And the band didn’t start playing anything. Actually, it’s been 51 years today, which adds an extra, unwanted beat to a revised couplet…
The composer (me), the poet, the joker and the fencer were out and about in the café on a beautiful autumn evening. The place was Paris, and there were great cafes on every corner at the intersection of Montparnasse and Raspail boulevards.
It might have been Le Rond Point, and the pinball machine (le flipper) might have been The Dipsy Doodle or Aces and Kings – one of those Williams, Gottlieb or Bally machines that were ubiquitous in every cafe in Paris.
Thing is, I’ve spent way too much time mastering this particular machine – learning how to hit it on both sides without tipping over; Persuade that little round silver ball to slide down the correct tunnel (ding ding ding) or happily bouncing off the bumpers until they all lit up and the dings rang like the mighty bells of Notre Dame… but most importantly, avoid that disastrous DRAIN ending the piece.
The four of us took turns playing like crazy so as not to have to put another franc in the greedy coin slot. And we did well watching the scoreboard flip numbers like the hundredths of a second on a stopwatch.
Suddenly the four of us realized that we were being watched. Four Corsican thugs spoke heavily accented French, to which we responded with our mediocre language skills. We have been challenged!
A twenty franc note was slapped on the glass plate and the details of the bet were agreed and we pooled our resources and matched their stake. Forty francs! That was a lot of money for us rowdy students.
We would play two rounds of four – each of the eight players gets two rounds. The Corsicans went first. They were drunk as hell but managed to amass a big score. It was our turn. My friends decided to sit me in the cleanup area, so I waited – sipping red wine while everyone took their turn – oh, the Joker tipped – bad news!
I pull the lever back and shoot the silver orb up into the upper area. It slides through a quality slot and moves down, hitting the bumpers, triggering special targets, and then, after just 15 seconds of gameplay… I shudder in horror as the ball slides into the DRAIN lane. Turn over, scored very few points.
The forty francs—two bills engraved with portraits of ancient kings in the middle—stared at me in embarrassment. Heck, we’re gonna lose this bet.
round two. The booze-soaked Corsicans are focused like Napoleon taking on a distant hilltop… one guy loses his breath, the other three rack up a bunch of points.
It’s our turn. The poet maneuvers the ball beautifully, uses the flippers to hit the high-value targets and moves the ball back up – he scores well. The joker and the fencer have decent turns but as I approach the machine for the final turn the scoreboard shows we are ten thousand points behind.
I feel sick.
But as I pulled the lever, I felt the geometric gods guide my fins. A little tip on the left to avoid tilting. hit targets. Collect points. Ding Ding ding. My countrymen screamed and screamed. The Super Bowl of pinball.
When the ball finally ran out, the scoreboard was in our favour. The Corsicans grumbled. We grabbed our forty francs and hopped down the sidewalks of Montparnasse, sang a dirty Frank Zappa tune, and the town was ours!
Shostakovich Symphony No. 13 [by Lewis Saul]