“Haha! First in line!” I exclaimed triumphantly as I came dashing out of the station.
My effort to get out of bed even earlier than usual had paid off, promising for a profitable day.
I sat down on top of my almost empty backpack and leaned my back against the cold glass wall right next to the entrance, overjoyed that I would be able to get to one of the precious five new pachinko game machines that were to be launched this morning.
The cold breeze, tinted by a slight odor of urine – at six o’clock on a Saturday morning in Shibuya this was inevitable – didn’t bother me the least as I made myself comfortable for a long wait.
But when I looked down at my right hand, my old worries came back. Pachinko wasn’t a game that required physical prowess in any way other than the ability to keep your hand still as you worked the gauge determining the speed at which the little shiny iron balls were shot out. But at the age of sixty-eight and after decades of operating a pneumatic drill and other heavy road work equipment, a steady hand was the one thing I didn’t possess anymore. “The irony of it…” I mumbled, wondering why I hadn’t settled for betting on horses or something else to try to increase the meagre monthly allowance from my wife, which had been reduced even further after my retirement.
While massaging my wrist, I started doing some mental image training involving a new technique I had developed whereby I propped my knee up against the back of my hand to hold it steady, allowing me to shoot out the balls at the same speed for longer periods. Consistency and concentration were everything in pachinko, and this day I was determined not to let anything go wrong!
A few minutes later I heard irregular footsteps coming from behind the corner, and I knew it was “Limping Taro,” my friend since five years ago when I started playing seriously. Many of the younger pachinko enthusiasts referred to him as Sensei, and I probably would have too, hadn’t it been for his slight arrogance and resistance to admit that I sometimes outperformed him in spite of my relatively short career.
Limping Taro sat down next to me, second in line, with a wide grin on his face, revealing the last three remaining brown teeth that were seemingly randomly placed in his mouth, his gray beard a bit longer and dirtier than the week before.
“So what’s the course today, eh?” he asked, looking at my backpack and trekking boots, not quite the gear necessary for a day of pachinko.
“Mount Takao. I even managed to convince her to give me extra money for the ropeway down. I’ve got all day for myself!” I replied, pleased with my negotiation with my wife the previous evening.
Limping Taro broke out in loud laughter, his foul breath forcing me to lean away a little in favor of the urine smell.
He was well aware of my domestic situation, which was quite common in our generation of players. Pachinko was our secret passion that we knew would never get the approval of our wives, and every one of us had his own little scheme worked out. Mine was quite bold, involving a feigned healthy lifestyle of hiking in the mountains around Tokyo, well aware that my wife would never be able to accompany me due to her severe allergies and weak knees. Although I felt my act was waterproof, I dared not even think of what would happen if she ever found out that I was in fact spending all my time and money inside a smoky, noisy bunker-like facility, closely crammed together with like-minded, mostly unhealthy individuals sitting on my behind all day - quite the opposite of a healthy lifestyle!
“I sometimes think I’m pretty lucky after all,” Limping Taro said with a guilty smile on his face as he discreetly pointed upwards between the buildings lining both sides of the street. He then put his hand over his mouth and added almost in a whisper, as if he was afraid the sky would open up and strike him down with a bolt of lightning, “My old lady won’t be able to stop me from playing from up there, you know.”
Soon there was a handful of people behind us, only men of mixed ages, and Limping Taro and I smiled at each other as we listened to a heated argument going on about who was in fifth place, the difference between life and death in a situation like this.
After more than an hour of waiting, finally one of the younger staff came out in his red suit-like uniform and matching cap, looking somewhat surprised at the long queue that was now stretching all the way down the side of the building and around the corner. He glanced at his watch and started explaining the rules of entry, “No rushing, please. There are enough machines for everyone, and please feel free to use the ones on the second floor also.”
The next moment we were finally out of the gate like excited race horses, bolting inside the building at full speed while fighting to keep our positions. I had no trouble securing my seat after a few smooth turns around the lines of game machines, and Limping Taro, who had over the years developed a technique of jumping on one leg while keeping his elbows out like a soccer player preventing anyone from overtaking him, managed to grab the seat next to me in fierce competition with a youngster right behind him. Seconds later all seats around us had been filled, and immediately a cacophony of bleeping and ringing machines mixed with loud music selected to maximize our adrenaline levels, and the occasional announcement by staff, engulfed the premises, expectations hanging like a heavy cloud around us, soon to be filled with tobacco smoke and male body odor.
As soon as the game was on, we disappeared into our own invisible cocoons. All attention was focused on the fate of each little shiny ball as it was shot out onto the intricate mini-landscape of pins, levers, traps, and various other obstacles, hopefully ending up in one of the cups paying out additional balls to keep us going until we decided to exchange the balls for bottles of bourbon or other rewards that we would then take outside around the corner to a little hole in the wall where an old lady, whose face nobody had seen, traded in our merchandise for cash, thereby bypassing the law prohibiting gambling directly for money. It was the oldest trick in the book, and no questions were ever asked, although on a normal day only a lucky few of us ended up making the walk back to the old lady.
My high hopes for the new machines turned out to be more than just empty dreams, and I got off to a smashing start. After only two hours I had amassed a knee-high wall of red boxes full of glittering balls on the floor behind me, and Limping Taro was doing even better. There was no conversation between us, and the extent of our communication was limited to a quick glance and maybe a nod in acknowledgement of each other’s performance every now and then.
Noon came, and we were both still on a roll, but just as I completed my maneuver to move away my left knee and instead prop up my right knee against the back of my hand holding the gauge, Limping Taro suddenly burst out, “That’s it. I’m done.”
“What?! You’re crazy quitting now!” I exclaimed.
“No, that’s enough for today. I don’t want to push my luck,” he said with conviction in his voice, and as if to remove the option of changing his mind, he hurriedly called over one of the staff to help him carry his boxes. He then stood up, and the next instance one of the younger guys who had been circling us like a hawk ready to strike as soon as one of the new machines became available, dived into his seat, marking the end of Limping Taro’s run; an outstanding performance indeed!
He gave me a somewhat patronizing pat on the shoulder, looked at my boxes with a smile, and said in a tone suggesting he was convinced I would never be able to match his winnings even if I kept going all day, “Don’t get too greedy!”
“See you next week,” I replied casually, pretending not to get annoyed, as he walked off.
“Huge mistake…I’ll show you,” I mumbled after him while refocusing my attention, convinced this would be the best day so far in my career.
But soon after Limping Taro left, things started to change. Maybe it was the irregular emotional outbursts from the young player who had taken his machine that distracted me, or perhaps it was just pure fatigue, but gradually my pace of winning slowed. Soon I was struggling to stay even, occasionally having to replenish balls from the boxes behind me. At first I didn’t think much of it, hoping it was just a temporary setback and not a pattern, but it persisted, and my frustration started to build.
I became more aggressive in my game, fueled by the fact that a couple of guys standing behind me kept exchanging comments suggesting they could do a better job, ready to jump in any time. Before I knew it I was down to my very last box, as the two guys fell quiet trying to position themselves to take over my seat, surely convinced my fate was sealed. Bent on somehow making my fortune change, I loaded up the last box, but to no avail. The final ball, after a courageous effort to land itself in one of the bonus cups, followed the fate of its predecessors, and my machine went deadly quiet.
With a deep sigh I picked up my backpack, feeling both humiliated and also shocked by the sudden disastrous loss, as I was almost pushed aside by the bigger of the youngsters who jumped into my seat. With emptiness in my eyes, I walked out onto the now crowded street wondering how I would be able to explain my result to Limping Taro the next time without losing my pride and not having to face his usual, “I told you so.”
Having skipped lunch, I made my way to what Limping Taro liked to call “losers’ ramen shop,” the cheapest, dirtiest, and possibly also smallest noodle joint in Shibuya, where many of us ended up on a bad day.
I stepped inside, sat down at the only vacant seat along the counter, and placed my order for the cheapest bowl of ramen on the menu. Only then did I realize that the person slurping his noodles next to me was none other than Limping Taro! He was clearly in a lousy mood, not even looking up at me when I asked what happened.
“I tried my luck at the parlor across the street. Bad idea!” he said grumpily, grabbed the bowl with both hands and loudly drank up the remaining soup, put the bowl back on the counter and stood up.
I knew better than to ask any more questions, took a sip of water, and waited in silence for my bowl.
“There’s apparently another batch of new machines coming in soon…” Limping Taro whispered in my ear as he passed behind me, adding, “See you next week!” before he walked out.
A smile came across my face as I looked down at the bowl of steaming noodles just being served in front of me, and with new hope I started to analyze my day’s performance, convinced I would be able to make up for my losses the next time.
For more information about Alex Lund and his books, please visit: