Friday, August 19, 2005

VAULT -->Old Strokers

If New Jersey is New York City’s hangover, Colonial Lanes Luncheonette & Lounge would be the perfect place to work it off. The low lighting, the comfortable chairs, and the sound of 16-pound balls crashing into groups of ten, three-pound, six-ounce maple, nylon-covered pins can be strangely soothing, like being by the ocean.

The lanes sit off Business Route 1 in Lawrenceville, far enough away from Princeton University to miss the college crowd and far enough away from Trenton to miss the city crowd. The gray sky matches the gray parking lot. The once-white sign says, “Colonial Lanes,” but has lost the “i” in “Colonial.”

Walk past the first 32 lanes toward the far end of the building, past the young black kids playing a makeshift game of soccer on the concourse with a yellow ball the size of an orange, past their older relatives high rolling on lanes 13 and 14, past the group of Down syndrome bowlers, and towards Larry.

“You’ve got to meet Larry,” a friend told me, “he’s the big dawg.”

Larry Cabell stands behind the main counter, which looks like a converted bar. A swinging wooden door separates the outside world from the shoe rentals and the cash register. Cabell weighs at least 230 pounds, with bleached blond hair and matching eyebrows that seem almost incongruous against his black skin. His left forearm sports a tattoo of a rose and the three class rings on his right hand shine like trophies. Cabell is the proprietor, the resident pro, and the last of a dying breed of bowlers.

When something goes wrong with the lanes, people look for Larry. “Drives me nuts,” he says, “every time there’s a full moon or it rains, brings ‘em all out.”

“Hand me the stick.” Cabell has a deep voice somewhere between Barry White and Isaac Hayes. He tries to fish a wayward pin in the gutter from on top of the pin-setting machine for lane 13. The stick consists of a broom handle with two prongs at the end. Cabell pokes the stick out through the lane face and spears the neck of the floundering pin.

When the pins go down, they feed from a conveyor belt to a cycling belt, housed in a painted iron circle that looks like a red clothes dryer. The circle would be big enough to step through if you could avoid getting hit by the positioning arm that pivots from slot to slot, feeding the pins into their positions.

“It wasn’t recycling right. This here is the nine slot. The nine is the last pin to feed in. When it kicks in, it flips a switch and resets the rack. Right now it’s not feeding and causing a pin backup.” Resetting is the last step of the pin process, when the feeding arm finishes slotting the pins and the rack takes them from their horizontal rest to standing attention on the lane.

Balls slam into pins, sending them into the whir of the large machines. Cabell swings himself out of the apparatus, knocking his cell phone off his belt. He folds stiffly at the waist to pick it up. “The first 12 are 50 years old,” he says, “they put them up in 1952. Thirteen through 32 came later, then they put up the last 32 to get 64.” Cabell points as he walks past 14 through 32, emerges from behind the lanes, and heads toward the front.

Cabell steps behind the rentals counter and settles onto his elbows. He produces a pack of Marlboros and lights up. “I’ve been working here for three years. Before that, I was a Lieutenant in the Department of Corrections, but I’ve been a bowler for 32 years.”

“This here is Lou,” he nods toward Lou Balestieri who is perched on a barstool smoking. “We’re both 55 years old. We can’t generate the ball speed the new guys can. We had hard rubber balls when we started, not the polyuerathane composite stuff you see people using now. They’ve moved from long oil to short oil, and the new materials cause them to come in at a fierce angle. Lou and I, we use the old Stroker style instead of the High Revolution. But today’s conditions make it harder for us.”

Proprietors determine bowling conditions by applying oil to the wooden lanes. A sixteen-pound bowling ball hits the floor with a force of over 2000 pounds per square inch. To prevent damage to the wooden lanes, proprietors put down oily conditioner to help the ball slide and dissipate the impact force. The 60-foot long, 42-inch wide alley can be oiled in different patterns, each yielding different bowling conditions.

Most lanes use the flat oil pattern, where proprietors spread the oil across the lane evenly, increasing in concentration as it moves from the back end, where the pins stand, toward the foul line, where the bowler stands. Almost all alleys have a dry back end so that when a rotating ball moves from the oiled surface onto the un-oiled maple panels, the increased friction causes the ball to torque off its original rotational axis and start curving. This gives the bowler the ability to get a good hook at the tail end of his roll.

When Larry Cabell bowls, he gets a good hook at the tail end of his roll. He gets the kind of hook that makes your mouth sag and your eyes bulge. He gets the kind of hook that makes you stop what you are doing and wonder if Kepler and Newton were wrong about planetary motion and that some distant, highly polished black asteroid might be hurtling toward Earth and just when it looks like it will miss us, it hooks – Wham! “I just put the ball out there – put it in the hands of the bowling gods and hope for the best.”

Once Cabell lets go of the ball, the gods wait for three painful seconds before they reward him with the applause of falling pins, or more often, the frustration of trying to pick up the spare. “It’s frustrating and fun at the same time. It’s personal. People come out here to relieve some tension, they kick the ball return and flip obscene gestures at the pins. It doesn’t relieve any of my tensions.”

When Larry Cabell comes within four feet of the foul line, he becomes a different person.

The awkward lurch in his step, the belly too big for his body, the old man – Gone. All that remains: the left foot, the right foot, the slight lean, the right arm coming back, the left arm stabilizing, the left foot planting, the left arm swooping out, the right arm swinging forward, and the release, punctuated with a little “pop” from the suction of the finger holes. Just when the smooth ball looks perilously close to the edge, it hooks in and smashes into the unsuspecting pins. This is what being a Stroker is all about.

When Cabell bowls, he types the name Cobra into the scoring computer. Why? “Cause of what you saw just then,” he says, smiling as the pins topple down, “you never know when I’m gonnna strike.”

But he strikes less now than he used to.

Different oiling conditions favor different bowling styles. Moving from long oil to short oil does not favor Strokers like Cabell, who throw more underhand than the high-revolution Crankers, who try to get over-top of the ball to get extra spin.

Cabell retreats to his position behind the counter, sets down a red plastic ashtray, and brings his cigarettes back out.

Balestieri coughs. “Best ever? Gotta be Earl Anthony.”

Cabell chimes in, “Ya, I saw him roll up at Curtis in 1972 at the Great Adventure opening in Garden City. He was smooth and consistent.”

More of the Marlboro. “Now Dick Webber’s pretty good and his son Pete ain’t bad, but he’s not a thing like his dad, he’s hotheaded, a showboat, likes to get the crowd worked up. Did you see he shot 299 last night?”

Balestieri looks disappointed. “They show it on ESPN? I didn’t know it was on.”

There’s a family on lane 35 that needs help with the setup machine and they look toward Larry. He stubs out his cigarette.

“Will the old Stroker style ever die? Sure – you’re looking at the last ones who use it.”


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