Book Excerpt: Norah Vincent's 'Self-Made Man'

He was a tiny, wizened stick figure, with a five-day growth of gray stubble on his chin, a crew cut to match, a broken front tooth and a black watch cap.

I had called earlier in the week to find out about the league, and he'd told me what time to show up and which guy to ask for when I got there. I was late already, and my nervous hesitations had made me later.

"Yeah," I croaked, trying to keep my voice down and my demeanor unshaken.

"Great," he said, grabbing me by the arm. "C'mon and get yourself some shoes and a ball."

"Okay," I said, following his lead.

There was no getting out of it now.

He walked me over to the front desk and left me there with the attendant, who was helping another bowler. As I stood waiting, I was able for the first time to focus on something beyond myself and my fear of immediate detection. I looked at the rows of cubbyholes behind the desk, all with those familiar red, blue and white paneled shoes stuffed in them in pairs. Seeing them comforted me a little. They reminded me of the good times I'd always had bowling with friends as a kid, and I felt a little surge of carelessness at the prospect of making a fool out of myself. So what if I couldn't bowl? This was an experiment about people, not sport, and nobody had yet pointed and laughed. Maybe I could do this after all. I got my shoes, took them over to a row of orange plastic bucket chairs and sat down to change. This gave me a few more minutes to take in the scene, a few more minutes to breathe and watch people's eyes to see if they followed me, or if they passed over me and moved on.

A quick scan satisfied me that nobody seemed suspicious.

So far so good.

I'd chosen well in choosing a bowling alley. It was just like every other bowling alley I'd ever seen; it felt familiar. The decor was lovingly down at heel and generic to the last detail, like something out of a mail-order kit, complete with the cheap plywood paneling and the painted slogans on the walls that said: Bowling is Family Fun. There were the usual shabby cartoons of multicolored balls and pins flying through the air, and the posted scores of top bowlers. The lanes, too, were just as I remembered them, long and glistening with that mechanized maw scraping at the end. And then, of course, there were the smells; cigarette smoke, varnish, machine oil, leaky toilets, old candy wrappers and accumulated public muck all commingling to produce that signature bowling alley scent that envelops you the moment you enter and clings to you long after.

As far as I could see, only one thing had really changed in the last fifteen years. Scoring wasn't done by hand anymore. Instead, everything was computerized. You just entered the names and averages of each player on the console at your table, and the computer did the rest, registering scores, calculating totals and flashing them on monitors above each lane. As I scoped the room, I noticed the team captains all busily attending to their monitors. Meanwhile their teammates were strapping on wrist braces and dusting their palms with rosin, or taking advantage of a few last minutes of pregame practice.

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