2020’s final insult

By BEN R. WILLIAMS

The following story is true. I realize that as you read it, you may find that hard to believe because this is the story of one of the dumbest things that has ever happened to me. But just remember: if I were making this story up, I would probably give myself at least one cool one-liner.

As I’ve mentioned in this space before, my hobby is collecting pinball machines, and after more than three years in the hobby I’ve gotten pretty decent at repairing them. I always keep an eye out online for good deals on machines that need a little TLC, and on the Saturday after Christmas, I spotted one on the Facebook Marketplace: a 1981 Flash Gordon machine priced to move.

I used to have a Flash Gordon machine, but I sold it to a friend of mine about a year ago so I could buy another machine I’d had on my list. I’d missed ol’ Flash Gordon and his brutal, soul-crushing difficulty curve, so I was really excited to see another one pop up. 

The machine in question was located in Mount Airy, NC — just one hour from me — and it was in pretty rough shape. Fortunately, the asking price was well below its value, and I’d already repaired one Flash Gordon from the ground-up and knew what went into it, so I immediately messaged the guy. I told him I’d pay him a little more than he was offering (I didn’t want to rip him off, even though he probably never would have known) and I’d pick it up that day.

He told me it was mine if I wanted it, but I couldn’t pick it up until Monday. Just call him at 8 a.m. on Monday morning, he said, and he’d give me his address.

On Sunday evening, I sent him a text message to make sure we were still on for Monday morning. He said we were, then added, “first buyer here can have it.”

This is what is known as a Red Flag.

I asked him how many other buyers I was competing against. Just one, he said; apparently he was afraid that I would change my mind after seeing it, so he wanted to have another buyer lined up to prepare for that eventuality. He told me again to call him at 8 a.m. and he would give me his address.

In retrospect, I should have just told him I wasn’t interested, thanked him for his time, and forgotten about it. But on the other hand, I wanted that Flash Gordon. I would simply drive to Mount Airy early so that when I called him for his address at 8 a.m., I would only be a couple minutes from his house. It’s Mayberry, for crying out loud; it never took that long for Andy to get from Floyd’s Barbershop to Emmett’s Fix-It. 

On Monday morning, my pinball moving buddy Mike came over and we left the house about 6:45 a.m. We were in Mount Airy when the pinball seller accidentally called me at 7:45 a.m. I called him back, got the address, and drove straight to his house. Sure enough, we had beaten the other potential buyer. Flash Gordon was all mine.

The seller stepped out of his enormous, downright palatial home to greet us. He was on the phone with the other potential buyer.

“Yeah, the other guy’s here,” he said. “You can come on over and check it out since you drove all the way from Greensboro, though. See you shortly.”

“He doesn’t need to come over, I’m planning on buying it,” I said. 

“I don’t think you are,” the seller said. “It’s not going to fit in your car.”

“Oh, it will,” I said. “I’ve moved a bunch of pinball machines in this car.”

“Including one of the biggest ones ever made,” my friend Mike added.

The seller looked unconvinced, but he told me I could go ahead and back my vehicle up to his basement door and we would go inside and check out Flash Gordon.

Once in the basement, I looked over the machine, quickly assessed what was wrong with it and what was right with it, and reached into my wallet. I handed the seller a small wad of cash.

“I’ll take it,” I said.

And then, a remarkable and baffling thing happened:

The seller did not take my money.

“Hang onto that,” he said. “Let’s wait until the other guy can see it.”

Now folks, I have bought a number of things off of the Facebook Marketplace, and I’ve sold my fair share, too. And as a seller, there has never once been a time that I’ve listed something for sale, had a buyer offer me more than I was asking, had the buyer show up to my house at the agreed-upon time and attempt to press a wad of cash into my hand, and replied, “No thanks, let’s wait until we can get an opinion from this other guy who’s coming who offered me less money. Perhaps he will have some bold new ideas worth considering.”

Within a minute or so, the other buyer arrived. He explained that he was creating a game room in his home and he wanted a pinball machine. I don’t think he particularly invested in this specific machine, but I guess the price was right. 

To be clear, I have no hard feelings against this other buyer. I probably would have done what he did if I were in his shoes. But it was clear to me that he didn’t have much experience with pinball machine repair, and this machine was going to be a basket case to deal with. 

He told the seller he wanted to buy the machine. 

There was a long pause. The four of us stood in the basement in silence, waiting for the seller to render his verdict. It was an awkward situation, but I figured the seller would explain to the other guy that I simply got there first; as he had told me in his text the night before, “first buyer here can have it.”

This is not what happened.

“Well fellas,” the seller said, “I’m sorry about this. What do ya’ll want to do?”

For a seller to put this decision on the two potential buyers is a bit like inviting a bunch of people to a dinner party and then, once they arrive, asking them what’s on the menu.

I indicated I wanted to buy the pinball machine. The other guy who also wanted to buy the pinball machine felt the same way. 

“Reckon it might come down to a coin toss,” the seller said. “Either of ya’ll have a coin?”

It was at this point that I could almost hear the basement door open and then slam shut as common sense put on its hat and overcoat and strolled out the door. 

“Listen,” I said to the seller, “do you have the keys to this machine?”

He handed me the keys and I attempted to open the back box, which is the “head” of a pinball machine. The lock was rusted shut. 

“Well,” I said to the other buyer, “I was going to show you the boards so you could see what you’re getting into it, but the lock is busted.”

I turned to the seller. “Have you ever replaced the batteries on the MPU board?”

The seller was unaware that pinball machines have batteries.

“Well,” I said to the other buyer, “the batteries have probably never been changed and they’ve leaked all over the MPU, which is what controls the game logic. I can tell because the machine isn’t saving high scores or settings, and there might be more damage than that. You’re looking at about $200 plus shipping for a new Alltek Ultimate MPU. Next, the playfield is shot. The main reason I want to buy this one is because I’ve got a buddy who has a spare playfield I can replace it with. Also, none of these drop targets or pop bumper caps are original. That’s just the stuff I can see. By the time you’re done replacing everything that needs fixing on this machine, you’re looking at spending about five times the asking price just on parts. And that’s if you fix it yourself. If you hire a pinball tech, they’re going to charge $100 just to come to your house and about $60-$75 an hour after that, and a playfield swap takes a long time. I only want to buy this machine because I do my own repair work. I’m not trying to talk you out of this, I just want you to know what you’re getting into.”

There was a long silence. The other buyer indicated he was still interested. 

We flipped a coin.

I lost.

As Mike and I wordlessly walked out the door, I heard the seller yell after me.

“Hey, wait!” he said, “we gotta make sure this guy has money!”

I did not stop.

Mike and I got in the car and, in what I consider a rather remarkable display of restraint, I did not run over the seller’s mailbox. 

There is no grand final punchline here, so you might be wondering why I have chosen to relate this long-winded story. You see, in the introduction to his 1976 novel “Slapstick,” Kurt Vonnegut said that in his opinion, all great works of literature are written with an audience of one in mind. In his case, he wrote “Slapstick” for his beloved late sister. 

I too have written this column with an audience of one in mind, and thankfully, I didn’t delete his number from my phone. As soon as this column is posted online, I’m going to text it to him. Possibly at 6:45 a.m.

Hope you enjoyed your column, buddy!

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