ON A SUNDAY MORNING in May, about three dozen of us gathered at the Church of the Ten Falling Pins for something of a wake, if wakes came with prize money.
The “church’’ is my wife’s jokey name for Lanes and Games, the venerable bowling spot on Route 2 in Cambridge, where I regularly go on Sunday mornings. But after 75 years, the lanes are expected to close, to be replaced by — what else? — luxury apartments (mostly). We had one last tournament to play: the Strike Jackpot. Our bowling league has a pool where players can pitch in a dollar at the start of each league night, and bowlers who roll strikes during certain frames win the money. Nobody had won in months, so the highest scorers in the tournament would divvy up the pot, now $1,734.
Scores were recorded on a big wood-framed whiteboard near the front desk, kept by longtime Lanes and Games employee Lory Rodriguez, who was running what looked like her final tournament. The top duo divided $740. My pal Patiparn Sukkham and his partner Pongthep Saenboonsri took second, netting them $280 each.
Small consolation. We were all about to lose something big.
New residential and commercial development is everywhere in the area around the bowling alley. A few years ago, the brothers who own it, Tony and Dan Martignetti, sold the nearby lot that housed the Faces nightclub. It’s now a pricey apartment complex. But things were different in May of 1942, when Arlington resident Earl Bolton took the bold step of building his Turnpike Bowladrome, 20 lanes of candlepin cacophony, only the second above-ground lanes in Massachusetts. Bolton went up even higher in 1960, adding a second floor with 28 tenpin lanes, to squelch a rumored tenpin bowling center on the Arlington side of the Concord Turnpike (as Route 2 was then known).
The 1960s were peak bowling years, with more than 12,000 bowling centers in the United States. Fewer than half that many exist now, in part because there are often more profitable things to do with the land. The Boltons started feeling pressure to sell in the 1970s, says Bill Bolton, Earl’s son, who took over in that decade and now lives in Marstons Mills. He did sell, in 1983, not to a developer but to the Martignettis, then a partnership of four brothers (second cousins of the liquor distributors). They changed the name to Lanes and Games. They resisted industry trends like modern electronics, thumping music, and flashing lights. It remained a place devoted to bowling.
But bowling alleys are always about more than the game. As Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam famously observed in 2000’s Bowling Alone, bowling leagues bring together people from all walks of life. I saw this on any given night bowling at Lanes and Games. Young people were mixing with old. Working-class bowlers with white-collar professionals. Immigrants, hipsters, squares, men, women, people of different races. It was something like I imagined you would find in an urban church, only I wasn’t a churchgoer. I can find another place to bowl. But it will be like starting over in a new neighborhood.
I FOUND MY WAY to Lanes and Games almost 10 years ago, because I wanted to bowl with my friend Al Janik, then a Harvard Divinity School librarian who also fronted his own polka band. He’d once written a song about the bowling alley on Grand Avenue in Chicago where his father had been a league bowler. We both grew up in the Midwest, where candlepin bowling is unheard of but tenpin is ingrained in ethnic German and Polish communities. Before long, Al and I were buying our own bowling shoes and balls, recruiting other players, and starting what we called the Above Average Bowling League.
On one of our first Sunday mornings, we saw an employee sending an automatic machine up and down the lanes. It was called the Silver Bullet, though it looked like an oversize silver suitcase attached to a long electric cord. “What is it putting down? Wax?” I asked. Surely he’d heard the question a thousand times, but he stopped and explained that the Bullet applied mineral oil to the lanes just so, to protect the wood but also to satisfy serious bowlers, who obsess about how the oil pattern might be affecting their shot. I called him “the lane man” and thought he did all the mechanical tasks around the place. In fact, John Leverone, now 57, was the general manager, the linchpin of the lanes — Bill Bolton had hired him in 1977.
Lory Rodriguez we knew because she ran many of the leagues; she played matchmaker for bowlers who came in not knowing anyone. Lory came from El Paso to attend Harvard, where she got a degree in English in 1996. Three years later she got a job at Lanes and Games, liked the work, and realized she had no interest in pursuing the white-collar life. One Sunday morning a couple of years ago, we heard John and Lory would not be in that day. They were off getting married.
Eventually, Al and I became friends with George Dunn, a postal worker who ran the lanes’ front desk on Sundays. George grew up a candlepin bowler in Chelsea, switching to tenpin in the Air Force. He talked us into the Tuesday Night Trio league. In the great tradition of painfully bad bowling team names, we called ourselves the DAG Nabbits (because . . . Dave-Al-George). I’ve heard worse; I used to follow a bowling blog about a team in Wyoming called Bowl Movements. But some choices are inspired, like the MIT guys who named their team E=MC Spared.
I met Pat Sukkham in the Tuesday Night Trio league, where I admired his classic form. His rituals are as particular as a baseball pitcher’s. His right foot needs to be exactly placed, he holds his ball chest high, shrugs his shoulders, then takes five precise steps, launches the ball and freezes, trailing leg behind him, arm up in the follow-through, a statue in bright orange bowling shoes watching the ball career down the right side of the lane before it hooks back and, usually, explodes into the pins, knocking them backward and sideways and out of sight. He looks coached, but he didn’t bowl until he was in his mid-20s, in his native Bangkok, and most of his technique came from watching YouTube. When he moved to the States, he worked in a restaurant on Newbury Street, and afterward would strap his bowling ball to a rack on his bicycle and ride to Boston Bowl, a 24/7 bowling center in Dorchester. At Lanes and Games, Sukkham eventually joined the Thursday night league, where many of the serious bowlers show up. Now 42, he says bowling helps him feel like he’s connecting with American life.
TUESDAY NIGHT’S BEST BOWLER was usually Will Covino; he found the groove one night and threw three games in the high 200s, achieving a rare 815 series (900 is the maximum possible for a three-game bowling score). Covino is a bowling junkie who keeps a machine at his home that can resurface bowling balls — he once offered to run my battered old 15-pound Hammer “Ratchet” through it. He’s as local as they get: He grew up within walking distance of Lanes and Games, got a front-desk job there in high school, and worked it through college and then law school at Suffolk University. If things were slow, Covino would pull out a law book. Joe Martignetti, then one of the co-owners, had also been to law school and would come by and quiz him. “He’d say, ‘OK, what’s this one about?’ and make sure I understood what the law was,” Covino says. The lanes closed at midnight, and after they cleaned up, the staff would play Wiffle ball in the back parking lot. Covino, 33 and a lawyer now, says the closing of the lanes is “the end of an era for me.”
Allyssia Ashman moved to Cambridge three years ago for a job at IBM and showed up on a Tuesday night at Lanes and Games. The now 26-year-old quickly established herself as the best female bowler in the league. It turns out her family owned a center, Strikers, back in Michigan, so she grew up bowling and was on her college club team. One of the bowlers she was matched with that Tuesday night, Bennett Turner, was also new to the league. Now “he’s one of my closest friends, in and out of the bowling alley,” she says.
Their team is Disaster Strikes, our opponents on my last Tuesday night league match. Ashman started out with a strike. Then she threw another. And another. She fired off nine consecutive strikes, all the while chatting with Turner about her house-buying search. In the 10th frame, in line for a perfect game, she threw a ball that went slightly off the mark and left two pins standing.
Soon, the only place we’ll be able to see Lanes and Games’ shabby 1980s decor — burnt orange carpeting on the walls; slightly off-kilter stenciled signage — is in Daddy’s Home 2, which took over the alley to film scenes earlier in May. We’ll all know that the high-velocity left-handed shot Mark Wahlberg’s character shows off actually belongs to John Gant. Gant’s nickname was “The Buzzsaw” on the pro tour in the 1980s, when bowling was a big enough sport to be on network TV. He took a few years off to be the primary parent — his wife is an emergency room doctor — then came back and in 1997 won one of bowling’s biggest events, the Tournament of Champions, taking home $60,000. At 59, Gant is still a strike machine, and one of the best bowlers at the lanes.
LANES AND GAMES got a temporary reprieve after the Strike Jackpot tournament, when the Martignettis decided to keep it open through at least mid-July. I started spending more time talking to people I had been nodding at for the last decade, like George Jones. Jones grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where as a boy he remembers being in awe of a lanky bowler named John Wilbur Simms — one of the few African-Americans in pro bowling in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Jones joined the Air Force at 17, logged 35 years of military service, and also had a career at Honeywell. Now 74 and retired, he runs the 12-lane bowling alley at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford. He likes the competition of bowling, but also the camaraderie. “As far as the league is concerned? It’s like an extended family. You enjoy seeing the people once a week and talking to them about how they’re doing,” he says.
He told me this place was special, in part because of John and Lory Rodriguez Leverone. “John and Lory? Like family to me,” he says. “It’s a blue day because this place is closing down.”
This from an African-American with a military pension talking to a left-leaning white scribe from Indiana about a Harvard-educated Latina from El Paso married to an Italian-American workingman from Massachusetts.
That’s what we lose when an old bowling alley meets the wrecking ball. We are in a time when most Americans don’t mix with people who aren’t like them. I always knew there were a lot of bowlers here who didn’t think like me or vote like me. At least one night a week that seemed glorious.
There was a lot of chatter in these final weeks about where we’ll bowl next season. Some put their names on a list circulated by George Dunn for a league at Townline Luxury Lanes in Malden. Some will bowl with George Jones at Hanscom. John Leverone, who before he worked at the Bowladrome learned to bowl there, hasn’t been in a league for years. He and Lory will find a place to bowl together.Dave Denison is an associate editor at “The Baffler.” Send comments to email@example.com.