A VISIT TO the neighborhood bowling alley was as much a part of a week lived in Baltimore as a soda at Read's drug, the ordeal of shopping for new pants to wear to school, a ride on the No. 8 streetcar, or a $2 bet at Pimlico.
Neighborhood duckpin lanes were scattered all over the area, often in basements or above shops. They tended to be one flight up or down. If a builder had some space left over, he installed hardwood maple lanes, gutters and automatic pinsetters, along with the inevitable snack bar and a cubicle for renting bowling shoes.
You knew you were in an important bowling alley if the snack bar offered french fries with gravy. There was often a sputtering neon sign for what passed, in 1950s Baltimore, as the neighborhood health club. Or so we thought. I think it's interesting that our largest bowling alley, a multifloor affair on Howard Street, called itself the Recreation Center.
The names fascinated me. The Hill Top on Rogers Avenue was named after Pimlico. The Homeland took its name from the neighborhood. The Spillway, on East Monument Street, was renowned for the quality of its floors. The Southway, in South Baltimore, remains a valiant survivor. And the Liberty Heights Bowling Academy won the title for the fanciest name. There were many more, including lanes built deep within the Baltimore Country Club in Roland Park.
Baltimore was then an undisputed duckpin town. It was a point of local pride that we invented the game -- or at least legend says we did -- and were loyal to it. It peaked in popularity during the winter months. There were citywide tournaments around the holidays, and it could be hard to find an alley free on a February Sunday afternoon.
Ten-pin bowling was a complete mystery -- something difficult and foreign. I had to cross state lines before I saw a game. In Pennsylvania, the bowling balls were heavy and had holes drilled in them. The scores were also a lot higher than our measly 99s or 131 on a very good Sunday afternoon.
Like neighborhood churches, movie theaters and restaurants, bowling alleys developed their own loyal constituencies. My family and Guilford Avenue friends had two within easy walking distance.
The Stadium Lanes were one flight up from the Gorsuch Avenue A&P; store. This was a big bowling alley, managed for many years by ex-Oriole Eddie Rommel. I can recall winter birthday parties there as Chubby Checker sang "The Twist." It was large, with the lanes roughly the size of the aisles in the supermarket one flight down.
The alley I liked the best was properly called the Boulevard, but we always called it Schwaab's. It had no snack bar, just an ancient, nickel-only candy machine. But it was one flight up from the best soda fountain and confectioner in Waverly, the place where the Schwaab family made its own ice cream and baked wedding cakes.
Few people ever bowled alone. You bowled with family, dates, friends, co-workers, or maybe a church or school group. Your score placed a distant second to those bowling-night friendships forged in the old neighborhood.
Bowling may have billed itself as an exercise, but this was a stretch. It was an afternoon or evening out with your own social club. Whatever calories you might have burned were more than compensated for by a visit to Schwaab's fountain or a White Coffee Pot restaurant.
My late mother rarely missed a week with her bowling friends. We knew that if she failed to post for the maple lanes she was really under the weather -- not suffering from a get-some-sympathy malady.
Her form never varied. She shot the ball down the alley between drags on her trademark tobacco product, an unfiltered Lucky Strike. One puff before, then the butt went in her mouth. She swung the ball behind her back, took it forward and sent it down the alley.
She was quite proud of her average and the silver-tone trophy she'd be handed every spring at her team's annual luncheon. She didn't often take the award for high game or high average. The little plaque on the bottom most often said "Perfect Attendance," the same two words that characterized Baltimore's affection for this humble game.
Pub Date: 2/08/98