Bowling Alone

Arcade Lanes is nothing fancy, and Jim Lampson likes it that way. Could this faded jewel be the best bowling alley on earth?

Time stands still here, 19 steps above Olive Boulevard.

It's late afternoon on a Thursday and nearly dark inside Arcade Lanes. The building's front consumes the better half of a city block, but just a few lights are on inside the bar and kitchen, where Jim Lampson, as usual, stands alone in his roost, keeping a flashlight handy should he have to rummage elsewhere. The Michelob Light clock is stuck at 11:36. Lampson's office calendar shows the month as January 1998. Black-and-orange crepe streamers from Halloween mingle with Christmas decorations. The temperature is in the 50s -- unless Lampson's expecting someone special, he keeps it that way to save on utilities. He hasn't had the pinsetters on all day.

Used to be, the place was packed. Lampson's wife, Odie, would open at 7 a.m. and cook breakfast for the morning leagues. Lampson gave Green Stamps to bowlers who hit the right pins, and the party lasted till the wee hours, with summertime brews sipped on a rooftop beer garden long since dismantled. Everyone would laugh, drink, flirt, bitch, gossip and, of course, bowl. Remember when they put ketchup in Charlie Nack's thumbhole on the 10th frame, costing him a perfect game?

But that was a long time ago.

Arcade Lanes is one of two upstairs bowling alleys in St. Louis County.
Jennifer Silverberg
Arcade Lanes is one of two upstairs bowling alleys in St. Louis County.
Arcade Lanes is one of two upstairs bowling alleys in St. Louis County.
Jennifer Silverberg
Arcade Lanes is one of two upstairs bowling alleys in St. Louis County.

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Today, an alarm shrieks when someone enters Arcade Lanes; triggered by an electric eye, it sounds like a death ray from a B-grade science-fiction movie. Pieces of the massive slot-car track that once filled the billiards room are stashed in backrooms and hallways. The trophies are dusty, and the beer taps don't work anymore. It's longnecks only these days -- don't dare ask Lampson for a can, because only dives serve canned beer. And Arcade Lanes, even in its twilight, is a classy place.

It may be musty, but Lampson keeps it clean. There are no automatic scorers. Antique saws, plows and other iron relics adorn the walls. The loudspeaker above the lanes came from Sportsman's Park. A five-balls-for-a-quarter mechanical pinball machine stands near the door. A pair of Victrolas sit near one of two pool tables, both Brunswicks made of real wood instead of veneer.

The jukebox stops somewhere in the 1980s, when they quit making 45-rpm records, so you can listen to Prince's "Raspberry Beret" but not "Cream." Be careful what buttons you push -- patrons in search of the Stones can find themselves listening to "The 12 Days of Christmas" and howling at the bartender to please make it stop. But the price is right: A quarter buys 10 songs.

Arcade Lanes was once the hottest bowling house in St. Louis, but serious bowlers long ago trickled away, wooed by the promise of higher scores elsewhere. Lampson has been here since 1960 and, except for Sundays, remains for as many as 12 hours a day, depending on whether he has any business. If he likes you, he'll stay late or open early -- just call and make arrangements. Everyone, even folks his own age, call him "the old man." Women are "dollies" or "broads," and he says "son" when addressing a man, no matter how old. He is the quintessential old-timer. Listen to him talk about a man he befriended while in the Merchant Marine during World War II, sticking together during shore leaves and keeping an eye out for each other in dangerous places. "I was his butt boy," he recalls brightly. He quickly explains that the term means a gofer, someone who does whatever he's told. "I wasn't no queer," he insists. "I wasn't getting no fucking in the ass. But I was kind of a giddy guy."

He still is. Although the bowling alley's long-term prospects seem as dim as the lights, Lampson is quick to smile. A natural-born storyteller, he has tales about growing up poor during the Great Depression, tales about brawls, tales about gangsters in the Wellston of his youth. "Always look a man in the face and tell him the truth," he implores soberly. Minutes later, he concedes he doesn't always follow his own advice. "I'm the biggest bullshitter in town, and I admit it," he says, which may, in fact, be the truth.

Bullshitter or not, his hands are undeniable. They are huge, not so much long as swollen -- he wears a size 15 ring. He holds up his right hand. See? It doesn't open all the way anymore. He once held down three jobs at the same time, running a meat shop downstairs from his bowling alley while also working as a union electrician, which isn't too bad for someone who didn't make it past the eighth grade. The meat shop closed in the early 1980s and Lampson retired as an electrician in 1987. Arcade Lanes is all he has left.

His hands may not work so great anymore, but Lampson gets around pretty good for a one-lunged guy born in 1925. His 1984 Coupe DeVille is equipped with handicap plates, and he keeps an oxygen bottle handy -- shaking a can of spray paint is enough to leave him breathless. And there is so much to be done. Just keeping buckets under the holes in the roof can drive a man crazy -- no fewer than six are suspended by wires above lane 5, but that didn't stop part of the ceiling from crashing to the hardwood after a few days of wet weather in late November. The shuffleboard game is broken, and the windows need caulking. When someone shows up to lend a hand, he barks orders from behind the bar, telling friends, grandchildren and hired help where to find tools and materials in storage rooms crammed with boxes, pool-table felt, light fixtures and assorted other detritus that, like Lampson himself, seems to have been there forever.

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