Many years ago, an eminent book reviewer and writing teacher gave a tidbit of advice to a circle of breathless students:
"Every few years, you've got to change bars," he said.
Sounded good for anyone who had a bar. I was a slow learner and did not catch on to the comfort and society to be found in a public gathering spot until a couple of years ago.
That was when I became an enlistee in the Childrens Hospital bowling league. It had about 30 members of widely varying skill. Most were employees of the hospital and their families.
Among them were three generations of the Romeros and also the Mancilla family, whose infant children, though too young to compete, found ways to amuse themselves up and down the aisles. Along with janitors, secretaries and technicians, the hospital's payroll supervisor, Sarah Mason, also played, as did a warm, spirited office worker named Alice Warmuth, who usually bowled in a business dress, without much skill, and laughed a lot at her own expense, a useful gesture that kept the competition from being taken too seriously.
The league meets Monday nights at the All Star Lanes, a weary establishment on Eagle Rock Boulevard near Avenue 45. Besides 20 lanes, it has a bar, a dance floor, a pool table, some electronic games and a cafe whose friendly proprietor Art serves delicacies from the Philippines as well as burgers and fries. At night, you have to know it's there to find it. The large "BOWL" sign has gone out one letter at a time and is now dark.
All Star Lanes survives by keeping its rates in line and its atmosphere congenial to all types.
The Childrens league, which uses only about a third of the alley, coexists with another group whose members come in later in the night and crackle with what appears to be lifetime dedication to the only sport in which alcohol is consumed as an integral part of play. They bowl and drink with equal gusto, and their score cards, illuminated overhead, fill up with many more Xs than ours.
The competitiveness of our league lay mostly in two teams, Quiet Assassins and Hang In Babe, which battled each season for first place.
Quiet Assassins' Earl Hendrex and Randy Vanderstay had been teammates for years. Randy, a supervisor in the hospital's electronic unit and also president of the league, was a quiet Texan with a strong, lean style.
Earl was loose and garrulous. He would windmill his arm and bounce into a mini acrobat's split when he threw a good ball and crumple on the sidelines in shame after releasing a bad one. "No mercy!" was his favorite expression. He was free with advice to the less-experienced.
Luis Colon, a tight and muscular New Yorker, was the master of Hang In Babe. His team changed from season to season, but whoever played with him became as intense and focused as he was. When I first wrote about him, I noted a buck knife at his belt.
The next week, he grinned with pride about the notoriety but pointed to his empty belt and said:
"See, no knife."
Luis belonged to the All Star Lanes more than Childrens Hospital. He spent many nights there, bowling in several leagues. What he did for a living was unknown, but his contribution to the league was to run the side pot--$1 per person per game, winner takes all, minus a tip to Luis. Collecting was a masterpiece of hustle because most of us knew what our chances were in a game of skill.
Keeping a league together also requires hustle. There is always attrition. The Romeros dropped out after winter league two years ago. Others came and went. Rosie Magdaleno had to drop out last winter a few weeks before her baby was due. Sarah also called it quits.
Then in the spring, Luis suddenly disappeared. Someone said he was on vacation, but he didn't come back. His team took on a substitute.
Earl and Randy failed to show up this summer. Rosie Magdaleno, who had returned, bringing her baby along in a plastic recliner, was named league president in Randy's place. She said the hospital laid Randy off in a reduction in force.
Luis showed up briefly this summer but didn't bowl. He was ordered not to as a condition of parole. Over coffee, he told me that he would be staying awhile in a halfway house near Hollywood and Vine. He could get out on pass if he had a job. Art had hired him to work in the cafe.
Art interrupted the conversation to ask Luis to repair a table that was breaking away from the wall. Art went to the table and rattled it to demonstrate.
"Do you have a hammer and a screwdriver?" Luis asked.
"In the back," Art said.
"Go get them for me, and I'll fix it."
Luis didn't last in the kitchen and hasn't been back much since.
Rosie hustled between seasons and put all the teams back together with a lot of new faces. She asked me to be vice president.
That's when the words of the teacher came back.
The institution will carry on even when the faces within it change. Presidents will retire, and vice presidents move up to take their places.
But my contribution had expired with Luis' and Earl's and Randy's.
It's time to be looking for a new bar.