I haven’t been in a bowling alley with human pin-setters. I imagine that it’s like being a catcher in a baseball game, minus any fun that sitting behind the plate entails. Kids in tucked-in polo shirts and khakis, crouching and farting the quarter-hours and hours away while older, fatter and hairier or hairless versions of themselves drink and pretend to remain athletes for an evening. Everyone’s summer dream, I’m sure.
Bowling alleys, though, are aesthetically curious–if not pleasing–places to me, and I suppose I inhabit them enough to know. They are places for which time stopped, stuttered, and stopped again, like the motors spawned from the rust belt towns in which they stood. Though I could perhaps unearth some cultural and economic archaeology as to why ‘time stopped’ for the bowling alley, most of it would be boring. Please allow a shorter explanatory jaunt, then, before we look at these places and try to be funny or poignant about it / them.
Look: bowling alleys from the 1940s through the 1980s were spots where Midwesterners got their kicks and tapped their competitive energies–that is, if they couldn’t afford private golf memberships and/or were too old to remain graceful on a baseball diamond. From the 1990s on, bowling alleys tried to paste ‘family fun’ moustaches over their aging bones and are, I think, spots where newer Midwesterners gamble cheap with each other, and spots where the young and hip go for especially kitschy and drunken Saturday nights.
Confession: I am a Midwesterner. No surprise there, right?
At any rate: I mention these periods because a typical bowling alley is an old building in an aged part of town, with insides that are part 1970s roadhouse, part mid-20th century banquet hall, and part 1990s glow-in-the-dark souvenir or t-shirt. Find the VFW in your town, look at a retirement party with all the kazoos andthe bric-a-brac tacked to the walls, and you might see what I mean. The ‘period’ ratios vary from alley to alley, but between the wood panels, pinstriped fabric and secondhand casino carpet pictured above, you can guess which parts I like best. None of it is repulsive on its own, but each new design offered a worse juxtaposition than the last, with the result that no one sits down in an orange plastic chair and takes it to be a bowling alley so much as they get stuck with the feeling that it’s a funny looking place to play a funny little game.
There are parts of these places that were new when Miss America won a chrome-trimmed Oldsmobile along with her sash and crown, fitted with decor straight off a toddler’s pair of sneakers. Again, it may remain a bowling alley first, but it takes on the dress of a place to take small children when it’s too hot for mini-golf and too crowded at the pizza playground. And it’s not that I care much about bowling alleys becoming “entertainment centers”–elsewhere on this blog, I’ve written a bit about Louisville’s Vernon Club, a combination bowling alley and music venue that looks good and is doing well. Rather, it’s that most of these renovated alleys don’t know what they want to be anymore, and end up discarding their most intriguing artifacts, attractions and assets along the way to “fun for everyone.”
They carry vestiges of a local Lions / Eagles club, and are yet so incompletely covered with “cool accessories” that they all but put its older conveniences and charm alongside a cuddly, underpaid mascot at the front door.
Take the Lustre King, for instance (not to be confused with The Lustre Kings, a rockabilly gospel outfit out of Albany, NY). It is a curious piece of engineering designed to polish balls for those who actually own one–or a pair. It’s a questionable service–I’ve only used one once in all my years at the game–but niche as the appliance might be, it clearly belongs in the place that houses it, and has the additional bonus of looking like a dishwashing-laundry appliance hybrid that might have wowed a World’s Fair floor some 80 years ago. They’re uncommon to come by and when I do spot one, it’s usually a sad sight–not in and of itself, but because it’s sharing a wall with fizzy beverage dispensers and cereal-box-prize machines with arthritic mechanical claws.
If my nostalgia truly binds the rest of me, there may be nothing special at all about these places or their remnants. No new aesthetic necessarily displaces or stamps itself over another, I’m sure, but unless your town bleeds unmitigated “authenticity,” an old bowling alley yet ranks among the few places you can visit to get an idea of what small town entertainment looked like before the mall, mini-mall and big-box store emerged from well-intentioned but flawed suburban landscapes.
But even as a kid, who loved Saturday morning cartoons, sugary cereals and arcade rooms as much as my peers, I found the older things in places more interesting to look at, as though they were somehow truer to, if not better for the spaces they occupied. Maybe it was having storytellers for grandparents. Maybe it was one too many History Channel programs about ghost towns. Maybe it was the dilapidated general store that stood in my hometown decades after it closed, with tin clocks and cigarette ads yet upon its walls … but you go into a bowling alley now, and seconds-long clip of a computer-animated bowling ball or turkey rewards your best shots on a screen. They’re funny once.
Penciling the numbers down at a little desk, though, felt like sitting at my drawing-table feels to me now. The light beamed up from beneath the spreadsheet, projecting numbers on neat little grids and the sharp shadow of my hand up and around the semi-illuminated space beside my seat. You could create shadow puppets there, if you wanted.
There was a bit of magic to that.