by Chris Foss
After struggling through the first semester of college, my best friend and I determined to turn things around, and we formed the Willamette Bowling Club. Born at a far-flung AME bowling alley in the far east of Oregon’s state capital, our club averaged around four bowlers a week, sometimes just two, sometimes half a dozen. Attendance increased during my sophomore year, perhaps thanks to a move to a closer, cheaper bowling alley. But funding for our effort wasn’t forthcoming from the student government. Maybe we should have lobbied harder. Eventually, I became more distracted by research projects, causing me to miss more weeks of bowling club. One fanatic among us was itching to take over the club presidency, so I resigned at the end of the year.
I did study abroad in England, an experience that left me feeling simultaneously exhilarated, lonely, cosmopolitan, and nostalgic. It was time for a return to something simple that would make me feel re-connected with my real home in Oregon. Bowling was the cure to my post-travel blues, posited a friend, and with three other buddies who were expert bowlers, we ventured into a summer league at the Milwaukie Bowl near my parents’ house. Another classic old alley. We mingled with old-timers, the working-class, high-school kids. I frequently craned my neck during breaks in the action to catch the latest NBA playoffs action. Miami beat Dallas for the title. OK, gotta go bowl my turn. Damn, another 7-10 split. 70 one game, 125 the next, just squeaked out 102 in our last effort.
School, the newspaper, singing, graduation, GREs, work, teaching—the parade of the ensuing years did not include bowling for me. One night a friend texted and suggested we meet up at the newly renovated Grand Central Bowl, near Grand Avenue in Inner Southeast Portland. Not for bowling, though—that was for the tight-ass, rich hipsters who could afford $6 shoe rentals and $6 per hour, per lane. Damn. We just got a couple beers and watched the Celtics kick the stuffing out of the Lakers. Anything was possible, except bowling in that gentrified joint.
Bowling made one more comeback for me when I went to graduate school. A few friends, including my roommate and I, would occasionally head over to the small alley in the student union. Even though it was the only alley in Boulder, Colorado, it was an intimate space, and a fun place to test whether I still had the touch. After a couple of turkeys, I saw that I still had it. After a 200-score game, I retired from active competition. That was it—research papers, jobs, school in general, and a lot of travel kept me away from the alley for the most part.
It’s telling that when I went on my second date with the woman who would become my wife, we were originally going to go bowling, only to be turned away from the spiffed-up alley we were at because it was too busy. No glow-in-the-dark/faux concert-fest for us, anyway. I promised her bowling on our third date, but we never got around to it. Three years later, we still haven’t. But she married me anyway. What does that say about bowling?
What does any of it say about bowling? Does bowling matter, or is it something that just intermittently has meaning, then fades back into the background? As I hope this memoir of my “bowling life” has shown, this sport has simultaneously meant a lot and a little to me, and it’s been ephemeral to me and my friends. Because of how fun it is, however, I still hope my relationship with bowling hasn’t permanently headed for the gutter.