On my way home from a doctor’s appointment, I saw the perfect site that I believe contains the perfect subculture for an ethnographic study; the bowling alley! I instantly thought of the essay we, as a class, read called “Friday Night at Iowa 80.” At the truck stop, Iowa 80, there was so much more than I ever would have known without having read Rick Zollo’s findings. Just as the truck stop had more than just fuel pumps, restrooms, and a restaurant and little store, so the bowling alley has more than just bowling lanes, restrooms and a restaurant. This particular bowling alley, Summit Lanes Bowling Center, located at 3 Park Drive East in the Pocono Summit of Pennsylvania, also has pool tables, a pro shop, an arcade, a children’s playroom, a restaurant and separate lounge, meeting hall, and locker rooms. They hold leagues for all ages and host tournaments for both bowling and pool. There are many employees along with league bowlers and walk-ins. They have their own way of dressing, their own rules, rituals, and rivalries, not to mention the smattering of artifacts exclusively found in a bowling alley. Though the site itself is a “bowling alley” I am thinking of this subculture more along the lines of a world games and game players.
I am eager to begin watching, listening, learning the specific behavior and language of both the patrons and the employees, and finding out what their shared interests and values are. I think it will be interesting to learn why there are so many leagues and why so many people choose to participate. I would really like to find out the history of bowling, how and when it started, who started it, and why. I want to learn what is involved in the pro shop other than a place to buy bowling balls and any other number of items used in bowling, and what those items are. I want to learn how much interaction goes on, on a personal level, between the leaguers and the staff and what is the most common age group that frequents this establishment. I am also interested in whether the leaguers have the same type of attitude to the walk-ins as did the truckers to the non-truckers at Iowa 80. Other questions I intend to answer are, does the arcade bring in people and what age group, outside of the bowling activities. What is the children’s playroom and does it have someone there to supervise and look after the children? Does this service bring in more bowlers than otherwise would be there without the playroom? Quite honestly, there are just too many variables of what I will learn to try to list them all in advance, as there may be more than meets the eye that I have yet to discover.
Other than observing and talking to different people about different aspects, I also hope to get involved as well. I may join a league, if it is not too expensive, or just bowl a few games and do a kind of comparison between myself and others who are there at the time. I love to shoot pool, though the way I play is called “slop” because I don’t know the actual rules of playing, but only how to aim and shoot, hoping for the best. I, of course, will eat in their restaurant and play a little of this or that in the arcade. I anticipate spending a considerable amount of time in the pro shop, as just from a glance, there is quite a lot going on in there. And finally, if the children’s playroom is run by volunteers, I may take a shift or two there and talk to the children and get an insight on their experience at the bowling alley.
I have been in bowling alleys at different times in my life and for different reasons. When I was five years old, my dad taught me how to bowl and signed me up for a league or two. That was 35 years ago, so I do not remember much about the bowling alley itself or its patrons; only the coaching I received from my father and Uncle Zach, a colleague and friend of my dad’s. I still have the tiny little bowling shirt I wore adorned with several patches for things like “most improved average,” and “highest score.”
When I was 19 years old, I moved to Oregon and lived in an apartment that was one block east of the bowling alley. My roommate worked full-time and was almost never home, and I did not feel comfortable being alone in the apartment. I went to the alley, one parking lot over, and felt it would be a good place to hang out where I wouldn’t be completely alone, in spite of the fact that I didn’t know anyone there. I would sit in the restaurant, oblivious to all the people and activities around me, writing for hours in my journal.
On the occasion that my dad would come to visit me, we would go and bowl a few games, but during these times, the alley was pretty empty except for a few other amateurs coming in with a group of friends, or parents with their children. Aside from these rare visits with my dad, the last time I was in a bowling alley, was when I was 21 years old. I was nine months pregnant with my first son, and he was five days past his due date, which is why we, my now ex-husband and I, were at the alley to begin with. My hope was that bowling for a couple of hours might finally push my body into labor. (Incidentally, five hours after returning home, I did, in fact, go into labor!) Again, my focus was on mine and my husband’s game, therefore, I paid little to no attention to anything else in my surroundings.
From what I remember, bowlers are loud and animated. Lots of cheering, booing, and joking around goes on. I wonder if it is due to the amount of alcohol consumed by these individuals or is it that they can be in a completely different element among their bowling peers than when out in the real world. Are their rivals with different teams friendly or serious and get a little tense at times? Again, I remember little of being on a league of my own when I was five, and have not paid much attention to other leagues during my other encounters with bowling alleys. I am not certain that I have any biases, as I do not yet have a frame of reference for most of what I will study and research.
I do foresee one potential concern that I am very apprehensive about. I am not only a recovering addict, but have been the victim of severe domestic abuse due to my ex-husband’s alcoholism. Though my marriage ended almost 14 years ago, I still have trouble being around anyone who is or has been drinking excessively. At the same time, I will not assume that everyone I come in contact with will be drinking to excess, if at all. The positive side to this is that I do know how to bow out gracefully from a conversation if the person I am speaking with is making me nervous.
Though I will consider almost anyone I talk to an informant to some degree, if I had to guess who my key informants may be, I would begin with the individuals who work behind the main counter, greeting people as they come in, setting up their games, taking their money, and handing out shoes (this is a very necessary item to be used when bowling due to the type of surface on which they stand, walk, and in some cases, glide toward the alley before releasing their grip on the bowling ball). The main person in charge of each of the different elements, or sections, of the establishment also come to mind. I hope to find one or two individuals, possible one male and one female, who are seasoned veterans of bowling on leagues to provide me with information that newbies may not know. And finally, as I, myself, become involved with some of the different activities, hope to be a key informant of a different kind.
The day we pulled into the lot at Summit, after my doctor’s appointment, I walked in and was immediately fascinated by the sights, sounds, and smells that greeted me. The back wall had brightly colored abstract paintings above the lanes. My nostrils filled with the aroma of fresh, hot popcorn and grilled onions; not a likely combination I would choose to put in my mouth, but my nose didn’t seem to mind at all. I could hear a myriad of voices coming from different distances from all corners of the alley and the familiar THUD…swoooooosh, as the bowling balls hit and slid down oiled lanes, and finished with what sounded like hollow, wooden tube wind chimes, (the ball colliding with the pins). Suddenly, an explosion of fireworks under water hit my ears. I have spent almost 20 years of my life as a fast food restaurant manager and could identify the sound immediately as that of a basket of frozen French fries being lowered into a hot vat of oil. I knew right away that this is where I would do my study, providing of course, I received permission to proceed by our professor. I walked slowly, my eyes darting to and fro, a look of amazement on my face. My roommate had to tug on my sleeve and redirect my attention to why I was there and what I needed to do.
I first walked up to the main counter and saw a girl standing behind it having a conversation with someone. I was unable to discern whether they were another employee or a customer. I waited a full two minutes before she spoke to me and when I began my little rehearsed speech, “Hi. My name is Cindy and I am a Psychology Major at Penn State University. I have a major assignment in one of my classes…” Once I got past my name, the look on the girl’s face was almost comical. She had a blank look in her wide eyes, similar to that of a deer who stops and looks directly into your headlights on a dark road late at night. My impression was that she was anticipating hearing something she does not usually hear from people who approach her counter. When I finished speaking, she said she wasn’t sure and, as she pointed to someone behind the counter of their restaurant/grill on the opposite side of the entrance, said I would have to talk to the manager.
The excitement I had felt when I first entered was still swirling in my head, so I did not get discouraged, but rather walked right over, and began my speech once again. The manager, a tall, a heavyset man wearing a blue dress shirt with no tie, gave me his full attention, and very quickly gave me full permission to do all that I needed to for this research, including interviews with both employees and patrons and taking pictures. I thanked him and asked for his card. He said he did not have one and it left me wondering, by the look on his face, if he had ever been asked for a personal business card before. He instructed the woman behind main counter to give me a “Birthday Party Flyer” which contained the address, phone and fax numbers, and website on it.
As a final thought, I asked the woman when the most leagues were playing and the best time to come and get a vast amount of information. She said that Wednesday night was their busiest, with 22 different leagues playing from 7 PM to midnight. This will be the main time of the week I go to do research, however, I will also go on various random days at equally random times. I did a very quick walk around, making note of the many sections that the building contained, and finally, with a smile and “thanks again,” I left for the day. I can’t wait to get started!