Bernie and Vera Ruzin have run the old duckpin bowling alley on Eastern Avenue nearly all of their lives and they love it the way some people love their families.
Which means they've hung in for almost a half-century at Patterson Bowling because the good times outweigh the aggravation.
When your family numbers more than 400 people -- 14 leagues of bowlers whooping it up under one roof -- that's saying something.
"These are good people," said Vera, 69, on a typical night at Baltimore's oldest continuously operating alley and maybe the only one with stuffed animals in the window.
"If I'm running errands to the bank or the post office, the customers watch the place until I get back," she said. "I've never showed up and said: 'I wish I wasn't working today.' "
Bernie, 73, met Vera at the bowling alley back when his father, a shrewd man from Krakow, Poland, ran the place. Vera was walking down Eastern Avenue and Bernie was looking out the front window, watching the world go by. He asked if he could walk her home, and before she knew it, Vera was a bowler's girl. That was 1945.
Since then, the game that can be traced back to the Stone Age when rocks were rolled at sheep bones, has taken care of them.
Income from the 12 lanes off the corner of Eastern Avenue and Chester Street -- six lanes downstairs, six upstairs -- helped Bern and Vera pay a mortgage and raise a family.
Through the 1960s, he also was a champion, winning in 1962 the prestigious Evening Sun tournament trophy, which stands above the alley's front door. On the final night of his 30-game, 3,984-pin victory, Bernie told the press: "It's a shame everybody can't win to know how it feels."
For $1.50 a game -- compared to the $2.40 to $3.25 nonleague bowlers pay at big-chain alleys -- anybody can walk into the Patterson and know how it feels to knock down some pins under a tin ceiling.
Kids bowl for $1.25 and shoes rent for 50 cents.
"Or nothin' at all. Miss Vera is so kind," said a member of the Wednesday night Sacred Heart of Jesus ladies league. The league moved to the Patterson last year after the Conkling Street church closed its basement alley.
Said league leader Sue Frankowski: "A couple of weeks ago we were laying on the floor carrying on, we were having such a good time."
The place is open seven days a week. Here, a codfish cake sells for 65 cents.
A pot of free coffee sits next to a wooden phone booth and the good-timers and wisenheimers go out of their way to tell Bernie how good it is while sending out for convenience-store java.
Johnny Unitas still throws Memorial Stadium bombs from pictures on the wall, not too far from a big "Honor Roll" board that lists the local aces: Berends, Mrowczynski, Kulacki and Filipowski.
Bernie and Vera have watched many of their customers grow up and grow old.
"You're 52 already?" said Bernie to a guy named Jerry. "You're getting old, man."
Bernie knows old.
"I remember when they were putting the lanes in, I was 6 years old," said Bernie, who maintains a 110 average, down about 25 pins from his heyday. "It's the same wood, except for the patches. We had pin boys until about 1960; that's when we put the machines in."
The benches are also made of wood, like the ones in church, and from these pews, the faithful clang cowbells every time someone rolls a strike, the secret of which once hung from a sign that said: "A SLOW, ACCURATE BALL IS BETTER THAN A FAST WILD ONE."
They are words that teams like the Bums R Back and the No Threat Four live and die by, the credo of folks with gray heads and young hearts, people who love bowling but can't quite explain why.
It's a night out of the house.
But a lifetime of these nights has Bernie and Vera ready to roll their last frame.
"I want to retire. I want to travel or do something, take it easy for a while. I'm 73 years old," said Bernie. "I want to get out."
For three years he has tried to unload the lanes his father built inside an old broom factory in 1927, and for three years -- to the comfort of his customers -- Bernie has failed to close a deal.
He has listed the property with three different Realtors, with an asking price of $190,000 for the building and $225,000 with the business thrown in. Nobody is biting.
"I'm close to boarding it up," says Bernie. "I thought somebody would want the building at least. . . . I loved the bowling game, all these people in here, they're all friends of mine."
And what will happen to all these friends when the lights over the pins go dark for the last time?
"They'll bowl other places," he said.
9- RAFAEL ALVAREZ is a reporter for The Sun.