THE DAY I LEARNED TO LOVE BOWLING
I'm not much of a bowler. I think my record high score is like, 46. Wearing other people's shoes is gross, and the food is always too rubbery. So when my partner and I were assigned to spend a week observing a bowling alley, I was disappointed. On one Thursday afternoon, though, I actually had a great time: Senior League Day.
On a Thursday afternoon at the Shrader Lanes Senior League, I ordered a beer, pulled up a chair, and opened my notebook. I realized I could learn names just by scanning the scoreboards. Marion. Lottie. Rita. Louella.
In the corner lane was Marion, the 80-year-old flirt. The official song requester, he turned League into his dance floor. He was dressed in shades of khaki and a faded oversized polo shirt that reminded me of the ones my grandpa would wear on vacation. He moved between the lanes, swooping in every once in awhile to pick up a girl for a dance. He’d throw his arm around people, and I knew that in that moment they felt like the most important person in the world to him.
At the farthest lane was Lottie. Though I had never met her, I recognized her instantly. I had seen Lottie many times before: in my childhood dance class, in my high school, and in my sorority. Oh, Lottie. She didn’t walk up to the lane to bowl. She sashayed. Her earrings dangled, and her flowery shirt lightly swished in rhythm with her walk. As she approached the lane, I could only imagine the spell she must have cast on the boys in her heyday. But she was much more than a prom queen – because damn, did she have form. When the ball left her hand (albeit shaking slightly), her arm extended fully out, and her leg swished behind her, ending in a flawless finish. She wasn’t only Marilyn. She was Maria Sharapova.
But the real show stopper was in the middle lane. I didn’t notice him at first. He didn’t work the room like Marion or command the room like Lottie. He was the oldest of the group, probably nearing 85. He had a small frame and seemed frailer than the others, but to “Team Coasters,” he was rock solid. He was the most formally dressed of the group. With the exception of his blue ball cap, he looked like he was wearing his Sunday best: a starched plaid button-down shirt neatly tucked into his pleated khakis, fastened in place with a dark leather belt. He had this impressive white mustache, the kind that only grows on men who eat their Wheaties. His name sounded like a baseball card: Robbie Robinson was up at bat.
I don’t know if there is a term in bowling for what came next. He “ran the table” at 6 miles per hour (for reference, the twenty-somethings bowled at 20 mph). He had such impressive focus, that for about half of the time, he got solid strikes. When he didn’t, the ball found exactly the right angle to knock out the remainders for a spare. And he did this for three straight games.
Every time he went up to bowl, I could feel his world narrow until it was just him, the lane, and the pins at the end. After each play, he would rub his wrist. It must have hurt – it looked like he had severe arthritis. It took him a minute to sit back down after he bowled, and even longer to stand up. I wondered, what was in it for him? What was he searching for at the end of the lane?
In time, Robbie built up a little fan club. His strikes and spares were no longer going unnoticed. As his fan base grew, I could tell he began to enjoy the pressure. He stood at the base of the lane an extra few seconds longer. He bowled an extra 0.44 mph stronger. He rubbed his wrist a little harder.
In the 7th frame of the third game, Robbie knocked down nine pins. Everyone in the crowd – even Marion – was silent and craning to watch. One woman started filming him with her iPhone. When the last pin fell for a spare, we all burst into cheers. For the first time all afternoon, Robbie couldn’t contain himself. On his walk back, his lips disappeared underneath his mustache, betraying his first smile of the day. He raised his gaze up into the crowd, and he stopped to salute the camera.
I left after that frame. For me, Robbie’s salute was the perfect ending to that day. I wasn’t quite sure what it meant, but I knew how it made me feel. It made me feel like craving attention is normal – and necessary – to keep going. That we all, deep down, just want to be seen by someone else. How we go about doing that is up to us, but we each deserve our moments in the spotlight, maybe just to prove to ourselves that as we get older, we still have something worth noticing.