Pinheads

Posted on 01. Oct, 2002 by in Uncategorized

The night I met Bobby Speers at the Circle
Lanes in East Haven, he was holding a bowler’s cocktail: lukewarm beer in
a large plastic cup. I could see why he needed it. The windowless building
reeked of stale cigar and pipe smoke, and the neon ceiling lights bathed
the alley in a harsh, sterile light. "I’ve had better nights,"
he sighed.

Indeed.

Bobby was actually referring to his score, but he might as well have been
hinting at something more. He did not look like a man who was having, as
he described it, "a fun night out." For one thing, he was just
standing around, idly sipping brew, fretting over the game at hand. For
another, he was playing on a pretty lousy bowling team-the Metal Masters
II-with men at least 25 years older than himself (he is about 40). Bobby
and elders Keith, Vinny, and Lou had lost the first two games of the set,
and they stood to plummet further toward the basement of the rankings if
they couldn’t set their acts straight in this, the final game. Their league
is called the Four Horsemen; the apocalypse comes every Thursday night.

It was time to turn things around. Bobby lumbered over to his ball, picked
it up, and gazed menacingly at the ten pins standing 60 feet away. With
a quick grunt, he lurched forward and launched the ball down the right side
of the lane. Bobby is actually quite skilled for an amateur. He doesn’t
just roll the ball. He spins it-violently. Just as the ball seemed about
to veer off into the right gutter, it swung left and smashed into the front
pin, dragging down the rest in its wake. A big "x" flashed on
the screen, and Bobby pumped his fist in triumph.

It may be hard to believe, but men from all over New Haven County flock
to the dingy Circle Lanes each week to play in the Four Horsemen, which
is reputed to be one of the most competitive tournaments around. The top
prize is $6,000, and the second and third place finishers also take home
purses. The prizes are actually a little deceptive, because each player
on the winning team only takes home $1,500 and pays more than $700 to play
in the 36-week tournament. But $800 is not chump change to the bowlers in
the league. As Bobby put it bluntly, "The common worker, that’s who
plays here." Bobby is himself an employee at a nearby tool and die
company, and most of the teams, including Bobby’s, bear the names of local
industrial and service businesses. "New Haven Truck," "Fairmont
Paving," "Olympia Diner," and "Turbine Jets" were
also playing that night.

Bobby sat down with his beer, now half empty, for some "side action"-poker.
At least that’s what Bobby called it. It was really more like solitaire,
since Bobby was the only one playing. "If you bowl a strike, you take
a card," he explained, flipping one over. Since he was the only person
on his team bowling consistent strikes, no one else was taking cards. Keith,
Vinny, and Lou were clearly disinterested. "A full house!" he
cheered.

Bobby looked up at me: "You know, some of the guys here just come
for the recreation. Myself, I come here to play for money." I could
tell-why else would he spend a whole night in this dump? But I also stifled
a chuckle; his words sounded like a line straight out of a movie. And as
a bowler, Bobby is positively cinematic: He’s a clean-cut, moustached man
with a sizable paunch (tonight restrained by a green bowling shirt emblazoned
with his team logo), and he plays out of pure love for the game. In fact,
he used to be literally addicted to bowling: At one point in his life, he
played in seven different tournaments simultaneously. The membership costs
caught up to him, though. Now he can only afford to bowl in one league at
a time.

As the next several frames passed, it became clear that Bobby was bowling
a spectacular game. He told me that he was on track for a score of 279-just
21 points shy of a perfect game. He was even attracting a bit of a crowd
at this point. Well, not a real crowd, but one whale of a man dressed in
black whom Bobby seemed to know. They started talking, and the conversation
apparently had to do with the ins and outs of kicking someone’s ass. "I
bet that guy over there with the grey hair could kick your ass," Bobby
joked. His friend seemed to find this funny. They made plans to go hang
out at the Chili’s restaurant next door after the match ended.

Bobby finished the game with a score of 248-he faltered in the final frames-but
his above-average performance led the Metal Masters ii to a solid gold finish,
830-739. Alas, it hardly mattered: The weak showing earlier in the night
assured the team of yet another week of mediocrity. But Bobby was in higher
spirits. How could he not be? It was time to leave.

Bowling, believe it or not, is the most popular
sport in America. According to the National Sporting Goods Association,
40.3 million Americans bowled last year; the Sporting Goods Manufacturers
Association estimates the number at 55.5 million. Bowlers outnumbered baseball,
football, and soccer players more than two to one. Still, one can’t help
but ask the inevitable question: Why do so many Americans hit the lanes
day in and day out, even when that means spending innumerable hours of their
lives in dystopic surroundings, playing for meager prizes, and drinking
cheap, warm beer?

Twenty lanes down from Bobby and the Metal Masters, I had another chance
to find out. Here was the Yale league, a crew of middle-aged employees of
the University and Yale-New Haven Hospital. Despite the assurances of Paul
Minore, the vice president (every bowling league has a governing board),
that "we just come here for a friendly game after work," the competition
was fierce. Paul’s team, the Green Machine, was neck and neck with another
team called the Coasters.

Paul doesn’t look like a typical bowler-he’s slender and bearded, and he
was dressed, in typical Yale fashion, in khakis and a dress shirt-but he’s
as much a devotee of the sport as any. He’s a 20-year veteran of the league.
Tonight, he announced, was his best performance of the season. Apparently,
this was due to a stellar day on the job. "If you have a really good
day at work, you have a really good night of bowling," he told me.
Then he added: "Of course, if you have a really shit day at work, you
also have a really shit night of bowling."

The wholesome Yale league purports not to play for money-only trophies-but
behind the innocent exterior is a rougher side: an informal gambling ring.
Tonight, a dozen or so guys, including Paul, were contributing to the pot,
which usually tops off at $20. In this respect, the middle-class Yale employees
differed surprisingly little from their counterparts at the other end of
the building: They both treated the bowling alley as a casino. I wondered
why so many bowlers feel compelled to bet on their games. Is the sport in
itself that meaningless?

A dwarfish man named Jeff, another cog in the Green Machine, approached
me and struck up a conversation. Jeff doesn’t work at Yale, but the league
recently let him in because his wife does. As he chainsmoked against the
back wall, he seemed excited about the game at hand. Others, however, were
decidedly less enthusiastic about his presence. "My team is kind of
pissed that they’re letting non-Yale people in," Glen, a member of
the Coasters and an x-ray technician, complained. Glen is a burly Asian
guy, and he is the star of the league. He once bowled a perfect game. He
had other complaints about the league’s oppressive tendencies. The league
uses a handicap system based on a bowler’s average to equalize scores, and
Glen thinks that this leads some bowlers to cheat. "Sometimes, people
dirt their average and then bowl well when they need to," he whined.
"It’s a real problem of this league." He also sniveled about a
friend of his whom the league screwed over. "The league kicked a teammate
of mine out of the league for not paying his dues," he said, disgusted.
"But my teammates and I paid for him. It really didn’t make any sense."

By now, it was the seventh frame of the final game, and it was too close
to tell whether the Green Machine or the Coasters would come out on top.
Jeff seemed nervous. He was still hanging out away from his team, still
smoking up a storm. But he was definitely concentrating on the game. "Yes,
we’ll definitely take that," he muttered to himself as one of his teammates
knocked down nine pins.

Paul stepped up to the foul line and readied himself to bowl. Paul, it
turns out, is not quite as good a bowler as his devotion to the game might
lead one to believe. He averages consistently over 100, and his style is
amateurish: He rolls the ball straight down the middle of the lane. He only
knocked down eight pins with his first ball, he completely botched the spare.
He frowned and stomped his foot on the ground. Jeff sighed.

The match was coming down to the wire. By the tenth and final frame, both
the Green Machine and the Coasters had combined scores just above 900. I
asked Jeff who was going to win. "They won it already," he sighed.
I asked how he knew, since the scores were nearly identical. He didn’t respond-maybe
he didn’t hear me. But Jeff’s pessimism was proven true: A guy on the Coasters
team bowled a final strike and the team sailed to victory, 948-934. "Talk
about giving them the game on a platter," one man snapped. Glen, ever
the competitor, was ecstatic. He stood up and bowled a ball between his
legs, just for the heck of it. Paul seemed down. "Technically, we gave
it to them," he told Jeff and packed his things up to leave.

A week later, I found myself at the Hamden
Lanes on Dixwell Avenue. The Hamden alley is an identical copy of its East
Haven counterpart (they’re both owned by the same company). The place was
teeming with league action. It was a stark contrast to the dark and deserted
exterior. A tournament called the Barbara Fox Classic had taken over 32
lanes, leaving only a half dozen or so for regular customers. Men and women
of all ages were participating. Some sat and watched, others wandered and
chatted.
In the gloomy bar, a half dozen rueful souls were silently slumping on bar
stools. A baseball game blared on a television in the corner, and their
eyes were transfixed on it. I tried to imagine where these people came from
and why they had come here, of all places, on a Friday night. And then it
hit me: these were the true slouches of the bowling world. Bobby, Paul,
Glen, and Jeff, at least, had had the guts to create their own drama.


Jacob Blecher, a sophomore in Davenport College, is associate
editor for TNJ.

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