Rolling with the pros in Northampton.
Just two paltry gutterball throws into my first string, I was already feeling the twinges of a strained hamstring. Not exactly the triumphant return to the bowling alley I had been hoping for.
At the far end of the lane, the pin setting machine lifted all ten pins and swept away none—for none had been knocked down—moving me unceremoniously to the second frame. I slunk back to the empty bench and attempted to appear as inconspicuous as possible—an unlikely proposition given that the bowling alley attendant had placed me at the lane just inside the entrance.
Sitting gingerly on the plastic bench, I began stretching my right arm in a manner I hoped would dispel the doubts of any bowlers glancing at the flatscreen television currently broadcasting my ineptitude. For good measure, I stretched out my other arm as well.
A couple of lanes to my right, at the far end of the alley, two kids bowled with a woman who appeared to be their mother. To my left, two gentlemen who were far better bowlers than I seemed to be doing their best not to scoff in my direction. Beyond them, a skinny guy with glasses and a 5-o’clock shadow was bowling alone.
The other end of the alley, by contrast, was filled with league bowlers, rolling on the first night of their fall season at Spare Time Northampton. Their efforts filled with the alley with communal laughter, strenuous concentration, shouts of support, and the rhythmic clunk of balls hitting the hardwood—followed by the apparently inevitable crash of 10 pins yielding to strike after strike.
My arms now effectively stretched out (or my stalling technique having run its course), I grabbed the green 12-pound ball I had been using and positioned my feet—clad in rented bowling shoes—back onto my lane. Passing the ball from left hand to right, I raised it up to my chin, took a deep breath, and tried to ignore the gutters waiting gluttonously on either side of the lane.
Preparing to roll my first strike of the evening—or at least finally knock down a pin—I pictured the slide of my bowling shoes, the release of the ball, the crash of the pins.
But first… I decided I needed a lighter ball. After searching racks throughout the alley, I returned to my lane with a 10-pound ball in the only color available—hot pink.
“Bowling is America’s most popular participatory sport,” manager Michael Perkins told me when I returned to Spare Time a few mornings later. Taking out a size 16 bowling shoe, he placed it on the counter next to another shoe sized for a toddler. “If you can stand, you can bowl.”
A player doesn’t even need to throw the ball down the lane. The alley has portable ramps that descend toward the lane, sending the ball on its way for players who lack the physical ability to heave a ball pinward.
As we talked, a young woman came in to get an employment application. On two lanes, two women rolled with their grandsons. The phone rang frequently, and Perkins took down reservations for upcoming birthday parties, or for groups of friends planning a night out. Later in the afternoon, half the lanes in the alley would be filled by a contingent from Williston Northampton School.
Owned by a family, the Vermont-based Spare Time Entertainment has 16 franchised operations, most located in the Northeast but one as far as Alabama. (The company also operates Shaker Bowl in East Longmeadow and Bradley Bowl in Windsor Locks, Conn. AMF Chicopee Lanes is run by Virginia-based AMF Bowling Company. Independent, family-owned French King Bowling Center in Erving specializes in candlepin bowling.)
“We don’t really use the term ‘alley’ anymore,” Perkins said, given that what Spare Time calls “family entertainment centers” include video games, air hockey, a pool table and a bar that features live music—including a Sunday blues jam with Wildcat Bill O’Halloran in Northampton. “The old Mom and Pop bowling alleys are a thing of the past.”
For all the other activities it offers, however, the Northampton Spare Time still seems decidedly focused on old-school bowling.
“We have some of the best bowlers in all of New England,” Perkins says of the Sundowners league, whose members roll on Friday nights, as they have for years.
In fact, Spare Time has at least one league every night of the week except Saturday, with several leagues rolling in the morning, including the Hamp Seniors on Tuesdays.
“Leagues,” Perkins tells me, “have been the core of our business for years.”
Returning to my lane armed with my pink 10-pound ball, I finally hit a pin. Just one. Reclaiming one’s muscle memory, it seems, can be a slow process.
Bowling may be our most popular participatory sport, but it has also been cited as an indicator of social cohesion, or lack thereof. Harvard University public policy professor Robert D. Putnam wrote Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community in 2000, and the title phrase is often used as a sign of our increasingly disconnected times.
League players, however, continue to enjoy their comaraderie. “It’s just a fun night out,” said Mike Graves, who has bowled Wednesday nights for the past eight years, and regularly at the Northampton alley for decades, since he was 13. “That’s the reason I do it.”
But while bowling leagues are communal gatherings as much as competitive sport, there appears to be an almost meditative aspect as well. You stand at your lane, engage your body in a physical ritual—step, step, slide—release the ball with one arm swinging forward and one leg crossing in the back, and then watch what happens.
Even for experienced league bowlers, there is still that frozen moment in time when the bowler has done all he or she can do and the ball is rolling toward the pins, the outcome uncertain.
“Lane conditions at the beginning of the night are different than they are at the end,” continued Graves, adding that the computer-programmed oil pattern a lane is cleaned with deteriorates inconsistently, due to various factors such as how many left-handed versus right-handed bowlers are rolling.
I’m not to the level of fretting over oil patterns just yet. But by my fifth frame, I was nearly knocking down all 10 pins with two throws. Then, surprisingly, the form that I developed years ago in college returned. I finished the string with three strikes in a row.
More than a little pleased with myself, I walked back to the bench, looked up at the strike-signaling “X” on my screen, and glanced about the alley, hoping for a knowing nod from a neighboring bowler, or a subtle thumbs-up from the alley attendant. But no one seemed to notice.
At the other end of the alley, the league bowlers continued to roll.•
(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)