Essay by Mike Walsh
Mike Walsh crafts stories from his half-year trip crossing all 50 states to do one thing: bowl.
I was nearing the end of a half-year trip for which I’d quit my job, lost my girl, and given up my every possession that wouldn’t fit into the trunk of a ten-year old Honda when I met her: a cute, sweet, playful woman who seemed to make my friend happy. They were tumbling toward marriage while I tumbled alone across the western United States on a quest to prove truths I’d long believed to be unassailable. My trip had borne fruit to that end, and any lingering doubt about having upended my life to make this quest had been relegated to the trash heap of misery that now filled the back seat in the form of fast food wrappers and notes of my encounters in 46 states. At every turn I’d found validation and around every corner, confirmation. Literally hundreds of people had told me, “Yes, you’re right. I feel that way, too.” But with a single sentence, she unraveled all of that.
“There is nothing fun, nor funny, about bowling.”
For someone who had just dedicated six months during the prime of his life to spending time in bowling alleys on the premise that bowling is both fun and funny enough to support a full-length travel memoir, this was more than a little disconcerting. At the risk of casting too dramatic a comparison, it was akin to a devout Christian being confronted for the first time with an equally convicted atheist. And so, like Peter denying Jesus three times before the rooster’s crow, I found myself in a sudden crisis of faith. As with all such crises, resolving it required answering a big question: Is bowling amusing?
Prior to committing to going bowling in all 50 states, I had a well-established affection for the sport—or, more accurately, the venue in which it takes place. I’d always found bowling alleys to be wildly romantic, in the nostalgic reminiscence, not sexy, sense of the term. What other place in the world contains such a cross-section of people? What recreational activity offers more opportunity for both competition and socialization? The downtime between rolls is tailor-made for conversation, for breaking bread, for sharing a pitcher of beer. Its low cost, ubiquity and simplicity (it’s just rolling a ball, after all) give bowling an egalitarian sensibility. Rich, poor, black, white, young, old, male, female, transgendered, handicapped, whatever: everyone can get to the foul line and take a shot at the pins. Few bowl enough to be good at it, much less own their own equipment, which puts people of all backgrounds in the same garishly-colored rented shoes rolling a borrowed ball that someone else left behind. It matters not whether it’s a group of suburban rich kids, a senior citizens’ league, or a family of four spending their only entertainment dollars for the month: everyone looks equally ridiculous in ill-fitting blue and red shoes trying to balance their weight against that of a heavy three-holed ball. And so everyone feels equally silly when they roll a gutter ball, and equally proud when they roll a strike.
Any given bowling alley on any given day is a microcosm of the community in which it sits. The bowling alley is a gathering place, and much more transpires within its confines than merely a series of sporting contests divided into ten frames. People don’t just bowl at bowling alleys. They eat and drink. They karaoke. They fall in love. They sneak behind the vending machines and have sex. They spend the one Saturday afternoon a month they have custody of their son there. They forget about work, home, the news of the day. And, where it hasn’t been outlawed, they smoke. Man, do they smoke.
Any bowling alley worth the shoe spray under its front counter is rich with the trappings of amusement. There’s a bar to loosen inhibitions, typically with a loosened interpretation of what constitutes the age of majority than a bar not attached to a bowling alley will have. (With near unanimity, people tell me one of the easiest places to score drinks when they were in high school was the bowling alley bar, given the easy melding of ages and activities under one roof, and the need for incremental revenue when the lanes aren’t filled with leagues.) There’s a snack bar where nacho cheese flows free and easy, facilitating communal mealtimes that can’t help but bring people together. There are arcade games and special nights when, thanks to enough lighting equipment to power a KISS concert, the bowling alley more closely resembles a nightclub than a smoke-filled hangout for men wearing Sansabelt. By these measures my friend’s contention is patently, provably false. Bowling alleys are literally built for amusement, and for amusement beyond the act of rolling a ball down an oiled surface bent on destructing an equilateral triangle 60 feet away.
And so, it would seem that bowling alleys are both fun and funny. But she didn’t use the word “alleys,” did she? She said, “bowling.” Period. If her contention pertained only to the sport itself—solely the contest of ten frames and a tally of pins felled—would it be true? This is a difficult proposition to test, as pretty much all bowling takes place in bowling alleys, and all bowling alleys are geared for fun. To answer the question scientifically would take a sterile testing environment and some people who were seriously unamused by my quest to bowl in all 50 states. As it happened, there was such a place. And there were such people.
I was only three states into my cross-country bowl-athon when I received a call from one of them. His name was Rory, and he worked for the American Bowling Congress. He’d taken issue with some comments he’d read on my website suggesting that bowling was merely a bastion of beer drinkers and barflies unable to participate in any physical activity more rigorous than rolling a ball every so often.
“Real bowlers are legitimate athletes,” Rory insisted. “They train hard, suffer injuries and need to be as mentally focused as any other professional athlete.”
“They probably have to work even harder,” I replied, adding, “given all the smoking they’re doing between frames.”
Rory’s sigh at my predictable quip was audible. He’d heard it before, and was surely tired of trying to change perceptions about bowling carried by the non-kegling masses. Nonetheless, he invited me to the ABC’s headquarters in Milwaukee. “We’ll show you real bowling,” he promised in a somewhat ominous tone.
When I arrived at the ABC, Rory took me to the world’s foremost bowling laboratory: eight working lanes representing 95% of the bowling surfaces currently in use and sanctioned by the ABC. It was a windowless room lit by fluorescent tubes in the ceiling. Charts and graphs line the walls, and on the lanes are contraptions for testing balls, lane surfaces, lubricants, pins and pinsetters. Every sanctioned piece of equipment, brand of lane oil, type of synthetic ball material and bowling pin is tested here before being approved for use in a real, live bowling setting. Noticeably absent were the key components of the average, amusing bowling alley: No snack bar. No bar bar. No disco lighting package. Presumably a fog machine would be rendered ineffective by this temperature- and humidity-controlled environment.
Using the charts on the wall, a man explained the complex physics behind rolling a bowling ball, where each variable—the ball’s weight, its velocity, its rotation, its angle of impact on the pins—has a significant effect on the outcome of a given roll. As he did so, a small group of people began to trickle in from the ABC’s offices, curious to see the jackass who was trying to bowl in all 50 states despite having apparent contempt for the finer points of the sport. Naturally, I tried to win them over with my wit.
“And here I thought the only skill involved in bowling was pouring the beer from the pitcher without making too much foam,” I said to a collective groan.
“Rolling strikes consistently is like having a good golf swing,” someone says in bowling’s defense. “It’s extremely demanding, mentally and physically.”
There was a large contraption at the head of one of the lanes, and the group surrounded me and led me to it. It looked like a torture device from a sixties-era Bond movie: a nine-foot-tall glass enclosure with a machine inside it—gears and mechanical arms, hydraulic fittings, hoses and wires combining for an intimidating combination of steel and technology.
“Um…I was just kidding about the beer thing,” I muttered.
“This machine is designed to roll a perfect strike,” Neil explained, to my relief. “It has three lasers to precisely position the ball, and we set the exact release point, axis tilt, speed and rotation for the given lane conditions.” He puts a ball into the machine, makes some adjustments on a keypad and everyone steps back. The machine picks up and spins the ball to put a precise rotation on it before releasing it onto the lane at the ideal trajectory to hit the pins at the exact angle needed to produce a strike. As if to prove my naivete about bowling’s athleticism, the strike-throwing machine left a pin standing.
At this point a man named Roger Dalkin joined us. Roger was the ABC’s executive director, and a former World Bowling Cup champion. And he came to the lab to bowl against me. He will certainly beat me. Badly. Having not fully learned my lesson about making fun of bowling in front of people whose livelihood depends on the sport, I attempted to trash talk—as though I had any hope of psyching out a world champion in a sport I participate in casually, usually while drunk. “You know, these lane conditions aren’t quite pristine if you ask me,” I said. “There’s no second-hand smoke in here.”
Roger responded by rolling a strike. And another. And many more. I proceeded to roll one of the better games of my life—a 152—and he still beat me by more than 100 pins. By the game’s end, the crowd had grown to about a dozen career bowlers and ABC officials who were all clearly on Roger’s side. Still, in the spirit of people who purely love the game and want others to enjoy it too, they encouraged me and offered tips to help my game, cheering my strikes and bemoaning my open frames. Good-natured ribbing and laughter filled the room. High fives between combatants and handshakes of sportsmanship prevailed. All in all, even in the sterile confines of the ABC’s testing facility, even while losing, bowling was fun.
But could it also be funny? After Roger trounced me, a handful of the ABC group helped me test this hypothesis at a legend of Milwaukee’s underground bowling scene that was the polar opposite of the ABC’s pristine environs. As the crookedly painted letters on the red wall above the staircase announce, “This is Holler House.”
Holler House is a bowling alley where dreams come true and nightmares are born, often in the same evening. It’s run by 76-year old Marcy Skowronski (just like it sounds), and has been in her family since her in-laws built it in 1908. The two lanes in the basement are the oldest ABC-sanctioned lanes in the country, but all of the action during our visit happened in the bar upstairs where Marcy held court over Zwiec beers from her native Poland while we sat in stools upholstered with cracking red vinyl. Glancing around the bar at the sports paraphernalia, photos of regulars, pictures of bowling teams from the 1950’s and dents in the walls, I counted dozens of pairs of underwear and bras dangling from the ceiling. If these walls could talk, I think, only as long as Marcy is around they wouldn’t get a word in.
“A group of men came in one night,” she said. “I figured it was a stag party, so I asked ’em, ‘Who’s getting married?’ And they just started laughing.” The men were seminarians from a nearby Catholic college. “They got so bombed,” she continued, “and they started taking their pants off. That’s one of their underwear up there. I told him when he gets ordained I’ll wrap them up and send them to him!”
Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh once led songs on the rickety piano in the corner during a surprise visit, and bowling greats like Earl Anthony, who won 45 Professional Bowlers Association titles in his career, have signed some of the undergarments on the ceiling.
“I lived in Arizona,” Marcy said in response to a question, “and you know you’d get so bored! So I tried to do some volunteer work at a hospital. The coordinator asked me what I wanted to do and I said, ‘I want to read porno to the blind.’ Well, he just took off and started running!”
My friends from the ABC and I spent nearly an hour listening to Marcy, holding our sides much of the time. Some of her stories and jokes were barely appropriate for a dive bar on Milwaukee’s south side, let alone coming from the mouth of a 76 year-old grandmother. But they, and the frames of bowling I squeezed in between them, were funny.
And so, inappropriate as it may be, I continue to invite my friend’s new bride to visit me in the Midwest, promising that when she comes back from Milwaukee she’ll no longer be wearing a bra. One day she’ll come around to bowling’s transcendent power to amuse.
Mike Walsh is the author of Bowling Across America: 50 States in Rented Shoes (2008, St. Martin’s Press). He is the world’s foremost expert in the geographical nuances of rented footwear.