I learned a lot from my second job, at Twin City Bowl in Council Bluffs, Iowa, namely:
1. Beer plays an important role in the fiscal vitality of a bowling center.
2. I have serious limitations in mechanical matters.
3. When a business is foundering, cash your paycheck ASAP.
4. Hard-working, otherwise sensible Americans often jump at an opportunity to gamble.
5. Nice guys don’t necessarily make the best businessmen.
My first experience in the world of steady paychecks came when I was just starting my junior year in high school when I was recruited to work at one of my town’s four bowling centers. Just a few years before, there was just one bowling alley in town and the sport was enjoying a huge growth spurt, cleaning up its image of being dark, smoky men-only retreats with sleek, modern centers catering to women and kids.
As something of a hotshot junior bowler, the proprietor at Twin City Bowl approached me about working there before I reached the mandatory age of 16. So, for a month or so, he paid me off the books while I learned the ins and outs of picking up empty plates and bottles, emptying ashtrays, sweeping floors and myriad other duties.
The hours weren’t so hot, working late nights several times a week, but the perks were great: bowling at a reduced (sometimes free) rate, free food when working, even a trip to the premiere of the professional Omaha Packers entry in the short-lived National Bowling League. I mostly loved it, at least for the first year.
I quickly learned that you don’t pick up a bottle of beer with a half-inch of suds left in it and that you didn’t allow any beer to be sold (or even be seen) during the Saturday night Baptist Mixed League. There were typically two of us teens working each night, one in the back to fix broken pin-setting machines and one to work the front where the people were. My brief stints in the back were disastrous as I had a tendency to replace broken belts incorrectly, sending pins flying in directions the Brunswick engineers never intended.
Our snack bar-dining area was a draw in itself since we employed a head cook who made pies from scratch and homemade pasta every weekday. The wait staff was bolstered each spring by the arrival of a wisp of a Southern Belle who accompanied her husband, an oddsmaker at the nearby Ak-Sar-Ben horse racing track, to spend a few months while the horses were in town, dishing up chocolate malts and cheeseburgers while dispensing her own brand of racing advice. It may be just my overactive, teenage imagination of the time, but it seemed like the flow of customers to the tiny snack bar was much greater when she was in town.
As good as business seemed to be to me, apparently things weren’t quite as rosy in the cash flow department. The front-back working situation was consolidated into one job more nights than I liked, forcing some of us into work we were unsuited for or uninterested in. Paydays became unreliable and reached a point where we had to cash checks on the spot rather than risk nonpayment at a bank teller’s window.
The easy-going, mild-mannered proprietor who had recruited me turned sour and surly and the pie-baking, pasta-making cook jumped to a rival bowling center. By the time I reached the home stretch of my senior year, I’d had enough, too. It would be more than a year before I worked steadily again but I spent that year occasionally filling in on my first railroad job, as a mail handler.
Next time, I’ll fill you in on the railroad jobs that carried me through my college years.
Photo of Twin City Bowl by lwlehmer.