Last Strike

St. Louis loses a landmark in a six-alarm blaze. We rolled the last ball.

I was on my way to Schnuck's for beer and a steak last Thursday when it hit me.

Go to Arcade.

There was no rational reason to do so. The radio meteorologist put the heat index at 101 when I turned onto Midland Avenue, equidistant between the grocery store and a crumbling second-story bowling house with a couple of window air conditioners that barely wheezed and two that didn't work at all. No one goes to Arcade Lanes in the summer -- hardly anyone goes during the spring, fall or winter, for that matter. Much as I love the place, it's hell when the weather gets hot.

Go to Arcade.

It wasn't as dramatic as the disembodied voice in Field of Dreams, but the thought wouldn't leave me. If I went, I knew I'd be there at least an hour, sweat dripping from my ears as the old man told me a dozen stories I'd heard a dozen times before. Once Jim Lampson gets to talking, there's no stopping him.

Two blocks later, I'm at Olive. Turn right or left? I chose left.

As usual during the dinner hour, Lampson was sitting at the end of the bar, alone, watching the news, a just-emptied plate in front of him, his shirt unbuttoned and his belly exposed. "How ya doing, Tiger?" he said as I walked back to the refrigerator next to his office and grabbed a Bud -- the beer coolers beneath the bar had broken down several months ago.

After writing about this place ["Bowling Alone," December 19, 2001], I'd gotten hooked, joining -- and winning -- a Thursday-night handicap league with nighttime barkeep Charlie Nack as my partner and mentor. I hadn't bowled since grade school. Charlie suffered a heart attack this spring and remains in the hospital. I'd been filling in for him on occasional Saturday nights, working for beer and a key to the door so I could bowl for free in the wee hours, when the place cooled down a bit. Last Saturday had been especially profitable, thanks to a slight break in the heat and seven cellular-phone-tower installers from out of town who wandered in, pockets bulging with $20 bills and accustomed to working in the sun. Thank God only one of them wore size 10 shoes, of which there was precisely one pair. I brought in $143 and made $13 in tips.

The tally would have been higher if I'd turned on the grill when they asked for hamburgers. But with an exhaust hood that vented against the ceiling, I didn't want to fill the place with smoke. I'd once watched Lampson "fix" it. Either the insurance company or a city building inspector had been on his case about the hood fashioned from bare galvanized sheet metal. Lampson's solution was two cans of silver spray paint, which made the hood look like new, dim as the lights always were. Sipping beer and inhaling paint fumes, we'd both gotten high as kites. On the last coat, Lampson didn't check which way the nozzle was pointing and so blasted himself square in the nose. He looked like the Tin Man.

This night, after fetching my beer, I turned off the television and sat down next to him. I never bowled during these visits, especially in weather like this. Lampson would talk about the good old days and his plans -- he always had plans -- to restore this relic that hadn't changed in nearly 50 years. I'd mostly listen, once in a while pointing out when he was full of shit, which wasn't too often. Tonight, we talked about the pinsetters. They'd been acting up more than usual, refusing to return balls -- the last time I was here, just two of the eight lanes were working. At 78, Lampson was forced to rely on others, typically hired-off-the-street teenagers with few mechanical skills, to fix things as he barked instructions. He had spent most of the week tinkering with the pinsetters himself and cussing whoever it was who had screwed them up.

Talk turned to my rudimentary bowling skills, a subject we rarely broached. Lampson had taught me how to bowl, but that was more than a year ago, and I wasn't improving on my 118 average. I still rolled straight instead of curving the ball into the pocket. I'd been practicing a new style, hoping to develop a Brooklyn hook, but was almost always finding the left gutter. I think it's time for me to give up the house balls, I told him, and buy one custom-drilled for my hand.

"Go back in my office and look in the brown suitcase," he told me, oblivious to the sauna-like temperature. "There's a ball in there."

It took me a few minutes to find the case amid the papers, boxes, file cabinets and other tornado-quality clutter. The ball was classic black, with "Jim" engraved between the thumb and finger holes. I'd never seen Lampson's ball before, nor had I seen him bowl. He quit when his wife Odie took ill in 1988, dying five years later, although he told me a few days ago that he bowled two games in secret about a month back, scoring 170 and 132.

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