By Chad Greene
The tokens – metallic coins – clatter across the cabinet tops, ring against the glass. The female employee pacing circles in the pit between the two rows of 16 machines collects them wordlessly, yet with a purposeful snap of her wrist that takes each token from the corner over to the center of its cabinet – through the fields of vision of those otherwise mesmerized by the shiny silver balls bouncing between the bumpers on their respective Lite-A-Line playfields.
“Now, I want to get it into a hole, but there’s no humping here,” I explain.
“Excuse me?” my date exclaims. “I admit this is a low-cut top, but that doesn’t mean I have even the slightest interest in ‘humping’ you in – what, the bathroom of? – a pinball parlor!”
“In a pinball parlor, to ‘hump’ is to gently nudge with the hips—”
“How is that different than the definition of ‘hump’ outside a pinball parlor?”
“The ‘gently’?” I deadpan.
She starts to stand up.
“Not again,” I groan.
“I have the worst luck with first dates here. It’s always the same, as soon as I start trying to explain the rules of the game—”
“The rules of the game? You mean Lite-A-Line? What does that have to do with you ‘gently nudging’ me with your hips?”
“You mean, you honestly thought—? I meant ‘to gently nudge the pinball machine with the hips,’” I clarify, “to try to direct the ball toward a hole.”
“Oh, I honestly thought—”
“And then I confused you even more with that attempt at a—”
Both of us start to laugh about what I suddenly see has been a common misunderstanding. She sits down next to me again.
“So,” she asks, “how do we win at Lite-A-Line, if there’s no humping here?”
“Honestly, I’ve never won,” I admit. “I mean, it seems simple: You pull this spring-loaded plunger, which shoots this silver ball up to the top of the playfield. Then these ten rubber bumpers rebound it toward one of the five color-coded scoring areas – green, yellow, red, white, or orange – each of which has five numbered holes.”
I point to our respective scoreboards in the pit. “When you get the ball into a hole, the corresponding circle lights up. Basically, it’s a combination of pinball and bingo. To win, you need to ‘Lite-A-Line’ of five circles – either a vertical line, which would be five of the same color, or a horizontal line, which would be five of the same number.”
“Or a diagonal line?” she asks.
“Or a diagonal line,” I answer.
“But there’s no humping…,” she smiles, “I mean, no ‘nudging’ the machine?”
“No nudging with the hips. Or with the hands,” I add. “This is actually a family-friendly first-date destination.”
“I appreciate that,” she says. “But there’re no flippers, either? So, all you can control is how you pull the—”
“—the ‘plunger’? Right,” I confirm. “Allow me to demonstrate.”
I pull the plunger as far from the bottom right of the cabinet as its spring will allow. The ball’s parabolic trajectory rockets it into the bumper at the top left, and – maddeningly – it ricochets right back to the tip of the plunger.
“Allow me to demonstrate, that is, how not to pull the plunger,” I sigh.
“You’re trying too hard.” She laughs at little, then slips her left hand onto my right thigh. “Relax a little.”
At first, though, I feel uncomfortably constrained. If I don’t want to elbow her arm, I can’t pull the plunger as far as I have ever other time I’ve had an – admittedly unsuccessful – first date at Lite-A-Line. But then, as soon as I stop trying too hard, the ball starts to roll into the holes. And I wonder whether the “gently” is, indeed, the difference.
Maybe that’s the lesson still left to be learned from this mechanical arcade amusement in this digital age. The black letters on the white sign outside insist that Lite-A-Line is “a game of skill,” but I have always assumed that was simply a legal loophole – that its proprietors’ denial of the fact that it is, instead, “a game of chance” or “of luck” was all that allowed them to operate outside an actual casino.
But the outcomes of all those games of Lite-A-Line – and all those first dates – have seemed, to my mind, to be a matter of “luck” only because I’ve never before been able to understand the significance of the moves involved.
Putting her hand on my thigh, though, that was significant. That was meaningful.
That is the difference between winning and losing – a gentle touch.