Seventy-four years ago, on January 21, 1942, Fiorello La Guardia, then mayor of New York, finally got around to addressing what can only be described as a scourge on the good citizens of his city. Long before loosie cigarette vendors and giant cups of killer soda, New York still had its fair share of problems. The biggest one of all was pinball.
Mayor La Guardia wasn’t having it. “Pinball,” he explained while gesturing wildly, “is a racket dominated by interests heavily tainted with criminality.” He issued a directive to the NYC police department, expressing that the rounding up of pinball machines throughout the city was to be their top priority.
Over the course of a few weeks, police raided seedy pinball establishments confiscating more than three thousand machines. Then the mayor himself, a grand politician, took a few highly publicized swings at them with a sledgehammer, smashing them to bits.
Time and resources well spent, I’d say. But then I’ve never been very good at pinball, a game of some skill and a lot of luck.
And right now I feel as if I’ve been playing it for the last three days. We had a long weekend this past weekend, with Martin Luther King Day on Monday and an additional teacher inservice training day for our school district on Tuesday.
My sons are eleven and eight, close enough in age to be really good friends and also terrible enemies, sometimes in the very same moment. So while we all enjoy the occasional break from school, it can start to feel like an elaborate game of pinball.
Everything is going along fine. Their imaginations are running wild and they’re having fun. Then they get bored. They fight. Someone ends up crying. I start yelling. I take a deep breath, pull back the spring loaded pin of creativity and launch them an idea, something new to try, a game to play, a project to work on, a friend to call, or a book to read. It works for a little while. Enthusiastic and hopeful, they bounce off the walls and I rack up a few creative mom points. Until they get bored. They fight. And someone ends up crying.
By the end of the day on Tuesday I had pretty much exhausted every idea I ever had for keeping them busy. We were on the brink of something terrible. And that’s when it started to snow.
The call came around 10:00 that night. The boys were tucked in and sleeping and I was just beginning to relax, unwinding from the woes of the day before heading to bed myself when we received notice there would be no school the next day.
I love my children, but when I thought about spending another day of launching creative ideas at them only to wind up with one (or all) of us in tears, I was ready to whack a snowman with a sledgehammer.
That’s kind of where Mayor La Guardia was at, too. Because he’d already spent years trying to clean up his city. He’d taken on crime, ridding the city of the slot machines that funneled gambling money to the mafia.
And then the criminals launched pinball onto the scene. At the time, the game didn’t yet include flippers, and so involved much more chance than skill, pilfering, according to the mayor, “nickels and dimes given [children] as lunch money.”
He wasn’t alone in his crusade against the game. Cities across the US joined in the fight and banned pinball, sending it into the even deeper recesses of the shady underground, where only the most hardened of criminals could find it.
New York’s ban lasted until 1976 when a heated pinball-focused City Council hearing ended in a spectacular demonstration of skill by Roger Sharpe, by day a respected young magazine editor, and by night, a hardened pinball criminal from New York’s seedy underbelly.
Sharpe played for a bit with mixed reviews and then in one final attempt to impress, he called a difficult launch, and delivered. The City Council immediately declared that pinball was more than a game of mere chance and the ban was lifted.
Fortunately school is in session today, but if it weren’t, I’d have had to institute a ban on creative mom pinball. I’d have been making a few highly skilled calls myself, frantically launching my boys toward the homes of friends or grandparents. Because if they’d been home with me again today, I’m pretty sure I would have taken out a few snowmen with a sledgehammer.