Bowling, Bucks, and BoysAlice Lowe
The pervasive fog of cigarette smoke and high-volume bursts of profanity-laced laughter made for a dodgy neighborhood-bar ambience at the hangout of my early teens, but it was parentally approved. Poinsettia Bowl was where my family briefly bonded in common pursuit. When my brother was recovering from knee surgery following his high school graduation, his doctor recommended bowling to strengthen his leg muscles and hasten rehabilitation. We did little more as a family than eat dinner together, so my mother jumped at this opportunity for shared activity. Ours was a functional but uncommunicative and lightly strained family—bowling might serve as an ACE bandage to fortify increasingly fragile bonds.
We lived in Solana Beach, one of a chain of five small connected coastal towns 20 miles north of San Diego. It may as well have been 200 miles, as we went to the city only for special occasions and infrequent trips to Sears or J.C. Penney’s. Our sleepy communities were beach destinations, offering little more, but Poinsettia Bowl in Encinitas, five miles from home, was a lively roosting place for locals. It was 1956, and our timing was spot on. Introduced to America in the 17th century by Dutch settlers, bowling blossomed among blue-collar populations in the 1950s and ‘60s. More than twenty million Americans bowled during its heyday, and bowling alleys proliferated around the country. Remember Laverne and Shirley, Squiggy and Lenny? Much of their “happy days” existence revolved around bowling.
My brother, the impetus for our newfound togetherness, was the least interested. At 18 he had other priorities, and when his knee healed and physical therapy ceased, he stopped bowling. Within the year he joined the Air Force and left home, returning only for brief visits. But my parents and I—13 and not yet embarked on a social life of my own—took to it right away. For my dad, whose other pastimes were pursued in solitude—surf fishing at dawn, listening to classical music, tippling secretively—bowling offered male bonding, beer-drinking and back-slapping. My mother enjoyed anything that brought the family together and got her out of the house, meeting new people. I loved the game itself and quickly became proficient—a natural, some said. I took pride in my skill, in consecutive strikes and converted spares, in steadily rising scores, while lapping up accolades from onlookers. After that first summer we augmented our weekend family outings with competitive team bowling. I joined a women’s league, and my parents bought me a shiny new bowling ball with marbleized blue and black swirls, matching shoes and bag. We played together on a mixed doubles team—a family friend as our fourth in lieu of my brother—and finished the season in first place.
I might have abandoned the bowling alley as my teens progressed, but I was tethered to it by bucks and boys, money and men. This was during the transition to automatic pinsetters and before electronic scorekeeping. We scored manually on paper score sheets for casual games, while league play was publicly documented on transparencies projected onto screens. I found my lucrative calling when my father recruited me to keep score in the men’s league. I knew the game and could add quickly, print legibly. Soon I was in demand, keeping score a few nights a week. While my friends were babysitting—something I dodged unless desperate—I was having fun and earning good money. The players kept me supplied with cokes and snacks, and the winners tipped handsomely at the end of the evening’s three-game set. My own version of bowling for dollars.
Most of the men were much older, and the teasing and flirtation were constant but benign. I took it in stride and sloughed it off, except with some of the younger ones, with whom I happily reciprocated. I was shy and awkward, not popular at school, but at the bowling alley I was in my milieu and one of few girls amid a bonanza of guys. I had a fixation on the Polloreno brothers. Bobby, the oldest, was a friend; his wife and I bowled on the same team. Larry was dark and dangerous, with sleepy eyes and a sly, seductive smile. Ten years older than me, and to my dismay, he, like Bobby, treated me like a little sister and was wise enough to deflect me when I threw myself at him. “Call me when you’re not jailbait anymore,” he said.
Ernie was the youngest, a senior during my sophomore year in high school. Not outgoing like his brothers, he had a sweet, quiet manner. He was my secret crush for that entire year as I interjected myself into his path at every opportunity at the bowling alley and at school. He was friendly and kind but clearly not interested. Once when Bobby and his wife had me over for dinner, Ernie was there too. I thought they were trying to fix us up, and I was so nervous I couldn’t eat or put two coherent words together. He didn’t get close enough to break my heart, but it ached nevertheless; I suffered pangs of self-pity and pains of self-doubt.
I’d always craved my brother’s attention and approval, even when he no longer had time for me. I took his absence in stride and was happy when he joined us over the holidays the first year after he left. To my mother, however, we were like a three-legged dog, limping and incomplete. When, the next year, he informed us that he wouldn’t be coming home for Thanksgiving, my mother announced that she wasn’t going to spend the day cooking for just the three of us. Instead we would go to the bowling alley for their buffet dinner. I felt slighted, dismissed—without my brother, were we no longer a family worthy of a home-cooked holiday meal? Was I so insignificant that all pretense could be abandoned? Holiday meals had been uncomfortable affairs for years, just the four of us, no friends or extended family, pretending a turkey made the day special. But now even that sham was dropped. What about me? I wanted to shout, but I didn’t. Instead of expressing my indignation, I withdrew to nurse my hurt feelings in solitude. I don’t remember our spurious Thanksgiving dinner, though I’m sure I grumbled at not having leftovers for turkey sandwiches the next day.
The bowling alley had been a refuge where we could go through the motions of being family without having to confront troubling issues, but eventually bowling’s therapeutic benefits wore off. My dad continued bowling, an escape from home and a haven for his drinking. A teammate dropped a bowling ball on my mother’s foot, crushing her little toe. It was years before she was able to wear closed shoes, and she would never grace the lanes again. I continued to bowl and to keep score for spending money, but school, friends, and a late-blooming social life now took precedence.
Bowling went off the collective radar, as well as our own, declining for a few decades, but it’s made a comeback over the past 20 years, the way fads die and are reconstituted. Perhaps it’s part of the nostalgia for the fifties that has revived cheese fondue, hula hoops, and high-waisted pants. I’m hoping for doo-wop music. New bowling and entertainment centers have emerged, bright and modern, aimed at a wider middle-class demographic and touted as wholesome family recreation. They’re no longer smoke-filled, beer and sweat-smelling dens of iniquity.
Over the years, with fond memories of the game and the social milieu, I’ve entertained fleeting whims, thoughts of picking up bowling again, wonder if I could rekindle my skill. But the urge passes. It’s safer to leave it in the past and not risk hefting and heaving a 14-pound ball with my bad back.