Bowling alone. At first it's not so bad. Then it gets a little old, a little cold. I discover that on a recent summer's day when I sneak down into Virginia and try one of the newest and one of the oldest bowling centers in America. And I learn a few other things along the way.
Lane 18 at one of the spanking-spiffiest bowling centers in the country -- Hanover Lanes, just northeast of Richmond -- is where I begin. Everything looks shiny and human-made. The alley is jam up against the executive offices of AMF Bowling, which has its worldwide headquarters here. My shoes: rented AMFs. My ball: a 15-pound purple orb from a many-tiered rack of brightly colored spheres -- red, orange, green, purple -- that looks like a giant's abacus. My score is tallied automatically on a TV screen overhead.
When I roll a strike, a cartoon on the TV goes ballistic. When I roll a spare, a figure dances around.
Some lanes away, George Alexander, 62, a retired subway dispatcher from Queens, also bowls alone. Major difference between Alexander and me: He knows what he's doing. He wears a glove and brace on his left hand, his bowling hand. He slides his right foot to a special place and takes four steps, then swings left foot behind right and releases his 15-pound black ball.
Ka-blocka-blocka-blockie. Pins fall. TV goes ballistic. He shoots a 222. He averages just over 200 a game. That's pretty good, considering 300 is the best you can do.
Being a left-handed bowler is an advantage, Alexander says, pointing down Lane 1. "There are better lines," meaning fewer ruts. He speaks of the oil on the wood and other esoterica of the centuries-old sport.
Still, this is the up-to-the-nanosecond version of bowling. Overhead speakers blast out Robert Palmer singing, "I've got a bad case of loving you." The scorekeeping monitors also show ads and some ABC television shows.
Nearby, in the video arcade, the death machines and virtual-reality racing simulators hum and whistle and explode. There are 10 pool tables, air hockey tables and scads of snack-bar tables where you can partake of a hot dog combo with up-size fries and a 44-ounce Wild Cherry Pepsi for $5.38. There are neon colors and flashing lights. The air conditioner is on full-bore; the summer sun seems far away. On Friday and Saturday nights, they turn on the black lights and everything glows for "cosmic bowling."
And I wonder how we got to this point in bowling history.
On the lawn bowling green at Williamsburg, less than an hour away, everything is serene. And natural. And warm.
Coming here straight from Hanover Lanes, just 40 minutes on I-64, is like traveling back in time to see the creation of a life-form.
Ten bowlers, mostly dressed in white, play the ancient game in the afternoon swelter. "It's a game of finesse," says Jack Edwards, "not a game of power."
At 72, Edwards is going strong. He's president of the Williamsburg Inn Lawn Bowling Club. He plays five or six times a week on this crew-cut grassy patch behind the inn.
New bowling: noise and flashbulbs. Old bowling: calm and sunny. There are shade trees nearby.
The green is open every afternoon, from 3 to 6. It's mostly for members of the Williamsburg club and guests at the inn. But Edwards says anybody can drop by for a free lesson or a game. Members of the local group take turns watching over the green; they'll provide the balls and a few pointers. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the club bowls together.
The green is 120 feet by 120 feet. A game is played on a 16-foot-wide swath called a rink. Several games can be played at once; there's a practice rink near the croquet court.
To begin a game of lawn bowling, someone tosses the "jack," a white ball about the size of a cue ball, onto the grass. Players then take turns lagging balls -- called bowls -- trying to get as near to the jack as possible. There is something timeless and tranquil about the British game. It is like boccie without Chianti or petanque without Gitanes. It's a little like curling, without the brooms or the ice. It, along with other old-school games such as ninepins, is a primogenitor of bowling as we know it today, Edwards says.
A lawn bowling bowl is not perfectly round like a ball. It is oddly shaped, as if someone took a sphere that is a little larger than a softball, held it between the palms and squished it almost flat on two sides so that it looks like a fat wheel. The bowl is designed to roll to the left if you turn it one way and to the right if you turn it another. After you and your opponent have each rolled four bowls, the player whose bowl is closest to the jack wins the round. The bowl has a certain heft to it and rolls farther than you think it will.
It is a social game. There is much palaver. There are similarities to modern bowling. If your lawn bowling bowl strays outside the boundaries of your rink, you do not get any points. Precision is key. And there are differences. There are no pins, for instance. And you almost never see anyone lawn bowling alone.
Ball-rolling games hark back to ancient Egypt. Archaeologists dug up some pinlike things and a ball in the tomb of a child, circa 5200 B.C. Over the centuries, various types of bowling popped up in various cultures. Lawn bowling, as practiced in Colonial Williamsburg, probably dates to the 13th century. It was a favorite pastime of Englishfolk in the 17th and 18th centuries, according to Susan Berg, one of the game's historians. They bowled in the lanes of Jamestown and on private lots in Boston. The first bowling green in Williamsburg was established sometime in the early 1700s. The game's popularity in America lost its widespread momentum after the Revolution. But it continued to be popular in pockets here and there.
Annual dues for the Williamsburg Inn Lawn Bowling Club: $65. Today there are about 100 lawn bowling greens in the country, Edwards says, most listed on the official site of the U. S. Lawn Bowls Association (www.bowlsamerica.org).
Under the sharp white sun, Edwards and I stand side by side and roll toward the jack. We play for an hour or so, talking and walking and strolling and rolling. It's altogether pleasant and much more relaxing -- and stimulating -- than bowling alone.
Edwards confides to me that he likes to wear a little color because he doesn't want the game to be mired in tradition. "People often see it as a museum game," he says. "Some of us would like to see it change."
All he has to do, of course, is drive 40 minutes to the postmodern Hanover Lanes. But he'll need to prepare for the music and the mayhem and the artificial lights. And he'll need to put on long pants. Bowling alone in the 21st century can be a chilly activity.