If you drive thirty-seven miles north of Washington, DC and make a couple of turns in Elkridge, Maryland, you’ll find a building filled with volleyball players. The name of the building is Volleyball House, but it’s easy to see the place used to be a warehouse. When I drove up to Elkridge a couple of weeks ago, a volleyball tournament was underway, and the main parking lot was full, so I parked in the back. I walked past the gaping holes in the side of the building where trucks used to load and unload. Through the thin layer of plastic covering the holes, I could hear the sounds of volleyball: squeaks of rubber sneakers on a wood floor. Volleyballers clapping and egging each other on after a long rally. A referee’s whistle cut through the noise.
I had no idea volleyball was popular enough to justify an entire warehouse dedicated to the sport. Shows you what I know.
When you walk into the building, a large gymnasium with eight or nine volleyball courts sits off to the right. I have limited experience with volleyball, so I can’t offer much of a visual here. The gym looked like a gym with eight volleyball games going on at once. A platoon of baton twirlers occupied one of the courts.
Next to the gym is another large room with a flat-screen TV and a snack bar. This area was more crowded than normal, presumably because of the tournament. Volleyballers lounging on couches. Volleyballers walking in circles, flexing their fingers. Volleyballers watching college football, some of them nodding off into naps. Volleyballers eating frozen yogurt out of Styrofoam cups. The scene reminded me of a typical American family in a typical American living room on Thanksgiving, only in addition to stuffing themselves, watching football, and sleeping on the couch, this family had a tradition of inviting a hundred friends over to play volleyball.
I include myself in this comparison, of course. Hi there, sport. Remember me? I’m your weird uncle who loves to talk about pinball.
The pinball machines are tucked in the corner, on the other side of the snack bar. A DC pinball league hosts weekly tournaments here on Wednesday nights, but anyone can come during the week to practice or play for fun. The pinball league swaps the games out twice a year, and the best part about Volleyball Warehouse is the variety: if I get bored or frustrated with a machine, I can move on to another.
I’m not going to review every game, but for historical purposes, here’s the lineup when I visited most recently: Eightball Deluxe, Dr. Who, Dr. Dude and His Excellent Ray, Harlem Globetrotters, Jokerz, Congo, and Shrek. I suppose Dr. Who, the pinball game, has a tenuous connection to Dr. Who, the science fiction program, but don’t ask me. My only experience with the show was an incident when I was nine, while I waited for Sneak Previews to start on PBS. I loved watching the two funny guys, Siskel and Ebert, talk about movies. One fateful afternoon, I turned on the TV too early, and accidentally watched the last ten minutes of Dr. Who. It scared the hell out of me. What isn’t scary about British people trapped in phone booths and being chased by robots? Plus the doctor looked like the headmaster of a British school, the kind of person Roald Dahl warned me about in Danny the Champion of the World. (Ugh, I just had a horrible pinball vision. Imagine British pinball. A plunger on the left hand side of the machine instead of the right, the game mumbling the narrative to you in an indecipherable accent, baked beans everywhere.)
I’ve played Dr. Who pinball in the past, but I couldn’t tell you the purpose of the game. The rules are super complicated, and Dr. Who is a pinball machine perhaps only fully understood by the clinically insane. At the start of the game you choose between nine different doctors, and depending on which doctor you pick, you get a different bonus at the end of your balls, or something. . . maybe you score points more quickly? The right hand side of the game features a ramp involving some kind of space car, and sometimes the game burps up references to a “console” and a “transmat.” So confusing.
Sometimes you gotta ignore the rules a game sets out for you and forge ahead, on your own, into the pinball wilderness. Here’s what I do on Dr. Who:
1. Smash the panel of plastic balls at the top of the game. If you hit the balls enough times with the pinball, the panel opens.
2. Lock two balls inside the panel.
3. Try not to think about my ex-girlfriends.
After you lock two balls in Dr. Who, the game starts to scream at you in a loud and grating voice, some kind of British babbly nonsense about exterminating the doctor in a loud and grating voice. A friend once described the horrible noise the machine makes during this part of the game as sounding like “an ex-girlfriend yelling at you.”
So I try not to think about them, but I always think about them.
Once you lock two balls, the two locked balls are released, the game gives you a third ball, and multiball begins. The panel rises, revealing three metal holes. Shooting the balls in the holes helps the doctor destroy stuff, all while the robotic ex-girlfriends yell at you. I think you’re wiping something called a “Dalek” off the face of the Earth. For those of you who aren’t English majors like myself, here’s a quick language lesson: “Dalek” is the word the British use for “screaming robot that sounds like your ex-girlfriend.”
This is how you have fun with Dr. Who pinball: destroy the robot girlfriends. And trust me, it’s a lot of fun. If you follow these steps, you will enjoy Dr. Who, but please don’t try to understand what the game means. You might go crazy or, even worse, turn into a British headmaster.
Dr. Dude and His Excellent Ray is a game manufactured in 1990, and never before in the history of pinball has a machine evoked 1990 so well. I’m not even sure what the last half of the previous sentence means, I just know that when I step up to Dr. Dude, I feel like I should be listening to “Love Shack” or “Ice Ice Baby” and then maybe a little taste of “U Can’t Touch This,” to wrap things up. The playfield is dense with gaudy colors and comic book graphics. The doctor in question wears a leopard print lab coat and gigantic sunglasses, and his hair is coiffed in a neon orange pompadour. Every good doctor needs a nurse, and Dr. Dude is no exception: a floozy nurse in a short skirt and funny hat stands next to him on the backglass.
I noticed a piece of paper covering up the nurse’s cleavage at Volleyball Warehouse. Now, normally, this sort of pinball censorship cannot stand, but instead of liberating the nurse from the shackles of prudery, I dropped my quarters in and began to play.
For the record, here are the levels of dude you can achieve on Dr. Dude: Plain Dude; Party Dude; Cool Dude; Major Dude; and Super Dude. Levels of Dude are measured, naturally, on something called the “Dude-O-Meter.”
To achieve different levels of dudeness, you fire the ball into a bunch of different gadgets around the playfield. The gadgets not only make you cooler, they also trigger horrible, cheesy rap music to pour out of the machine. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the gadgets:
The Gift of Gab
Shoot the ball into a mouth and the Dr. starts “rapping” about how his life changed once he was able to stop dry heaving while talking to girls.
Push the ball up a ramp and the ball drops onto a spinny whirligig and dances around. Again with the cheesy rap music. I think you’re supposed to impress the ladies with your DJ skills? I get the impression this spinning thing is supposed to be a turntable because of the name, but something went wrong at the factory, because this device looks nothing like a turntable besides the fact that it’s circular. Also here’s a tip: when you do DJ for the ladies, stay away from the Vanilla Ice.
Tap the ball over to the left hand side of the machine, and a magnet beneath the playfield switches on and freezes the ball for a moment. The game makes a twanging noise, signifying how awesome you are. On a personal basis, I think it’s hilarious when a pinball machine has real magnets, because when my friends and I first started playing pinball, we thought every game had magnets underneath the playfield. A laughable idea now, but we had no other plausible reason to explain a ball’s odd movement from time to time. (We were young and full of wacky pinball theories. We had a lot to learn. We wanted to learn about spherical movement. We discussed taking a physics course. Give us a break: the year was 1994, and we didn’t have no fancy internet computers and pinball databases to look this sort of stuff up, okay?)
Between the robotic insanity of Dr. Who and Dr. Dude’s silliness, I had a good time at the Volleyball Warehouse. Dr. Dude has a cheap, plastic feel to it, but it was fun to slap around. I hated Dr. Dude when I first played it years ago. It looked so ridiculous. The graphics signified cool, but the wrong kind of cool, the kind of cool where you’re so delusional about your cool you think a leopard print lab coat is the height of fashion. Now, in late 2009, everything on the game is dated and out of style, which means it is now super-cool.
I suppose the object of Dr. Dude is to transform from a nerd into a cool dude, with the help of Dr. Dude. Pretty stupid goal, right? I mean, like, yeah, thanks for the offer Doc, but it’s Saturday afternoon and I’m inside a warehouse, surrounded by baton twirlers and volleyball players, and I’m playing pinball. I don’t think I could be any cooler.