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Places We Hate in Los Angeles: The Dirge of Bahama Lanes

posted by Mel. on 3/17/01

There was once a time, believe it or not, when bowling was a puritan indulgence for the rusted underbelly of society. It was a rare simplicity. A poetry in motion. On any given weekend, you could slough your way into your local pickwick place, plop down two bucks and get about twenty frames and a cold root beer in among old men who reeked of illegal cigars and their pink-haired wives. Like so many other popularized spots, the divisions between bowling reality and bowling on a professional vein were as obvious as a glass splinter in the eye: there were no fresh waxings after every ten, no smiling retirees packed into the gallery on bitten nails and high hopes for every curve of the ball down the alley. Whereas the bowling mecca of Reno remained a cradle for those who yearned for something better, with its airplane hanger-sized bowling halls and computerized scorecards, we knew we were lucky to get what we got: a waitress named "Flo", a pin monkey named "Cesar", a wall-eyed and toothless lane pimp named "Bud", and a wonderful parade of proud old monochrome monitors that wore their beer stains and cigarette scars like badges of honor.

This was Bahama Lanes, some five years ago. Our bowling alley. Our Saturday night thing.

As the adage goes, it's hard to be remembered anywhere these days. Humanity's whole head-kick on selfishness has rendered the will to familiarize oneself with a name obsolete, replacing common courtesy with a cattle rancher mentality: usher in, collect money, offer insincere gratitude, present product, empty farewell. Outside the lines of a Smalltown, USA, the trend demands that we all get stuffed into some bastard tin can of generic notice. And the blame is a slippery culprit. Anyone who's ever banged out the ten-hour swing shift at Blockbuster Video knows all too well the formula for survival--that you can't afford to edge out any more of yourself than is required by the basic tenets of customer service. That you have to reserve on an empty tank, answer stupid questions with monosyllabic answers and otherwise keep those cards close to your face. We walk a fine line between matches and kerosene when we shuffle through the rent-payer's coil, and the slightest push in either direction could result in a serious burn.

So We settle just as They settle, and nobody's the wiser. Occasional complaints are packaged up and sent away, the store gets straightened, and we try hard to forget everything we've just spent ourselves on right into a good night's sleep.

But the alley wasn't like that, and this was the very crux of the torrid affair. That whole overblown and trite institution of "business as family" bullshit that McDamned's and Coca-Coke puke up all over the buyer's market had evaded the mainstream and found root within the dim interior of the Bahama Lanes Bowling Alleys and Lounge, resulting in an unheard of vibe amongst the wrinkly faithful and the social pond scum who came rolling in every Friday and Saturday night. Bud knew all of us by name, Flo knocked a couple bucks off our nightly binge and purge of Mountain Dew Suicides, and Cesar always pointed out the lanes whose pinsetters had been patched up most recently. The Bahama Lanes experience wasn't a poetic tale of surrogate parents, but more the raunchy jokes that get swapped amongst your boneheaded uncles and aunts in private at a family reunion. We were bowlers, strung up together on a common rack of simple joy: roll that motherfucker and try to kill the pins. Like some kind of neolithic voodoo. Let the week and all its evils melt out with the satisfaction of an exploder right into the pocket. You'd get to know the grooves of the parquet, the way to punch the monitor when it went on the fritz, and how to get a round of drinks even though the Waitress Call buttons were all dead.

Like I said, it wasn't jack shit, but it was ours. We'd dare the two blocks between Hollywood Video and the pin joint at midnight, hopped up from a hellacious night of liontaming the ignorant cassette-suckers who came by the droves for new releases that had been drained from the shelves hours earlier. Punchy, swearing like sailors and cracking wise about anything that happened through one ear and out the other side. Bahama Lanes would grow closer in the piss-lit Los Angeles night, a mecca with a blackened-out 'a' between 'L' and 'n'. Through the door and to polished hardwood oblivion, swapping hellos and handshakes with silver heads who wouldn't look twice our way anywhere else.

Things started to change in '98. The alterations came quick and cosmetic at first, a counter ripped out and replaced with a bank of cheapie carnie-ticket machines, all the fine old balls and their chipped hides traded in for spanky new jobs from Brunswick. We continued our Saturday Night trend, which had now been dubbed "Rock N' Bowl" by some unknown fathead with an ownership percentage. What the new label basically translated into was that instead of our ususal two buck tithe, we now had the option of laying down ten coins and getting three hours' worth of uninterrupted alley time. In one swift swing, a mere promotion pulled us from the dregs of tourists to full-fledged Pin Sluts. We became "Those Kids", the ones who used the weird nicknames to keep track of their score and embellished every clean strike with a horrible celebratory taunt or gesture. In retrospect, I figure we were probably tolerated so lovingly (Despite executing a La Parka strut or spewing mist at the pins like The Great Muta every time we flushed the lane) because we were the first ones out of the gate. The novelty was fresh, the generation gap was bridged with very little foot traffic, and we knew--perhaps most importantly--when to shut the fuck up and stop bothering those around us. Discretion, valour, youth.

Unfortunately, not one of our stalwart klatsch recognized the "Rock N' Bowl" cancer for what it was until far too late. Unbeknowst within the maelstrom of the moment, the malignance that would eventually lay waste to our little cosmic thing had infiltrated the simple mechanics of our weekly rendezvous. It was a deal in the same sense that free crack is a deal. By the time you know better, you're either hardwired into some heady shit, or you're simply dead.

They accumulated speed and numbers slowly. So slowly, that you'd almost entertain the notion of some unseen karmic strategy at work, a gradual leak of obnoxious and chic strangers showing up on Bahama's doorstep to bowl badly ordained by the Big Unseen. They, much like the fatal Rock N' Bowl syndrome, snuck up on the tenpin lifers that had built the Lanes and Lounge into its filthy greatness with great bowling and wretched kareoke over fifteen years. Stealthy. It took a decade and a half to make Bahama Lanes the perfect broken-in shoe for people in search of some small personal solace, and only six months to fuck the whole deal up beyond recognition.

I never really understood where the sudden interest stemmed from. In Southern California, where it's a sin to sweat when you're out tripping that "Look at Me!" light fantastick on a Friday evening, bowling became the next big rage in an overnight blink. The original blueprint for Rock N' Bowl had been sounds provided from two scratchy speakers and a hilariously inept DJ whose platters would screech off track or die out in the middle of a tune with clockwork timing. A lighting rig that not even the Santa Mira Community Theater would take stage under with cellophane gels to create a shoddy club lighting effect against a mild dimming of the alley bulbs. A great policy for door prizes that, considering the joint was usually less than half full, ensured nearly every party would walk away with a free gift certificate for a hamburger, or a keychain. Shit like that. There was also a definite pulse of honkytonk pride that beat beneath the battered skin and bones of the place, a zen song of rubber and parquet flooring.

The Normals didn't infect; they invaded. With the inexplicable influx of drunken frat fucks and gangs of prepubescent thugs, the Friday Night Ritual became the weekly test of patience. The theraputic sensation of destroying wooden white order with a heavy projectile was paled by overcrowding, alcohol and public displays of lemming affection. Lines starting forming for the special an hour before gate time, and a growing mob of club scum took up residence around the door, chain-smoking and casting a disdainful look with a gunslinger's quick draw. The older bowlers didn't wait around to see how things would play out: their exodus was sealed in stone the moment the blacklight array went in at the end of the lanes. The music, once static Eagles and muffled Heartbreakers, cashed in for 'party specials' and Top Forties Pop Manure. Every time you set foot on the toe markers, some oily-haired bitch with a bleach job and a boyfriend with a baseball cap down on the eyes would come bounding out past you, dumping the ball right into the gutter and squealing with disdain at the results of her turn. Though the flyers and marquee promised "Family Entertainment", this shit made the Lord of the Flies look like urban logic: a genuinely skullfucked version of Honest John's Pleasure Island, a jackass on every lane and a fight in the parking lot every night.

The tightening of the noose knot came when the hired muscle started showing up. Just vatos with badges, really, guys maintaining order with folded arms and a flashlight, but the surest sign that it was time to tune out. And tune out we did. We bowled our last frames at the end of summer and never went back, gutless enough to promise our fading extended AMF familia without the slightest intent of a return.

Well, almost. Boredom and money make for strange bedfellows on a low-riding storm, so when the rains came last weekend, someone suggested we go bowling. I figured the wounds of time had closed to a satisfactory degree and some reconciliation would be in order.. hell, if nothing else, it would be fun to see the old digs, find out if we were really remembered in our prime.

By one in the morning, my rogue hopes were dead. And so was Bahama Lanes.

Having completely discarded the onus of implying anything else, AMF now throws a weekly "Night Club Bowling Party" that guarantees "Mad phun for you and your friends", and a "three-drink minimum". The fucking place had become nothing more than Aftershock with the rude interruption of bowling lanes in the middle of a poor nightspot, fodder for the underaged scabs who can't fake their way into any of Old Town Rose City's after-hours dumps. The flat rate--the one thing that had kept us coming back even past the demise of passion--had been axed in favor for a fucking five-dollars-a-game-a-person policy that was supposed to be justified by the pounding bass of Britney Spears' "Stronger" and enough spinning lights to cause a dozen scattershot epilepsy fits. The pricks had juiced the last ounce of blood from the Lane and Lounge's heart, leaving behind a callow shell of its former rough glory. Too streamlined to be comfortable, too crowded to be fun, too fucking capitalist to ignore.

The sad thing was, we did pay. Two games each. Turns out that my wrist has completely lost its trick and the DJ has been pinkslipped in favor of piped-in plastic pop music, but this was like slugs in a corpse at this point. Looking around, at the teenage contingency doing the same shit en masse that we'd been doing three years back was, I could only laugh. Flo was gone, Bud was gone, even Cesar the Pin Monkey had left for greener pastures, and only a group of pretty young energies remained to take our order and get our balls out of a jam. It would have been sad, had it just not been so damn surreal; when they say you can never go back, this is exactly what the bastards have in mind. It's the kind of truth with a barbed point. Gets under your skin and can't get pulled out without some serious soul surgery.

As you get older, you have to lay a lot of things to rest. Memories, friends, the armaments of childhood and the failures we all had to endure. And so that's exactly what I did. In the theme of my little life, the eulogy came out among friends and coffee at Denny's after midnight. We shared stories about Oingo Boingo lip-synchs, the first time Hodge every utilized his Windmill Release method and almost broke his ankle off the downswing, all the people who we'd dragged into the muck of that weekly date with us.

We talked about Exene's twelfth birthday party, the greasy-haired hermaphrodite who looked like Swan and preceeded Lita's thong wearing habits by a good five years with her JNCO jeans. All the fuckers who thought they were the first to roll two balls down the lane simultaneously. All the party mixing slobs who'd come and gone, and all the names we could remember.

And it helped. Not healed, not fixed, not crusted over. Simply helped. Brought the transition into the light. A chapter of one kid's life, no matter how inconsequential, given some kind of closure with a capuccino confessional. And planted a seed of hope that somewhere, amidst the vacuous trash and testosterone antics, someone at our fallen Bahama Lanes was enjoying those Friday nights as much as we once had.


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