Only the dead don’t bowl. Everybody’s tried it, anybody can do it, nobody wants to see it. Would you pay to watch bowling? Of course not. Not if the match featured the greatest bowlers of all time. Who are the greatest bowlers of all time? Who knows? As a spectator sport, bowling isn’t much. Most bowlers don’t pay much attention to their own game much less anyone else’s, especially after a couple of beers. That’s the downside of bowling’s great accessibility: even when you’re good at it, nobody cares.

Most of the bowlers at Timber Lanes the first Saturday in June don’t watch; most of them can’t see. It’s the last day before the summer break for the blind bowling league from the Chicago Braille Center. They won’t be getting together again until the middle of August. By then they should know if they’ve repeated as national champions of the American Blind Bowling Association. The results from this year’s tournement (which was held over Memorial Day weekend in Atlanta, and drew about 700 bowlers from 170 blind bowling leagues) won’t be tabulated until August. The league secretary, Virginia Okada, doesn’t think Chicago Braille Center won this year; but until they hear otherwise they’re still the national champs.

A sign on the door says Timber Lanes welcomes seeing eye dogs, but no one brought the dog today. The group is large enough as it is, about 40 being a crowd in the small bowling alley on Irving Park Road. There’s someone here from practically every American group–that’s–black, white, Spanish, American Indian, Asian, old, young, middle-aged. Usually in America when people try to put together such a broad-based racial and ethnic coalition they fail, but the blind bowlers not only can’t see much difference they have a common cause: they’re all trying to stay out of the gutter.

A large man named Fred Nickl, whose rugged face looks like it was chiseled from pliable metal, announces that next year the league will expand each team from five bowlers to six. Cheered, he wishes everyone luck. This is doubles tournement; everyone plays partners today. Departing the bar, a trim man in a white shirt and black slacks bumps into a woman. “Excuse me,” he says, “I didn’t spill your whole drink, did I?” “Just a drop–hey bartender, get me a straw.” They laugh together, and someone calls, “Larry, your turn.” In his hurry he bumps into a man on a stool, says “Excuse me,” and heads over to the third lane. He’s pretty new at this. So’s the small, grey-haired woman getting ready to roll on lane two.

She grabs a pale-pink eight-pound ball with her right hand, lays her left lightly on an aluminum rail, and glides slowly to the line. She flicks her wrist and the ball rolls away. She turns around immediately, gripping the guide rail tightly now, and heads back to the scorer’s table. She’s back a moment after the ball hits the pins. “What’d I get?” The scorers says strike. She claps her hands. “Strike? Hot damn!”

Beverly Wike lost a little sight every year for 32 years, until her eyes finally shut off for good in 1984. But the alley isn’t entirely dark. Like most of the blind bowlers, she can see light and use it. “The pink color is just horrible, but with all the black balls at least I can tell it’s mine.” Unlike most of the others, she’d practically never bowled before she joined the league a year and a half ago. “There are times when I get to the line and become disoriented, I feel like I’m in a great big space out there. I mean, I know it’s a small area but it feels like it goes on forever.”

The portable rail is one of the only concessions to blindness made by the league, and by most of the other hundreds of blind bowling leagues across the country. It’s a simple device that runs from the entrance of the alley to the line, and it’s weighted down at each end by two bowling balls. “Kai Okada places them every time we bowl,” Wike says, “and he does a magnificent job. You have to make sure it’s right on the spot. Move the rail ten millimeters and you blow the whole thing.”

Usually they play teams. Three people on each team are totally blind, one is partially blind, and each team has one member who’s not blind at all. The sighted member bowls, but more importantly someone’s got to keep score. The scorekeeper also comes in handy on the second roll, telling which pins remain standing. Almost everyone in the league uses them for this service except Ron Byster, who’s slowing approaching the line in lane six. When he hears the pins drop, he can tell which ones fell.

Blind from birth, Byster’s been bowling since the early 1960s. The Chicago Braille Center’s blind bowling league dates back to 1950; out of seven leagues in Chicago, it’s the oldest one. The highest average in the league now is 107, Byster’s is somewhat below that. He stands erect, a big, bulky man chin up and wrist down; his throw strolls down the lane with all the speed and force of Jello. Cash payoffs are coming to the top three partnerships, but none is likely for him. No matter. It’s a good roll.

Enunciating each syllable, he announces slowly, “seven–eight–ten,” and says, “I was born three months premature and received too much oxygen, which caused me to lose my vision before leaving the hospital. I weighed two pounds and two ounces.” His partner Sue Travers, pitches in, “Hey, what happened?” “Yes,” he smiles, “everyone wants to know that. I can’t see anything, the dots on the floor or the pins at the end of the alley, but I have a picture of them in my mind. I know how they’re set up. the eight is behind the two, the nine is behind the three, and so on. I can tell by the sound which pins go down, and I can visualize which pins are still standing.

All the pins go down on lane four. A man pounds the floor and yells, “Mark it!” He’s heavyset, maybe in his early 30s, shedding long hair from under a beat-up, turned-around baseball cap, wearing glasses. He makes a beeline to the bar. His partner, wearing a red T-shirt reading WE ARE FAMILY on the front and DIANE on the back in black letters, practially runs to the line, does a split, and gets a hard strike. “Yeah! Strike-ola!”

Diane Prince likes to be called Spunky. She has a goal: “I want to be one of the first legally blind professional bowlers.” She doesn’t know if she’d be the first. She’s a partial; that is, she can see the pins but they’re blurred, jumbled. One eye is permanently shut. “I quit bowling in ’81, and just started again. My average is lousy but I’m working on it.” Her partner Howard swigs a Miller, rolls a spare, yells “Mark it!” again. On cue, Diane rolls up to the line, hits the floor, and strikes again. “Yes!” She says she hasn’t contacted the PBA, not yet.

Larry Williams, the man who bumped into a few people hasn’t been bowling long. “I design athletic equipment for the visually impaired,” he explains, “I like to try the sport. I’ve designed a basketball layout for the visually impaired, with bells on the ball and directional buzzers. Eight hundred have been sold across the country.” It’s his turn again and he turns, spinning off Andre, a heavyset woman who could be twenty off forty. Her skin is young but the expression on her face isn’t. “Excuse me.’ Andre smiles, gives Larry a light hug, and takes the portable phone from the bartender. Her daughter is on the line, but they’re interrupted by yelling a couple of lanes over.

A woman yells “Mike.” She yells “Mike” again. Three people join in. then everyone on lanes seven and eight join in–Mike! Miiike! Miiiike! A man’s voice emerges from the crowd–Mark! An answer from behind the bar–Yo!.

“We need a four pin over here.” Mark replaces the pin, and points to the name “Mark” sewn in flowing script over his heart. “I thought something was up, but who’s Mike, I thought?” Fred Nickl says, “Thanks, whatever your name is.”

Nickl takes his turn, rolls a strike, and rubs his hands. He tells another man, “It’s a miracle,” but he’s actually pretty good. He took second-place money in the midwest blind bowling tournement in Saint Louis this year, 88 dollars. Judy Mandelkow, the treasurer of the league, stands behind the lane, watching the action. She can see, a handy (though not particularly necessary) attribute in a treasurer.

Bowling costs each person nine dollars for the day, which pays for the games. Then there are the pots, two of them at a dollar apiece, a little side deal that everyone plays. One rewards the fluke; the highest score over average wins an immediate payoff after each game of about seven bucks. The other’s a “pyramid pot” won by elimination. To stay in the bowler has to roll at average or above in the second game every week. Last one left collects 40 to 60 dollars.

“Usually blind people win ’em,” Mandelkow says, then corrects herself. “The blind people always win the pyramid–they’re more consistent than sighted people. They usually win pins over average too, but not always.” She joined the league seven years ago. “My sister had a friend in it and they needed someone to keep score one day. I’ve been here ever since. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it. She’s been to the tournements in Dallas, Denver, Buffalo, all over the country. “I’d never left Chicago before.” Everybody who goes pays their own way, so not everyone from the leagues goes. Seventeen bowlers went to Atlanta this year. “They’re trying to arrange a tournement in Las Vegas sometime. That’d be fun.”

Penny Connolly would love it. She’s also a scorekeeper, taking a break between games. “I had six bypasses in the last year. My last one was on Januarry 11th; I was in Vegas March 22nd. And now that my youngest kid is graduating Loyola I go there every seven weeks. It’d be great to go with the league.” She’s been with it for four years, since a friend of her husband’s went blind, and she’s found kindred spirits. “These people are nuts,” she says proudly. “They’re good drinkers. You know what I think? The expression of ‘blind drunk’ comes from these people. Of course, I’ve had my times, too. The tournement in Dearborn, jumping into a pool with my clothes on–but that’s another story.”

There’s been a steady stream to the bar, but even among those who don’t drink the scores drop off as the day goes on. The third game is the worst. Diane hasn’t struck once since the first. Howard hasn’t yelled “Mark it!” in a while, either. Beverly dropped from 104 to 46, around Andre’s average. Her partner Jim Regan, the only bowler wearing shades (besides Kai Okada, who can see), rolls at the same time as Andre, who says she can’t tell which pins go down “but I can hear a gutter ball pretty well.” Regan’s roll was his last of the day, and he says it didn’t make any difference that Andre was on the line next to him at the same time. Bowling in tandem doesn’t bother the blind bowlers.

“It probably bothers the sighted bowlers,” Regan points out, “but they haven’t said anything.”

“Well, they’re probably just being polite,” Beverly says, “but we should watch out for that.”

“If they don’t say anything, how are we going to know?” There’s such a thing as being polite to a fault. Regan goes on, “It’s the old thing where you’re sitting in a restaurant with somebody and the waitress asks, ‘And what does he want?'”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s like you’re not there–”

“Oh yes,” Beverly laughs, “I know what you mean. My daughter has a good line for that. She says, ‘She’s blind, not brain dead!’ I like that.”

“Anyway,” Beverly continues, “this game, it’s just luck. I’m just waiting for these lying excuses about why things went wrong. I’ll hear ’em before the end.”

But the end is here. Kai collects the score sheets and reads them off to Virginia, who enters the scores into a hand-held tape recorder. The bowlers gather around the bar to wait for the results. Three couples take over a table to the right of the bar. Mike and Jodi are engaged to be married. Mike, a partial who bowls with a monocular, rolled a 242 in the midwest tournement, and with Jodi is odds-on favorites to win today. Jackie and Howard are swirling their stools, hugging and laughing. Howard’s in high spirits. “I’ve been living with this woman for ten years, and still got no piece of paper. You know why? Because I love her, that’s why! We don’t need no goddamn piece of paper.”

The other couple, Julie and Bruce, feel similarly. They’ve been together for eight years and they’re not talking marriage. Bruce is deaf, Julie is blind, and she says, “My dad says we’re the perfect couple. He can’t hear and I can’t see.” Everyone agrees that’s a recipe for a successful relationship. Bruce smiles, “I’m her seeing eye dog.”

Julie made the news in Kalamazoo about three years ago. She was there for a blind bowling tournement and got to talking with another woman. They talked easily about odds and ends, family backgrounds, places they’d lived. It turns out they were sisters. They’d never met. Julie’s sister was given up for adoption at birth. “We’re good friends now.”

Beverly orders a vodka tonic and gets a Pepsi instead, which she sends back. “That bartender is new, but he’ll learn.” She’s done pretty well for herself, for someone just past her rookie year. Her winnings are about 200 bucks, she won a jacket, she has a T-shirt that says, “I Support Blind Bowling” with a picture of a bowling ball wearing sunglasses. She spent more than that going to the tournement in Atlanta, but it was worth it.

“Oh, it was nifty there. Probably a thousand people came, they gave a banquet and a costume ball afterwards. The theme was Scarlett O’Hara and you could rent a costume, but I don’t think many people did. They cost a bit too much money. All kinds of dogs were there too. Of course, it’s not all tea and skittles, you know. You don’t go out at night–I think Atlanta has a higher crime rate than Chicago. And there was a concorse under the hotel with shops that you reached by an escalator. Thank God I couldn’t see. If I’d known how tall the escalator was, I would never had gone on it. It must’ve been four stories high.

The bartender sets a full Collins glass down on the bar, and Beverly pulls it towards her. “Everything curved in the concorse. I walked into a pillar and hit my head pretty good.”

Virginia announces the scores, and as expected Mike and Jodi have taken first place. They get their money, 70 dollars toward the wedding, folded so they can tell what it is. The top three teams take cash awards. Howard and Diane were just edged out, and Diane says, “It’s my fault.” Larry Williams was right behind them. He’s not upset at all.

Beverly belongs to a group of blind people who sail regularly. Before she lost her sight she’d never been sailing. “Oh, I love it. I love to listen to the wind.” She’s beaning all over. “Next year I’m going to learn how to sail the boat myself.” She had bowled before, but only once or twice. “I though it was dumb. You must be doing bad when if you can see and can’ hit those pins. But this is a closely knit, noncompetitive group. It’s a pickup. Everybody needs a boost. It seems trivial, but to us it’s a big thing.” She takes a neat satchel of folded money out of her purse and calls the bartender. “Here’s mine, and get something for everyone else.” All the blind bowlers get something.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.