Alley Cats

From Boston Magazine

A few Sundays ago, my chums Ethan, Jeffrey, Frumkin, and I were talking about the weather. This was unusual, since we normally gravitate toward weightier discourses, like that Beavis and Butthead where they take a nude figure drawing class. But by the end of our conversation, we reached a decidedly weighty conclusion about the weather: We concluded it sucked. We never used to think it sucked. We used to live for Nor’easters. We embraced glacial temperatures, memorized wind chill factors, delighted in whiteouts. It meant ski season was here. All winter, we’d shoot up to Okemo for weekends or split work early for a few runs at Wachussett. But then we got old. And the older we got, the colder we got. Obviously, the time had come for a new winter sport. And I use “new” in the sense of “climate-controlled.”

“I’ve got it!” Frumkin exclaimed. “Bowling!” He may as well have suggested lawn darts. Or croquet. Or candlepin bowling, whatever the hell that is. These are known as activities, as opposed to sports. I was hoping we’d start shooting hoops at the Y, or playing unmixed doubles at the Mt. Auburn Club. To me, staying out of the cold and working up a sweat were not mutually exclusive. I mean, if I was looking for an alternative sport to hockey, would you suggest knock-hockey instead?

“How can you possibly compare bowling to skiing?” I replied delicately, knowing full well that Frumkin owns his own bowling ball. Under normal circumstances, I would have followed up with a series of my trademark quips. For example, I might have asked if there was a Bunny Lane where I could take a lesson and learn the hard stuff, like where my fingers go in the ball. But I refrained, because all three of my pals were looking at me in stunned silence, as if bowling was beyond reproach.

Little did I know I’d be spending the rest of the day answering my own question. There are manyways you can compare bowling to skiing, I soon discovered. For starters:

I. Bowling is Closer Than Skiing.

The bowling facililty my chums took me to was called Lanes and Games, just a 10-minute drive from my house in North Cambridge. Do you know how long it took to schlep to Stratton one time last year when we were foolish enough to hit the slopes instead of the alleys? I will tell you: four hours. And once we finally got off Route 30, we sat in traffic on the service road. Then we had to search for a parking space, which we finally found in an auxiliary lot, which meant we had to take an SRO shuttle bus to the base area, so we could wait in lift lines the rest of the day.

Compared to Stratton, I’ll admit that the vistas surrounding Lanes and Games are somewhat modest – an abandoned nightclub named Faces and a Gateway Inn, which one suspects lost its customer base when Faces shut down – but, in retrospect, what’s so great about the scenery in Vermont? Snowcapped peaks? Pristine powder? Whatever. I could never see any of that stuff anyway: My no-fog goggles were always too foggy.

The interior of Lanes and Games, on the other hand, is a glorious scene: 54 gleaming wooden lanes, walls resplendent in rust-colored carpet and adorned with giant bowling pin pattern, lockers. As I looked skyward to take in the view, it was clear I’d entered God’s country. There, high in the rafters, rose a majestic half-dozen heating vents.

II. Bowling is cheaper than skiing.

To illustrate this point, I’d like to share a first-person anecdote that transpired a year ago at Mt. Snow. I was standing in line (surprise, surprise) to purchase a weekend lift ticket. I had no intention of paying full price. As far as I’m concerned, for a $111 lift ticket, you should be getting a lift to Saturn. So I did what I always do. I presented my college I.D., which has always worked like a gem in scoring the student discount, especially after I used a razor blade to remove all evidence of the decade it was issued.

The kid behind the counter looked at me, looked at my youthful I.D. photo, looked at me, looked at my I.D., and proceeded to ring up a weekend lift ticket for $111.

“Nice try, Joe College,” he said.

But let me tell you something about bowling. $4.85 a game, including the shoes. When we first went to rent the shoes, I naively asked my pals why we needed them, since it seemed to me that bowling is perhaps the only sport in which you spend more time sitting down than standing up. Even then, you’re on your feet for a grand total of five, maybe six steps before sitting back down for a breather. Frumkin informed me in no uncertain terms that you need the shoes because bowling is a serious winter sport, and it wouldn’t be a serious winter sport unless there was some special footgear involved. Skiing? Footgear. Skating? Footgear. Snow shoeing? The man had a point.

Jeffrey and Ethan expounded on an even more convincing argument: the need to look cool. And what could be cooler than bowling shoes, with their nutty color schemes and stylin’ Bozo silhouettes? Not to mention that you can walk downstairs to the bathroom in them. Try doing that in a pair of $500 ski boots sometime when you have to go, and you tell me which sport is the better value.

III. Bowling is More Challenging than Skiing.

Perhaps you’re saying, “Zevin is high on drugs if he thinks bowling is challenging.” Untrue. I gave up drugs years ago. Even before I gave up skiing. But I know what you mean, because, at first, I, too, thought bowling was a breeze. After all, 15 minutes into it, I got three strikes in a row. Do you have any idea how it feels to get three strikes in a row? It feels like tearing down a black diamond bump course from the top of Killington Mountain, only better, because you don’t go home on crutches. After those three strikes, I envisioned my name on the plaque we saw earlier marked “Our Bowling Stars.” There I’d be, alongside Lanes and Games legends like Dennis Bysiewicz (700 Club), Gator Girl Gaeta (540 Club), Max Silverman (Jr. 475 Club).

Like I said, that’s how I felt at first. Shortly thereafter, I began my descent from golden boy to gutter boy, like some washed-up has-been on an ESPN Behind the Bowling show. My early success was just beginner’s luck.

“You know what would help your game?” offered Jeffrey. “Another beer.” I was about to employ his excellent training tip when I noticed a little kid with a buzz cut bowling in the lane to our left. He stood about 4’8”, sported a professional-looking brace on his wrist, and wore a determined expression on his face. Before each shot, he’d stoically contemplate the alley, and then send his ball spinning down the side and into the center for a strike. He was a one-man tour de force. I had the need to meet him. More than another beer, I decided, he was what would help my game.

“The name’s Fred Flintstone,” I said, using the moniker my pals had bestowed upon me for my twinkle-toes approach.

“Hey,” said the kid, barely looking up. “I’m Max.”

“Max? Max Silverman?”

The kid beamed when I said I’d seen his name up on the “Our Bowling Stars” plaque. I thought we’d have a lot in common since he was 11 and my mental age is 11. But it turned out he was way more mature. He’d been “seriously” bowling for a little less than a year, but already owned two balls, had three more on order, and subscribed to Bowling This Week magazine. His dad had taught him the basics, but now he was taking private lessons and competing in a league. He came to Lanes and Games “every, every day” after school. He wanted to be a pro someday.

And the weirdest thing is he isn’t a dork. Mark my words: What Tiger Woods did to make golf hip, Max Silverman is going to do for bowling.

Max was extremely psyched when I asked for some pointers. He walked me straight down the center of the lane as if he owned the place, and showed me the sweet spot for “hooking” the shot and “exploding” the pins. Tactfully, he suggested I stop “skipping” down to the lane before releasing my ball. Most profoundly, according to Max, I had to work on my “mental game.” “Like for this shot,” Max explained, pointing to the lone pin still standing at the far end of the lane, “I’d be thinking where I’m gonna stand, what my target will be, what my hand position will be, how much hook I’m gonna to put on it, what the lane conditions are, which of my balls I’m gonna use.” At the time, my own mental game consisted of the following thoughts: Don’t get a gutter, don’t get a gutter, don’t get a…

Miraculously, I didn’t get a gutter. I got a one. But with Max as my coach, a comeback couldn’t be far behind.

IV. The après-bowling scene is cooler than the skiing-skiing scene.

Enter a typical ski lodge after a day on the slopes, and you barely have energy to search for a seat, much less shout over the folk singer assaulting your ears with an off-key rendition of Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “Lemon Tree, Very Pretty.” Should you be able to hear yourself speak, the conversation usually goes something like this:

“I think the feeling is starting to return to my thumb.”

“Great. Is my nose still blue?”

But after a day of hitting the alleys, we felt great. And although there’s no “lodge,” per se, we unwound in an unpretentious, well-heated bar and grill with football on the tube and video games galore. Serenaded by the exquisite sound of pins “exploding” in the distance, my pals and I enjoyed a plate of chicken fingers and bonded over our new winter sport.

“By the time you reach your thirties,” Ethan reflected, “a man should be able to mix a martini and bowl over 200.”

I had long since mastered the former, but had a ways to go before achieving the latter. Yet, as we got ready to leave, I somehow knew this was the last time I’d be returning a borrowed ball to the rack and rented shoes to the shoe guy. Next time, I’ll be bringing me my own.

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