31 May, 2011

The Kids Give Gutter Ball a Whole New Meaning


One temperate evening in late spring of my seventeenth year, I sat smoking with my friends Brahm and Tara on Paul's quaint concrete front porch. The house was small, a remnant of an era when that part of the city was still suburbs. Even Paul, oldest among us, couldn't have known a time when traffic noise and sirens did not reach his rented home. Around the city's haze, darkness was creeping into crevasses, and we were idly contemplating a plan of action, in the way of many Midwestern American youth, when I noticed a wheelbarrow on the neighbor's curb — a wheelbarrow full of bowling balls.

The narrow street's residents had set their trash out for morning pickup, but Paul's neighbors obviously expected a bit more than the usual performance out of their sanitation engineers. Nine bowling balls! Of all the things to throw away. And what a way to get them to the street: in a perfectly serviceable garden implement. As with much curbside trash, the juxtaposition was humorous while also being baffling.

Nine bowling balls... in a wheelbarrow.

Brahm asked the sanest question. "What garbage man's going to expend the time and effort to lift a bunch of heavy balls into his truck?"

"It's not a bunch," I said. "Bananas come in bunches; bowling balls, plural — that's called a passel."

Unsmiling, Tara took a drag from her Camel, flipped her hair and deadpanned, "Oh, yes. Funny."

My humor is of a singular brand, but Brahm was right. No two men, however hale and fit, were going to take away the balls, by either picking them up one at a time or by heave-hoing the entire wheelbarrow. Our pal Paul's neighbors were asking too much.

"Someone could still use these," said Tara upon inspecting the mound. The balls were of all different colors and weights, some in solid colors, some with eccentric swirly patterns. Two were flecked metallic, like Hot Wheels toy cars. Only one appeared damaged, with a big sidelong split in its pearly shell. "I guess they just didn't feel like playing anymore."

"I wouldn't mind a game," I said, looking up and down the street. "Too bad they didn't throw away a set of pins — we could play right here."

Sometimes when you're with friends and someone has a fantastic idea, the way the idea surfaces seems, when reflected upon later, to have been born of the combined consciousness — groupthink. This was the case at that moment, standing under a buzzing yellow streetlight with two of my best friends, when we decided to go street bowling.

A surprisingly large percentage of homeowners are funny about others making off with their trash. Having dumpster-dived and scavenged a good deal in my limited years, I had learned how some people's paranoia could turn innocent salvage operations into scary dressings-down ("Get outta there, you parasites!") or worse. So we asked for, and received, Paul's okay to load the spherical contents of his neighbors' wheelbarrow into the trunk of my busted-up Pontiac and head for the hills.

We figured the best pins available would be empty bottles, and that the best place to turn into our personal alley would be an out-of-the-way stretch of road where some broken glass wouldn't make a whole lot of difference to anyone. Step one was easy and could also technically be considered neighborhood beautification. Anywhere with liquor stores, pawn shops, and mobile phone depots will do for finding a slew of discarded bottles. By picking them up, we'd be doing a public service. Conveniently enough, a sketchy midtown strip wasn't far away.

We drove slowly, in the far-right lane, eyes peeled for cast-off forty-ouncers glinting in the grassy median. Each time we stopped at the curb to retrieve some, my friends leapt out, laughing at the silliness of what we were doing then dropping another stinky armful into the trunk to acquaint itself with the balls. Reports from the back seat each time were that more bottles had been crushed; we hadn't even thought about keeping the balls from rolling around freely.

"Your trunk is full of glass dust," Tara told me with a smirk.

For fun, and to emphasize how little I cared about the state of my battered wreck's little-used stowage compartment, I gave the steering wheel a slight tug. Behind us was heard a muffled thunk, ka-thunk! We all giggled like schoolchildren.

We ended up on Cliff Drive, a twisty-turny route in woodsy northeast Kansas City that, in spite of being officially historical, was pretty shabby. Pull-offs had, in some distant era, offered motorists fine cliffside views of a wealthy part of the city, but were now litter-strewn, overgrown, and under-trafficked — in other words, perfect.

I pulled in at one of these ill-lit roadside crescents, crushed glass from parties of yore crackling beneath my tires. A six-inch retaining wall on the cliffside wouldn't have prevented incautious drivers from rolling right off, free-falling through trees and a dense overgrowth of vines, into a carpeting of litter — empty bottles, plastic cups, cigarette packs, and who-knows-what-all — thirty feet below. The lack of guardrails or wire evidenced the location's bygone relevance. It had been all but abandoned by the city. I cut the engine and popped the trunk, announcing, "Welcome to Cliff Drive Lanes, people!"

Brahm and I agreed to let the lady bowl first. We crouched to set up a triangle of ten bottles away from the road, near the retaining wall, while Tara picked a blue ball from the trunk. She put the road between us and rubbed her hands vigorously, preparing for action. (Some distance from the pins was necessary to approximate actual bowling; we were determined to preserve a little authenticity.) As soon as we were clear of the estimated glass shrapnel radius, she let fly. The ball rumbled past me and Brahm like a blur — the girl had a good arm — smashed through seven of our makeshift pins, bounced with a hollow pok! off some hitherto unseen ripple in the asphalt, and disappeared into the blackness without a sound.

"Damn," Tara said. "Did it go over?"

Brahm shot to the edge, his long hair flying, and peered down over the low wall. Whatever he expected to see wasn't there. "Oh yeah," he chortled. "It's gone."

"Should that be a penalty?" I wondered aloud.

"Hey, way to make up rules as you go along," said Tara, genuinely upset. "I should get a pass if we're playing that way."

"No rules, just play," Brahm said. He stooped into my trunk and chose a ball. Tara and I crowded him as we retrieved replacements for the obliterated "pins." When he took a long-legged running start, I knew my mischievous friend intended to send his ball the way Tara's had gone. This was understandable. There's something kind of funny about launching a sixteen-pound composite-plastic piece of sports equipment off a cliff. When only three pins shattered, Brahm didn't mind. He was too preoccupied by the pok! that sent his brown orb into oblivion. "That was great," he said. Of course Tara and I agreed.

Not all our balls went over. Our fun wouldn't have lasted very long if they had. Street bowling quickly became a sport of some finesse as we worked to find the sweet spot — that ideal inertia for breaking as many pins as possible without sending the balls down to a wooded grave. Recovering the ones just bowled became an even bigger challenge than bowling itself, because the road's incline often sent them caroming to the right. We laughed to watch whoever was on fetching duty scuttle downhill after a runaway. The posture required was a through-the-legs-backwards catch that stripped the fetcher, hilariously, of any possible dignity. All this was worth the road grime and pulverized glass that clung to our palms.

When the last ball, already cracked almost in two before I bowled it, rolled erratically away from me, completely missing the final remaining pins, and, with a grrrr, pok! vanished, the three of us brushed our hands on our clothes.

"Hey, I sparkle," exclaimed Tara, grinning and holding her tiny palms up to the light. We all looked. They glimmered like fairy dust.

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