A Tale of Two Bowling Alleys
by Jeff Beer
The middle of winter is not the time for shenanigans in the suburbs of Toronto. I can only assume that most people were otherwise occupied; huddled in their basements watching a hockey game; at the movies; or perhaps some club downtown looking for easy women to impress with a nice job-title or a tight shirt. There was no one out on the streets.
In the summer there is the buzz of families walking around, kids tossing the football, driveway basketball games, teenagers getting baked under the bridge in the park…a fresh slice of real Canadiana…but not tonight. It was cold and the cruel animal called boredom had once again crept into my life. Without the funds to make it downtown and mix it up, I was trapped in this wasteland of mall-walking and rented movies. There seemed to be only one solution to this dilemma: BOWLING.
"Bowling is a recreational sport enjoyed by millions of people of all ages. It is best described in four words: it's a lot of fun!"
At least that's what it says on the back of my favorite belt buckle. Who puts text on the back of a belt buckle anyway? There should be no reading required in that sacred area whatsoever. But that is neither here nor there. They've done what they've done and none of it can be helped or changed now.
I've always thought of bowling as a seventies-type of activity - not only for people in their seventies, but also the decade itself - the 1970s. This could be because I spent time as a small child in the seventies, and attended many a birthday bowling party at the local lanes. In fact, bowling has made an effort to join the new millenium by including video games, bright lights, a clean atmosphere, and sometimes a dance club and/or Rock n' Bowl situation…All these things add up to make the old-fashioned game of tossing big balls at white pins attractive to today's tech-savvy, ADD-ridden youth market.
As far as Richmond Hill, Ontario is concerned, the bowling dollar has two real choices: "Pro Bowl" or "World Bowl". I couldn't make a go of it alone because, well, truthfully I'd feel weird being one of the lone drunks walking around the bowling alley - one of those guys you used to throw unfinished McDonald's milkshakes at "drive-by" style from a moving car—you bastards—there's no way I was going to be a victim of suburban hooliganism on this night.
Wellon is a lumberjack-sized bear of a man, who smells of whiskey and pen ink, and has a penchant for big wool sweaters. He's a nocturnal artist who hates the presence of people with a burning passion - but sometimes I'm able to lure him out in public with promises of cheap drinks and hearty laughter. Part of the Wellon charm is his strange laugh that starts out like a scream, quickly descending into a deep chuckle….It is used often, and he's not above spitting his drink out onto people whilst in the throws of one his infamous laughing fits. He's a perfect companion.
I decided that my accomplice and I should hit both the town's bowling alleys as some sort-of twisted "research and development" project. This would allow us to know for future weekends which Alley was best, or at least good for we-haggard.
The first, located in the older, north end of town on Yonge Street, is Pro Bowl. Now Pro Bowl is the place where I recall attending birthday parties as a grade-schooler. It really hasn't kept up with the times in terms of making an active attempt to attract the youth of today. It's got pretty much the same décor as I remember, with the video games by the door.
The first thing that I noticed was the calming effect of the faux-wood walls, and the dominant positioning of the bar.
"This here's a drinkin' man's alley," noted Wellon, nodding his head in approval.
I agreed. You can't hang out here without being drunk or working on it. For one thing, it's bowling, and bowling sober is like…..well….fishing….sober. It can be done, but the potential for adventure is cut in half.
While Wellon wandered off to grab us a couple of $2 drafts I walked over to the rental counter to eye up the shoe selection.
"Can I help you?"
Jimmy, (at least that was the name on his shirt…) rental shoe jockey, had come over to see what the idiot staring at the wall of shoes wanted. I looked at him for a second in the eyes, but then found myself hypnotized by the tattoo on his arm. It was the cartoon version of Slimer (the green blob ghost from the cartoon and movie Ghostbusters) with the word's "Let's Party" underneath.
I shook my THC stare off and muttered something about 2 pairs of size elevens. I had to turn my back to the counter or the uncontrollable staring might kick in again. While Jimmy was locating our footwear, I began to assess the crowd.
Pretty low-key, groups of four, mostly mid-30s trailer types, a few senior citizens, and a smattering of rockers. The music ranged from Faith Hill's "
"Breathe" to ACDC's "You Shook Me All Night Long". The place was clean, and had the type of light that makes a burger look good but makes a salad look very bad . It was comforting in a bleak sort of way.
Wellon had already finished four $2 drafts and was starting to get into it with the regulars. As I grabbed our shoes and looked over to signal that it was time to bowl, I heard the initial scream to that horrific laugh. He seemed to be leaning over the counter asking the bartender why she just sold him four mugs of goat piss. I walked over quickly and ordered two bottles of Export to ease the tension, and all was forgiven.
"You can't do that, we're outnumbered, and besides I'm too silly to scrap any of these people right now, and you…well you don't believe in actual violence, just the verbal threat of it."
Wellon didn't see it that way.
"Hey, guy, I was just exercisin' my right to complain as a patron…let's bowl."
The rest of our time at Pro Bowl went off without incident, and ended up being downright enjoyable. By the middle of our second game, the genius controlling the sound system began to play Johnny Cash's Live at Folsom Prison - all the way through. Sure as shit, this place will bring the cowboy out of you quicker than a rerun of HeeHaw. The food was pretty good too, as long as you stick to the standards - like a cheeseburger and fries. Oh, and be sure to ask for chili on yer burger and fries - it's not on the menu, but if you ask, they'll do you right.
Chiliburgers, cheap draft beer, and Johnny Cash. Pro Bowl gave us these and more, including friendly staff and earthy aromas…World Bowl had a lot to live up to if it was to turn our favor their way…
Located about ten minutes away to the southeast of Pro Bowl, World Bowl is in the middle of the Beaver Creek business park region on the east side of our fair town. A huge, gray industrial building with large shimmering blue windows that give the place the aura of a nightclub (or nice stripper bar). Judging by the full parking lot, and the steady flow of people in and out doors, this place already had the edge over Pro Bowl in the attendance category.
Walking in, I was struck first by the sheer size of the place: it was monstrous. Next to hit me was the blinding white fluorescent light…giving me the uneasy nervousness that walking in a mall at Christmas gives me…I was anxious…and drunk - which had me looking around aimlessly in a blurry panic.
"Hey-Ohhh!..this place is happening…where's the bar?"
The sound of Wellon's relaxed question brought my breathing to a normal pace, and allowed me to focus on the establishment more clearly.
I shielded my eyes as if looking into the sun, while pointing to the kiosk-ish desk that was a few feet away.
Now is probably a good time to mention that as I looked around World Bowl, it became increasingly clear that Wellon and I, as far as I could see, were the only two Caucasians in the place. Everyone else was Asian. This is a daunting realization for a suburban white kid to behold. It is not often we are a minority in any place around these parts. I liked it. I felt both overwhelmed and excited at seeing this part of my town for the first time.
The man at the desk was quick and efficient in getting Wellon and I our shoes, lanes and directions to the bar in less than 30 seconds. We stood at the opposite end of the counter from where we began, dazed, holding our shoes, scoresheets, looking out over the sea of packed bowling lanes in front of us.
I grabbed Wellon as he continued to mumble, and started walking in the direction the cashier had pointed out to the bar.
I almost walked by the doorway, but the TV screen in the bar caught my eye - the hockey game! The bar was a separate room the size of any moderate pub, featuring skinny, modern furniture, and several TV's. The bar itself was of sleek design, illuminated by a number of small halogen lights hanging from the ceiling. The bartender was having a heated conversation in a foreign tongue, with one of the few other patrons. He caught us out of the corner of his eye just as Wellon began raise his finger and slur 'essscuse mee'.
I ordered a Canadian draft, while Wellon boldly demanded a rye and coke. I asked the bartender if the bar was usually this dead while the lanes were so packed. He motioned to his watch, saying "too early, more people later…"
It is then I remembered seeing World Bowl's hours of operation on the way in, and since it's open until the wee hours of the morning, it made sense the serious boozers wouldn't creep in until the kiddies had begun to leave…I then spied a "Calendar of Events" hanging next to the bar. There were plenty of choices, from Rock N' Bowl nights, to bar specials, to special league events. World Bowl was making a serious run at competing for control of Richmond Hill's 21st Century entertainment dollar.
On this night, the crowds and happy music really weren't things Wellon and I wanted to be around. Nor did we want to make our way back to Pro Bowl, where I was sure the blatantly degenerate patrons had made there way by now. We went home.
The competition between the two bowling alleys turned out to be a Cat's Game, a tie, a draw—however you want to put it: there was no winner. To be sure, there wasn't a clear loser either.
Wellon put it best about five seconds before passing out against the window in the backseat of the cab:
"It's great to know we can booze, meet interesting people, get in adventures….right in the comfort of our own town…and still return home without having the piss beat out of us."
Jeff Beer needs some sleep.