I was the Phantom of the Alley in another life a generation ago. It wasn’t my first job, not even my first bowling alley job, but those few years at Country Lanes in Coram, NY, somewhere near the geographic center of Long Island, are particularly memorable now because I’m heading back to the homeland this weekend.
My father worked for Brunswick Corporation about 20 years. His jobs with that company moved us from New York to Florida to Georgia to Illinois to New York.
So, I basically grew up in the bowling business. Dad started out managing bowling alleys — that is, bowling centers. I can hear his voice in my head now reminding me, “they’re bowling ‘centers,’ son. Bowling ‘alley’ has a different connotation, so please – bowling ‘centers.’”
In Florida, he managed Congress Bowl, a 52-lane palace with a huge pool hall (“Billiards parlor, son, billiards parlor.”) – great place to spend eight hours on a Saturday, which is what I did for years, rolling games until my thumb hung by a shred of skin. Well, not quite, but I do still have ghostly calluses from the million games I rolled.
Congress Bowl had a mixed clientele, ethnically and otherwise. Met Ron (he was Ronnie or Ronny then) Howard there, and his brother Clint, and their dad Rance. Met Flip Wilson and his kids there. We all bowled together. Saw Jackie Gleason shooting pool, Minnesota Fats. North Miami Beach was a happening place back then.
Spent a lot of time in the back, behind the automatic pinsetters, where it was constant noise, where you could feel the bowling balls in your gut like an unending bass-line, rolling over long lanes of white ash, punctuated by the violent crashing of pins.
Anyway, by the time we moved back to New York, I was 19, still living at home and in need of a job. Dad, who had ascended to district manager of Brunswick’s best district – the Big Apple – found me a gig as maintenance guy, pin-chaser, front deskman, and whatever else needed doing at Country Lanes. Two years earlier, I had a similar job at a bowling center in Decatur, Ga., for a few months.
Working for my dad, even several layers removed – his office was in the City – was not supposed to be easy. In fact, he fired my older brother Steve from his job at Congress Bowl years earlier, when Steve refused to clean a pile of shit off one of the lanes. Yes, someone actually left a pile of shit on lane 52.
My first job at Country Lanes was to rid the big hill above the parking lot of all weeds, using what amounted to a little scythe. It was hot, hard, wretched work.
Next, I got the job of maintaining the lanes at night, the graveyard shift. Me and another guy, Gary, swept and oiled the lanes, using an automatic machine that crept from the foul line to the pins, laying down a sheet of oil. We also cleaned the concourse, the bar, took out the trash. The whole job was designed to last all night, from midnight-ish to 6-ish. We usually got done in three hours and spent the next three hours bowling and trying to siphon beer from the taps in the bar. At 6-ish, we’d knock off and head to the beach, where we were the only people drinking cans of Schaefer beer for breakfast.
When my girlfriend Jane came to the center, we’d meet in the shop out back, the pin-chaser’s HQ, where they had fabulous tools and materials – saws, grinders, welders, great wood – for making repairs and also for making cheap gifts for friends who liked to smoke pipes and so forth.
When she bowled, I’d watch – Phantom of the Alley – from behind the giant pinsetters, occasionally plucking her ball from the jaws of the machine and inserting love notes in the finger-holes, covertly watching her reaction from a distance.
She wound up marrying me, so I guess it wasn’t as creepy as it sounds.
Speaking of sounds, as a school kid, whenever I put my head down on the desk I could hear the back of a bowling alley. Those wood-topped, hollow desks captured ambient noise, like a seashell, but instead of ocean waves I heard the harmonic buzz of machinery and the constant rolling of bowling balls over ash lanes.
Try it some time. Put your ear down on a desk, or to a seashell, shut your eyes and imagine the smell of oil and beer and metal, and it’ll sound exactly like the back of a bowling center, minus the crashing pins; immortal balls rolling over long strips of white ash, rolling, always rolling, never crashing.