Saturday, September 29, 2012

Fond Memories of Growing Up as a Ghetto Nerd: The New York Times Discovers the World of Bowling for "Action"

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:
“Right now, I’m back to being a nobody, and that’s exactly where you want to be, as an action bowler,” said Mr. Salemmo, who lives in the Dongan Hills section of Staten Island with his mother and son, Rocky Jr., 22, a barber with a respectable bowling game himself. 
To attract bets, Mr. Salemmo said, it helps to look like a chump on the lanes. So he would join leagues and purposely play poorly to keep down his official scoring average. After that, he would show up at a new lane, act a little tipsy, maybe let his wad of money drop all over the floor and accept some challenges from low-stakes players. After weeks or months, he worked his way into high-stakes circles. 
“You never want to play the best guys, because if you beat them, no one will play you,” he said. “You make money beating the smaller guys and work your way up.”
Slipping a bit of lip balm in the thumb hole of your opponent’s ball also might help your chances, he said. “Or you have your friend have the guy paged over the loudspeaker — or, better yet, have his wife’s name paged when his girlfriend is there,” Mr. Salemmo said. “Anything to get him mad. Then you got him.”
[My great intervention, and one that I should have made earlier, was turning my back on an opponent during a match. There is no defense in bowling. Consequently, there is no reason to watch your opponent bowl because you should be trying to bowl a perfect game anyway. 

I was very surprised by how unsettling my unwillingness to talk, look at, or give "dap" to an opponent during a game could be. I won many a match over middling and striving amateurs because of that tactic (real pros could care less what the hell their opponents are doing).]

Beyond how "easy" the shot was, every bowling alley had its own energy and habitus. As my friends and I drove across Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, we had many fun times of course. The rite of passage that is traveling as a teenager to different places without your parents is always liberating.

Working through the geometric innovations necessary to fit ten bowling balls in the trunk of a compact car was also the source of fitful humor.

And of course, hooking up at hotels with the young women that also bowled in the Junior Bowlers Tour (or had a thing for guys who bowled and just hung around...yes such women do exist) was quite enjoyable too.

So many memories. 

Gossiping about who got drunk and slept with how many people in one night, tears and upset at losing a tournament, fights and arguments, buying porn at highway adult shops in rural Pennsylvania, and eating at diners in Long Island and New Jersey were all part of a wonderfully whole set of teen years and early young adulthood. Being a person of color, and traveling to parts of the country that are not too hospitable to people like us--and doing well in a sport dominated by white ethnics and "working class" white people--also provided many a life lesson in strategies for success in "intercultural" communication. 

There are so many fond stories from those years. I remember being in a tournament where my friends and I got very lucky and beat soon to be PBA bowlers Patrick Allen, Mike Lichstein (he never got his pro card but is/was one of the best bowlers in the world), and Chris Forry. The trio was so upset that they intentionally threw the match rather than give 100 percent when it was clear that defeat was more likely than not. In fact, to make a point, Patrick bowled a "300" the next game to show the ability and talent that he could summon almost at will--in this era, when reactive bowling balls were still uncommon, such a display of skill actually meant something. 

We also used to goof on a young Mike Fagan because he had a bizarre and awkward arm-swing and delivery. Funny thing, he would somehow always find a way to make it into the finals when the lane conditions were at their most difficult. It is no surprise that you can watch Mike Fagan bowl on ESPN when the Professional Bowling Association airs on Sunday mornings. 

If you saw here in her prime, a young Jennifer Swanson was a real life version of Wonder Woman. I bowled her many times in the championship rounds of many a junior tournament. I was good, she was just a bit better. On my best day, I could have beaten my nemesis (if I got lucky). Alas, I was transfixed by her amazing body, and kept puzzling through how a white woman could be built like that. I should have stayed focused on my mark instead of giving into youthful temptation. I am in good company; many a ghetto nerd has been felled by such kryptonite. 

A few years later, she too would be a bowler of no small amount of accomplishment.

There were humbling lessons too. I remember seeing one of our local heroes, a man that we thought was invincible, go up against Chris Barnes. No contest. The latter is now one of the all-time money winners in Professional Bowling Association history.

We had legendary and mythic heroes as well. They included men like Willie Willis (a black golem of bowling might), Mighty Vick (built like a pro wrestler, but with incredible grace and power), Jimmy Strong (a bowling version of Rocky, and yes he had a "Mick" too) and Steve Kregling (he was an "eccentric"; bowling's version of Yoda, a man with a Master's degree in engineering from Yale who coached and mentored many a person to bowling success--in no small part helped by his ability to drill near illegal "exotic" layouts). 

My friends and I spent many hours driving to see an "action" game or tournament where these men would ply their craft. As journeymen, we hoped to learn some secrets by watching these local stars bowl for thousands of dollars, in matches that often came down to the last frame.

My favorite was always "Rudy Revs." He could make bowling balls dance, curve, and hook like no one living or dead:

He was unbeatable--or so we thought. Rudy could never translate his parlor trick into fame, as each time on TV nerves, and the bowling gods, would deem that he would be an "action bowler" who would not make it on the national scene. Nevertheless, Rudy is one of the greatest "action" bowlers to ever live. If you have any doubt of that fact read this story about his legendary exploits.

I remember the moment when I realized that I was pretty good. I had won more than a few tournaments as a junior bowler, did okay as an adult scratch bowler, but I would never be one of "those guys." I did not have the desire, discipline, innate ability, or discipline. I was more than decent; but at a certain level those 3 or 5 percent differences in ability are all that matter in terms of a given outcome. 

There is "them," and then there is "us." 

We inch closer to adulthood by accepting such truths.

Ghetto nerds show up in places where we are least expected. We were/are at arcades, bowling alleys, pro wrestling events, paint ball fields, comic book stores, cons, free climbing and hiking, car shows, motorcycle clubs, and into extreme sports.

Ralph Ellison wrote about the "little man behind the stove." I would like to think that the ghetto nerd is also a type of truth-teller and visionary too, integrating white (and other) spaces, and causing frustration, curiosity, and surprise for those who encounter us. 

Do any of you have similar stories of youth? Fun hobbies that you enjoyed growing up that had an outsized impact on you as an adult?


fred c said...

I had no particular success at games. I did bowl, golf, and play baseball (in its thousand urban forms), but no success because, to paraphrase Casey Stengel, skill is involved. Board games a little better, but still no glory.

I was a good little reader though. I loved libraries, and I read huge numbers of magazines and paperbacks. I was a good customer at the library, no shenanigans, but the mag's and paperbacks were mostly lifted. If I had a skill in my youth, that was it, the lifting part. I could get over on any of them, the shops, even if they were staring at me. I always got out with what I wanted. (Plus a newspaper or something that I paid for, I read lots of those too.)

I gave it up upon turning seventeen or eighteen, and I never got ambitious, like some of my friends did. Some guys were famous for getting out of amazing places with huge things, they were mostly showing off. I just wanted to read the stuff.

chaunceydevega said...

@Fred. Nice to hear from you. The joys of the library. Stories, fun, national geographic magazines, and if you are lucky some early girly mags that slipped by the censors. I had lots of fun in the public library as you can imagine.

What about museums? Never could get into them, but I had many friends who loved to have adventures there too.

Comrade Physioprof said...

Great post, holmes! When I was a little kid growing up in the 70s, I would go with my grandfather to the lanes for his Friday night bowling league. He was a very charismatic individual, and always the center of attention. One of his many funny quirks was that he was a jew named Saul, but he had "Sal" embroidered on his bowling shirt and went by Sal among this crowd of Vitos, Vinnies, and Tonys.

I really have no recollection whether he was any good at bowling.

chaunceydevega said...

@comrade. where are those spaces now? what is going on in the public sphere?

with the rise of the internet and social media are young people actually meeting up in fixed places, across generational lines, with real folks anymore?

there are malls and skate parks. but, part of the bs we are seeing with wilding and flash mobs is that lots of young people don't have welcoming spaces anymore. and perhaps it could be that they don't know how to behave too. so why welcome them?

we had knuckleheads there late on friday or saturday, but the manager or lane maintenance engineer would come out with a baseball bat or two by four and shoo them away. and there were lots of off duty cops, vets, mafia types, old white ethnics, and black and latino working class toughs all in the same place.

funny thing, there was rarely if ever a fight or any controversy...even when there was a lgbqt bowling league right next to the black motorcycle club. folks all just goofed on each other and had fun.

nomad said...

Comic books. Model airplanes. I was the original ghetto nerd.

Anonymous said...

Going bowling with my Dad and sister on Wednesday nights was the most important thing that happened in any week from the age of maybe 4 till 7 when a step mother put a stop to all that fun.
He bowled and drank beer and he gave us a little money and we ran wild with all the other kids. It was the best fun ever and I still love sound of the pins but I was never a bowler.
The bowling alley was downtown, in a 3 story building with the rear windows looking out over the river. I remember the windows being open sometimes and we would get cans and things out of the trash to throw in the river. It was also across the street from the South Shore Train Station, where we were forbidden to go, but trains came there all the way from Chicago, 90 miles.
Thank you

fred c said...

I did like museums. Early on I liked the Museum of Natural History (this is all in NYC). We went with school, the Cub Scouts, my dad took me, and from age nine or so gangs of us would go on a Saturday sometimes, after our bowling league! Our parents weren't afraid to let us wander around back then.

My dad took me and a couple of friends to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was eleven or twelve, and I was kind of hooked immediately. He was careful to steer us to the arms and armor, stuff we might appreciate, the Egyptian tombs and statuary.

Later on I really was an aficionado. I had a membership to the Museum of Modern Art for a long time, mostly for the movies (free with admission; admission free for members; membership $12.50 for a year; two great movies everyday). I always loved the Met (they have on view 21 Rembrandts every day). New York is a great museum town.

All mixed in with the comix, Sci Fi, Rock n' Roll records (hooked at age eight), adventure books, and models.

I'll bet that Nomad's models were better than mine though. I was "process oriented," I mostly liked building them. Nomad, I'll be you were more detail oriented, I'll bet yours were beautifully built and nicely painted. Just a hunch. I was always in a hurry, myself.