Body English



Neighborhood: Clifton, Staten Island

Body English
Photo by Stefan Grazer

In the summer of ’77, I met Mark Roth in Pathmark on Hylan Boulevard. Heading home from a Sunday drive, my parents stopped to pick up groceries for dinner, and waiting in the Express Lane, he got behind us with a bottle of Mott’s Apple Juice. I was sure it was him, but then, what would the Number One ranked bowler in the world be doing in Pathmark on Hylan Boulevard, in the Express Lane, no less? What made it feasible, was that he was originally from Staten Island, and wearing a blue “ABC” windbreaker, representing the network that televised the Pro Bowlers Tour. I caught my father’s attention, and tipped him off as to the situation. Following a brief exchange between the two men, Mark Roth shook my hand — with the same powerful grip he threw the most menacing hook in bowling history. …He kind of cut us in line, but that’s besides the point.

Across from the Clifton train station, exists a townhouse development, South Bay Commons, where once was a banked parking lot, weeds pushing through the cracks of the more far-reaching blacktop, in front of a long brick bowling alley with two sets of faux Greek columns on either side of the portico, called Colonial Lanes.

Entering from the foyer, you passed the pro shop on your right, the bowling paraphernalia tantalizingly on display through the window, and continued past a trophy case on your left, as you approached the counter, where you got a lane, and rented red, white, and blue bowling shoes that reeked of disinfectant. It took a minute for your eyes to adjust from the sunlight, during which time the cacophony of crashing bowling pins was like a distant battle.

My friend Dennis’ mother, Pauline, regularly took Dennis and I for a day of bowling. Dennis had my envy, since he bowled in a junior league, but even more so because he wore a leather wristband — a fetishistic device that fitted the thumb, and wrapped around the forearm — which he was constantly adjusting and readjusting to the unnerving sound of tearing velcro. One afternoon, he taught me “body english,” and over the next couple of hours, no two preteens ever contorted their bodies more than we in hopes of influencing the path of a bowling ball. My parents took me once, but that soured when my desire to impress resulted in a temper tantrum, and the disheartening, “This is the last time…” One summer afternoon, me and my best friend, Bobby, along with another kid from the building, Eddie, having been given money by our mothers, who were gathered for coffee in Trudy’s (Bobby’s mother) apartment, ran all the way to Colonial Lanes. Best friends. Summer vacation. And bowling. The fulfillment of the most decadent adult fantasy could not achieve the nirvana of that afternoon. But after the other two boys overindulged on concessions, I was the only one with any cash left, and it wasn’t enough to foot the bill. So, while I sat on the ledge outside the pro shop, in plain sight of the desk, they went to make bail — one of the longest hours of my life.

My maternal grandmother died when I was little, and my grandfather, “The Chief,” moved into our apartment so that he wouldn’t be alone. In what was undoubtedly my first grown up decision, my parents sat me down at the kitchen table, and asked if it would be okay if he shared my bedroom, to which I responded, “Yeah!” We were best pals. On hot nights, he brought me to Loft’s for a coffee ice cream cone with chocolate sprinkles. We took the Staten Island Ferry into Manhattan, and got sandwiches piled with roast beef at The Blarney Stone, sitting amongst the hard-talking Wall Street guys. We embarked on day trips, taking the train to the last stop on the SIR Line, Tottenville, which we nicknamed “Glassville,” because our final destination was a lot littered with the broken glass of countless smashed beer bottles. We went for afternoon strolls that turned into adventures at OTB, and digging through the bin of baseball cards at Woolworth’s, in search of Mets, and getting some “fresh air” in Tappen Park (not much more than a public restroom), where we encountered, and sometimes avoided, the local color. When his Social Security check came in, he took me bowling at Colonial Lanes.

On one such occasion, The Chief sat back, legs crossed, enjoying the bliss of the afternoon, while, left to my own devices, I was attempting to dethrone Mark Roth of his title. I was locked in, too, throwing strikes, and picking up spares. And if I did fail to mark, I took a mulligan. It was that kind of day. When all was said and done, I’d bowled two of the better games of my life, much to The Chief’s delight. Turning in my score sheet, however, the fantasy came to an abrupt end when the man behind the counter, whose demeanor suggested a pin boy childhood, charged for five games. Was it possible? Had I gotten so caught up in my pursuit of glory? More importantly, did they really have an electronic system for monitoring how many games you’d bowled? As my dream of bowling fame and fortune died, The Chief vehemently argued with the man. It was the only time I’d ever heard him swear.

When I got to high school, I discovered, in the form of a flier on a hallway bulletin board, that Curtis High had a bowling team. More to be a part of something, than a faded passion for the game, I tried out, or, rather, joined; since pretty much anyone who showed up made the team. The reaction I got from classmates when I told them I was on the bowling team was, “There’s a bowling team?” My two buddies, Phil and Anthony, had a laugh at my expense, on days I lugged my bowling ball to school. But the team was a good bunch, future longneck drinkers all, and Coach Lauderstein chauffeured us to tournaments in his Cadillac. The highlight of my season was converting the notorious seven-ten split, to help beat New Dorp. Setting-up at the extreme left dot, I threw the ball as hard as I could, with exaggerated spin, across the lane. Halfway down, it dug in, and I knew there was a chance. Then, just as I’d envisioned, the ball caught the outside of the ten pin, sending it ricocheting off the back of the lane, and rolling in a semicircle into the seven pin, which seemed to topple in slow motion. This ignited a bench-clearing celebration, as Coach slapped my back with: “You must have stepped in something today!” What made it all the more special, was that it was a home tournament at Colonial Lanes. I finished the season with a 130 average, as officially recorded in the school paper, and hung up my bowling shoes for good. Of course, I can still rent every now and again.

Tom Diriwachter’s new one-act play, “Shock Therapy,” premiers at Theater for the New City’s LES Festival on Memorial Day Weekend 2013.

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