"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Bowling Alleys And Roller Rinks–The Best Way To Meet Girls

Picking up girls at bowling alleys and roller rinks sounds like the lamest, cheesiest, dumbest way to go about the business of finding a mate, but unfortunately it was one of only two ways we had back in the late Fifties. We, the sons of the local gentry in our small Connecticut town could either meet high class girls at the Mistletoe Ball, Holly Ball, or Spring Cotillion – black tie affairs designed to mate good stock - or meet low class ones at the Bowl-o-Rama on the Berlin Turnpike or at the Bowl-o-Rink downtown. 

We had an overblown view of our allure and thought that the factory girls would of course fall for anyone from the West End; but in fact Danuta and Carmela could care less about our pedigree.  To them we were coddled nobodies whose lives were as remote to them as climbing Mt. Everest.  We summered on the Vineyard, skied at Vail or Gstaad, were headed to St. Grottlesex, Yale, and Harvard; while their view of advancement was moving from key punch to rivet gun.  They went to New Brighton High or St. Mary’s, worked all summer at Woolworth’s and Kresge’s selling notions and paper clips, and the only place they were going after high school was onto the factory floor with their mothers.  We were a nuisance and a bother, and our diffident cool was no allure.  We were slumming and they knew it.

The town where I grew up was divided exactly into four social categories.  There were the descendants of the captains of industry who built the town and made it into a 19th century industrial powerhouse.  Next were the professionals – the Italian, Polish, and Jewish doctors, dentists, and lawyers who served their ethnic clientele. The third group was made up of carpenters, plumbers, electricians, house painters, and car mechanics who lived in salt boxes on the outskirts of downtown; and the last were the Polish and Italian factory workers who spoke no English, lived in four-story walk-ups, and took the bus.

The bowling alley and roller skating rink were the mixing bowls for the sons and daughters of the carpenters, pipe-fitters, and hydraulic press operators.  Marrying up was a short step, not a climb up the Himalayas.  The son of an electrician or a plumber looked pretty good to Danuta Rozcicki whose life trajectory looked no better than cooking kielbasa for husband Stash and their four kids in the same Arch Street tenement she grew up in.

So the arrival of the J.Press, Bass Weejun loafer crowd from Corbin Street went without much notice. Although none of us would admit it, we didn’t know what we would do with these gum-chewing, rouged girls in angora sweaters if they did accept our offers.  All we had heard was that factory girls liked to get right down to business – no glass of wine, no foreplay, no lingering over breasts and neck.  Get it over with and make it quick.

It was no wonder that they felt this way.  Two shit jobs and a fourth floor walkup on Dwight Street was not conducive to romance; and Danuta expected her fat future husband to roll on top of her, breathe garlic breath into her face, pump three times, and roll off just as she heard her father do after dinner on Fridays.

Everything about the Bowl-o-Rink was tacky and foreign. The girls’ make-up, cheap perfume, and pink sweaters were tribal.  Their boyfriends were loud and tough-looking.

At the same time we were bored at the annual round of cotillions and balls in West Hartford.  If the factory girls had gotten bad genes from the Polish and Italian peasant stock of their parents, the daughters of the 400 seemed to have been dealt cards from a blank deck. Their parents could only hope that some unsuspecting boy from a good family would fall for their daughter’s guileless charm and simple beauty; for they knew that there were no other files in the portfolio.

So, we filled out dance cards, bought corsages, and danced to Lester Lanin over Christmas break; and cruised the turnpike and downtown New Britain in the summer.  We all hoped that we would find our soul mate somewhere between the kielbasa and the mistletoe, but the pickins were slim in those days.

Being the son of the professional class I could work both worlds.  Nancy Fitch’s great-grandfather had founded Fitch Ball Bearings and her family had been comfortably wealthy since the patriarch died in 1892.  I had met her at the Holly Ball, and in the late Spring we started to play tennis at her Country Club.  One evening after tennis, she suggested that we take a walk on the golf course.  It was perfectly manicured and cared-for and had been designed by Bobby Jones.  The fairways were like plush carpets, the greens hard and true, the sand traps Japanese in design, and the flowering bushes reminiscent of Augusta National. 

We lay down on the soft grass of the 8th hole fairway, held hands, and looked up at the stars. To my surprise, Nancy started to take off my belt and gently pull down my pants.  She kneeled over me and took off her blouse.  Her breasts were full, sweet, and soft.

All my images of Anglo-Saxon New England reserve went out the window that night.  Nancy Fitch was a tiger.  Her claw marks on my back took a week to heal, and her love bites had drawn blood.  She arched and thrusted, and howled like a hyena.  Her yells echoed through the woods and off the rocky outcrops of the Meriden Mountain foothills behind us. “Now, let’s go”, she said, adjusting her dress and putting on her shoes. “I’ll be late for dinner.”

I was in love with her and felt like  the boy in Turgenev’s First Love who is smitten by a beautiful, coy, and passionate girl.  I no longer had any need to chase factory girls or to smell kielbasa, house paint, or cigar smoke.  

Especially no more Marilyn Pantalucci who was a candy striper at New Brighton General Hospital I had met one day in a nearby park.  Some dates later we had a Polack-style roll-on, roll-off affair; and once was enough.  Marilyn, however, had other designs.  I was her trip out of guinea-land, wife-beaters, and pasta fazool.  When I told her that our relationship was off, she turned into a frenzied harpy.  Our sex was either a compact of marriage or rape, she said, and her father would decide which.  No matter what the verdict, I was sure that the dumb wop would come looking for me with a shotgun, so potent was that stereotype.

Both relationships ended, one well and the other badly. It seemed like all the stereotypes in the world were landing in my lap.  Nancy Fitch turned out to be another West End airhead dealt blank cards; and the Marilyn Pantalucci family was indeed a bunch of ignorant grease ball thugs who went nuts about onore and the chastity of their daughters.

Marilyn had over-reached, and not content with going up a step or two on the rickety social ladder at the Bowl-o-Rink, tried to hook someone from Category IA, and got burned.  Nancy Fitch couldn’t remember who I was when I saw her at a Christmas party in my Junior Year.  Her parents had sent her off to finishing school in Vermont - a refuge for the dumb children of socially superior and wealthy families - and any dalliance with me on the golf course had been long forgotten.

A number of years ago I returned to my old haunts in Central Connecticut and was not surprised to find that the Bowl-o-Rink and the Bowl-o-Rama on the Berlin Turnpike had been torn down long ago.  Cruising the lanes was a right of passage for a New Brighton boy, a heads up to social class and difference, and an exercise in making sense out of it all, but the world had changed. Some things are slower to disappear than others, and the Country Club was still there.  The fairways were still as plush and well-maintained as ever. 

The Club, icon and bastion of WASP heritage and privilege had staying power and a residual cachet and was certain to remain until all the West End families had pulled up stakes and moved to Florida. On a trip back a few years ago I saw a few golfers on the third hole who looked an awful lot like Guido Pantalucci, the terrorizing father of Marilyn, so I knew that the old guard had long ago fled to Florida, and the venue for social mixing and diversity had shifted from the bowling alley uptown.  New Brighton without its sharply-edged social classes – no more Vineyard swells or Danutas from Dwight Street – looked like a far less interesting place than when I lived there. The trip was my last. 

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