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South Towne Lanes Summer League Springs Forth

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South Towne Lanes Summer League Springs Forth
by Mike Hulter, EDN

South Towne Lanes

In my continued efforts to explore and enjoy Eugene I had the good luck to find South Towne Lanes, the bowling alley down on 25th and Willamette. Bowling is an American sport, and most bowling alleys feel quite similar, like Safeways or Chevrons, except bowling alleys are welcoming and exude personality and history with a strong tie to youth and the sweet relaxing simplicity of the only sport during which you get to sit down more than baseball.

I’m obviously not a bowler, seeing as the techniques I was most fascinated with were the various versions of high fives. One guy would jump for every high five, and not because of shortness. Another guy would do a false leap with an ironic dead pan face, offering shoulder level high fives. What shocked me was people high fiving other teams. Don’t you want them to lose? Or are they enthused enough by the social implications, not needing the added boost of outdoing someone?

I went to South Towne Lanes in hopes of interviewing Lenny the owner, but wouldn’t ya know it, I showed up on Summer league opening night. Lenny was bowling with his 82 year old father Kenny on lane one, so I decided to start by just blending in and being there. The first thing I noticed as I sipped my frosty PBR was how quiet the noise was. Why so low? In a moment it came to me : they keep it quiet enough to hear the pins drop.

Occupying 8 of the alley’s 16 lanes, Tuesday night Summer league seems to draw a fairly young crowd, half the occupants being under 30. Throwing a strike will net you 3 to 6 high fives. Even hitting a spare will get you a cheer from the strangers in the next lane. And perhaps that’s precisely the difference here. They don’t treat you like a stranger. I managed to speak with Eric, a “bowl tender”, who is a server at the Lotus Garden but keeps his job at the alley because “It’s enjoyable, relaxing, and I bowl.”

The art on the wall is bowling balls and pins shooting through space on one wall, and a bowling ball sun with winged pins on the other wall, both done by Erica, an ex employee. It seems brighter with less corners than other bowling alleys. I was never allowed at my local alley because of all the drunks. South Towne Lanes doesn’t seem to cater to this type of bowling. Eric was happy to speak with me, and gave me some fascinating edges on the bowling experience. He recommended a book called Bowling Alone for an in depth analysis of the connotations of bowling. Eric gave a fascinating interview telling me about his youth in Rhode Island where the local bowling alley was a well known Mafia front, so he was never allowed to play there. Eric explained the superficial differences between open play and league play, and encouraged me to stick around and take part, so I did.

Southtowne sports deeper gutters and less oil on the planks

During the interview, Lenny the owner would pause next to us long enough to discourage me. “Don’t write an article about bowling until you’ve bowled league for a season.” He said at one point, and went back to bowling with his dad. It’s obvious that this is Lenny’s home, and he’s here because he loves it.

It’s hard to be discouraged by that, even when he’s saying “Don’t write!” League play is different. This became quickly apparent. Taking one or two or three friends’ is fun. You watch each other bowl, critique each others forms, and bask in the presence of people you already know, but league play is far more complicated, and not as easily defined or diatribed on.  As Eric the bowl tender put it, “You’re doing tourist anthropology. Showing up once won’t get you the experience. Look at Lenny. He’s on a team with his 82 year old dad, and a 19 year old kid. League play gives you a chance to connect with people you wouldn’t give a second glance otherwise.” You get to know why each person bowls. Some are business owners, and this is their only escape from the stresses of running a company. It’s a blend of social and competitive. It gives folks an excuse to come together.

South Towne Lanes is known as the traditionalist bowling alley, using less oil so it’s harder to hook the ball, which is seen by purists as a sloppy scatter shot, deeper gutters so you get a ring 10, and various other minimal differences that are most noticeable on the scoreboard. “Whatever you bowl here, you’ll do 10 or 20 pins better per game elsewhere.” Said Leland, an ex-employee but continued league bowler. Leland is a local drummer who has managed to make his bowling hobby somehow applicable to his musical life. He plans on bowling with his bad hand throughout the Summer season so as to give his drumming a more ambidextrous sound. A member of the old Wow Hall favorite, StopSignGo, Leland has spent some time and found some worthwhile corners to this town. In the hopes of digging up some clues and maybe get shown a few new corners, I decided to press him for an interview between throws.

EDN: So, Leland. You are bowling with your bad hand so as to improve your drumming?

LELAND: That is correct.

EDN: How did you come up with this plan?

LELAND: I’m not sure was actually my idea. It’s really just a form of cross training.

EDN: But cross training is generally between activities that are directly related like running and biking and swimming. How are bowling and music related?

LELAND: Oh, well that’s easy. Music and bowling are both composed of steps. In music you have a three step, 1-2-3,1-2-3, or a 4 step, sometimes even a five step. Same in bowling. It’s the same muscular coordination that goes into a good dance move.

EDN: What is the specific goal of this form of cross training? Are you hoping to build muscle mass in your bad arm, or improve its looseness and dexterity?

LELAND: The goal is to improve dexterity and muscular control.

EDN: Do you take your bowling or your drumming more seriously?

LELAND: Drumming is the main one I focus on, but this is something that can be applied to anything you want to get better at.

It seems that each hobby fills a certain need.  Drumming is a release,as is bowling, but bowling  league also acts as an expression of community.  Opening night Leland’s team, the Beefeaters, (“Where’s the Beef?”) versus his own mother’s team. Needless to say there were high fives all around, even when someone missed the spare.

I asked Leland if he had ever played as a musician at South Towne Lanes, but he made it apparent that he comes to bowl as a bowler, and his ambidextrous development is a way for him to relearn bowling from a new perspective, and not just a tool to enhance his drumming.  He went on to tell me that the bowling alley doesn’t host shows because that could almost be seen as a gimic to draw non-bowlers in, but Lenny doesn’t go for gimics.  Bowling is bowling, and bowlers come here to bowl.  That’s why the music is low, the spirits are high, and the ambiance inviting and loose. Everyone is here for the same reason: To take part in the communal ritual of league bowling.

South Towne Lanes
2486 Willamette Street
Eugene, OR 97405
(541) 345-8575

Michael Hulter spent his formative years in the Santa Cruz Mountains enjoying the serene redwood forest setting of the San Lorenzo Valley. He recieved his Bacheoler of Arts in English at UC Berkeley after which he quickly immersed himself in the culture and community of Berkeley's Caffe Med, the diner where Ginsberg wrote Howl. An avid writer and musician, Michael hopes to soon finish his "Premature Memoirs" and start playing music under the moniker Monkeyhands. When he's old he hopes to tour Junior Colleges teaching creative expression therapy.

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