My age: 35 plus
My experience in the bowling business: almost 21 years
How long I’ve thrown a bowling ball: 31 years.
My love for all of it: almost gone.
Mark Twain once wrote about 9 tips for living an awesome life. While not everyone can do them all, I would think it’s a fair shake that you could do a simple majority of them and feel good about yourself. It includes for the most part things like approve of yourself, do what you love, keep your focus on what you want amongst other things.
I’m at a crossroads in my life for sure. It’s the last straw in this whole big journey in this sport/hobby that I have tried to convince myself for more than 3 decades that it has loved me. Everything that I see however proves that it really doesn’t.
I have always felt that you simply need to get back what you have put into it, more like investment to return. It isn’t like the stock market where there are chances you lose your money, more like a moderate risk/high reward giving of your time, effort and resources to make your life better the more you go on.
The investment of working in a bowling center (one of the higher turnover jobs you could ever imagine, more on that in a bit) comes with a really simple realization that if you invest in it, you don’t half ass it. When you want a life like this, you realize that you need to give up a lot. Primarily your evenings, weekends, nutrition, most out of family relationships and patience. What do you get out of it? Supposedly, one of the few good paying good hour jobs that every once in a while call for hours out of your comfort zone, but you can also get at home to watch the 10pm news and a normal bedtime around midnight (or 1am, when your center closes and you can feel better about something not happening). Along with that, you take on and deal with the type of employees that you have had to work along and now manage on a daily basis. That includes the part timers who just need a paycheck, the kids who will never hang past college graduation, and the others who simply don’t see the day to day vision and just think the 3 days they are putting in 6-7 hours a day is all they need to worry about.
It’s not so much that it’s been 20 years of a paycheck from a bowling center or alley as most of you will call it, it’s how one works to get that paycheck. I started at Sun Valley Lanes in the fall of 1993, hired by Neil Early Jr. to work the Friday/Saturday lane attendant shift. I couldn’t suck enough at it, and got fired 6 months after I started because I was 17 and a terrible employee. But, then I did not know how to be a good employee because I was one of those kids that didn’t see the vision. All the bowling center was to me was 2 days of a weekend that meant I couldn’t do anything with my few friends that I had.
From then, I remember the day I walked into Gateway Bowl and met one of my best friends, Randy Wilson Jr. He gave me the job that made me pay attention, a flippin weekend pinchaser gig. I had to learn from old Shorty Burnley. Shorty was a guy that taught me most of anything I could ever learn on a A-2 pinsetter and how to run lanes. From loading up that massive Perry Austin Blue Thunder lane stripper to learning how to get a Century 100 to dead wall up a lane, especially on the hot death known as Gateway’s head. I worked every Saturday night, and most other days as I learned how to do the desk, then bartend and write keno (even though I hated bartending, but I didn’t mind the tips).
Then Randy did the best thing he could do for me, and that was putting me on salary and making me work every thing in the center 6 days a week. Hated it with a burning passion and completely pissed me off when he told me in that office that starting the next day that’s what I was going to do. To the point that I felt like stopping him and giving him back the keys to the center and telling him to kiss my ass. However, I didn’t do that and gave him a chance for better or worse. What would be the worse thing to do? Try it for a month and make more money that I’ve ever made before?
So I stuck with it, more and more. One month became a whole fall season. We aren’t talking about 6 hour days, more like 10-12 hour days for every day except Friday. I had popcorn and Dr. Pepper for dinner. I wouldn’t get home till 3 am on the weekends and came back at noon the next day. Dating wasn’t an option. Did it suck then? Bet your ass it did. Do I appreciate it now? Good lord yes. I invested the time and learned everything. I could do anything and everything. When Randy left, there wasn’t a thing I couldn’t deal with. Even with two people that I thought didn’t deserve the GM job, I still was the good soldier and carried on. Even with that Bobby dude after Craig Carver quit. Even through the ownership change to Kephart did I stay on.
The fall of Gateway was simple, that I couldn’t convince Chuck Domant to see the vision. All Chuck saw was the 16 year old that just wanted the paycheck (and the free beer for him). I did everything Randy did and then some for the borderline sickening amount of $250/week before taxes. 70 hours for that. So I put more and more into it because I figured that if Gateway went down, I’d put down Randy and everything he worked for. So I busted my ass, slept there, gave everything… and it didn’t matter. Chuck closed the doors because he wasted the money and resources I gave him. In the end, he couldn’t pay the electric bill with the money I made him. It wasn’t going to me, and that’s what was depressing.
So of course, you get back on the horse, right? I didn’t do that till I got to Houston and felt that I could start fresh. I found Mark Finklestein at Dynamic. Gave him a year and a half, ownership and politics be damned. I did the bad jobs again, knowing that I had to build back up what I had lost 3 years earlier.
From there, Mike Austin (who is the best friend I have had since I left Lincoln, period) showed me Alvin Bowling Company and JoAnne Pacheco. She was one of the best bosses anyone could work for. All she wanted to do was have fun and make money. And she let me do that for her.. and I left her for Forum and DFW. Was it a good move? 5 years later… I really don’t think so. For what I left and what I could have had to what my wife and I have now, hindsight is obviously 20/20.
So now, I fight to have something close to what I’ve had twice and had let go or taken from me. I’m going to be 36 in August, and literally make less than people half my age who have a third of my drive. Is it fair? I don’t know, I don’t think it is but I also envisioned myself as someone who made the decision to put everything into it.
I keep going past the disappointments that bowling has given me as a sport and try instead to think the next time is the breakthrough I will have worked so hard for. But, every missed cut, every open frame, every time I see someone that I KNOW I have outworked go right by me and see success, it tears me down more and more. I get tired of tears every time I fail miserably, I’m sick of being pressed against a glass ceiling, and I am sure wondering about how I’m supposed to keep putting in 40+ hours a week like this and barely being able to pay my bills when I’m 40, much less 50 or even 60.
Going back to Twain’s 9 things, one thing that isn’t clear is how you’re still supposed to be patient when you feel like all you have deposited and invested into something like I have with this silly game should be repaid with interest and dividends. There is nothing I can’t do in a bowling center still, but being asked to do (and care) only so much tears me apart. Just thinking about it now, sitting in my house makes me depressed and wonder why I do this.
I ask myself “why can’t I just walk away?” and I can’t answer that. I have spent the last year embossed in college sports writing for HuskerLocker and I can’t love enough the work in that field. It’s fun and there are some great people in the field. Of course, the ones who think bowling is a great thing for me think I’m dumb for liking to write for free and wonder outloud how I can enjoy such a thing. For them, they haven’t seen the work I’ve put it.
So now I’m down to this, thinking I could only give bowling only 3 more months to show me something. Doesn’t seem like a lot, but in the course of 20 years, 3 months is beyond a fair trial. This could be selfish, but I want my investment to be repaid. If it can’t, then it’s proven that I’ve wasted a vast majority of my life chasing something that doesn’t care to let me catch it. If it is selfish, so be it.
Show me I’m wrong, this sport and industry that has cost me money, time, relationships, friendships, and chances I’ll never get back. Show me you were worth it. I
If you can’t, don’t say you weren’t warned.