Pinball People

[Steve’s note: This is pretty autobiographical, so the names have been changed to protect everyone. I originally wrote it years ago for political reasons; I’m posting it now for a totally different reason. I overheard someone at college say that all their high school friends suddenly got on Facebook, and they denied all the friend requests. “Why would I want to be friends with those losers?” he said.
So with that preface…]

Fireball. A wave of memory roared against me; I hadn’t seen that pinball game – or even a picture of it – since high school. Like so many things, the memory of it wasn’t alone; circling around the game was the memory of Jonathan.

Jonathan’s hair was tousled. Not in “cute-as-a-button” child way, but in a slightly greasy unkempt way, framing his overlarge nerd glasses. He was a geek even to us geeks, freaks, and weirdos. From the back of the laundromat where we took lunch (munching on pepperoni rolls, smoking cigarettes), we’d watch him play Fireball. Every day, all through lunch.

The laundromat was within easy walking distance of my high school, back in the days of open campuses where social divisions could be made real by physical distance. We’d stream out in search of a place to talk, smoke, and eat, a trickling babble of black coats, blue jeans, tie-dye shirts, and out-of-style thrift shop fashions – and end up at the laundromat. For that brief moment each day we were free from the demands of classrooms and homework. For a short while, we were free from the “beautiful people”, those popular kids who had it all, whose lives were put together, who already knew that they were going to college, and where. For a little while, we were away from them, those people with impossible sitcom lives. We were able to be ourselves.

My second-grade teacher had encouraged my love of writing, encouraging me to create a magazine for my class. I remember the mimeograph machine, the spaceship I’d drawn for the cover – but above all I remember my best friend hiding his face from me while I passed them out during homeroom. Then I knew, in wordless second-grade thoughts, that I was no longer “one of them”, no longer accepted. From that day, until midway through high school, I tried to be one of the beautiful people – to be included in their parties, to date them, to be accepted. Despite my efforts, the party invitations were nonexistent, and dances were rituals in emotional pain.

The last school dance I attended was in my sophomore year. I had a crush on Sophia, one of the beautiful people, and spent the first half hour trying to work up the nerve to ask her to dance. Before my courage even thought about making an appearance, Tara approached and asked me to dance. It was one of the shuffling high-school “slow dances” that resembles a stumbling hug set to music. Tara was… she was sweet, and kind of cute. I’m fairly certain that she liked me at the time. But she wasn’t Sophia, and she wasn’t one of the beautiful people. In fact, a few days before I’d heard some of Sophia’s friends making fun of Tara at school. I remembered their words, and turned Tara down. Her face fell; I’d made every last bit of the teasing become real to her. When I finally asked, Sophia still wouldn’t dance with me. Even rejecting others was never enough for me to “pass” as one of the beautiful people.

Not long afterward, I stopped trying to be someone else, and discovered those around me. I grew up in a relatively small town. Once you took out the beautiful people, dividing the rest of high school up into groups – nerds, theater geeks, art geeks, punks, hippies, wierdos, burnouts, rebels and more – didn’t leave many people in each group. So most of us stuck together. We weren’t snooty in-crowd “beautiful people”, and didn’t care. We were real people.

High school can prepare you for life, but it’s not the books or lectures that stay with you. The beautiful people are still out there, living their in-crowd cliquish games. Only now they’re CEOs and power brokers, the have-mores, the rich and powerful. They still tease and mock us, hoping we’ll turn on each other to gain their favor, knowing they never really have to accept us.

Jonathan was annoying, even while he was playing the pinball game. He’d whoop and holler, and constantly bust into everyone’s conversations with his latest high score, or to bum a quarter or a smoke. He’d embarrass us, give the beautiful people a reason to reject us, and at least once he ruined my chance to ask a girl out.

And we’d let go of our prejudices, damn what the beautiful people thought, and laugh with him, play multiplayer pinball, and disagree over which bands were better. After all, he was one of us – a real person.

And real people take care of each other, because the beautiful people sure as hell won’t.

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One Comment

  1. October 15, 2009

    A great read. I'm glad I was able to help illustrate it helps me answer why I keep taking pictures of pinball machines and posting them.

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