FIVE frames into the match, Rocky Salemmo was taking a beating.
He and a partner had challenged a pair of young guns at Showplace Entertainment Center on Staten Island to a doubles bowling match for $50 a man, and now Mr. Salemmo, 48, who was once known as one of the top action bowlers, or betting players, in New York City, trailed by 68 pins. But when Mr. Salemmo’s bowling ball fails, his mouth takes over. He began telling his opponents about the time he jumped out the bathroom window at a bowling alley to avoid losing four grand.They say that the worst and laziest form of conversation is "do you remember when?" I have always disagreed with that argument: when used occasionally, "do you remember when?" can bring you to some nice places with friends who you have not seen a in a while, back full circle to some common and comfortable ground.
I grew up at a bowling center. Bowling is my lost friend that I had to put aside for a few (too many years) as I went to do other things. There were and are many friends, all of us, tied together by being at tournaments on the weekend, practicing during the week, and trying to bowl as much as humanly possible for free in the summer. We too have gone our separate ways; I hope we can come back together again.
As a ghetto nerd, I know many of you/us have similar stories. Bowling has gone the way of arcades and Times Square. These spaces once had personality, were full of seedy and fun characters, human mascots who seemed to be there everyday and all day, cigarette smoke, and vice. Now, they are sanitized and bereft of all personality and charm.
The New York Times rediscovered that almost lost moment with its story about local "action" bowling legend Rocky Salemmo:
Rocky got his first bowling ball at age 11 from his father, who died shortly afterward in a motorcycle crash on Hylan Boulevard. His mother worked the snack bar at Country Lanes on Staten Island, and Rocky played there constantly. During his early teens, he began tagging along with his cousin Lucy, a top money bowler. He fell in with money players with names like Snake, Mike the Crook and the Count.
“We called him the Count because he only came out at night,” Mr. Salemmo said.
Driving together to the lanes, they would hatch that night’s hustling schemes: the secret signal before purposely losing a match; the fake fight to make the group look drunk and beatable; and where to rendezvous if they ran out of money and had to flee a losing bet.
Mr. Salemmo, who is of short stature and bowls lefty, throws a big hook that teeters on the edge of the left gutter before swooping back to the pins. His stories, too — delivered rapid-fire with a thick New York accent — are elliptical but somehow come back to the point: how bowling for bets has supported him for most of his adult life. He added that as well as he bowled, he was equally bad at gambling, and that he would promptly blow much of his winnings on bad bets on horse-racing and other sports.
There are still the occasional matches, but the bowling wagering scene has largely faded in recent years, and Mr. Salemmo has begun driving a stretch limousine for his brother Joe, 47, who runs a limo and D.J. company.
He really is a relic of another time.
Bowling has souled out and gone corporate. The sport has long been in a crisis, and the choice to go all high tech, with glowing pins, horrible music, laser light shows, and other distractions were desperate efforts to appeal to a generation raised on video games and cable TV. The Professional Bowling Association, on the cusp of dying, crossed over as well by introducing new formats, focusing on bowler's personalities in order to tell a compelling story for viewers, and trying to update the style of its broadcasts on ESPN. In total, these efforts have been a mixed blessing.
It is apparently now more difficult to find a real pro shop, and a traditional bowling alley that is not ruined by all of the distractions and spectacle; bowling is staying alive, and hopefully it will bring in enough young people and children who will have their curiosity sparked as they realize the amount of skill and practice necessary to compete on an elite level in the sport.
Ultimately, whatever ghetto nerd locale you frequented, it was about the people, the memories, and the formative experiences you had there, that in adulthood, you look back upon with a smile.
As such, I love this part of Rocky Salemmo's reminiscence, for it is very familiar: