In a Brown Paper Bag

During the late forties, the Starlight Bowling Alley over on Lincoln Avenue, across from the Biograph Theater and above the A&P, was a thriving business. It had eight lanes and, what with active leagues on weeknights and couples on weekends, Benny Malko made good money. Of course the low rent helped too. Had the smell of liquor, rosin and floor wax descended through the zigzag cracks in the ceiling of the A&P and overwhelmed the rich aroma of freshly ground coffee, Benny’s rent would probably have been higher. The rumble of serious bowlers also might have caused larger rent payments, but the store was closed in the evening when the leagues bowled. The noise of daytime bowlers was little more than the sound of parlor furniture being moved around.

Perkins was behind the bar seven days a week, smiling, and greeting one and all. It was heard on good authority that he made more in tips than Benny paid him. In the pits, hidden behind a low wall, six pin “boys” racked them up and kept the game going; two worked double lanes. Benny paid them thirty-five cents a line.

Now pin “boys,” as you probably know, were not all boys. There were several older men – how old no one knew – who set pins in the same lanes every weeknight. The league bowlers tipped with unfailing generosity, especially after they got liquored-up, so the old timer’s take wasn’t bad. Some tossed a handful of change down the alley, which the real “boys” in the back could quickly scamper out and pick up before the next bowler let loose. A bowling ball flying down an alley was a fearsome thing so pin boys walking on a lane always kept a sharp lookout. Young Henry Kepler was the reigning all-star in picking up money on the lanes.

Other league bowlers of, shall we say, a more sober mien left bills at the bar with Perkins, giving specific instructions for the lane it was intended to reward. Perkins was as reliable as Old Faithful in seeing that all tips got to the right pin setter.

Red was probably the oldest pin boy at Starlight. No one knew for sure how he got his nickname. Some said it was because his hair was red when he was young. Since Red now had a sizeable bald spot surrounded by a fringe of white hair, that source of his name couldn’t be refuted or confirmed. Others said Red was a shortened version of his last name, which was Redmond, but this claim was also unverifiable. If Red was asked, he just burped and laughed. It should be stated that the true origin of Red’s nickname never preyed on anyone’s mind.

When Henry, who had just turned fifteen, first came on the scene, the only thing he knew about bowling was that a heavy ball was rolled down an alley in order to knock down as many wooden pins as possible. Henry was assigned to the pit next to Red who immediately took him under his wing. In no time Henry at least knew the difference between a gutter ball and a strike. More importantly, he mastered the art of knowing how and when to pull the rack down in order to set-up a fresh triangle of pins and get the hell-out-of- the-way when a ball was due. It proved to be hard work that required alertness and agility.

How Red, whose age seemed to be against both, ever stayed agile and alert when he drank, no one ever quite figured out. Behind the wooden rail, where the pin boy placed the ball and gave it a shove so it would return to the bowler, Red kept a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag. Between one bowler’s turn and another, he took a swig of whatever liquid was in it (he claimed it was Jack Daniel’s), licked his lips and grinned benignly.

On especially busy nights, he asked Henry to set both lanes for awhile. There was a narrow opening between their pits so a pin setter could slip back and forth. But it was tricky keeping track of who was bowling in each lane and making sure one wasn’t standing in the wrong pit when a ball was launched.

Red had taught Henry how to do it. At the time he learned, Henry wondered why Red had taken the trouble to teach him. The first busy night Henry knew why. It was a Tuesday, and the top teams in the league were exceptionally “hot.” Balls were flying down the alleys like they’d been shot out of a cannon. Red had been hitting the bottle so often, he had to leave his pit to take a leak – and get another bottle. It was Henry’s baptism of fire. He was never so glad in his life when Red returned.

Sometimes, on quieter evenings, Red talked a little about his sister who he said lived with him after he came home from the army. She had lost her fiancée in the war and had remained single. Red said she deserved a good man and he hoped she would meet one someday.

Another time, Red told Henry he was in the infantry and fought in World War I. But he rarely revealed details. He said he was promoted eventually to the rank of captain. His parents were proud and so was his sister.

During another lull, Red said he’d saved enough money while in service to buy a nice house in the suburbs. But when he learned, at the time of his parents’ death (they died within a month of each other) there was still a mortgage on the family home, he paid it so his sister could continue to live there. It was over on Kenmore. “Osgood Street when I was growing up,” he added.

Henry heard so many stories over the eight months he worked in the bowling alley that he couldn’t remember half of them.

When the time came for Henry to move on to a better job and he told Red it was his last night in the pit, Red looked away, took a long slug from his bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag and simply said, “So long kid. See you ‘round.”

As Henry was collecting his pay from Benny, he asked about Red. Benny said Red wasn’t all he pretended to be. For one thing, he didn’t have a sister. He also wasn’t ever in the army. He was a clerk in an office during the First World War. And he never had enough money to buy a house. Red lived alone in a rooming house over on Belden with a common bathroom down the hall. “And if he told you Jack Daniel’s whiskey is in the bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag, forget it. It’s tap water.”