It’s all fun and games until somebody gets shot: My very short, very upsetting attempt to play pinball early one Wednesday morning

March 19, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 19, 2020

Author’s note: Although this post is not graphic, it involves violence. It also includes some foul language and refers to drug usage. As such, it may not be appropriate for sensitive readers.

Worth noting, perhaps, is that I started writing this blog post several days ago but put it on hold as concerns over the Covid-19 pandemic surged. I apologize for the delay. MEM

Around 10 minutes after midnight on the morning of Wednesday, March 11, I walked into a Durham establishment that I will refer to as Pinball Oasis. Pretty much right away I noticed that something was off.

A strange grouping of people was arrayed near the high-top tables on the far side of the pinball cluster. Two men were facing each other; behind each, a few people were fanned out. After I showed my identification to a staffer at the front desk, I took a moment to study this formation.

One of the two men at the center of the formation — the one on the right — was holding a beer and smiling, but there was something guarded in the expressions of the people facing him. Few of the others standing nearby were chatting with each or looking at their phones or handling food or drink; instead, they seemed to be watching the central duo.

I didn’t see a lot of people wearing Pinball Oasis T-shirts, but it was pretty clear that the folks on my left worked for the establishment. I glanced at the staffer who had checked my ID. She was stone-faced.

I didn’t know what was going on, but I decided that I wanted no part of it. I wanted to head into the back of the establishment to use the bathroom, but I didn’t want to intrude upon or distract the strange cluster before me. I edged along the wall and squeezed behind a banister before maneuvering around the bar and proceeding to the restroom.

About two minutes later, as I was washing my hands, a woman banged on the door of the men’s bathroom and stuck her head in. She called out a name that I didn’t quite catch and said something like, “These fools out there are fighting!”

A man instantly emerged from one of the two toilet stalls and walked out of the bathroom. Great, I thought to myself. He didn’t even make a pretense of washing his hands. I wondered if he’d been doing something that didn’t indicate hand-washing after the fact, such as looking at his phone (which in fact does require scrubbing one’s paws) or using drugs (which I suppose would sometimes require washing up).

Maybe 60 seconds later, I left the bathroom and walked back to the front of Pinball Oasis and saw… nothing particularly interesting. The patrons who had presumably been unruly in some way were gone, and the staff were laughing and chatting easily. One way or another, the issue had been defused.

I went over to Deadpool and put in eight tokens, the equivalent of two dollars, and received credit for three games. (Important tip for beginning pinballers: On most tables, two bucks will get you credit for an extra game.)

My first ball lasted mere seconds. Ugh, I thought to myself crankily. What a terrible start!

I held down the left flipper button and plunged my second ball. The sphere started making its way around the top of the table.


Three distinct things then happened very quickly.

Holy shit, those were gunshots! I thought.

— I ran to the far end of the row of pinball machines, slid underneath what I think is The Hobbit, and curled into a ball with my back to the front door.

— A siren sounded nearby and immediately raced away.

I waited on the floor for several seconds.

Pinball Oasis has two rows of pinball machines by the front entrance. To play any table in the row nearest the door, you stand with your back to the sidewalk and street. To play any table in the second row, you stand facing the sidewalk and street. A partial wall separates the rows.

Both rows end at the north wall of the building. Since I was in the front row, I was essentially boxed in. Anyone who cared to kneel or even bend down would see me immediately — pinball table legs are narrow things that offer no shelter.

All remained quiet. Cautiously, I uncurled myself and looked around. No one was within sight. Nothing moved.

I slid out from beneath the table and huddled in the corner. The building has windows on the east, north and west walls. Where I was, the glass on the north side is partly frosted; also, the view is somewhat screened off from the street by a utility wall that surrounds the dumpster and/or some HVAC equipment.

I wanted to take a look through the window. I held up my phone to block out light from inside the establishment; unfortunately, my phone screen was on, which didn’t help at all and would have made me a target had a gunman been waiting outside.

I saw nothing through either nearby window. After a while, I wandered toward the front door and peeked outside. The street was empty and quiet.

I chatted with a couple who were holding beers and had joined me at the entrance. I was OK; they were OK. Had those really been gunshots? we wondered. Maybe it was fireworks, I speculated. The smell in the air definitely reminded me of fireworks.

The woman said that she thought there had really been gunfire. She motioned to some black marks along the front desk, saying that she didn’t remember seeing them before.

I wasn’t sure. I knelt and extended a finger.

Before I could touch the desk to see if that was gunpowder residue or part of a few random splotches of black paint, another woman briskly walked up and told us to take cover. I stood, and we all went toward the back of the Pinball Oasis.

There hadn’t seemed to be anyone outside, but I was spooked by the second woman, who seemed to be an employee or manager. I inserted myself between some arcade cabinets and waited for a bit.

An employee passed me and checked that I was OK. Following him, I drifted back toward the front and watched as two cops approached the front entrance from the sidewalk and found it to be walked. They were quickly admitted and led into a back room, perhaps to look at security camera footage.

The patrons were ushered out through the side entrance, which I gather had also been locked. I was one of the first to step back out into the courtyard and through the gate on to the sidewalk. I walked around the corner to my car. A flock of police cars gathered around Pinball Oasis. The police response had certainly been quick.

As I stood on the sidewalk tweeting about the incident, an ambulance flashing its lights trundled down the street at a leisurely pace. I later found out that a worker had been hit by gunfire.

It took me a few days to process this event. I’m still not clear on just where the shooting took place, but I was standing with my back to the front entrance. If someone had come into the joint with murderous intent, I would have been either the first or second victim — and I never would have seen it coming.

Because of the spike in concern over Covid-19, it seems like this happened to me two weeks or a lifetime ago. Of course, it was just a little less than nine days. Funny how time flies when society is being turned on its head by a pandemic, isn’t it?

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