Washington, once considered the national center for duckpin bowling, is down to its last bowling center.
And finding that one isn't easy.
The Greenway Bowling Alley, just off Minnesota Avenue NE, lies hidden beneath a desolate shopping center where boarded-up stores are undergoing a modicum of renovation and the parking lot is littered with abandoned and stripped cars.
But beyond this scarred exterior lives an oasis of bright lights, laughter, friendship and the satisfying crack of bowling balls striking wooden pins.
Levi James, one of the bowling center's owners, calls the Greenway at 3540 East Capitol St. NE "a well-kept secret." He bets that 90 percent of the city has never even heard of his business.
But for the regulars, bowling at the Greenway has become a haven of good friends and good times.
"Way to go!" yelled, Woodrow Harrelson, 46, as he hugged his son Gregory, 24, who had just scored another strike for their team last Tuesday night. Father and son are regular Tuesday night fixtures, dressed like their teammates in distinctive black and gray shirts with the name of Woodrow Harrelson's auto repair shop embroidered across the back.
"I love it," said the senior Harrelson. "It's lot of fun and its good exercise. And you meet a lot of people when you bowl. It kind of grows on you."
Gregory Harrelson said he remembers playing on the floor around the lanes when he was child and his father brought him along on bowling night.
Up and down the lanes, bowlers congratulated each other with cries of "Good work" and "Good try" as varying numbers of the squat, white duckpins fell when struck by a hurtling yellow or blue plastic ball.
The center, recently renamed the Fun Bowl but still displaying the old name over the door, opened in the Greenway Shopping Center in 1942. At that time, bowling was considered the city's number one sport. Then there were 30 bowling centers spread across the city. Washington was referred to as the "bowling capital" and the "duckpin center for the United States" in newspaper articles.
But in the early 1950s the bowling alleys, like many other city businesses, headed for the suburbs attracting customers with their modern facilities and large parking lots.
And now even Greenway (that's what the regulars call it) may be threatened by a declining interest in duckpin bowling and its location.
Once the center of a thriving shopping center, Greenway is now amid four places that remain open -- a carry-out, a barber shop, a beauty shop, a TV repair shop and a police boys and girls club.
But beyond the door at Greenway and down the carpeted steps a different world thrives. The 28 lanes gleam with polish. Even the water damage to nine lanes last week failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the players.
Michael Jackson and Diana Ross hits play on the jukebox as bowlers arrive. Many carry their own bowling balls and shoes. They yell a greeting to
James, 58, an enthusiastic bowler for 30 years, who bought the business with three other partners several years ago.
James, who is retired like many of his customers, alternates between making announcements on the public address system and fixing the balky pin-setting equipment, brewing pots of coffee, selling lottery tickets and renting bowling shoes for 70 cents an evening.
James operates from an enclosed square in the center of the huge green room.
The counter top serves as a dining and meeting area, while dozens of pairs of tan bowling shoes line the shelves beneath.
"I also sweep the floor, buff the lanes and act as the treasurer," said James, as he accepted an IOU from an elderly man who forgot his money.
His customers range from school children to senior citizens and patients from St. Elizabeths Hospital, but it is the leagues that fill the Greenway Wednesday through Friday night and keep the business alive, James said.
These include the Senior Citizen and Retired Champs league of 16 teams, which plays every Wednesday morning with its members dressed in bright yellow shirts with black stripes and lettering.
William (Pee Wee) Johnson, 66, founded the league in 1976 with 28 members because, "we wanted to get the retired and handicapped people out and give them something to do. We all need recreation and exercise.
"I haven't been able to bowl since my stroke in '79 but I keep hoping I can play again," Johnson said, using a walker to make a slow tour of the lanes greeting friends and watching competing teams.
"I like to make people happy so we keep the league going," he said. "We have a Christmas party and an awards banquet. When I make people happy, I forget my own pain."
On Tuesday nights, half the lanes are claimed by the J.O. Williams Memorial league, to which the team of Woodrow and Gregory Harrelson belongs.
Kim Gunter and her fiance, Carl McClellan, both 21, met at the bowling alley last year and now belong to the Thriller Bunch team, which is also in the J.O. Williams league.
"I needed the exercise and this takes a lot of the pressure off," she said as she watched McClellan get ready to bowl.
McClellan takes his bowling seriously. He coated his palms with a gel that made the ball stick slightly to his hands. He gazed at the 10 white plastic pins at the end of his lane, then slowly cupped the ball in both hands and raised it close to his chest.
Suddenly, his left arm swung back, his right arm jutted upward and the ball shot down the alley. All the pins fell down and McClellan spun around to face his teammates with a confident and pleased smile.
"It takes a lot of accuracy and concentration," said McClellan, who started bowling 12 years ago with his four brothers. He has collected 58 trophies for his skill.
"It doesn't make any difference if you throw the ball hard or soft," McClellan continued. "It's the concentration that does it."
And the shoes. McClellan said he spent $60 to buy the right bowling shoes. "The leather tip up front is what counts," he said, holding up his foot to show off the sole. "You slide on the rubber, but you stop on the leather. It's just like skating, you have to be able to stop."
Some bowlers said they are very careful when visiting the bowling alley at night because of the dim lighting and the groups of teen-agers who congregate in the parking lot.
Deputy Chief Fred Thomas, head of the police department's 6th District, which includes the Greenway neighborhood, said, "It is not the most esthetically pleasing place.
"But it isn't as bad as it looks," he continued. "The lighting is very poor and there are men who hang out there at night. But most of the people who go there are from the neighborhood and they know each other. It is not a place where a stranger would feel comfortable."
James said he hopes the renovated shopping center will improve his business. "Hard times are hitting everybody," he said. "We're not good-willed goodies but we plan to to keep it going for all the people who count on us."