Even though some of the dozen or so folks crowded together at tables near The Hub's center are laughing, it's pretty obvious why they're here. They're all dressed formally, in black. Toasts and boisterous anecdotes frequently rise above the bar's juke and general dull roar, interspersed with the occasional uncomfortably quiet meditation.
Someone close to them has died, and, after whatever official service was held, they've gathered for a little Irish wake in honor of their departed friend. It's a fine tradition, and a touching gesture — exactly what I hope my friends do for me when the time comes. Those I don't outlive, anyway.
Though they certainly haven't requested it, the atmosphere at this, one of Tampa's most infamous watering holes, seems a bit subdued, even on a weeknight. No loud, mostly venomless arguments arise suddenly from either end of the horseshoe-shaped bar, where the regulars and lifers always tend to congregate. No obviously drunk and possibly homeless patrons wander from clique to clique in search of conversation and/or understanding. And those that cross the bar's checkered floor (which, after less than a year of providing Hub patrons with a surface to stand or fall down on, is already losing its disharmoniously cheery malt-shop glow) for the can or a game of Golden Tee give the bereaved party a respectful berth.
I do the same on my way to the Monopoly-themed pinball machine in the tavern's farthest corner.
I love pinball.
In my more well lubricated flights of whimsy, I think it's a rather apt metaphor for the human condition. One of these days I'm gonna write a hipsterific book about it — my generation's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance! — and its lifelike paradoxes of control and chaos, tradition and technology, natural force and manmade obstacle. I gave up on video games when they began to require unspeakably independent finger dexterity, Attention Deficit Disorder and vast, jobless blocks of time. The gaudy sight of an unattended pinball machine, however, still gives me a nice anticipatory thrill and inevitably sends me in search of quarters.
The Monopoly game has been hanging around the back of The Hub for about as long as the new location on Franklin Street has been open, and it is in remarkably good shape for a bar machine. Their moving parts generally remain in tip-top condition for all of three weeks or so, before the LED screen loses some bulbs, the drop target pop-ups lose the strength to send the balls back into play and the flippers go all flaccid. Naturally, this is all stuff you can't find out until you've put in your money and started to play.
I drop my quarters, and everything seems to be in working order. The game's blaring beeps, bloops and digitized huckstering seem inordinately abrasive, given the bar's slightly quieter-than-usual vibe. But the juke is kicking out Zeppelin at its regular level, so I soon forget about it and get lost in my endeavors to accumulate fictional property in order to take in more money that doesn't exist.
After the 30-second Cash Grab stage and in the midst of the campaign for my first multi-ball, a pretty and understandably tired-looking woman in the black-clad group stands up and announces that she'd like to say something. Talk at the bar reverently drops. The jukebox is reverently shut off. About the only thing still making a hell of a lot of noise, really, is my bout with Mister Monopoly.
A LOT of noise.
"Hit the BANK!" cries Mister Monopoly.
"Multi-ball is READY!" cajoles Mister Monopoly at the top of his electronic lungs.
Heads are turning. Against all instinct and with a surprising amount of effort, I let the little steel orb drain between impotent flippers, willing the stupid game to shut the fuck up. It doesn't, completely, but trades in its vocal sloganeering for some comparatively low-key end-of-ball chimes.
The woman begins to speak haltingly, but breaks down before she gets very far. Her compatriots stand around her, hugging and supportive. She tells them she needs a bit to get herself together. The music comes back up, conversation resumes and I launch my next ball into play.
Some time passes. My first game ends and I start another (out of habit, really — I'd won a credit, and still had several more in the machine) before she's ready to give her toast another shot. As she stands, I immediately let my first ball drain, grab my beer and move a healthy distance away from Mister Monopoly's money pit. It takes a few moments for the bar to quiet down and for the juke to be reined in, but soon the bar is once again respectfully quiet.
The woman starts slowly, re-balancing her grief and composure between each word. Her friends hold her hands and murmur encouragement. It's both heart-rending and, as are all the means of dealing with loss at their core, movingly life-affirming.
And then Mister Monopoly picks a grotesquely inopportune moment to announce that he's tired of waiting for me to play ball.
"HURRY UP!" he screams.
"HURRY UP!" "HURRY UP!"
Everything stops. Several seconds of full-tilt, slow motion, am-I-naked-in-front-of-these-people shock pass before I can lunge at the machine and yank the plunger, sending the ball onto the field. Where it takes its sweet time hitting every sound effect-triggering surface possible on its way back down. Several of the woman's party glare at me, disgusted. She does her best to ignore the bar's back corner after her initial surprise; she's gotten started, she's going to say her piece. And good for her. Her momentum and volume rise with every word, as she eloquently remembers a well-loved friend.
While I stand stoop-shouldered at the machine, firing balls off in an effort to satisfy the impatient Mister Monopoly, feeling like an asshole and appearing to be the kind of guy who'd play pinball while there's a freakin' wake going on.
It was only today that one of my co-workers pointed out that, you know, I could've just unplugged the damned thing.
Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].