In the alcove of your neighborhood restaurant, the apse of your favorite bar, there's often one of Humboldt's overlooked treasures.
Pinball tables — "Machines!" argues a colleague, who smugly points out that "pinball machine" garners 1.45 million results in a Google search, while "pinball table" yields a mere 169,000. "Almost 10 to one," he boasts. (Never mind that Pete Townshend, the windmilling messiah himself, refers to a "machine" half as many times as a "table" in his canticle to the sport, "Pinball Wizard.")
But whatever you want to call it, that feeling when your quarter brings the backboard to life is unlike any other arcade experience. It's appealing to nostalgic and diversion-seeking adults, but colorful and thrilling enough to appeal to kids used to high-powered video games.
That mercurial orb is just waiting to be launched into adventure, to flit from flipper to bumper to ramp, all before the backdrop of the Terminator's search for John Conner, Indiana Jones' harrowing escape from a large stone, or a magic-filled journey into the macabre.
Pinball is not unique to Humboldt County, of course, but short of traveling to Alameda to visit the Pacific Pinball Museum, what's the best place to play around here?
Well, that depends, both on the table and the atmosphere you're looking for. While attending HSU, a favorite between-class activity was downing a beer and playing "Elvira and the Party Monsters" in the Depot. Because of the nomadic lives of pinball machines, Elvira currently lives at the Trading Post in Myers Flat — a bit out of the way for me to visit the Mistress of the Dark with any regularity. (The Depot now has a "T2: Judgment Day" table that pales in comparison.)
Both Harbor Lanes and E&O bowling alleys have a couple of tables where kids of all ages can rack up points between knocking down pins.
Surfside Burger Shack has a NASCAR-themed machine that keeps burger makers and customers on edge with roaring engine and burning rubber sounds. The Shanty, Toni's and Raging Creek all deliver flipper fun, too.
But my favorite scene has to be the '90s-Sunday-night-nostalgia one-two-punch at Hum Brews. There, Mulder and Scully beckon you with the dark and spooky "X Files" (featuring an animatronic alien fetus). By its side is the Simpsons Pinball Party, a two-tiered multi-ball bonanza from America's favorite animated world. If you go on a game day, you won't be able to hear the table or the theme music over the din of fans and diners — pick a quieter time for the full experience.
Get out there and put those crazy flipper fingers to use, Humboldt.