The world doesn’t need another think piece on bowling. Robert Putnam’s 2000 book “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” was an essay on the death of bowling as a symptom of declining community engagement. Yes, bowling centres have disappeared – from 1998-2013 the number of establishments in the US fell from 5,400 to just under 4,000 which is a significant drop. Further, we can chart the death of bowling leagues as steady revenue for the lane operators as a metaphor for the end of blue-collar recreation. Or blue collar living for that matter. Blah blah bleccch
None of this mattered to me because we still had the Bathurst Bowlerama. For 56 years through its farewell frame last Saturday night, the two story mecca (five pin upstairs, ten down) was a default destination when there wasn’t much else to do, either as a kid, a teen, a single guy, a steady, a husband, a family, a single dad and finally, as a brother to my severely autistic sibling Adam Ira Gross. He likes bowling for some reason, employing the two-handed style where his ball path is measured in minutes. And that’s fine. We were at the Bowlerama for the last time a couple of weeks ago killing an hour in the customary rented shoes, one of the less savory aspects of the sport for the itinerant practitioner. Yes, people rent ski boots but they are plastic and haven’t been sweated out to the point where barefoot refugees would take a pass. Enough about leased footwear, some of which, in the more venerable alleys, might have been stolen from the grave of an Egyptian boy dating back to 3200 BCE where evidence of the sports roots was found early in the last century. Such is the long history of the bowling shirt.
Although the place had gone downhill in recent years – the carpeting was a carrier of every virus on the World Health Organization’s Active Plague list – the Bowlerama had a fairly good computer scoring system and although I wouldn’t eat the food there, one could risk a soft drink or a beer if the latter was consumed a safe distance from the lane itself. Whatever. The selection of balls was good if you had the fingers of a cellist and could bench 250 lbs. But Adam and I loved it on a rainy Sunday afternoon astride the odd birthday party or groups of clearly diverse enthusiasts who seemed to appreciate their adopted culture. It was about four blocks from my place and maybe a half mile from the house I grew up in. Back in the day it was one several local alleys, although some were five pin only, loyal as the owners were to the Canadian game started here in 1909 with balls closer to the size of bocce orbs and the scoring on a frame of 15 rather than 10. I do remember one such joint having a pin boy. Yes, I am that old. I haven’t bowled five pin in fifteen years but I was part of the hipster bowling movement in the early 80s and actually thew a bowling/fashion/new wave night at a divey downtown alley back in 1982. Back when most of my contemporaries were building professional careers I was trying to be cool.
Today, for the young and fun, bowling is still cool or cool-adjacent with day glo nights and deejays and booze in more modern installations. Lucky Strike locations aren’t the bowling of my former in-laws Thursday night league back in the early 60s – the old man actually had trophies – but it can still be a great diversion. I sampled the postmodern thing a couple of years ago at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. Wasn’t the comfort food of the Bathurst Bowlerama but I threw a couple of strikes.
That’s the appeal of bowling. It’s doable. Quickly too. Golf is a lifetime of pain and suffering. Tennis has a terribly long injurious curve and skiing is just too fucking dangerous. Shooting pool is good coed fun but its not as convivial and still requires more skill than a simple swing-and-release of a sphere that can clearly do most of the work. Throwing a strike on your first ever game is achievable, even for the two-hander. Dropping a par putt on your first day on the course? No friggin way says the embittered duffer before you.
What’s better about bowling is that men and women can compete on the exact same platform. There is no other sport that can boast that. Playing tennis with women is problematic because you let up on your serve and they complain. Yet when you blow one by them they mutter something about cloven-hooved sty dwellers. Yes, there are women that can ski you off the hill but…well…is this a race? Yet, with bowling, women play on the same lanes as guys and the pins fall just the same way. As a result I never had a bad time at a bowling alley. So too did most of America because there were dozens of TV shows that featured a bowling theme from time to time from The Flintstones to Andy Of Mayberry to The Simpsons to Ed, the latter of which, produced by David Letterman, ran for four seasons and was about a guy who actually bought a bowling centre. There was no doubt some pointed irony there. Not, however, the open cynicism of Kingpin, the Bill Murray vehicle directed by the Farellys and featuring Woody Harrelson which cast bowling as an outlet for ignorant bumpkins. For counterpoint, see the clip below featuring the late great Dick Weber in the twilight of a great career as a pro.
Yes, we have arrived at the point in the blog where the old guy bemoans the loss of the simple pleasures of having a few semi-athletic laughs with friends that doesn’t involve over-priced wine lists or insouciant waitstaff. Where he eulogizes places and recreational options that can never return – not the least being the old Bathurst Bowlerama, destined to be forgotten like a gutterball underneath another expensive condominium development, a fate shared by its many or its brethren over the last twenty years.
Adam Ira and myself will probably take our business elsewhere. But it won’t be the same. And with his OCD I’m worried that he won’t be comfortable outside of the only lanes he has ever known. Me, I don’t want to drive too far. But I will.
As the paper sign says on the door of the old Bowlerama – “Closed Forever”. https://www.bttoronto.ca/videos/bathurst-bowlerama-closing-in-toronto-after-56-years/