I recently had the opportunity to visit Glen Burnie, Maryland twice in the same week. The first visit was for pinball. The second visit was to retrieve my wedding ring. We grabbed lunch before pinball, and I didn’t notice my ring was gone until that evening. I called around a couple of days later; a woman at the restaurant said yes, they had the ring. Found on the floor, under a table. They’d been waiting for someone to call.
I hadn’t felt the ring slip off, and I blamed the shock of my lunch: I had ordered a deep fried soft shell crab sandwich. “On rye,” I said to the waitress, like I knew what I was doing.
I had no idea what I was doing. The menu named it a “Soft Crab Sandwich,” and I thought I’d ordered a variation on a crab cake. My wife said nothing, just laughed when the waitress set our meals down. On my plate, a dark blob of meat shaped like a crab rested on thick, dry, brown bread. It took me a few seconds to understand that the meat wasn’t just shaped like a crab. The lumpy thing was a crab. Deep-fried. A Maryland specialty.
I nibbled a greasy claw, trying to look pitiful and hungry until my wife shared her lunch with me.
The next week, after we picked up my ring, we drove down the Crain Highway past the unique businesses of Glen Burnie: Jeannette’s School of The Dance. Three Dollar Tan. Tennis Shoe Warehouse. Doll Motel. Parrots Plus, where you can find “Maryland’s Finest Collection of Hand-Tamed Parrots.”
Last but not least: Crabtown. Crabtown is a restaurant with a back room that has twenty pinball machines and maybe fifty video games. On my first visit a couple of years ago, I couldn’t decide which pinball machine to play first. I spotted games I had spent a lot of time with, games I had forgotten about, and games I had never seen.
How could I have known the machines at Crabtown were in horrible shape?
The pinball machines at Crabtown are the filthiest, scuzziest, most busted-up collection of pinball machines I have ever seen collected in one place. I suppose I should be thankful to have a Crabtown in my life, but sometimes, when the ball randomly drops off a ramp in mid-flight, crashes across the playfield, and falls into an outlane, draining and ending my game—the ball avoiding the laws of physics without any kind of warning at all—I wonder if my pinball buddies have assembled this room of rotten machines to trick me. And when I shake the cabinet in frustration as the game totals up my score, the game wobbles on lopsided legs and I imagine my friends hiding behind the walls, snickering, videotaping me as I curse the machines.
I don’t expect twenty-year-old games to be in pristine condition, but I do expect machines that don’t have missing pinballs and jammed plungers and fried electronics and pieces of ancient, cracked rubber strewn across the playfield and smashed flipper buttons and fuzzy, unreadable displays. Crabtown isn’t a collection of pinball machines; it’s a sick room of pinball horror and disfigurement. I don’t want to play the games at Crabtown—I want to shut them off, disassemble them, and give them a proper burial.
Crabtown makes me wish I majored in poetry instead of fiction. As I thought about this column and how it would flow, I wanted the strength of stanzas. Without poetry’s backbone, I couldn’t give this column the epic, tragic sweep it deserved.
Cyclone is my favorite pinball game. It has clowns and a Ferris wheel and elephants and tigers and shooting galleries. Ramps are my favorite feature of pinball games, and Cyclone has two of them disguised as roller coasters: the Cyclone and the Comet. Riding the Cyclone gets you 50,000 points. You have ten seconds to ride the ramp again to get 100,000 points. Then you have ten seconds to ride the ramp again to win the jackpot, which falls between half a million and 4 million points.
The Cyclone is a very difficult left-flipper shot, and not because of the shot itself: after the ball rips around the ramp, it’s returned to the right flipper, and you can’t really hit the Cyclone with the right flipper. So you have three options to transfer the ball to the left flipper: let momentum from the ramp carry the ball off the end of the right flipper and leap across to the left flipper, slap the ball against the bumper with the right flipper, or shoot the ball off randomly and hope it makes it back to the left flipper before time runs out.
The Comet is a right flipper shot, and the ramp returns the ball onto the right flipper, so hitting the shot over and over is easy, but be warned: Cyclone can be a merciless bitch. It’s a difficult pinball game, as hard a game as I’ve played before. Every shot—except for maybe the Ferris Wheel—requires a high level of precision. The ball drains a lot. I used to blame this on operator settings. I couldn’t understand why the ball shot down the sides without much of a warning. Now I understand: it’s just a hard game.
I never say fuck so much as when I’m playing Cyclone.
The last time I visited Crabtown, they had a Cyclone up and running, which increased the levels of tragedy tenfold. And then my friend and I broke a flipper. Which forget about measuring the tragedy anymore. The flipper felt weak, and eventually the flipper stopped responding. We paused for a moment, cursed Crabtown, and moved on to the next machine.
During my most recent visit, something felt off with the Crabtown Cyclone. Both flippers had plenty of punch. A couple of lights were still burned out, but the game played smoothly, and I approached a replay score. And then, when my game ended, I matched.
At the end of every pinball game, the machine selects a random two-digit number divisible by ten (10, 20, 30, so on and so forth). If the number matches the last two numbers of your score, you win a free game. A match is a blessing bestowed upon the player by the pinball gods. A free game, appearing out of nowhere.
I took the match as a good omen.
During my second game, I tested the Boomerang, a hole on the lower left hand side. If you push the ball with your right flipper into the Boomerang a certain number of times (usually two or three, depending on the machine’s setting), you’re awarded a free game. If a Cyclone is in especially poor condition, the Boomerang ejects the ball, right between the flippers. There’s nothing you can do except shake the machine a little.
I dropped the ball into the Boomerang and waited. A few seconds later, it popped out onto my left flipper, just like it was supposed to. I transferred the ball over to my right flipper, and tried The Boomerang again, to see if it was a fluke, and got the same result. My diagnosis: this Cyclone was in very good condition.
I settled in and got serious. I won a replay from the Boomerang, plus two extra balls, and then won another replay from my score.
In the past, when I played at Crabtown, I felt distracted by the decay around me. The room was too hot or the game too destroyed. I was too conscious of my surroundings. Transcendence seemed a distant, impossible goal. That’s what I’m going for, you know. Those glorious, weightless moments when I’m not aware of being inside, say, a roadside crab shack in Maryland. I guess some people would call it success, but the correct word is glory.
I had such a blast, and the game played so well, that I forgot I was standing in a pinball graveyard. My mind wandered to the other games, and then it occurred to me that I should keep playing Cyclone. When was the last time I even played a Cyclone?
I said fuck a couple of times, but I don’t think I had a single frustrating game. I spent twenty, maybe thirty minutes playing, winning free games, matching, putting another quarter in. I won the Jackpot, and the game roared with the sounds of people going around a curve on a rollercoaster, and I felt like I had defeated the room of dirty pinball machines.
The room had one more surprise for me. After I was finished with Cyclone, I wandered around the arcade, ignoring the pinball—Dr. Dude, Kiss, Twilight Zone. Crabtown has familiar video games—Asteroids, Spy Hunter, and Gorf—but also has some I’ve never heard of: Ameri-Darts, Arm Wrestling, and Trivia Whiz. At one end of an aisle of games was a claw machine. You know: maneuver a mechanical grabber claw and score a stuffed animal. The prizes sat inside a large fish tank lined with yellow-brown gravel. The gravel looked like a bunch of old corn kernels in a museum. The filthy stuffed animals piled up against each other along the back of the tank. They were the colors of animals in a nightmare: an orange elephant, a pink bear. In the center of the pile of filth, a blue circle of fabric, slightly stuffed, resembling no animal or cartoon I’d ever seen.
Joining the creatures was the strangest assembly of objects: matchbox cars, small yellow bottles of hair conditioner, and what looked at first glance to be tiny switchblades turned out to be fingernail clippers.