Bowling – Still A Great American Tradition

(An essay from my Beach Reporter column 4/23/92.)

If you want to experience life the way it was before Evian water and no-smoking sections, try a visit to your local bowling alley. In a world where trends appear and disappear in a nanosecond, and technology changes at warp speed, bowling alleys remain locked in time.

I probably wouldn’t be hanging around bowling alleys if it weren’t for my children. I do a lot of things I wouldn’t normally do because of them. That is the wonderful thing and the terrible thing about being a parent.

My little boy joined a bowling league last September with his best friend Jack, and they bowl every Thursday afternoon. The league is called Bumper Kids, and they put these inflatable blue bumpers in the alleys, so the ball stays more or less in the lane. It’s a very good thing they put bumpers there because when a six year-old throws a bowling ball you never know where it’s going to end up.I’ve seen balls dropped as the kid swings his arm back and the ball rolls toward the spectators. I’ve seen balls skip lanes, even with the bumpers. I’ve seen balls careen back and forth twenty times, from one bumper to the next, and then drop into the hole on the side, not even disturbing one pin.

I never thought my son would be a bowler. A tennis player maybe, or a golfer. Nice yuppie sports. But for some reason, known only to him, he likes to bowl.

My first trip to the bowling alley with my son and his friend gave me the strangest feeling of deja vu. All of the sudden I was sixteen, wearing penny loafers and a miniskirt, drinking a Coke and eating French fries with gravy. Bowling, like watching drag races and demolition derbies, was something I did growing up in a small town in Colorado. Now that I was a South Bay thirty-something person, I hadn’t been to a bowling alley (or a drag race) for more than twenty years.

The first thing I noticed about the bowling alley was the smell. It smelled just like the Golden Bowl in Colorado. It was a smell that you don’t smell too often these days. It was the smell of cigarette smoke.

I would never venture to guess why, but 90 % of all bowlers I saw at the bowling alley were smokers. It would make an interesting scientific study as to why this is. Do people who smoke like to bowl, or do people who bowl all start smoking?

In a restaurant you might ask someone to put out their cigarette, or better yet, you could sit in the non-smoking section. In a bowling alley, you wouldn’t dream of asking someone not to smoke.

In our particular bowling league, a no-nonsense woman named Babs is in charge of the Bumper Kids. The women who work there are named Babs, Betty, and Barb, and they know their bowling. They are the kind of down-to-earth people you don’t often meet in the South Bay.
I’m quite sure they don’t drive foreign cars or eat Mother Nature sandwiches. It somehow reassures me that there are people like them in the world.

At the snack bar you can get the best, greasiest fries in the world and a regular Coke with caffeine and sugar still in it. There is also a bar in this bowling alley – a cavernous, dimly-lit room off the snack bar. At 3:00 in the afternoon on a weekday, it is half-full of men hunched over drinks, smoking one cigarette after another. It is the exact opposite of a trendy fern bar with a tropical drink menu. You could order a Manhattan on the rocks, and they would know how to make one.

Watching six year-olds bowl is kind of like watching your fingernails grow. Very exciting. They have two styles of bowling. The really skinny ones with arms that are about two inches around hold the ball and thrust it out from their chest. The ball then lands with a loud thud and rolls very, very slowly to the pins. By the time it reaches the pins, it has lost almost all of its momentum, and usually stops without knocking over a single pin. At this point Babs has to call the maintenance guy to rescue the ball.

The other method – favored by my son and his friend – is to grip the ball with fingers in the correct holes. The stance is serious, the throw intense. The ball ricochets off the bumpers wildly and somehow hits some pins. The boys go wild and give each other high-fives.

I’m surprised there’s not a bowling alley in the South Bay that’s more “California” in style. There would be no smoking and they would serve imported mineral water. Frozen yogurt, but no fries. You could use your Gold Card and get rewards points. There would be ficus plants, and neither Babs nor Betty would be there. It just wouldn’t be the same.

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