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How pinball forced me to look up from my phone

A pinball arcade opened last week on St. Petersburg’s Central Avenue. We tried it out.
Times reporter Elizabeth Djinis plays pinball at The Pinball Arcade Museum on Thursday, Aug. 01, 2019 on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. ALLIE GOULDING | Times
Published Aug. 8
Updated Aug. 8

During my childhood, Sundays were almost exclusively about two things — church and family.

I spent many a Sunday morning seated in the pews of my Greek Orthodox church, donning an uncomfortable taffeta dress and listening to the formal service in both Greek and English.

When those services concluded, my family performed the great caravan back to my grandparents’ house. Sunday afternoon brunches were largely mandatory affairs with spanakopita, dolmades and trays of feta — things I looked forward to — and hours of conversation — things I did not.

But there was one sliver of hope in those afternoons. The second we entered the house, my dad and I had a routine. We would say hello to everyone and then quickly descend the stairs to the basement, where my grandparents’ amateur collection of pinball machines resided.

I don’t remember being particularly good at pinball, but it was a game I could lose myself in, watching as the ball ricocheted from corner to corner, narrowly avoiding a plunge to its death down the center of the board.

Like most arcade games, pinball is the definition of eternal striving. A high score seems always within reach — until a missed shot or a last-minute fumble. But all that stood between me and ultimate victory was one more pinball game. So I had to keep trying.

Years later, after we moved away from northern Virginia and those afternoons became distant memories, pinball still called to me. It became harder and harder to find a venue to play, but sometimes, when I was lucky, the hazy smoke in a bar would give way to a pinball machine lying in a corner. My eyes would light up.

A Black Jack pinball machine is seen at The Pinball Arcade Museum on Thursday, Aug. 01, 2019 on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. ALLIE GOULDING | Times

“Does anyone have a quarter?”

My friends rummaged through their purses, pulled out their wallets, dredged up whatever change they had in their pockets.

For a few short minutes, my fingers tightened around the circular buttons on either end, my eyes glued to the ball as it darted around the board. I could feel the world closing in around me as I scored another point in the game.

***

There’s an unspoken anxiety that runs throughout a pinball game. It’s the knowledge that running out of quarters means running out of games. But it’s an anxiety that was notably absent when I played in the basement of my grandparents’ home.

It was also absent last week, when I played pinball again as a ticket holder in St. Petersburg’s new Pinball Museum Arcade at 2313 Central Avenue.

Jennifer Tulloh plays pinball at The Pinball Arcade Museum on Thursday, Aug. 01, 2019 on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. ALLIE GOULDING | Times

There’s a reason for that. The museum is the private collection of Andy Kline, a 62-year-old avid player who wanted to share his collection with the world. He has “a couple hundred" pinball and arcade games that were simply sitting in storage in a warehouse.

Walk into Kline’s arcade and it evokes images of the past. The mirrored doors and nondescript exterior do not immediately belie what awaits you inside — a fairly traditional 80s-esque arcade. A row on either side offers arcade games like Donkey Kong and Ms. PacMan to your left and pinball machines to your right. The lights are dim. All the better to see the screens.

Arcade games are seen at The Pinball Arcade Museum on Thursday, Aug. 01, 2019 on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. ALLIE GOULDING | Times

Pinball machines are still manufactured today. Those newer, more modern machines simply hold no interest for Kline.

“We call it a blast from the past,” he said. “There are some great new pinball machines. That’s not what my collection is.”

When Kline began collecting machines, a standard game, like an Addams Family-themed pinball machine, might have cost about $2,400, he said. Now, older games sold on eBay can cost as much as $10,000.

Kline’s place is called a museum because it is run as a nonprofit. The proceeds from the tickets, $12 for adults and $8 for 10 and younger, are donated to the Odessa Wildlife Rescue and Sanctuary, founded by Kline.

The pinball arcade in St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District is not the first arcade to hit the Tampa Bay area or even Pinellas County. Tarpon Spring’s Replay Museum, which opened in 2014, has more than 100 vintage pinball machines. Vector Bar & Arcade in Clearwater, Park & Rec in downtown St. Petersburg and nearby Right Around the Corner Arcade Brewery all have arcade games, though only two have pinball machines.

On opening day, Kline’s arcade was already filled with pinball enthusiasts, from a father who played with his sons to two old friends who bonded years ago over their love of skateboarding and convenience store pinball games.

Pinball machines are seen at The Pinball Arcade Museum on Thursday, Aug. 01, 2019 on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. ALLIE GOULDING | Times

Two pinball competitors even spotted each other across the room. David Miller, 46, recognized Jason Hudak, 42, from tournaments. Hudak’s father used to work for Bally’s game division, one of the primary manufacturers of pinball machines. Even now, in his spare time, he repairs older pinball machines.

I wondered how this afternoon would play out. Playing pinball for 15 minutes to get away from a family conversation? That felt manageable. But playing it for an hour as a 25 year old? It felt daunting.

Yet there I was, my arms stretched tight against the machine, my eyes focused, my pink scrunchie out of place against the darkness of the arcade.

Times reporter Elizabeth Djinis plays pinball at The Pinball Arcade Museum on Thursday, Aug. 01, 2019 on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. ALLIE GOULDING | Times

In my focus, I recognized the pinball of the past. I saw in myself the same concentration that sold me on the game so many years ago.

When I looked up, instead of a sea of downturned necks and cell phones, I saw people with eyes straight ahead, screwed on the game in front of them.

I fished my own phone out of my bag and realized it had been at least twenty minutes since I had checked my messages.

The ability to lose ourselves in something — in anything — becomes increasingly difficult in the digital age. For many of us, arcade games like pinball offer that bit of solace.

We haven’t changed so much. It’s the same reason my grandparents bought pinball machines so many years before.

Growing up, my grandfather worked in his father’s restaurant in Rhinebeck, N.Y., once the largest diner in the United States. Nestled in that diner was a pinball machine, one, my father says, may have even awarded money for a high score. When there wasn’t much to do, my grandfather would set himself up in front of the pinball machine and play.

Like me, years later, the game called to him. He sought out a business that sold refurbished pinball machines and bought two for the basement of their house in Maryland.

He and my grandmother played almost every night.

HOW TO PLAY PINBALL IN TAMPA BAY

Pinball Arcade Museum

2313 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 256-1762. pinballarcademuseum.org

Replay Museum

119 East Tarpon Ave., Tarpon Springs. (727) 940-3928. replaymuseum.org.

Vector Bar & Arcade

629 Cleveland St., Clearwater. (727) 754-9933. vectorarcadeclearwater.com.

Lowry Parcade

1213 W Waters Ave., Tampa. (813) 915-9180. lowryparcade.com.

Right Around the Corner Arcade Brewery

2244 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (813) 360-0766.



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