I brought the lucky bowling stone! announces Mia Sladyk as she hurries into Yankee Lanes on a December evening. The stone is a half-dollar-sized light blue rock from Ben Franklin. It is, in fact, emblazoned with the words lucky bowling stone.
Sladyks team needs a little luck tonight. The quirky bunch of twentysomething bowlers is within, well, striking distance of first place in their Wednesday-night league. Sladyk has arrived just in time for the last night of competitive league play that will decide who takes home the trophy. If we win, the 26-year-old Higher Ground publicist enthuses, itll be the biggest upset in the league. Were the young punks.
Yes, believe it or not, young punks belong to bowling leagues, too. League bowling is not as trendy as snowboarding or Astanga yoga, and it lacks the prestige of basketball or hockey, but its actually a pretty popular pastime in Vermont. Three of the four Burlington-area bowling alleys report that participation in their leagues has remained steady, or even increased, over the past few years. Approximately 1200 league bowlers play at Yankee Lanes alone, according to employee David Posternak. Shirley Bruce at Green Mountain Lanes in Essex claims 500. Owner Ruby Mermelstein estimates her Milton Bowling Center has 700.
Vermont is still big in leagues, reports Mermelstein. Our leagues are growing.
She attributes this in part to the fitness factor. Schools bring their kids here to exercise, she explains. We have people here right now who are in their nineties. They dont have to be out in the cold to exercise. They see their friends. Its safe and inexpensive.
Besides, Mermelstein adds, My doctor says that bowling burns more calories than downhill skiing Well, as many or almost as many, anyway.
But this Wednesday night, its not exercise Sladyk and teammates Jeff Schwartz, Brian McGarry and Ben MacIntyre have on their minds. Schwartz is a self-described IBM computer geek. McGarry and MacIntyre are band mates in the Redheaded Strangers and Summer Fling. Together, the quartet makes up the Unholy Rollers. They have the second-lowest average in the league and, thanks to handicapping, trail the first-place Anomalies by a mere two points.
If youve never spent time at the lanes, an explanation is in order: League bowling pits two teams against each other for three games a night. Each game is worth one point, and a fourth point goes to the team with the higher cumulative score at the end of the three games.
To claim the trophy, the Unholy Rollers need to win all three games and have the higher score against tonights opponent, the last-place Kings Rollers. They also need the first-place Anomalies to lose at least two, but preferably all four, of their points. Its unlikely, but possible.
The Anomalies arent hard to spot, as theyre wearing matching bright-red shirts with the teams name stenciled in an elegant cursive script across the back. The Unholy Rollers seem like the real anomalies here, though. For one thing, theyre younger than most of the bowlers. The other teams are largely composed of older married couples, although McGarry points out a team of young guys from IBM who calls themselves Bloody Wankers.
But age isnt the only difference. You get the sense that if these bowling teams were to talk about civil unions, the war in Afghanistan, the latest Scissorfight show or even fashion, they might not find a lot of common ground. Still, bowling brings them together.
It may sound hokey, but in the 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, sociologist Robert Putnam links bowling league participation to the health of American communities. Putnam argues that the casual social connections made in bowling leagues and other recreational clubs are a vital part of a healthy society. Belonging to a bowling league, he suggests, gives players social capital that can actually improve the quality and even length of life.
Er, maybe. To celebrate our ranking, Sladyk says as they begin the first game, were going to have a round of White Russians, in the spirit of The Big Lebowski. In that 1998 Coen brothers film, Beau Bridges plays a pot-smoking, White Russian-drinking, unemployed Vietnam vet and bowler who calls himself The Dude.
Despite all the talk about capturing first place, the Unholy Rollers are more like a drinking team that developed a bowling habit, confesses Schwartz. The really competitive bowlers belong to what Sladyk calls the super-serious mens league.
That one starts at the same time as the Unholy Rollers more relaxed mixed league, at the other end of the alley. The loud multitude of men wears Levis and shirts indicating teams like Als French Frys, Chucks Mobil and Quality Concrete. These guys sport elaborate braces called Wrist Kings and heft customized, 16-pound balls that spin down the slick wood and hit the pins with explosive force. They are the titans of bowling.
Tonight, the Unholy Rollers and a super-serious mens league team are bowling in adjacent lanes. Sladyk and company mind their manners when picking up a ball. They kind of get freaked out if you dont wait, Sladyk confides. You know, the etiquette.
As the White Russians arrive, the evening gets off to a promising start. The Unholy Rollers begin by closing the first few frames meaning they manage in two tries to knock down all 10 pins, either in one frame for a strike, or in two frames for a spare.
Like any sport, bowling has its lingo and its share of traditions and superstitions. We always high-five when we close a frame, explains Sladyk. If we dont close it, we do a closed fist. High-fiving when you dont close it is bad luck.
The Unholy Rollers take the first game. At one point, MacIntyre bowls a strike and exclaims, I declare a jihad on those pins! Theyre goin down!
Meanwhile, from the super-serious mens league lanes on the left comes the crisp, clean sounds of bowling balls thwacking lots of pins. Cmon! There you go baby, outta trouble! yells one man as his bright-blue bowling ball curves across the lane.
Im the one, baby! Im the one! shouts a guy with an American flag patch on his shirtsleeve.
I could never do the mens league, says Schwartz. MacIntyre shakes his head in agreement. The chest-pumping, the 26-game handicap.
Whooping and hollering erupt from the mens-league side. Someone has bowled a 200-plus game. Bill always comes up with creative ways to describe 200 games, Sladyk says of the announcer. Sure enough, the loudspeaker clicks on and Bill says, Congratulations to Neil Carrier, who just cranked a 202!
The Unholy Rollers second game starts out better even than the first, accompanied by another round of White Russians. Schwartzs game improves. Sladyk bowls a 150. MacIntyre hits 140 and decides its time to celebrate with a cigarette. You can only smoke in the cancer lounge, he explains as he walks back to the bar, unlit cigarette dangling from his lips.
The Rollers take the second game as well. Sladyk looks pleased. She and Schwartz, who had started out on a team called the Badtz Maru Strikers, were the instigators who got their friends interested in bowling. Badtz Maru, Sladyk informs, is the grumpy penguin friend of the Japanese pop-culture icon Hello Kitty. Tonight, for good luck, Sladyk wears the T-shirt she had made for the Strikers. A tall redhead, shes stylin with the little animé penguin on her back, blocky black-framed glasses and black polyester pants.
Before the start of the third game, Sladyk does the math and figures out how well her team is bowling. Whoa! she says, were 90 points above our average! Lets keep it goin, kids!
By the middle of the third game, the Unholy Rollers have wisely switched to Pepsi. When Sladyk bowls a strike on the sixth frame, she turns and throws out her arms, as if to embrace her teammates. Sweet! she gloats.
But then the lucky bowling stone and T-shirt begin to fail. Schwartz gets a 7-10 split, bowling right between the two pins hes left standing. Two guys on the Kings Rollers throw up their arms in a field-goal gesture. MacIntyre is off, too. He turns away from his sixth frame and shakes his head before the ball even hits the pins. Its only his second open frame this game, but hes unhappy.
McGarry picks up a spare, but Sladyk has become erratic. Im still trying to find my Zen of bowling, she rationalizes, after knocking down eight pins and leaving an open frame. She tries stretching, but shes not as limber as shed like to be.
As the Unholy Rollers start to stall, the Kings Rollers pick up steam one of them throws his third strike. The almighty turkey, three strikes in a row, observes McGarry.
Huge, huge, worries MacIntyre.
Sladyk comes back with a strike of her own, but the competition scores yet another. Then Schwartz throws a strike, but it wont be enough for the Unholy Rollers. Things dont look any better as the third game winds down and a Kings Roller throws a fifth strike. Were gonna get creamed, laments Sladyk. Were not getting a trophy.
They all wait to see what the strike-out guy bowls next. Will he get six? He moves slowly, deliberately. He dries his palm over the air vent, picks up his ball and steps up to the dotted line on the smooth wooden floor. He releases, putting a lot of spin on the ball. It curves around and shatters the 10-pin formation. Strike!
Ho-lee cow, exclaims Sladyk. We might lose point total. But she graciously slaps the strikers hand and says, Nice job. His streak ends in the extra frame, but the damage has been done. Congratulations to Brian Perry with a 222! comes the voice over the loudspeaker.
MacIntyre manages to pick up a spare, but the Unholy Rollers are deflated. He and McGarry finish up, and for a few moments it looks like they might almost make it. As MacIntyre bowls his final frame, his teammates huddle around the scoring computer. Seven, seven, I cant watch, McGarry mutters. They need seven pins, but they dont get them, and the Kings Rollers take the last game.
That was real excitement right there, says Schwartz. Thats as tight as it gets. We were insanely above our average.
They were insanely above theirs, says Sladyk. We both bowled huge.
In the end, though, the Anomalies take the league trophy.
The teams pack up and say their goodbyes. Most everyone will regroup in January for the second half of the 35-week season. Undeterred by their loss, the Unholy Rollers will stick it out. The bowling league is the biggest commitment Ive ever made, says Sladyk. This is just so darn fun.