Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Basement Arcadist

A version of this article I wrote 9 months ago was originally published in the zine Connect the Dots. The online supplement to Connect the Dots can be found here.

We know of a remote arcade in Berkeley. Every Friday night, games are played there. Down an unlit street in the southern reaches of town, one may find an unmarked blue door with an ornate knocker at its center. When the intrepid soul enters for the first time, bathed in the ethereal glow emanating from dozens of seemingly ancient pinball machines, one is likely to be struck with an astonishing sense of rapture. Just like falling down the rabbit hole, stepping into this enigmatic House of Games almost seems like entering another world filled with curious amusements – Egghead, Trade Winds, Magic City, Cover Girl, Gottlieb’s Two-Player Surfside, Gottlieb’s Four-Player Masquerade, Rotospin and dozens more, glittering with midcentury light, ringing and echoing caustically about every win and loss, haunted by fun until they are finally shut down and darkened for another working week of dormancy.

But the efflorescent wonder that abounds in this place derives not just from the startling locale or the antiquated games – even the surrounding superstructure has dreams to suggest. The acid-gutted pinball wizard, weary from a marathon in Magic City, may rest in the loud wilderness of political and pop cultural mythography that adorns the building’s walls. Nixon plays a leading role in the image stream of the arcade’s outer consciousness, but he is happily joined by the Three Stooges, Santa Claus, Running Wolf, “Elephants and Asses,” and copious beer advertisements, as well as his fellow demons: Reagan, Oliver North, Barbara and the two George Bushes. Alas, even the fiercest wizard may strain his eyes trying to take it all in, for it is a nearly infinite pastiche of bedazzling Americana.

What is this uncommon place that does not show up on any Google map, that goes unlisted in every phonebook still extant in our digitized age? To find out, your humble reporter spoke to the man behind the machines – Berkeley’s own maestro of underground pinball – Mack the basement arcadist. “In 1986, I was in Omaha, Nebraska and I found this warehouse that had around 1200 machines,” he explained as he passed me a joint, all within moments of having met me. “So I shipped some of them back here. I can’t believe they let me get away with doing this!”

I understood Mack’s legendary status after running into an old teacher of mine a few months ago. Bob Ernst had done experimental theater with Whoopi Goldberg, among many others, with a Berkeley group called the Blake Street Hawkeyes back in the ‘70s. When I mentioned Mack and the arcade, Bob quickly realized whom I was talking about. Apparently they were old buddies. Next time I returned to Mack’s arcade, he had forgotten me as one of the dozens of friendly strangers that passed through his labyrinth of pleasant diversions. But when I mentioned that Bob Ernst said hello, he lit up. “Any friend of Bobby’s is a friend of mine!”

He proceeded to tell me about how he had encountered Bob and the Blake Street Hawkeyes: “I got so tired of big industry so I went to work in the skylight factory – we had been making nuclear submarines, so I went from that to making skylights. And it was just so much easier on my head. A lot harder on my bank account but you know what? You spend the money for shrinks and drugs! So I got accidently collided with the Hawkeyes, but I already had some run-ins there through the dance world even though my studios were in the city.” I have to admit, I didn’t follow all of this but I had to know about why Richard Nixon’s face featured so prominently in his arcade. Mack obliged, discussing his eternal disgust with Nixon and then adding casually, “And I play with this band, The Funky Nixons–” I had seen “Funky Nixons” posters among the paraphernalia on the walls – “We’re actually playing a gig in April at Ashkenaz, a benefit for the tree people. You know they’re still up there in the trees? Around the Lost Coast.”

I began to realize why Mack had agreed to let me write this article only under the condition that I keep the exact location and hours of operation of his arcade a secret. This antiquarian pinballer has built a beautiful little world that can shimmer and twitch beneath the visible surface of a town that for all its vaunted tolerance, still maintains a darkly uneasy relationship with free thinking outsiders.

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