Bowling Across America

50 States in Rented Shoes

Mike Walsh

St. Martin's Press

Reserving the Lanes
SCRAWLED in the margins of a yellow legal pad on which I am ostensibly taking notes is a list of states, and next to each the name of someone who lives there and might have a guest room or couch where I could spend the night. "VT--Owen. CA--Josh, Val, Erica. MN--Orths." And so on. Some states have blank spaces next to them; others I just can't remember. I'm having an embarrassingly hard time naming all fifty; I never learned that song children are taught as a mnemonic device to remember them.
Around me people are debating which word, "whiter" or "brighter," would be most effective at getting consumers to pay 30 cents more for their laundry soap, or a similar topic of such monumental importance. I have long since tuned out. I've been doing that a lot lately.
I am one of those advertising executives they portray in the movies gathered around a conference table saying important-sounding things about sketches mounted on black presentation boards. "I think the logo should be bigger" and whatnot. Movie portrayals notwithstanding, what once seemed an exciting world of expense accounts, photo shoots, and high-powered meetings has become a bleak reality of rushed airport dining, prima donna egotists, and windowless conference rooms on beautiful spring days. My interest is waning, has waned, and I've become desperate for something more fulfilling.
Now, I'm self-aware enough to realize I'm being somewhat immature and impatient in this. Who does love their job? There's nothing special about my situation. In fact, Ishould be happy to have a job that pays me well and involves little more than writing e-mails and talking to people all day. Kids sewing gym shoes in Asia would kill for work like this if they didn't die from the shock of learning that people are paid tens of thousands of dollars to do it. And here I am griping that it isn't fulfilling enough.
I take some comfort that these feelings are, if not universal, perhaps genetic. My dad loved his job, running the business he founded, but he'd once had a yellow legal pad of his own.
He was thirty-seven--a decade older than I am. He had a wife, four children, and a lucrative, secure job as a salesman for Honeywell. In those days, employment at a company such as Honeywell was a lifetime engagement if one so desired. But despite that security and decent pay, he was frustrated, bored, and feeling more ambitious than that corporate culture would allow. He spent his weekends and evenings scribbling his legal pad ragged, showing it to his friend Mike Petrie, talking it over with my mother, and finally getting up the courage to enact its contents: the business plan for Columbus Temperature Control, the company he would leave in Peter's hands upon his death. In 1972 he quit Honeywell, rented a warehouse, and became a wholesale distributor of heating and air-conditioning parts. Aside from a meager amount of inventory, all he had was a lot of confidence and an inventive sales pitch: "Buy something. Anything."
Leaving Honeywell was a tremendous risk. Aside from abandoning the security of working for a major corporation, he had to create his business from scratch. This involved driving from potential customer to potential customer with a trunk full of air conditioner parts, introducing himself, and hoping he could sell enough to feed his family that month and create enough relationships to feed them for years. In the end it worked out, enabling him to send six children to college and look well after his wife, who would later join him as the company's vice president and an invaluable peer in running the business.
His passing, now sixteen months ago, triggered thoughts of making my own break. In trying to recapture what advice he might have given me as I considered the status quo versus taking more dramaticaction, I was reminded of a metaphor he often repeated on the subject of risk.
"You can make safe choices and sleep well," he would say, "or you can take risks and eat well. Eating well is a hell of a lot more interesting, but it does keep you up at night."
This from a man whose snoring was a known quantity in the neighborhood. On a summer's night with the windows open, the rhythmic rumble emanating from his sinuses would broadcast from his bedroom and echo off neighboring houses. Sam, an Irish setter belonging to the Dawsons, would be found whimpering under their backyard deck, stricken with fear at what beast had been on the prowl in the subdivision overnight. Over time my mother had learned to live with it, often by leaving their bedroom to sleep in another. This is my memory from the better years, when past risks taken and past sleep lost meant both sleeping and eating well for the Walsh family.
There were lean years, though, when the business was struggling to get off the ground, when an embezzling employee nearly bankrupted the company. In those years there was little snoring to be heard. Dad never fully explained that, when pursuing an "eating well" life course, one's ability to "sleep well" is often interrupted by the inability to eat at all, never mind "well." As novel as it may have seemed to occasionally have "breakfast for dinner," what this meant was that eggs and pancake batter was about as well as we could do.
Though he let his children draw our own conclusions about whether we wanted to pursue a life of eating or sleeping well, it was clear which he favored. Which brings me back to my own legal pad and the growing list of states in its margins, another product of my father's mind.
Dad's more well-known goal with regard to handball (I don't know how widely he shared the whole "wanting to die on the court" thing with others) was to play at least one game in every state and on every continent. This was his personal quest, undertaken like some men decide to climb Everest or run a marathon. This was the task he left unfinished.
Though it was certainly one of his many passions, he never made this round-the-world goal a full-time pursuit. Running the business, raising the six of us, and going on bike rides with his wife took precedence over geographic domination of an obscure indoor sport. Plus, he started late: he didn't begin collecting states until he'd settled in, developed commitments and obligations, mortgages and tuitions. So he would arrange to play when in Minnesota to visit family, in California for a convention, in New York on a trip with his sons. He once wrote to a well-known retired basketball coach who he'd read was a handball player and arranged a game with him in Idaho during a business trip. Dad did it because he loved the game, because the romance of doing something unique in each state inspired him, and because of the profound joy he took from social interaction with the old and new friends he met on the court. This, of course, was the reason for the map and the stickers on his office wall. The colors and numbers on the stickers were a consequence of his grabbing the first thing he'd found in the supply cabinet he could use to mark his newly mounted map. The twenty-eight states with stickers were those in which he'd played a game before playing his last on his home court in Ohio.
More than any specific interests I had in common with him, I shared the sensibility required to fall in love with such a quest. Anyone can merely visit every state. Anyone can see a game at every Major League Baseball park, or ride every wooden roller coaster. And these are noble and worthy goals in and of themselves. But how many people can say they have not only been to but also played a little-known sport within every state? Handball's outsider status in the sporting and social pecking order added a degree of obscurity and quirkiness, a touch of uniqueness, that made it his. I always liked that about it, even if I wasn't a handball player.
During college I announced my intent to bowl in all fifty states as a kind of emulative gesture--a nod to the old man's quest with a bent to make it mine. Granted, I was no more a bowler than I was a handball player, but then it wasn't really about the sport so much as it was about the adventure. Besides, handball hurts your hands.
I figured if I worked at checking off states, perhaps I could catch up to him. Perhaps we could begin to work the missing states together, hitting a handball court and a bowling alley in each. We could make Hawaii the fiftieth for both of us, and celebrate with much fanfare and ceremony. And a steak dinner.
He never asked, because I think he understood, why I would choose bowling of all activities. "Why not badminton or checkers?" others would wonder, exposing the arbitrary nature of my selection of bowling. The answer was that I'd always found bowling alleys to be wildly romantic--in the nostalgic-reminiscence sense of the term, not the cuddle-up-and-listen-to-Barry-White-by-the-fire sense. What other place in American society could you find such a cross section of people? What recreational activity offers more opportunity for both competition and socialization? Bowling's egalitarian accessibility--for around five dollars anyone can borrow all the equipment and roll a game--makes it a great equalizer. Everyone--rich, poor, black, white, male, female, transgendered, handicapped--can get to the foul line and have a shot at the pins. Few do it enough to be good, much less own their own equipment, which puts people of all backgrounds in rented shoes rolling a ball that was made for someone else. It matters not whether it's a group of suburban rich kids, a senior citizens' league, or a family of four spending their only entertainment dollars for the month: everyone looks equally ridiculous in ill-fitting blue and red shoes trying to balance their weight against that of a heavy three-holed ball. Everyone feels equally silly when they roll a gutterball, and equally proud when they roll a strike. The advent of gutter guards for kids and devices to assist the handicapped in getting the ball down the lane means that truly anyone can bowl.
This accessibility makes the bowling alley a rich environment for people watching. Any given bowling alley on any given day becomes a microcosm of the community in which it sits. The bowling alley is a gathering place, and much more transpires within its confines than merely a series of sporting contests divided into ten frames. People don't just bowl in bowling alleys. They eat and drink. They karaoke.They fall in love. They have sex, as foul as that sounds. They spend the one Saturday afternoon a month they have custody of their son there. They forget about work, home, tragic news headlines. And they smoke. Man, do they smoke.
The romantic feelings I held for bowling were matched in swooning fervor only by those I felt for land travel, specifically that which involved a car, lots of roadside diners, and a general lack of a pressing schedule. This is the other part of the shared sensibility with my father that encouraged such appreciation for a trivial quest. As a family of eight, we were lucky to take a summer vacation, let alone fly anywhere, so our destinations were always reached by highway. I did a lot of my growing up in the backseat of an enormous wood-paneled Ford Country Squire LTD station wagon, watching the landscapes go by and wondering what was going on in that farmhouse, or what people did in that small town beyond the exit ramp. (Incidentally, the Country Squire of my memory is slightly bigger and less fuel-efficient than a Hummer. With all six of us inside along with whatever luggage didn't fit in the cartop carrier, there was still room to build a fort, assemble an elaborate meal from the cooler Mom had packed, fight over who was touching whom, and behave for up to three minutes after Dad threatened to pull over and make someone walk.) But it was more than the cost of airfare that kept us from flying anywhere. My father loved a good car trip, and even after the kids had all moved out and he and my mother could afford to fly on their travels, my dad would lobby hard, if unsuccessfully, to drive instead. Whether through nature or nurture, his love for America's interstate freeway system remains a constant in my psyche. The road beckons.
It does so, as often as any time, during the workday. As the whiter-versus-brighter debate swirls around me, I find myself conspiring and strategizing. In the five years since graduating from college I've managed to add few states to my quest, despite ample opportunity to have done so. While this is a relatively minor failure in the grand scheme of things, the events of the past year and the prospects for the months to come have shone a light on it, compelling me to do something aboutit. It's now the first warm, sunny day in May. Schools are winding down classes, summer camps are registering campers, and somewhere a father is mapping out a road trip and getting the minivan's oil changed. Spring's transition to summer always evokes memories of loading into the Country Squire's cavernous backseats, Mom sitting shotgun and Dad behind the wheel pointing us toward the horizon. Days like this should be filled with anticipation and outlook.
But today I am in a windowless conference room in Cincinnati and my father is in the ground ninety miles to the north. Tomorrow promises more of the same, as does the next year, the next decade. This won't do. I turn to my meeting notes, mostly incoherent scribble that will lead to tedious to-do lists I have no desire to complete.
I continue writing in the margins, crafting my plan throughout the meeting and on the plane ride home to Chicago. By the time the wheels touch down at O'Hare my to-do list, while fraught with risk and uncertainty, is a bit more inspiring. It reads:
1. Quit job.
2. Put belongings in storage.
3. Set course for bowling alleys in all 50 states.
BOWLING ACROSS AMERICA. Copyright © 2008 by Mike Walsh. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.