and takes a look at the Triple X machine not too far from where I’m standing. Here’s my chance to talk to him, and I get within a sneeze’s distance, but then he curses under his breath and leans in closer to the machine and it’s clear he’s got a conversation going with someone else.
He’s spent his life collecting, researching and restoring over 1000 pinball machines—most of them are in storage nearby—then migrating them from his home state of Michigan to Vegas. The chain of arcades he began in Lansing, Michigan at the tender age of twenty-one with his younger brother quickly took over Arnold’s life in the mid-to-late 1970s through 1990, arguably the peak of the video arcade craze, before Arnold decided that his collection and talents were better-suited in a city where no one could ever tire of the rotating cast of rare and bizarre arcade games he’d assembled since he was a high school freshman. It’s this that is his passion, and to keep it alive, people are a necessary side effect.
There is a part of me that looks forward to nothing more than feeling old enough to be okay with moving home to New England and trying to hock half-illustrated children’s books to elementary schools while siphoning off whatever I’ve managed to stash away for my retirement, and understands. I’ve only been in Vegas for thirty-six hours and it’s felt about six times longer than that, a fact that not even Peppy the Musical Clown, a terrifying clown doll anyone with a quarter can force to dance on its marionette strings to The Jetsons theme song against its will, can assuage. For a few minutes I convince myself that probably everyone has an idea like Tim Arnold’s, a pet project that shares their favorite thing with the world without actually needing to deal with the people they want to share it with, then remember the Britney Spears show from last night and change my mind. Britney can’t not be seen. God love her.
Tim Arnold tends to hang out in the row of machines that focuses on the 1970s and ‘80s, so I do, too. I take to Bally Manufacturing’s machines the fastest, not because I have any discerning taste in pinball gameplay but I know a well-executed illustration of a prototypical ‘70s-era cool-guy-whose-eyes-bug-out-at-the-sight-of-cartoon-titties when I see one, and they’ve got that aesthetic down. That is one thing about being in Las Vegas that’s great—I don’t clear the C-cup yardstick that allows one to be seen, making me not even worth murdering. It’s not a bad deal.
That’s the other thing about Tim Arnold that almost makes me want to be brave enough to actually interview him instead of being a weird coward, which I am. He’s a curmudgeon out of Central Casting, but there’s a “heart of gold” element to his character that I’d imagine comes up somewhere near the end of the second act of whatever inevitable movie features a bunch of Vegas-born scamps scheming across the city while their parents ensure they’ll never attend college across town. Sort of like James Earl Jones in The Little Rascals, the kids will confront Mr. Arnold at the Pinball Hall of Fame after being shouted at from across the room for the thousandth time. While I’m playing Gottlieb’s Abracadabra (1975) I picture it unfolding:
The Scrappy Kid With Movie Star Looks: Mr. Arnold, why are you so mean to us? All we wanna do is play pinball!
The Scrappy Kid’s Friend Who Says “Yeah!”: Yeah!
Tim Arnold: If the machines break, then we don’t make any money.
The Token Girl Who Gets Kissed at the End But She’s Like Seven So It’s Uncomfortable to Watch: All he wants is money!
The Scrappy Kid’s Friend Who Says “Yeah!”: Yeah!
Tim Arnold: And if we don’t make money, then we can’t stay open, and if we can’t stay open, then we can’t give whatever extra money we make to the Salvation Army.
The Scrappy Kid With Movie Star Looks: Wow, Mr. Arnold may have a tough exterior—
The Token Girl Who Gets Kissed at the End But She’s Like Seven So It’s Uncomfortable to Watch:—but he’s got a good heart!
The Scrappy Kid’s Friend Who Says “Yeah!”: Yeah!
The Token Girl Who Gets Kissed at the End But She’s Like Seven So It’s Uncomfortable to Watch: Kiss me!
The Scrappy Kid’s Friend Who Says “Yeah!”:
Since opening its Vegas location in 2006 after over a decade of Arnold holding pinball nights with the machines he was tuning up on a one-off basis, all costs not related to keeping the place open have gone to charity. That means that Arnold takes no cut, and his employees are volunteering their time, making Arnold’s ability to fix up and repair pinball machines for outside clients his main source of income. It’s all so nice to think about that I’m almost able to block out the still-blaring Jetsons theme from poor suicidal Peppy from the aisle over.
Anyways, my face is more or less pressed up to a pane of glass and while I’m not crying, I worry what might happen if I blink.
Arnold is talking with a kid who’s claimed to have lost a quarter in one of the machines in spite of the many handwritten signs that the owner has attached to certain systems: “YOU HAVEN’T LOST YOUR MONEY!” they warn, followed by a brief explanation of how to convince the older machine to engage. This time, it looks like someone has really lost their quarter, and Arnold hands him another begrudgingly. He promises to look at it, then heads over to the Pirates of the Caribbean machine with his headlamp switched on.
The more I watch him, the more likely it seems that the withholding pinball master persona is a part of the inner showman any person who stays in business in Vegas needs to have, even in a neighborhood as remote as this one. Interviews with Arnold detail his particular enjoyment of seeing men and women his own age thrown back in time by the appearance of a certain machine, confronted with a prop from their own first kiss, heartbreak, broken curfew or whatever else. I wonder what his favorite one is. I wonder if people like to tell him when they remember things like that, and whether he is good at appearing interested when they tell him. I should ask him, but he seems to want to be left alone, so I don’t.
Tim Arnold really has the right idea, I think as I watch him in my peripheral on another go-round of Peppy the Musical Clown, who I think probably killed himself thirty years ago before being injected with formaldehyde and tied to four strings in a glass box. He created a space where people can interact with the things he likes and no one has to talk to him, an auto shop-sized safe space where everything he cares about is made available and is constantly at risk of being destroyed by dummies with a quarter who don’t know any better, but it’s in his control. He’s pretty lucky to be able to fit all that passion into one room without worrying too much about the competition, or his skills, or whether people like him in the first place. He’s created a world in which he is indispensable.
For the last half hour, as my remaining quarters drain into various machines and something called the “Urban Industries Computerized Sex Texter,” Arnold doesn’t talk to anyone. Every once in a while he’ll signal a brief instruction to volunteers at the non-profit and returning to his perch in the back of the warehouse that, prior to his buying it in the early 1990s, used to be an auto repair shop. It’s a dark little castle he’s created, with an intention of expanding.
“How’s your day?” I ask him on my way out.
“Hot out,” he answers.
Totally. Me, too. Good talk. I like him a lot. I bet he likes to tell people he enjoys traveling alone, too.
Jamie Loftus is a comedian and writer. You can find her some of the time, most days at @hamburgerphone or jamieloftusisinnocent.com.