Bowling in Chicago: friendship, racism, loyalty, and the meaning of team through the paradigm of working-class communities and bowling leagues in the late 20th century

Bowling teamI went to graduate school in political science at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, and soon after arriving I looked for a bowling league to join. It seemed to me if you lived in Chicago, you should be on a bowling team. (I didn’t learn about 16-inch softball in Chicago until the following spring; that’s another story.)

I learned more about life and people in those bowling leagues than I did at that university, I think. (And, don’t get me wrong, it’s an outstanding school and, to my blessing, I still have friends from it, including my closest friend.)

I grew up bowling. My best friend in junior high, Evan Fray-Witzer (then Evan Witzer), and I would set up our bowling balls in flimsy rat traps or carry them on our laps as we’d bike 20 or so minutes on busy streets to Herrill Lanes. This was dangerous, but we were heroic. In junior high—maybe freshman year in high school?—our team won a championship; I’m positive our third teammate’s first name was Bruce, but that’s about all I’ve got at this point. Somewhat tall (but I’m short, so my reference point might be off), dark hair. Maybe Bruce Shulman? He was the best bowler of the three of us. Later, as a senior in high school, I lettered in bowling. My odds of lettering were a little better in bowling, I thought, than they would be on the football team or, say, the dance squad.

I bowled in Chicago from 1989 until 1995 in South Side and West Side leagues, sometimes in several at once. The team pictured at the start of this story was the most enduring one: from left to right, Bob, me, Sharon, Pete Aksztolis, and Barb Rozovics. I bowled with Pete specifically for all six years, and with Barb for four of those years. When bowling in Chicago comes up, I always say I have stories to tell about it. Here’s where I’ll tell a few of them.

Some of these stories involve racism—some of it hardened, mean-spirited racism, some of it racism as a mindless-day-to-day-take-for-granted way of being. Although that’s really not the main thing I’m writing about here, it’s important to what I am trying to say. I use a completely offensive term as it was used at the time in the text below, because that’s how it was used. Still, this was 20 to 25 years ago. I don’t live in Chicago anymore, and I haven’t any idea about the ways in which racial attitudes, stratifications, and assumptions have or haven’t changed in the city, in these specific communities to the extent they still exist, and in these specific people. These are real people, places, and times—I’m not changing any names whether I remember them or not—but it’s not to say the people, places, and times haven’t changed. I’m sure they have, even if I don’t know how they have.

So, I joined a league right after arriving in Chicago. It was at Lawn Lanes on South Pulaski, between West 67th and West 68th. In Chicago, the “south,” the “west,” and other such designations really mattered. And certain streets marked sharp racial divisions. They were essentially borders between countries. People did not cross those lines; doing so was openly dangerous.

The league was an all-male, older, hard-smoking, hard-drinking bowling league at 10 pm on Friday nights. Until I joined, it was an all-white league.

Neal Hemachandra

Neal Hemachandra

Now, a quick aside about racial identity: When I was young, I was black. My family moved into a house in an all-white neighborhood in the middle of the night, and petitions were passed about to oppose the mixed-race family led by a black man, Neal, and a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman, Rita. My father, whose maternal grandmother was born a slave in Virginia, was half black and half East Indian, but he looked simply black and that really impacted events in his life as well as his sense of identity and, accordingly, mine. My mother’s mother, Regina, called him schwartz, Yiddish for black and, depending on generation, generally considered harshly pejorative. He experienced some fierce incidents of discrimination that wounded him and stayed with him. Like my father, I have been called racial epithets both in my youth and in my adult life.

Martha Pleasant, born a slave in Virginia, holding her grandson, my father Neal Hemachandra

Martha Pleasant, born a slave in Virginia, holding her grandson, my father Neal Hemachandra

I went to graduate school on a Benjamin E. Mays CIC Minority Scholarship. By historical tradition in the United States (one drop and all), legal structures around percentages of makeup, family history, and my own personal history, I am black in racial identity. At the same time, I am a Long Island non-practicing Jew in ethnic culture. Since after the time I was in college, the multiracial category has come to exist, and I’m that, too: black, East Indian, East European Jewish (Austro-Hungaria and Romania), a little bit of American Indian. When I have lived in major cities, it has been common to be accepted as black on sight by blacks, and it has also been common for someone to come up to me and start speaking in Spanish or, say, Greek. People of a multiplicity of ethnicities have often inquired if I was one of them.

Make no mistake, though: In that all-white working-class Chicago bowling league I was black upon sight and without question, and I was not welcome. No team would take me.

The man who ran the league, realizing they had to take me or risk being closed down, held an all-captains meeting. I was present for it. It was not fun. Ultimately he assigned me to a team, without an option to decline. That team had a big, grizzled, imposing captain as its leader. I think the league manager thought that if I was on that team, fewer problems would arise from other teams. He was probably right, too.

Neal Hemachandra marries Rita Warmbrand

My parents:
Neal Hemachandra marries Rita Warmbrand

I remember being so nervous on that first night of bowling. I was shaking much of the time. I never relaxed. I tried so hard to excel, and I bowled brilliantly, trying to gain some measure of acceptance. I impressed my new teammates, who gave me begrudging grunts of acknowledgment, at least.

In bowling terms, however, this approach was idiotic, of course. I was new to the league. Because I had no history in the league, I was establishing my handicap for the season in the way this league was run. I was the second best bowler on that team, but my handicap punished it throughout. We finished in the middle of the pack.

Beyond feeling, well, scared at times in that bowling league, it introduced me to several Chicago bowling traditions that were striking. Some of these traditions were common beyond Chitown, too. People paid into a pool, with certain bowling outcomes paying out at night’s end (or rolling over). Everyone smoked—except for me—so even in sub-zero temperatures in winter Chicago nighttimes I learned to leave my coat in the car, because all your clothes and skin came out of the bowling alley soaked in smoke. Without fail, as soon as I got home I would seal my clothes in a plastic bag and shower heavily.

Also, a Friday night, 10 p.m. working-class men’s league in Chicago involved insanely heavy drinking. (I also didn’t drink.) (No, really, I’m fun.) I would leave that bowling alley around 1:30 am or so, run to the car, and speed away crazily fast, knowing every driver on the road coming from behind me was dead drunk and speeding wildly for entirely different reasons.

One of my teammates was named Pete Aksztolis. He was lanky and tough. He’d had a hard life. His fingers were surreally wide from brutal accidents at work. I don’t even know how he had large enough holes custom-drilled in his ball. He had been (and so was) an alcoholic, so he didn’t drink. He was an okay bowler, but he loved it.

Pete was also intensely racist. Yet he kind of adopted me as “one of the good ones” (and he literally would use that phrase). But not so much that when he was bowling badly and becoming self-loathing he wouldn’t say to me, while holding his bowling ball up, “The only useful thing I can do with this thing would be to go out there and find a nigger to split his head open.” He’d say it to me, as well as others, and not infrequently. It was dramatically scary.

That specific epithet, nigger, was used constantly by the bowlers in this league. It was 1989 and 1990. Hispanics were called spics, mostly. Many of these people worked with blacks and Hispanics, and honestly, when freed, they had nothing but contempt and seething loathing for them. I understood, to some extent, the longer history of racial divides in Chicago. That understanding didn’t really help how I felt about things in my gut.

Nonetheless, Pete really liked me. He did. He just carried such ingrained racism from his life, his community, and his work that he couldn’t transcend it and connect dots between how he felt about me and his generic hatred of black people (even while there were “good ones”).

Pete liked me so much that when he switched leagues the following year, to a mixed league (mixed in gender, not in race—well, except for me), he asked me to come with him. Let me say, even that first year, in a certain way I liked Pete. In a certain way I respected him and his life. And, equally, I was repulsed by him and the way he viewed the world.

The Archer-Kedzie Bowling Alley in Chicago

The Archer-Kedzie Bowling Alley in Chicago

Still, I changed leagues with him. I wanted to get away from the drinking and, so naively in retrospect, I thought adding women into the mix might at least soften the edges of the racism. The new league was 11 am on Sundays at Archer-Kedzie Bowl, at the corner of Archer and Kedzie, naturally, a little more north but still on the Southwest side.

The women were at least as starkly racist as the men. Generally, if anything, the women went out of their way to say tough, mean-spirited things. It somehow involved proving themselves, yes, and they meant them, too.

To be fair, there were two exceptions. Sharon, pictured in that first photo in this story, was one of them. She was kind and quiet. Over several years, I almost never heard her say anything racist, and so the few times she did I was always surprised.

A few things to note: The team I was on is the team pictured at the top of this blog post. That team stayed wholly together for three years. I think Sharon left in the fourth year for a different team, and then Barb started really physically struggling with her health issues in the fifth year, my last year in the league before leaving Chicago.

Pete and Barb were almost like family to each other and, in fact, his nephew (not in the bowling league) married her daughter (in the bowling league and also named Barb) at some point along the way.

I wasn’t really sure when that happened, because when I first joined that league and met younger Barb, she was openly flirty and red-haired and really great fun. I was fond of her and attracted to her. She was a friendly face for a good while. My own marriage ended during my time in this league, and my standards had shifted in the bowling-league context such that younger Barb’s softer racism, almost incidental racism, seemed somewhat enlightened, liberal, and welcoming. She was the second exception. It seemed that there was hope for her and, represented in her, hope for some generational change, or at least the beginnings of a shift.

This league would go from 11 am until about 2:30 pm., so in the fall and winter Bears games would be on the televisions set up behind us. This was the “da Bears” era and these were all “da Bears” people. The teams were usually bad, but the passion and loyalty (and, commensurately, anger at the bad teams) were radical.

I got to know these people incredibly well. And yet I never socialized with them outside of the bowling league context, by choice as well as by convention. After league I would drive back across the solid-black communities of the South Side usually via 55th Street to mixed-race, liberal Hyde Park, where I lived (even after I stopped my graduate work) in a tall, large University of Chicago apartment building on 51st and South Blackstone filled with elite graduate students.

Still, some of the culture and experiences filtered in. I learned the chicken dance. I remember going to a Polish festival on the West Side at which President Bush (the elder) spoke in 1992 when he was running unsuccessfully for re-election. The festival was more interesting than the President’s stump speech for me (but, to be fair, I’d heard him speak before).

Central Bowl in Chicago

Central Bowl in Chicago

As I wrote, the league I was bowling in was my main league for five years. After a couple of years, much of it essentially moved to a different bowling alley, still on the West Side, but now further south. I’m pretty sure at the time it was called Central Bowl.

Here’s the critical thing about the move: This “new” bowling alley was right near one of the racial boundaries, and there were now Hispanics in this league.

You might guess correctly what this meant: I didn’t beforehand. I thought it would revolutionize the culture, and at least in that I was right.

It no longer was a culture of whites spending three hours relentlessly mocking, taunting, and spewing hatred against blacks and Hispanics.

Now it was whites and Hispanics spending three hours relentlessly mocking, taunting, and spewing hatred against blacks. They teamed up in it.

It was fascinating. You knew each group split up afterward and went back into their more generalized and nondiscriminating spewing of discrimination. But in this neutral zone known as Central Bowl, they found common ground in a common enemy. And they reveled in it.

And there I was.

My father, Neal, with his father, Balatunga Hemachandra; his mother, Leathe Hemachandra (Leathe Wade Colvert); and her mother, Martha Pleasant

My father, Neal, with his father, Balatunga Hemachandra; his mother, Leathe Hemachandra (Leathe Wade Colvert); and her mother, Martha Pleasant

In this league, there was another friendly woman who I liked and seemed to like me, an exceptionally beautiful woman who happened to be Hispanic. Okay, that was a liberal and contemporary way of writing that she was a Hispanic woman, and that mattered, as I’ve indicated, more than just about anything in that time and place. She was very nice. She was a single mother of a young child, and her extended family bowled in this league. Asking her to do something outside of the bowling context might have been okay with her but it would not have been okay, and it would not have gone well. I never did so.

During one of these years, Pete asked me to bowl in a second league, a small all-men’s (and, yes, all white) Thursday-night league in an alley of just a few lanes in the basement of a church called Peace Lutheran, which was actually located pretty close to Archer-Kedzie. It was a block or so off of West 43rd and South California, on South Mozart Street, right on the end of a street of residential homes.

Pete was my entry pass into such things, so I didn’t have to battle for acceptance anymore (and never would have heard about it without him, anyway), even if the reception was always, at best, cool to mixed. A few things about this: First, it was really an incredibly nostalgic place to bowl, and I had my highest league average in Chicago here. Watch this classic video: This might actually be the alley—it looks right, and there is some historical connection between St. John’s Parish and Peace Lutheran I can’t quite figure out online. If it’s not the same place, it’s virtually identical to what I remember from two decades ago. And I kind of remember it in black and white, too, no metaphorical pun intended here. Really, it’s got to be the same  place.

These were mostly Polish men in the church league. One of the league luminaries was a really big, loud-voiced guy who worked as an editor for the newspaper the Chicago Sun-Times—and he was absolutely every bit as openly racist as everyone else, maybe even more so. That unnerved me more than a little bit.

Still, I bowled really well in the Peace Lutheran church basement. I was delighted by the venue, my team was competitive, and I really enjoyed being in a true community league—even though I had no connection whatsoever to the community beyond showing up on Thursday nights.

I don’t think I really knew for sure that my last year bowling in the Central Lanes league would be my last year bowling there (or living in Chicago), but somehow it felt like it the whole way along. This was the 1994-1995 season. Sharon had left the team. The older Barb was ill; if she participated, it was just at the start of the season. My fingers were so shattered from pitching in 16-inch gloveless softball that I had trouble gripping the bowling ball at times, and my weight was so heavy—I topped out around 230 at this time—that my knees were sore and repeatedly needed to be tapped for fluid.

Still, the bowling went on. That was the thing: The bowling always went on. No matter what happened in these people’s lives, and they had especially hard lives, bowling was to them what it seems to me church is for many where I now live in western North Carolina: community, family, love, place, value, and identity.

You had this commitment to your team, and it never diminished. It was “just” a bowling league, but I would drive across literal sheets of thick ice or in huge snowfalls to get there from Hyde Park in my old, much-missed red Mazda 323 (which could take it, until it suffered an early death later on, no doubt from those six years of feverish abuse in Chicago’s sub-zero winters, 100-degree-plus summers, and mammoth potholes everywhere).

Here in western North Carolina, my 12 year old’s school is canceled if it drizzles on a cold night. (This isn’t an exaggeration.)

Bowling league was never canceled, no matter what. And no matter what Chicago winters threw out there—and some of it was just incredible—I always showed up for my team. And they always showed up for me and for each other.

I’m a sports guy in my sensibilities and value system in a lot of ways, maybe in every way—I mean this as a compliment about myself in case you have no idea what I’m talking about—and I got it. I don’t know that I would ever have stopped bowling with those people if I’d kept living in Chicago.

Here’s another thing: This is what got them through their week. This was dependable no matter what else was happening in their lives. This was their joy: in the sport, yes, but even more in the routine and tradition, in the solidity and permanence of the relationships and practice, and simply in each other. The loyalty of Pete taking me with him to every league he tried out astonishes me still, while not diminishing the paradox of the whole racial aspect.

And, despite what I wrote earlier about the racism, and how it felt remembering and writing it on my part and likely reading it on yours, these were good people. This was just their world and how they learned to be. Some of those things, the awful ones, were hard to transcend. And it was never even mine to tell them that they should.

Still, it eventually proved surprisingly easy for some of them to come to love a black man even as they maintained their clear and unquestioned hatred of black people.

They were perfectly intelligent, too. I got into all the top graduate schools in political science to which I applied—Yale, Brown, Michigan, Penn, wherever else—and all with tuition and scholarships. My ex-wife and I went to the University of Chicago because that’s where she got in and it was top five in the country in both our graduate programs. (Hers was history.)

My department at U of C consisted of a lot of very smart people and a few beyond-boundaries geniuses. And here’s the thing: in a different context, with a different life and education and enculturation, some of those people, including the younger Barb, would have absolutely been intellectually equipped to participate in that program. They just never had the chance.

Altogether these are good memories, and I try to hold onto them even as I also try to be honest with myself about every aspect of the experiences, so the memories and those people remain real and not just caricatures.

I have two regrets I carry with me from all this. I wrote that I never socialized with any of these people outside of the leagues, and my regrets involve that truth and the two primary people I’ve written about, or at least mostly been thinking about.

I like to think I’ve learned from those regrets, and they’ve affected choices I’ve made since in good ways and made me more openhearted. Still, they are regrets.

In that last year in the league, Pete a few times mentioned the possibility of getting together for dinner, visiting me at my apartment, or some such. I just could not cross that divide, though. At the time, I don’t think I realized how important I was to him. And I still held harsh judgments about his worldview and language.

It’s not as if those judgments have changed. It’s just that they now impact my view of him as a human being in a different—I hope much more compassionate—way.

God, I hope I’m more compassionate two decades later. Pausing to think about perspectives I’ve had and choices I’ve made in the past few days and weeks, I think I am. I hope I keep growing my compassion and lovingkindness. I certainly can’t think of anything more important or anything I’d rather be modeling for my son, Nicholas. (And perhaps, mostly, he models it for me.)

Anyway, after I moved to Washington State in the summer of 1995, Pete wrote letters to me a couple of times. I replied to them and probably sent him Christmas cards for a year or two. But I could have better recognized and honored his needs as a human being.

This past fall, on some whim of a notion, I checked online and saw that, as I expected, Pete had died during the intervening years. I quietly mourned him.

The second regret is from the last day I ever saw any of these people. Bowling league always ended with a giant banquet: food, laughter, drinking, and chicken dancing. The younger Barb, so friendly initially, had difficult intervening years and had largely withdrawn. Her marriage had ended or was ending now, and she was just coming back in terms of her presence. It was nice to have her back. I really liked her.

That evening we connected again, and we left out the doors at the end of the night together. She’d had a couple of drinks. It became very emotional. The conversation faltered, ended, and we were just standing there close together, staring into each other for the longest time. It was an absolute fork in the road moment. I just couldn’t, though. I really just couldn’t. I leaned in for a quick hug goodnight—I needed it to be a quick hug—and she needed it to be a long, close hug, and it was. It ended, we said goodnight knowing we were saying goodbye, and we each drove away.

I regret that and I don’t regret that, but I sure have been thinking a lot lately about what that kind of moment represents. There are other moments I regret even more.

That was the last time I ever saw any of them. I left Chicago at the end of June and moved across the country.

What I’m musing about now, I suppose, is when you’re a part of such a close group—they are family you love, who you sometimes like and sometimes don’t—and how some of those relationships endure past the specific time and place and some don’t. What binds, and what doesn’t? I’m trying to understand the why, even in my own behaviors and choices, and I’m not finding all the answers within myself right now.

Still, regardless, this I know: The people you love, you always love.

Me at 1 year old with my parents, Rita and Neal Hemachandra

A one year old with my parents, Rita and Neal Hemachandra

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5 thoughts on “Bowling in Chicago: friendship, racism, loyalty, and the meaning of team through the paradigm of working-class communities and bowling leagues in the late 20th century

  1. Wow, how incredibly brave you were! An amazing story; thank you for sharing it. I really understand your two regrets. I have had similar (amazingly similar) regrets and turned them over in my mind for a long time. Here is what I have decided about them, and other regrets I’ve had in my life: we did what we did (or didn’t do) for a reason. We may not know or understand the reason, but something in us at some level knew that was the decision we needed to make at that time. My belief is that we are who we are right now because of everything we have been or done in the past. The decisions I made – consciously or not – are part of my past and have therefore helped shape who I am today. I rather like who I am today so I no longer regret the past (well, mostly). I am really enjoying your posts, Ray.

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  2. What a thoughtful meditation, Ray. I, too, have been thinking a lot lately about Chicago, but of course, what I remember mostly was the intense sexism. Yet more proof, should anyone need it, that where you stand depends on where you sit, eh?

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  3. Wow. I read this with complete fascination. I grew up in Detroit, my parents are from the generation that you speak of…and bowling was exactly as you described it. Racism, and riots, and the divide of blacks and whites was clear, except it wasn’t. I never had any bad experience with blacks, and while my dad specifically said racist comments, he worked with a black man who’s entire family visited my dad in his last days. I’m embarrassed to quote some of the things my dad said over the years, yet I know that he didn’t say those things later in life. Maybe we told him not to, maybe he learned something along the way.

    It must have been awful to hear such things and endure that. Sadder yet, is that Pete probably wanted to say something to you about it, but didn’t have the words. None of them did.

    Amazing recollection Ray. I have a vintage bowling photo and absolutely must post it. So many memories.

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  4. Thank you, Ray, for sharing this experience. It resonates with me (yes, with a white female). As a child of an American Army brat and German officer, I experienced not racism but nationalism. In 3rd grade, when we lived state-side, I was called “Nazi” by classmates and, sadly, by my own (American) second cousins. In 4th grade, when we lived in Germany, I was called a “scheiss Ami” (not a term of endearment) by classmates. It was nice to spend my high school years (1974-78) at a Nato base in Belgium where we were all from different countries…and the local Belgians liked neither Germans NOR Americans (that part of Belgium had been liberated by the Canadians in WWII).

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