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.

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.

Of course, it hasn't been the same since Odie died in 1993 of diabetic complications -- the end came after five heart attacks in four days. Even today, a stranger can't talk to Lampson for five minutes before he mentions "Mother dear," and that's when his tough-guy persona melts.

After doctors amputated one of her legs in 1988, Odie never again entered the bowling alley. Just going to the bathroom was tough. She couldn't do it alone, and public restrooms were especially big hurdles. Stalls were too narrow for a wheelchair, let alone two people who needed room to maneuver. She endured sideways stares and snickers from women wondering what her husband was doing in the ladies room. It was embarrassing. Demeaning. And, to Lampson, totally unnecessary.

"I said, 'We don't have to kiss nobody's ass,'" Lampson recalls. "I bought two big pieces of black linoleum."

From the linoleum, Lampson cut pieces to cover the windows of his 1982 Lincoln Town Car, plus another hunk big enough to bridge the gap between the sedan's front and back passenger doors. With clothespins to secure the homemade privacy screens, it all snapped together in less than a minute. He put a portable toilet in the trunk, and from then on, his wife answered nature's call on her own terms. Didn't matter whether it was a crowded parking lot or a highway shoulder. "Mother would slip from the front seat right onto the pot," Lampson says, his arms motioning as if he were still helping her, his voice soft as if on the edge of tears. "I could wipe her and clean her. And I carried a gallon of water to clean everything. She would cry, say, 'I never thought I'd have my husband do this.' It hurt me when she'd cry. It made me want to love her better."

In caring for Odie, Lampson neglected his business, but he has no regrets. It was Odie who helped him kick a four-packs-a-day habit -- "Go ahead, smoke those Tareytons," she challenged him back in 1989, and her reverse psychology did what mouthfuls of nicotine gum couldn't. It was Odie who stood by him during 47 years of marriage and many nights alone while he ran the bowling alley. She kept the books and ran the business during the day while raising four children, even if she had reservations about buying the place.

"My wife said, 'Why?'" Lampson says. "'Why do you want a bowling alley?'" For Lampson, the answer was simple.

"I like to see people have fun," he says.

They don't make places like Arcade Lanes anymore.

The building is crumbling, but slowly. University City building inspection files show 40 code violations since Odie died, but it's mostly small stuff -- a broken window, cracked chimney mortar, a busted gutter, broken pavement in the parking lot. Nothing serious enough to shut the place down.

With just eight lanes, it's one of the region's smallest bowling alleys and one of two second-story bowling houses left in St. Louis County. Saratoga Lanes in Maplewood, built in 1916, is also a walkup, but with satellite television and other updates added through the years, it's a far cry from Arcade Lanes. According to building-permit records, the bowling alley in U. City has remained unchanged since 1962, when Lampson built a cocktail lounge.

Automatic pinsetters spelled the demise of small walkups in the years after World War II. The machines weighed upwards of 3,000 pounds, too heavy for many buildings to support, but not this bowling house -- Arcade Lanes has an iron superstructure and plenty of 18-inch wooden beams. St. Louis County tax records show it was built in 1920, but Lampson insists the official record is wrong. The building, he says, has been around since 1909.

According to a state historic inventory prepared by St. Louis County Parks and Recreation preservation historian Esley Hamilton, local businessman David L. Remley built the place as a slaughterhouse, processing 100 cattle, 200 hogs and 100 sheep each week to supply his grocery store in downtown St. Louis -- Lampson believes workers tossed guts into the nearby River des Peres. The Watchman-Advocate newspaper in 1920 reported that the plant cost $75,000, about $723,000 in today's dollars. There was also a grocery store, which was called the Remley Arcade Market to avoid confusion with other Remley stores in St. Louis.

It's not clear when the slaughterhouse shut down. At some point, a restaurant opened on the second floor. The grocery store was taken over by A&P during the 1930s and remained until the company built a new supermarket in 1942, just across the street in a building now occupied by a thrift store. Lampson says a ballroom opened on the second floor sometime around World War II, but Hamilton's research uncovered no such evidence. After the war, Andrew Sansone bought the property, and part of it subsequently became House of Luck Liquors. By 1946, the second story was vacant.

County directories show a bowling alley opened in 1948 under the name Froy's Bowling Alleys. During the next dozen years, it was run by a succession of four managers before Lampson acquired an interest in 1960, sharing ownership with Walter Bartels. Again, Lampson's account is at odds with the official record. Lampson says he was a silent owner, working on a sweat-equity basis with Odie for nearly two years before Arcade Lanes became their own. He doesn't discuss details: "It was a deal where you kept your mouth shut -- 'Don't tell nobody.'"

According to county property records, Lampson bought the place in 1976 for $57,000. Whether he was an official owner or not, press clippings and some of the top names in bowling confirm Lampson's presence in the early 1960s.

"I've bowled in a lot of places, but I've never been in a place like that," says Dick Weber, a member of the Professional Bowlers Association Hall of Fame who won 26 PBA tournaments during his career. "Just being able to bowl there was something else. Of course, the most memorable thing was the antiques the guy had around there. My God, he had his own resurfacing machine around there that was an antique made in prewar days. That was sitting alongside lane 1 there." Naturally the machine is still there and Lampson still uses it, though not as often as he'd like.

Weber bowled at Arcade Lanes during the late '50s and early '60s as a member of the infamous Budweiser Kings team, whose battles against archrivals the Falstaffs were the stuff of legend -- Lampson eagerly points out a storage area that was once their dressing room. Fifty or more spectators, quite a crowd for an eight-lane house, would gather to watch the matches. Weber has nothing but praise for Lampson. "He was one of those guys who manicured his lanes like a golf green all the time," Weber recalls. "He's a fun guy. He's been an asset to our industry and does quite well for us. Anything I can do for him, I'm happy to do." But back in the heyday of the Budweisers and Falstaffs, Arcade Lanes wasn't popular with everyone.

Lampson boasts that 300 or so perfect games have been rolled at Arcade Lanes, most since he took over and none since the 1980s, which brought plenty of suspicion and accusations from American Bowling Congress inspectors who certified that lanes and pins were within specifications before perfect scores were sanctioned. High scores started showing immediately after Lampson and his partner Bartels arrived -- the first thing they did was close the place for three days so they could strip and refinish the lanes. At a time when fewer than 1,000 bowlers reached perfection each year, the notion that a tiny bowling house in suburban St. Louis could account for more than a dozen 300s was preposterous. And so Arcade Lanes was the most frequently inspected house in the nation during the 1961-62 season, when there were 30 games of 298 or better, including 14 perfect ones, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Bowling magazine. Elvin Mesger rolled an 855 series at Arcade Lanes that year, highest in the country, and he shot a perfect game on lanes 5 and 6 a few weeks later, the same night Don Dubro shot 300 on lanes 7 and 8 -- both men are now enshrined in the Greater St. Louis Bowling Hall of Fame. By midseason, the ABC was springing surprise inspections at Arcade Lanes. They never found anything, but that didn't stop skeptics and purists from claiming the business was doctoring lanes by laying down heavier-than-allowed layers of oil to keep balls on target, a technique known as blocking.

At the time, Ron Bartels, son of Lampson's partner, was in charge of the lanes, but high scores remained after Lampson became greenskeeper of Arcade Lanes' hardwood -- in 1978, a team from Portland, Ore., rolled a 3,782, tops in the country that year. Lampson prefers to work his magic in secret, but those who've watched say his technique is eccentric. He is infamous for applying oil with a pump-style bug sprayer like the one Vito Corleone uses on his tomatoes in The Godfather. And whereas everyone else uses Zambonilike machines to finish lanes, Lampson uses burlap strapped to that ancient buffer sitting next to lane 1. The buffer weighs well over 100 pounds. He can still lift it, but just barely. Family and friends helped out the last time he stripped and refinished the wood, about four years ago. The lanes, which must be level side to side within four 1,000ths of an inch, are certified annually by the Greater St. Louis Bowling Association.

Back in the day, Lampson delighted in leaving inspectors flabbergasted. Take the time they accused him of dragging the lanes -- removing excess oil before inspectors arrived -- after yet another 300. Not being able to find any ball marks, they initially rejected the scores. Come back tomorrow, before league bowling, he told them. When they arrived, Lampson had the inspectors sit in the billiards room while he prepped the lanes. After two hours of league bowling, Lampson invited them to inspect to their heart's content. What they found seemed impossible: Ball marks on the first third of the lanes, no marks whatsoever on the middle third and marks again on the last third just before the pins, as if balls had levitated midway through their journey.

The score was sanctioned. Lampson still won't say how he did it.

"At one time, Jim seemed to pride himself -- and that was one of his problems -- on trying to provide the bowler with an opportunity to win award-winning scores more often than necessary," says Don Granberry, an ABC inspector in the '70s who later joined an Arcade league. "He was a master craftsman at fixing his lanes. Jim would stretch the rules to the nth degree -- that's what I remember about him. He would do what he could to keep within the limits, and sometimes he would go beyond the limits. We were the bad guys, but we weren't against him, really. We were just trying to maintain what ABC, the national headquarters, said was the rules. Some of his scores were turned down. But many of them were approved."

Lampson insists his lanes are good for another 25 years, but others say the clock is ticking faster than the water drips above lanes 5 and 6 during a hard rain. "Your ball gets on a weird roll and makes kind of a thunk, thunk, thunk sound," says Travis Boley, curator at the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame, next to Busch Stadium. "I was on the fifth lane, I think, and that tells me that there's some warped wood out there." New lanes, which can cost more than $50,000 each, are out of the question for a just-scraping-by guy like Lampson.

Arcade Lanes was already in decline at the end of the 1980s, when bowling's popularity ebbed and worried proprietors pressured the ABC to allow more oil and otherwise change the standards so that bowling a 300 is now as commonplace as hitting 25 home runs. "There was such a conflict between proprietors and rulemakers that they modified the rules so that, really, the conditions that everyone's bowling on today is what Jim was trying to do back in the '70s," Granberry says.

The days when league bowlers competed under the same conditions as the pros are gone. Averages once sufficient to qualify a bowler for the PBA tour are now barely enough to get top bid on a high-school team. Nearly 40,000 perfect games are rolled each year, even though the number of league bowlers has plummeted from 5 million in the mid-1970s to about a million today. Octogenarians and preadolescents have shot 300s. The ABC, which once bestowed a gold-and-diamond ring on any bowler so skilled, now sends a siladium band and doesn't bother with inspectors. Bowling, say many longtime practitioners, has become too easy, thanks to high-tech balls, synthetic lanes and copious amounts of oil slathered on plastic-coated hardwood.

But not at Arcade Lanes. Lane 5 tilts to the right. Balls anywhere can take quizzical paths to the pins, at times literally zigzagging down the lane. "I think it's great because it's such an inconsistent shot," says Boley, who last shot at Arcade Lanes about a year ago. "I think of it as a great nostalgic throwback -- the way bowling used to be and could be and probably should be. The lanes are all nice and beat-up, so you never know exactly what your ball is going to do. It makes it a real challenge, especially for guys who are used to going to these new houses and throwing these gargantuan scores on a consistent basis. If you can score high there, you can probably score high anywhere."

For the last few years, Lampson has been nominated for the Greater St. Louis Bowling Association Hall of Fame but hasn't gotten the required 70 percent vote to gain admission. If Granberry had his way, Lampson would be enshrined. "Everyone who is even remotely interested in bowling should talk to Jim and have at least an hour devoted to it, because once he gets going, he can really regale you," says Granberry, who was admitted in 1992. "He can tell me things I knew but that I've forgotten about." Granberry thinks old grudges may be keeping Lampson out of the hall -- folks remember his fierce battles with enforcers, and some competing proprietors with voting privileges may be reluctant to honor him.

Dale Bohn, executive director of the association, thinks it's a matter of forgotten greatness. "There's mixed feelings about that," Bohn says. "Yes, he's quite deserving to be in, but it just seems like every year, whoever he goes up against, everybody votes for the other guy. He's done a lot for bowling. Back in the old days, Jim was quite the promoter. Unfortunately, the younger people now don't know it."

Bohn, who inspects each of the region's 982 lanes once a year, sees much to miss in the modern-day bowling center, where bowling is more pastime than passion these days. With fewer and fewer bowlers willing to commit themselves to traditional 35-week leagues, some proprietors are implementing 16-week schedules. The days of bowling houses such as Arcade Lanes are gone forever, Bohn believes, and that's not good for the sport. The way things are going, he says, bowlers will soon be able to swipe their credit cards at laneside and not have to talk to anyone. "There's not the personal involvement," Bohn says. "That's what bowling needs, the personal involvement. It should be a fun family get-together. It just seems like we're getting away from that."

Standing with his back straight and knees slightly bent, Gary Schultz raises his ball above his head until both elbows nearly lock. As the jukebox plays "Theme From Star Wars," he pauses for a few seconds, Zenlike, 16 pounds of Ebonite above his skull, staring straight through the pins 60 feet away. Then one step, two, three and four before he releases, sending the ball straight ahead into the pocket. Crash!

The strike makes his second turkey -- three strikes in a row -- of the evening. For one night, at least, Schultz, proud bearer of a 155 average, is lighting it up. So is his partner, Tom Miller, the other half of Rockets. Both bowl 198s in their final game, the equivalent of at least 225 anywhere else. Then it gets really good.

"Watch what happens when it doesn't count," says Schultz as he sets up on lane 4. Sure enough, it's another strike. Then another. Miller and a few others who are here for the Thursday-night league start watching. Boom. Ten more pins go flying, and Schultz, who customarily finishes his night by bowling until he doesn't get a strike, is on his way to a four-bagger. He's beginning his approach when the lights above the pins go dark and the pinsetter shuts off.

"Charlie!" Schultz and a couple of spectators shout at bartender Charlie Nack, who had figured everyone was done for the night. Miller walks to the bar. "Turn it back on," Miller says. A few seconds later, the pinsetter clanks to life, the lights come on and Schultz approaches the line. But the magic is gone. He leaves three pins but still smiles as he and Miller tally their scores. Halfway through the 35-week season, the defending champion Rockets -- there is no "the" in the name -- are in second place in the six-team league. They needed this.

Schultz occasionally bowled while growing up in Ohio, and Miller, a native St. Louisan, was pretty good in high school, but neither had rolled a ball for more than a decade before discovering Arcade Lanes a couple of years ago. Now, with averages 20 pins better than at the end of last season, they are house aces in Arcade Lanes' only remaining league. It's the only place they bowl.

To be sure, being the best bowler at Arcade Lanes doesn't carry nearly the prestige it once did. About half of the league bowlers on any given Thursday don't have their own shoes or balls. But they do have stories you won't hear at any other bowling house in the city.

There was Waterfall Night a few weeks ago, when a sodden ceiling tile gave way near one of the scoring projectors. And a night last year was straight out of Hitchcock. Schultz was just ready to release his ball when a bird the size of a crow flew out from behind the pins and straight at him. It went up the lane, over his head and behind the bar before disappearing in the darkened billiards room. No one has seen it since.

These bowlers don't care that they occasionally have to sort through pins to find ones that will remain upright after the pinsetter rises. "Up here, we just worry about having fun," Miller says. But dilapidated or not, the Arcade can be an attractive target for money bowlers. With a $20 entry fee and a top prize of around $200, depending on number of entries, Lampson's annual holiday doubles tournament doesn't sound too tough for shooters with 200-plus averages. But battered though they are, these may be the last honest lanes in St. Louis. Even the best Brooklyn hook doesn't mean squat here.

Travis Hendrixson, who bowls tournaments practically every weekend, figured he and his nephew Ned Hendrixson had a better than decent shot during last year's tournament, which unfolds over the course of six weekends in December and January. Ned called him on the last day of competition. "I said, 'You mean to tell me that place is still open?'" Hendrixson recalls. "I hadn't been up there in years. He told me what the [high] score was. It was superlow." Hendrixson doesn't normally enter tournaments when a handicap is in effect -- as a scratch bowler, winning is tough these days when you spot pins and strikes come easy for mediocre bowlers on hot streaks. But with the top score so low, this was different. He and Ned headed straight to U. City, making it just in time to bowl the tournament's final game.

Traveling tournament shooters such as the Hendrixsons are regarded as gunslingers at Arcade Lanes. "You don't want them to break your tournament," says Nack, one of the few regulars from Arcade's heyday who's still there. "You want your bowlers to win." The Hendrixsons were easy to peg -- few bowlers bother lugging four balls apiece up the 19 steps. They came close, but even though they had the highest scratch score, they couldn't beat Schultz and Miller, who, with handicaps factored, finished 11 pins ahead and collected $180. Their winning score of 1,493, bowled the first day of competition, wouldn't have been in the money five years ago, when the 18th-place team rolled 1,558 and went home with $25. Travis Hendrixson, who plans to come back this year, isn't complaining.

"Put it this way: It's the most honest-scoring shot you're going to find, bad as it is," he says. "It's a very competitive lane condition. It's equal for everybody. People don't want to go up there and bowl under those conditions, but we get kind of a bang out of it."

You can't count on striking your way out of trouble at Arcade Lanes. "Spares, that's what counts," says Hendrixson, who isn't proud of averaging 220, about 20 pins better than he did 30 years ago when he was in his prime. He believes the game has gotten too easy and figures he'd average between 170 and 180 at Arcade Lanes if he bowled there regularly.

"With the conditions he has, it's not a strike game, it's just trying to close the frame," he says. "It's just tough."

Lampson is telling a story about the Merchant Marine when he's interrupted by the death-ray alarm.

Momentarily stunned, a man and woman are standing at the top of the stairs. They are dressed for Wall Street: Starched white shirt, silk tie, wingtips; sensible pumps, cashmere sweater, perfect hair. Lampson is wearing navy work pants and a baby-blue polo shirt, both stained.

It's time to conduct some business.

The man introduces the woman as his office manager. She wanders around a bit, eyes wide, drinking it all in. "Look, there's a shuffleboard," she says. "And pool tables." The man shakes hands with Lampson, as if they're old friends, but it's soon clear they don't know each other. He remembers Lampson from a party about 10 years ago. "There were a couple hundred people here," he says. "It was a riot." He wants a repeat for his office Christmas fête.

"Can you make margaritas?" he asks. "Do you mind if we bring in a case of white wine?" After so many years, this is old hat for Lampson. "I'll tell you how we do it," he explains. "Real simple. Hot wings, raviolis, pizza, salad, barbecued hotdogs." Plus, of course, bowling and drinks -- the deluxe package, which includes an open bar, costs $27 per person, but price doesn't come up as the men strike a deal in 10 minutes. The man tells Lampson to buy a couple bottles of Dewars and a case of chardonnay. "All I'm going to do is bring in a fruit-and-cheese tray," he says. "Give me a receipt for the whole thing when we're done."

Private parties, where revelers are apt to hike balls football-style through their legs, are what pays the bills at Arcade these days -- with the help of his grandchildren and a few friends, Lampson can gross more than $1,000 on a good night, which makes up for all the other nights when the lanes stay dark.

Partygoers rarely notice the scoreboard on the south wall that commemorates all the perfect games, including several by bowlers who ended up in the PBA Hall of Fame. But in France, they understand.

"Une caverne prehistorique," writes Benoit Heimermann in an article featuring Arcade that appeared last spring in L'Equipe, the French equivalent of Sports Illustrated. "Des dinosaurs de metal actionnes par d'antiques..." You don't have to live in Paris to catch the drift.

The French came to St. Louis in search of bowling's soul and referred to Arcade's proprietor as Jim "The Legend" Lampson in a story read by millions. Besides Arcade, Lampson took the journalists to the Hall of Fame and Tropicana, but Lampson, who donned a clean shirt for the occasion, ended up with the biggest picture and as much ink as anyone else.

Lampson may be a legend in the eyes of the French, but not everybody's a fan. "He's the biggest fucking asshole I've ever seen in my life," says University City Fire Marshal Joe Rice. "He got on my bad side some years ago. I'm a bowler, you know, and I just happened to go down there one morning to get some practice. He said, 'Well, how long are you going to bowl?' I said, 'Well, I don't know, I'm not going to bowl that long.'" Like most avid bowlers, Rice is accustomed to bowling on alternating lanes. But Lampson wasn't in the mood that day. "He said, 'You can bowl on one lane -- it costs less money to operate one lane than it does to operate two lanes.' I said, 'I don't want no one lane, I want two lanes.' He said, 'Well, you take what I offer.' I said, 'Fuck you,' and I took my ball and walked out. And I haven't been in that damn place since. I send people in there to inspect. But every now and then, just for the hell of it, I go in and see what he's doing in there." Rice has never found anything more serious than fire extinguishers that need recharging.

The fire marshal's opinions notwithstanding, newcomers to the sport won't find any better personal attention than at Arcade Lanes, where Lampson gives lessons to anyone who asks and no one laughs at a gutter ball. His teaching method is direct. "You want your thumb to point straight up in the air," he growls for the umpteenth time to a novice having trouble with his follow-through. "Remember! Thumb in the air. You're throwing like a girl." His gruffness comes off as contrived. Though he no longer bowls himself, he'll spend as much time as you want dissecting your game. If he thinks it's for a good cause, he'll cut his prices. He recently charged a Boy Scout troop $1 a head, shoes included, for a session that lasted well over an hour.

Schultz calls it a perfect place for romance. "It's probably a good second-date place because you know you'll be alone," he says "Talk about Elvis renting out a bowling alley -- you can be the only one here."

Lampson says he got into the business because he liked watching people jump in the air, and he still does, even if there are fewer strikes to celebrate. He's been here more than 10 hours now, staying late because he didn't have a bartender lined up and a woman called asking whether he'd be open. While he waits for her, a couple of guys show up who stopped by for the first time a few days ago. They were on their way to pick up some takeout food then, but they're back for beer and billiards. As Lampson shows off his Victrolas, one of them tells him he can't believe he's lived just around the block all these years and had never heard about this place. They stay for nearly two hours, not caring that it's too cold to remove their sweaters and wool caps.

The woman who called earlier shows up at 8 with her boyfriend. Both are in their early 20s, and she's entranced by Lampson, who flirts using a license that comes with age. "You're funny!" she giggles as he pantomimes his ear-kissing technique that is guaranteed irresistible. Lampson heads to the jukebox as they stroll to the lanes. Tonight, the music's on him, and he picks it perfectly. By the end of the second song, there's as much necking as bowling going on at lane 7. Behind the bar, Lampson jitterbugs with a make-believe partner to the sounds of "Cab Driver" by the Mills Brothers. He leans over to steal a glimpse at the happy couple and comes up satisfied.

"Life," he says, "is great."

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