Kingpins

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.

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."

But some bowlers do win. Abdul Sulley, a thickly muscled personal trainer originally from Ghana, started bowling here five years ago after his father died. "I was numb, I couldn't feel anything at all," he remembers. "I started practicing seven nights a week. I'd yell, scream, jump up in the air. Bowling got me back in touch with my emotions." It also cost him a girlfriend who "told me to stick my dick in a bowling ball." But the same week he won his first tournament for $3500. It was a fair trade, he says.

On Saturday night he rolls a measly 165 in his first game. Frame after frame, he leaves the 10 pin standing and stares at it—forlorn and defiant in the right-hand corner—costing him 11 points and a shot at the money. Sulley studies how his ball strikes the three pin, watches how the three pin spins back into the six pin, and tries to decipher why the six is banging off the wall instead of taking down the 10 pin behind it.

He moves an inch to his right, straightens his delivery and begins to roll strikes. He bowls a 225, then a 247, and finishes with a 214. His partner isn't hot tonight and they don't make the board, but Sulley wins both the high-game and high-series pots. He picks up his $120 and moves to the snack bar, so amped up his body seems to be vibrating, his words coming out in a rush: "When you're on a streak, your hand starts to shake, your palms sweat from the adrenaline. It's, it's almost orgasmic, you ever try to get with a girl, you chase and chase her and finally she gives herself to you? You're like a kid—pure love, that's what this feels like," he says.

Continuing with the love metaphors, Abdul says, "I tried to quit [bowling] a few times. You ever been in love and the girl didn't love you? You say I'm gonna leave her, but she keeps pulling you back. It's like an addiction." Nearly every serious bowler at Bedford uses this word.

But others credit the alley with saving lives. Kendall Knight, a slightly grizzled Amiri Baraka look-alike, started bowling at Bedford Bowl in the 1950s. He coached the junior leagues for years and says strange men still call out his name on the street. "I don't recognize them, they're all grown up—they're kids I coached," he explains. "Now they got their own kids with them."

One day back in the 1950s, a woman he bowled with introduced Kendall to her daughter, whom he later married. The young couple enrolled their son Kevin in the peewee league when he was five or six; Kevin became an avid bowler as well. "I grew up here," he says. "This place saved a lot of kids, it gave us something to do, kept us off the streets." One night when Kevin was about 20, he met Bridget, a pretty, dark-haired woman at the Bedford Bowl's "Trudat" snack bar. They began to date, married, and now he stands with his hand on Kevin Jr.'s head in Bedford's crowded lobby. Three-year-old Kevin Jr. looks to be about a year out of diapers. He bowls in the same peewee league his father bowled in, in the same building his father, mother, grandfather, and great-grandmother still bowl in.

It is unlikely a fifth generation of Knights will bowl here. Linda Chin, Bedford's eternally cheerful owner, confirms that New York State is trying to condemn the property; Medgar Evers Community College, sitting catty corner to Bedford Bowl, wants the building, allegedly for storage space. If Bedford closes it will join the roll call of former Brooklyn alleys James Parker remembered earlier in the evening: "Duplex, closed now; Strand, closed now; State, closed now; Dean Street, closed now." And people will go elsewhere for their highs.

"Back in '88, I was strung out on cocaine and heroin," explains Muhsin Shakir, a well-spoken, two-time winner of the Progressive Tournament. It's nearly 3 a.m. now and he sits in a Brooklyn diner, the waiter looking askance at his cowboy boots and dreadlocks. "October 17, 1988, I tried to kill myself—I OD'd," he says. "When I woke up I asked God to direct me to where it was he wanted me."

After completing a 12-step program, he went back to his job and overheard his coworkers talking about their bowling league. "I saw the happiness on their faces. I said, 'You bowl for trophies?' "

"We bowl for money," they told him.

"So, how much, like five, 10 dollars?"

"No," the answer came back, "$6000."

Muhsin was soon bowling every day, using the sport to fill a void—to keep him from "running to the pusher man." His first official average was a paltry 110, but he won most-improved bowler two years in a row, and soon entered the Progressive Tournament. "I won high-game one night but I didn't understand how it worked." When he came back a few weeks later, they handed him an envelope full of cash. "Like any other addict, I was hooked," he says.

"I don't just play the game, I love the game. When I'm making money, I'm having big fun," he laughs, before climbing into his car for the drive home to the Bronx. For Abdul, whom Muhsin now coaches, the thrill is a bit different. "You get to be a star in your own way," he says. "That's what everybody wants, 15 minutes of fame." Neither philosophy matters much to Mary Ward, the tournament organizer. "Bowl, bowl, bowl," she says. "That's what these people want to do."

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