At Brooklyn’s Bedford Bowl, the Stakes Are High and the Obsessions Run Deep

Some nights in Bushwick, Pexton Hetmeyer lies in bed dreaming about bowling. In his mind he replays the strikes and spares he threw earlier and thinks about the lane conditions and whether he should have used his "late-hooking ball," or tried another of his nine custom-drilled bowling balls. On tournament days, he awakens and practices flipping his $180 balls into a chair, strengthening his hand and reflexes before leaving for his job as a limo driver.

In the evening, Pexton returns the limo to the garage and heads over to the Bedford Bowl in Brooklyn's Crown Heights. He pulls his ball-laden cart up the hill on Bedford Avenue, past the 40-foot-high murals of famous African Americans and scenes from Egypt that cover Bedford Bowl's exterior. Inside, Pexton anxiously checks the board to see if his name is still at the top, then looks around for his two brothers and his father Sam Hetmeyer, who has been bowling here for 25 years.

Though he started bowling only last year, Pexton (and his partners) hold first and third places in Bedford Bowl's "Tri-Doubles Progressive Tournament" (first prize $7000), currently running through April 9. This is good money, but nothing out of the ordinary in New York's high-stakes world of "amateur" bowling—a world where bowlers travel from alley to alley looking for big-money tournaments, the next "Weekend Special," or maybe just a sucker willing to place a small side bet.

Alley cat: bowling for the big bucks in Crown Heights
photo: Michael Kamber
Alley cat: bowling for the big bucks in Crown Heights

Several thousand New York City bowlers spend their nights and weekends traveling this circuit of lanes: Gil Hodges out on Flatbush Avenue, Van Wyck in Queens, and Gun Hill in the Bronx. Holiday weekends mean Friday-night caravans leaving Bedford for Rochester, Boston, or the $100,000 annual tournament in Cincinnati.

Tonight the bowlers socialize for a bit, then unpack their balls and choose partners. "No sense in staying together," Pexton says of his former partner with whom he holds the tournament lead. "We already cash once." Once a high score is posted, the partners immediately split up and try to better that score with someone else. In this way they can win prize money for first place and—if their previous score holds—second or third place as well. As for who makes a good partner, "You look to see who's hitting the house," Pexton explains in his thick Guyanese accent.

Tonight all of the 30 or so bowlers are locals known to the tournament organizers. This makes life easier for Mary Ward, one of the tournament organizers. "Some people dump their averages," she explains. That is, they intentionally bowl poorly in non-money tournaments, then use their extra handicap points based on their low averages to win money tournaments in other cities.

"We watch the way they throw the ball. One guy came in here from D.C. His average was 176. I watched him bowl. I told him, 'You are not a 176 bowler.' " The bowler would not agree to raise his average. Mary threw him out.

There is no official beginning to the tournament on this night, just a fuzzy voice over the p.a. calling the bowlers to their lanes. The chatter ceases and a quiet descends over the alley save for the thud of balls hitting the maple and the low hum as they roll down the floor. Ten feet from lane's end, the balls hit the dry spot (the lanes are coated with a thin sheen of oil), veer into the pins, and a hollow rolling crash fills the room. For the next hour the bowlers adjust their stance and release, or try their different balls to the rhythm of the falling pins.

Though these are some of the best bowlers in New York City, most are bowling around 200. The difficulty of taking the lead quickly becomes apparent. The current high score is 1046: the sum of Pexton and his former teammate's high series (two consecutive games by each teammate). Partners would have to average four consecutive 265 games to get to the top of the board. Conversely, there is no need to be down about one's last bad game. Here at Bedford, one high series takes the $7000 first prize—a team can do well consistently and win nothing; another can do poorly for weeks, have one good series, and take the money.

After the first series ends, bowlers wander the alley or get a beer at the 4th Frame Cocktail Lounge before forming new squads. Rolls of cash appear and another $23 entry fee is paid—plus $5 for the optional nightly high-game pot.

"This used to be about having fun, today it's a business," says James Parker, watching nearby. A former Bedford Bowl manager from 1969 to '85, James's picture is up on the wall with the 30 or so others who have bowled a perfect game here. Bedford Bowl's overhead has skyrocketed over the years, and with it tournament entry fees; Parker wonders how bowlers afford it now: "If a guy is single and making a thousand a week, he's taking home $650, he comes here and bowls three squads a night, that's $90. A lot of guys do this three or four nights a week." He shakes his head, "If you don't win no pots, you're up shit's creek."

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