BROCKTON — It’s a little after 7 p.m. on a Thursday, and Westgate Lanes is about to get loud.
The members of the Patriots League rise from their plastic chairs, take up their bowling balls, and begin their warmups. Within a minute, dozens are at it. These are serious bowlers, men and women, Black and white, and the balls hit with such force the orderly rows of pins scatter with an explosive roar.
For the next two hours, that clatter continues almost without pause. There is one momentary lull, and a smattering of applause, when a Westgate employee announces over the PA system that Ethan Reyes, a 19-year-old college student from Avon, has just rolled a perfect game.
It is just a few weeks since its biggest bowling league, the Patriots, resumed play, after Westgate reopened this summer. Thursday is a big night here; about two dozen three-person teams are on hand, wearing masks and sitting at tables roughly six feet apart.
There are few walk-in or casual bowlers. Only about half of Westgate’s 62 alleys are in constant use, the rest idle. The gaudy cluster of video games and pinball machines are similarly neglected; there’s just one table in use in the billiards room, the restaurant is empty, and the bar has but three patrons..
The Patriots and several other leagues are a financial lifeline for Westgate Lanes as it tries to weather a long, slow recovery. “It’s still not enough to pay the mortgage or any overhead expense,” said co-owner Yogi Patel. "Forget about making any money.”
So Patel runs Westgate with a skeleton crew and tackles many essential tasks himself. He was recently debugging the tablet computers that waitresses use to take food and drink orders. At other times Patel repairs electrical wiring, unclogs the drains, scrubs the bathrooms.
He learned hard work growing up in India, where his family ran an eyeglass shop. In the United States, the Patels have owned a gas station, a liquor store, a tobacco shop, and several bowling centers in New York state. His family acquired Westgate three years ago.
It was shaping up as an excellent investment. Patel said break-even is about $180,000 a month. He was clearing that and more before the pandemic. He even drew up plans for a $300,000 overhaul.
Then came the shutdown, in March: The cooks, bartenders, waitresses and others were laid off, the fresh food discarded. “It was heartbreaking,” Patel said.
In his misery, Patel has plenty of company.
“This has been devastating for a lot of bowling centers," said Jim Decker, president of the Bowling Proprietors' Association of America, or BPAA, which represents about 3,400 US bowling facilities. In normal times, about 67 million people in the United States go bowling at least once a year, making it the nation’s top personal sporting activity. But the pandemic shut the industry overnight. His own operation, Double Decker Lanes in Rohnert Park, Calif., is still shut, along with about 200 others throughout the state. “Now that we’re into month seven, I’ve had to use a lot of my savings," Decker said.
Patel also worries about draining his capital. His bank has been merciful about the mortgage, but there are so many other expenses. Rehired waitresses are on full-time pay because tips have fallen off to almost nothing; he pays professional cleaners to sanitize everything. There’s the rolls of clear plastic shrink-wrap for bowling balls provided to casual players. Each ball is carefully sanitized after use, then wrapped to reassure the customers.
The league players, though, show up with massive wheeled bags carrying their own shoes and custom balls — often three or four for different bowling conditions. Balls wear out after about 18 months of hard use and cost about $250 each. So many league members are toting over $1,000 in gear to every match.
Michael Litchfield, a 53-year-old Brockton accountant, has been at it for 45 years, and unlike young Ethan Reyes, he has never thrown a perfect game. He shrugs it off; in league bowling it’s the performance of each three-person team that matters, not individual stats. “All I care about is winning,” Litchfield said.
Most of the Patriots remove their face masks when bowling; they say the layout of the lanes, with team tables roughly six feet apart, provides sufficient distance.
One bowler, a tall, thin Black man, never removes a bandanna that conceals all but his eyes. He’s Tom Roberson, a 67-year-old property manager from Brockton with a two-finger ball release and a wicked hook. A North Carolina native, Roberson started bowling two decades ago.
“When I got into my 40s I was too old to be trying to think about football, basketball, all that kind of thing," he said. "One day I took the kids to Boston Bowl . . . I threw the ball and said, `Yeah, this is for me.’ ”
A few steps away, A. J. Voisine of East Bridgewater rolled a 298 — two short of perfection. He shrugged it off. Voisine, 28 and a police officer, already has six perfect games to his name.
“We’re amateurs for a reason," Voisine said. "We’re just here to have a good time and see each other.”
As the games wind down, Voisine removed his gaudy bowling shirt to reveal a T-shirt featuring the “Blue Lives Matter” flag, a monochrome US flag with a single blue stripe, wrapped around a human skull. The image is captioned “I Fight The Evil You Pretend Doesn’t Exist.” In a year of protests over police brutality, it’s a shirt that would spawn controversy in many places, but at Westgate Lanes, the other bowlers seem not to notice.
Voisine feels at ease dressing this way, because he’s among friends. “We know each other personally," he said. "We bowl together. We respect each other.”
For now, Patel is counting on league loyalists like the Patriots to keep him going. Optimism is in his blood, he said, because he descends from a long line of farmers. “If the season fails, you have to be up and go to work every day," Patel said. "Every morning is a new morning.”