Mike, too burly to wear tights, moves toward his mark, bobbing up and down in fits and starts like the northern Catskills hillsides. Samuel, who can't hear a single word from the audience (he's not impervious, nor aloof, nor distant, nor does he consider himself superior — he's just ... deaf), hurls himself into his performance. Lloyd gently glides along like Fred Astaire. D.J. pretzels himself but is perhaps better at what he does than anyone else out there. Roberta maintains herself like a younger woman — 60 years younger. She, Maria the Elder, Maria the Younger, Alice from Greenpoint, the women, at least, move simply and elegantly toward their destination: The line.
It’s opening night, but this isn't ballet.
This. Is. Bowling.
It's a Tuesday in September, the start of a nine-month league with considerable prize money awaiting the victors. We're 40-odd (consider the hyphen totally optional) people with an almost-inexplicable desire to spend $23 a week hurling 14-pound orbs of synthetic material in a southerly direction, down an erratically oiled lane (not the hardwood of old, but an agglomeration of polysyllabic materials you haven’t encountered since high school chemistry, and you didn’t encounter them then). Between now and May 2017, you’ll get to know us and maybe even love us enough to buy us a metaphorical pitcher of beer.
A Beautiful Noise
While you’re deciding, this is our goal: to scatter the targets in a cacophonous yet organized crisscross of aural, visual and physical chaos, like the flying fists of engaged boxers with 30 seconds to go in the final round, the hold-your-breath, did-I-really-just-see-that definition of beauty. To create a noise so loud (Samuel aside), a choreography of the pins so sure in their mission to destroy each other, that when it all comes together, it's like smashing an empty beer bottle to bits, so wonderful the release of tension.
Our intentions, while diverse, are always noble. For some of us, it's the challenge, the Sisyphean attempt to actually get better at something as we age, in this case, a combination of the physical, athletic, and yes, intellectual (think: physics). For others, the octogenarians, to not participate in the league — to even miss a game — seems a significant, cosmic, capitulating step toward death. Then there’s the money; first place pays out enough to take your significant other on a long weekend to Vegas. And some people just like the bonhomie, or more to the point, the beer.
As for me, I have a son, who lives on the opposite end of our time zone. He's pretty good at this thing, could even make a living at it someday, and I’m not. But it gives us something to bond over other than "Why don't you have a job yet?" and "Don't come to me for money." I get home on a Tuesday night — late, way too late, because we bowl a few games afterward, stretching the night as far as we can — and will text him something like: "156-212-126, couldn't hit the pocket until I took your advice to change balls and move three boards left, then I couldn't convert my spares." And no matter how poor the numbers are, or how early the next morning it is, my son is there for me. "Great set, Dad!" A 126? He is working on my self-esteem. The child parents the father.
Bowling: Noun; Verb
Never believe bowlers are one. We're not. We are a gerund sprung to life, from different backgrounds with different intents, yet spelled the same. Do not classify us nor generalize us. Lower-middle-class? Some of our brokerage accounts would shock you. Dolts? We have graduate degrees. Country? There are the hipsters, over there.
With a bowling ball in our hands, we are as unique in our physicality as the greasy fingerprints we leave on every surface we touch. (The residue isn't from the stupidly addictive bowling-alley chicken wings; a blog on those later. The grease — the oil — accrues on the ball from repeated tosses through the invisible, shape-shifting sheen that covers the lane most of the way down the 60 feet from the foul line to the head pin, and the 42 inches across, no bumpers.) I've seen thousands of bowlers, in local alleys, at college tournaments, and no one does it the same way. At every level but the top, everyone with a five-step approach looks ridiculous at some point in the journey to the line. Elbows flap, posteriors flop, feet arch preposterously, joints and limbs laughing at the idea of moving in tandem at the age of 40, 50, 60. The dance, continued.
Once the ball is launched, everyone has his or her own post-throw ritual. Some bowlers let it fly, then turn immediately around to head back to base, well before their throw hits its spot (or doesn't). Some pump their fists like Tiger with the ball only halfway down the lane, at risk of a great humbling and no shortage of catcalls. Others speak body English with their lower torsos, an uncontrollable, inimitable ass-wiggle intended to feel the excruciatingly obtuse ball left or right at the necessary angle of the moment. Army Mike, crushed by missing an easy spare, unconsciously drops to the floor of the approach and gives us 20 push-ups while everyone laughs around him. Except he isn’t laughing.
Negative thoughts can intrude. If you roll a seven, it's disbelief that it wasn't at least eight. If you knock down eight, how could it have not been nine, the shot was right there. A split robs you of life’s most essential emotion: hope. And if you strike, but you strike in declassé fashion (a righty's shot slicing into the lefty's natural pocket between the 1 and 2 pins), it's a cause for embarrassment, the most sheepish of grins as you exultingly knock fists with your teammates, still glad for the generosity of the gods. We have fun, some of us get kinda drunk, and all of us swear we don't take it seriously.
Now there's something we bowlers have in common: We lie.